Gramma’s Moment to Shine

06/29/2017 at 11:48 pm (Author Updates, Novel Excerpts)

One of the gratifying parts of the editing process is finding ways to boil scenes and sometimes chapters down to the clear and straightforward essence of meaning and dramatic tension, which helps move the story along at a brisker pace. Now, The Bear is by no means a fast-paced, plot-driven novel in any traditional sense – it’s a slower, character-driven novel about thoughts, feelings, behavior and, ultimately, actions. With most of the scenes, or parts of scenes, that I excised from later drafts in order to bring my novel to just under 400 pages, there was a twinge of melancholy at losing them, but overall it was my sense that I was doing service to the book as a whole.

With the longish scene I cut where Gramma takes Steve and Demian to her church – during their stay in Fremont while Rose and Ken run off to Santa Cruz for a week away from the kids and their responsibilities – I felt that the stay with the grandparents was too long. My intention for the “trip to Gramma and Grampa’s” was to show a stark contrast to the unstructured, unsupervised life the boys live in Berkeley. It was also designed to give some insight into the childhood that Rose was still running away from, and provide a bit of reasoning for why her parenting style and approach to motherhood was the way it was. So with this scene cut, I felt the chapter accomplished what I wanted, without too much extraneous scene work or detours that weren’t entirely necessary.

This is a long way of saying that while I do think I made the right choice cutting out that section of the chapter, it’s a scene I still really like.

So here is that scene, in its excised entirety, which focuses on one of my favorite characters from the novel – 57-year-old Fanny Vivian Templeton Baxter, better known to Steve and Demian as “Gramma.” I hope you enjoy it.


From Chapter 10:

With Grampa off to work, she had plans for us. I showered and Demian told Gramma he wanted to take a bath after dinner. We had unpacked the night before, the two top drawers belonging to me and all of Demian’s clothes fitting into the bottom drawer. I was already dressed when Gramma came into our room. Demian removed his nightshirt while he decided between a striped shirt and the hand-me down “Free to Be You and Me” T-shirt that I always thought looked stupid yet he adored.

“Why, you’re barely skin and bones, dear.” We both looked up, but clearly she was talking to Demian. “You need some healthy meat on you or you’ll be able to fit pretty snugly into that drawer there before long.”

“I could fit,” Demian said, then started to climb on top of his folded clothes. She pulled him gently back, and he looked up at her with genuine surprise. “Don’t you want me to, Gramma?”

“I want you to do whatever your heart desires … within reason. But right now I want you to get dressed so we can go on a little field trip.” She removed my old shirt from Demian’s hand and dropped it into the open drawer, then helped him into the striped one. “We’re going to visit some friends of Gramma’s, down at the church. Do you remember when I took you both there? Was it last year?”

“Are there gonna be any other kids?” Demian sat on the carpet and forced his bare feet into socks that were too small for him. Gramma seemed to take notice of this, staring down at the floor until he’d tied his shoes.

“Well,” she closed the bottom drawer and then ran a few fingers through his hair, “there just might be. Some of the grandmothers are as lucky as me to have grandsons and granddaughters visiting them for the summer, and there’s a good chance they’ll tag along. Just like you boys.”

There weren’t any kids when we arrived, and when we left two hours later, we were still the only non-adults in the stuffy, airless room down in the church basement. We busied ourselves as Gramma and her friends discussed plans for a community bake sale and various other activities that the pastor’s wife read off a mounted chalkboard. Demian leafed through the hardcover picture books about Joseph and Moses and Job, while I entertained myself with a leather-bound New Testament Bible that had psalms underlined in pen all throughout the book. There were also unreadable scribbles in the small margins, some written with such fervor or haste that small holes and rips appeared in many of the pages. When my head began to hurt from the small type of the book, combined with all the marked up pages and biblical language that read like a foreign language at times, I nibbled on a few butter cookies set up on a card table and listened to the women.

They sat at a round table, all eyes on the only woman standing, Pastor Phil’s wife Sandy. She held a long pointer, like a pool stick but skinnier and with a fat, Hubba-Bubba-sized chunk of white plastic stuck to the end of it. Whenever a new topic was announced by the wrinkled, stooped-over woman with the school-like binder perched under her big Mr. Peabody glasses, Sandy whacked the blackboard, the end of it landing close to a numbered subject drawn in chalk. The sound echoed around the tiny room for a few seconds, and Demian leaned over slightly—as if he’d been asleep—the first two or three times Sandy swung her pointer against the board.

Gramma headed up the committee for a food program she said was designed for “the elderly and infirm,” and each time she used that phrase, the wrinkly woman they all referred to as The Secretary raised her thumbs up high before shaking them in her general direction. I watched my grandmother command the attention of the other women. I listened to her voice, so familiar yet with a difference in its tone. She had always been a confident, direct person—what Mom called “no-nonsense” as if it was the worst thing you could be—but surrounded by these women, her age and some much older, I was struck at how imposing and impressive she seemed. It felt strange, like I was eavesdropping on a private moment, stealing a glimpse into a world that was truly Gramma, but separate somehow.

I thought about the way I spoke around Mom and Gramma, and then the way I spoke around Demian, and around my friends at school. It was different with each of them, not just what I said but how I said it, even though I was always me. I didn’t feel like it was an act, a show I was putting on with all the people around me, but I knew that I was somehow different depending on who I was around. I tried to remember exactly how I acted around Seneca, who I was when we were together, and wondered if that was my best self, or something close to it. I didn’t necessarily think I was seeing Gramma’s “best”—I was convinced she saved that for Demian, me and Grampa—but I felt I was seeing another side of her bestness. It made me feel special that I could see her like this, that I knew a little more about her than I had known before this day.

Church Parking

photo by Justin McFarr


Permalink Leave a Comment

The Howl of the Faraway Father

06/08/2016 at 6:04 pm (Book Reviews, Novel Excerpts, Rose and Ken's Bookshelf)

This is the first (of many) book reviews of counter-culture classics that the adult characters in Bear would have read prior to the time when the action of the novel takes place: summer of 1976.

I chose Allen Ginsburg‘s epic poem Howl as one of the books Thomas O’Neill — the absent father of the story who left Berkeley for NY when Stephen was six, and Demian was barely two — would have most definitely read, dog-eared, carried around with him, and tried to emulate with his own poetry.

“He packed a U.S. Army duffel bag with a few belongings (ironically, he had dodged the draft and his duty to country, but used the military’s supplies to flee his family), borrowed some money from relatives in Omaha and headed out of our lives, never to return.”

And now, my review:



While Allen Ginsberg’s three-part, long poem “Howl” is borne of a particular moment in American history — the Joseph McCarthy congressional witch hunts; the cold war with Russia (which includes, to a degree, the Korean War); social and racial unrest — it is still possible to read and appreciate the work without the context of the time. The staccato beats of the stanzas, the raw and potent language, as well as the cross-country travels in the poem are all worth exploring in detail outside of the realm of Ginsberg’s cultural experience. With powerful imagery, specific American locales, and references to John Milton, William Blake, Neal Cassady and The Bible, the 1956 poem ushered in not only the age of Beat poetry, but a lasting piece of fury, compassion and madness.

The opening line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” sets in motion a seemingly endless list of unnamed, but mostly male, people whom the narrator apparently knew who lost their sanity in the streets, subways, back alleys and bars of America. Written as a single, run-on sentence, the rhythm scheme is structured as mini-tales, each passage of a new, mind-blowing experience beginning simply with “who,” connecting back to that first line of the poem. The sense of dislocation within familiar terrain is the theme repeated throughout, with places in the heartland like Laredo, Texas and Arkansas as sinister and terrifying as Chicago and New York City. The people of the narrator’s generation come from and travel to all points on the U.S. map, but share the common states of sorrow and confusion, unable to feel grounded within landscapes that no longer hold the same security and dependency that they once did. When the “angelheaded hipsters […] / […] bare their brains to Heaven under the El” and “[drink] turpentine in Paradise Alley,” while others “whore through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars,” the America that once made sense is transformed into a jumble of seedy and depressed places where screaming at God, poisoning oneself, and having meaningless sex for an almighty, capitalistic dollar is the current norm.

Time, space, eternity, the universe and Plato are invoked throughout the narrator’s journey across America, allowing Ginsberg to delve into the big questions asked by man, albeit without attempting to directly answer any of them. He is ambitious in his reachings, detailing the concerns and experiences of an entire generation, his only judgments coming in the form of labeling the various acts performed as the actions of an insane group of people. He then follows the list of his generation’s misdeeds with a section devoted to Moloch, invoking the biblical Canaanite who also shows himself in poems by Coleridge and Milton.

The third and final section addresses Carl Solomon, a real-life friend to Ginsberg, to whom the poem is dedicated. It continues the societal course of madness to its logical conclusion, with Solomon in a Rockland, N.Y. mental hospital receiving treatment for the destruction of his, the best, mind.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Excising the Words

05/22/2016 at 9:17 pm (Author Updates, Novel Excerpts, Telegraph Ave.)

This past week I’ve spent most of my creative-life time finishing a final edit of Bear before I send it out to a professional editor for copy/line editing and proofreading. I have a list of strong editors, and I am in the process of winnowing them down to one I’d like to send a sample five pages to in the next month or so. At this stage, and given the fact that I will not have the guidance of a big publisher’s editor prior to the book being released out into the world, I think it’s vitally important that I get a professional set of eyes on my current draft before I consider it my “final” draft. This will be my only “first published novel” and it’s up to me – and only me – to make sure it’s the very best it can possibly be; I don’t want to skip any steps that I might later regret.

As I do my best to post Bear-related topics each and every week until the release of the novel, I will be sharing reviews of books from the 60’s and early 70’s that my main character Stephen’s mother Rose and her boyfriend Ken would most likely have read prior to 1976. Look for my short reviews from Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan, Charles Bukowski‘s Post Office, The Merry Christian by Terry Southern, and other counter-culture underground classics, as well as various odds and ends (including books that inspired me during the many years of writing my own book). There will also be more small character studies; edited scenes or snippets that won’t appear in the finished version; photos of Berkeley and Oakland; bits of history about the Bay Area; and details of historic events that occurred during the summer of Bear.

This week, in the spirit of all the editing and excising I’ve been doing, I’d like to share a short scene that I cut a few drafts ago. It’s part of a larger scene, where Stephen travels up to Telegraph with his buddy Trevor and Trevor’s teenage brother Art. There, they experience a very “Berkeley” moment.


At the corner of Telegraph at Dwight Way, cars traveled fast up the one-way street, so we waited for the green light to cross. A guy in flowy pants and a t-shirt that exposed his belly swept through behind us and into the crosswalk. As he slowed his gait, the cars suddenly slowed and braked to avoid crashing right into him. Halfway through the street, the light still bright red and unwavering, he slowed his pace even more.

“Defiant asshole,” Art said, “gonna get nailed out there.”

While the other cars had stopped for the jaywalking guy with the head full of unkempt blond curls, a gray van approached him and the crosswalk with nothing but speed. Oblivious, he continued walking at his inchworm pace, still a good five feet from the sidewalk in front of him. The van’s driver blew his horn, but didn’t ease up on his speed, and I was both horrified and mesmerized at what was going to happen next.

The van barrelled through, and the guy disappeared. My body stiffened in the same way it did when I was getting a shot at the doctor’s office. I didn’t hear a sickly crunch like I thought I would, and my hands unclenched. When the back of the van passed through the crosswalk, the guy had reached the curb and was yelling up the street.

“I’m walking here,” he shouted through cupped hands. “I’ve got the right of way.”

The light finally turned green for the three of us, and we crossed together.

“Guy’s seen Midnight Cowboy ten too many times,” Art laughed, speaking loud enough for the guy in front of us to hear him. I hadn’t seen it, but I thought maybe the movie had something to do with a person who jaywalks a lot.

photo by Justin McFarr

Permalink Leave a Comment

Summer Writing at Skidmore

03/22/2010 at 1:18 pm (Novel Excerpts, Skidmore)

The first big piece of news surrounding this novel-in-progress: I got official notice that I will be attending – on scholarship! – the NY State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College.  This is a tremendous honor, one that I was nominated for, and then accepted based on the strength of an early draft of my novel’s first chapter.  Of course, I’m now feverishly trying to complete this current draft so that I can go to the retreat with a better understanding of my novel as a whole, and with new pages that can be presented to the workshops there.  I will be studying with Allan Gurganus and Joseph O’Neill, as well as meeting a ton of creative minds in poetry, non-fiction, short story and novel disciplines.   It should be a tremendous learning experience, and a big boost for my progress on BEAR.

I submitted the first chapter of my novel to the Institute with my application, but instead of posting the entire thing here, I’d like to just offer up a taste.  These are the opening few pages, which establish the frame story and act as a kind of prologue.  Of course, all of this will (and probably should) change by the time I reach my seventh or eighth draft of the novel, but it’s nice to see where the whole thing started.


Chapter One

Born Daedalus Stephen O’Neill, named for Joyce’s artistic young man and a living example of the ridiculous, romantic gestures that defined my father, I was raised an only child for five years of my life.  In 1970, my brother Demian was born, also a victim of my father’s love for literature and bombastic displays of narcissism disguised as affection.  Less than a year after his second son was delivered at Alta Bates, a small but respectable hospital less than ten blocks from where we were raised, Thomas O’Neill packed his Hesse, Joyce and Beat Poet books for a new life on an island three thousand miles away.  Pursuing a dream to transform himself into the most relevant poet of his generation, he abandoned us in a two-bedroom rental house in Berkeley, California so that he could experience the life of a Greenwich Village boho without the distractions of a wife and two children.

Less than thirty years later, my only brother succumbed to one of his more prodigious funks and hanged himself in a studio apartment littered with mildewed clothes, empty beer bottles and drug paraphernalia.  When I arrived to collect his meager belongings, I found the only present our father ever gave him: a dog-eared copy of the bastard’s one and only chapbook, self-published and full of typos and misspellings.

I blame myself for Demian’s death, and if that sounds melodramatic or like a form of survivor’s guilt—those left behind always wonder what they could have done to recognize the signs, to save the deceased from themselves—then I’m exactly like ninety-nine percent of the people in this world who lose someone they love to a tragic, premature death.  Except, I saw the signs.  In fact, I helped create and foster them, influenced the path he followed and did nothing to halt the cataclysmic choices he repeatedly made in his life.

How did I do it?  Why did I do it?  These are the questions I’ve been asking myself, surrounded by the scant physical reminders of the one person in the world I should have protected, the only person in the world I ever really trusted.

In the summer of 1976, when I was nearly eleven and Demian was barely six, I made decisions that I’ve regretted ever since, but that I never fully understood.  I don’t strive to be the voice of my or any other generation.  I have no intention of following a path into the literary sinkhole where my father now resides.  I only want to find the truth, by chronicling the events of my life with Demian as faithfully as I know how.

He deserves a proper eulogy.

In the face of everything I did wrong, there may be a chance I get this one thing right.

Permalink Leave a Comment