Essays and Memoirs
The Self-Reliant Classicist: An Introduction to the Art of John Abel Print E-mail

war-criminals(San Diego Art Institute Press December 2008)

Finally, at what may be the early late middle stage of John Abel’s career, we have, with his show at Earl & Birdie Taylor Library in Pacific Beach, thirty years’ worth of the fifty-three-year-old’s paintings, drawings, and graphics. And what a magnificent catalog of Abel’s oeuvre the San Diego Art Institute press has published—the incisive work of a caricaturist, draftsman, and painter whose discipline is classical, expressionistic, and pugnaciously self-confident.

At UC Riverside in the 1970s, one professor’s masturbatory mania for conceptual art made him angry and quit. (Abel still disdains any art that avoids the time-tested strategies of beauty, composition, and meaning.) Wandering out of academe for good and rediscovering Drucker, he found his calling as a commercial illustrator. From 1984 to 1994, he did hundreds of assignments for weekly rags among them the San Diego Reader. Until one day the phone rang and he was told his skill was passe: they were going digital.

Beguiled By Mozart's Image Print E-mail

Krafft(Cadillac Cicatrix Issue 2.0, Winter, 2008)

In 1819, an unknown artist, Barbara Krafft, painted what has become the most recognizable and beloved image of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that exists. Commissioned by Joseph Sonnleithner to hang in the newly opened Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society for the Friends of Music), a conservatory in Vienna, Krafft's posthumous oil painting is based on (some say plagiarized from) another painting, The Mozart Family, by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, a work in possession of Mozart's sister, Nannerl. (Among the other few renderings are Mozart at seven and fourteen, in which he's portrayed as a pasty aristocrat; there are facial profiles as a boxwood medallion and a silhouette.) In the Croce work, dated 1780-81, Nannerl and Wolfgang are playing, perhaps improvising, a duet at the piano; the father, Leopold, is holding a violin and looking on; and the scene is countenanced by a trophy-head-like portrait of the composer's mother, Anna Maria, who died in 1778. In 1781, Mozart would have been 25; he would have just married Constanze and premiered his first opera seria, Idomeneo.

Mrs. Wright's Bookshop Print E-mail

bookshop(New Letters Volume 74, No. 3. Summer 2008. First-place tie with Kim Addonizio in New Letters’ Readers Award for the Essay, 2007-2008.)

It was over, Mrs. Wright’s reign. I heard the bell clang above the front door, just before Mrs. Auburn, the principled clerk, called my name at the top of the stairs. In the basement, I’d been unpacking boxes, Bantam paperbacks, this batch, the four J. D. Salinger books, two covers white, one gold, and one that dark existential red, the title in gold letters, our big seller. I hurried up the steps from paperbacks to hardbacks, and there was Mrs. Wright, earlier than usual, keeping her word. The windowed door was shut, and the sign’s OPEN side now faced in. Her Chrysler idled out front. It must have been late morning, and late in the summer, too, near Labor Day.

Is the Unexamined Life Worth Voting For? The Memoirs of Clinton, Edwards, and Obama Print E-mail

stateelecredblue512( / Shorts October 12, 2007)

"Good judgment in politics, it turns out, depends on being a critical judge of yourself. It was not merely that [President Bush] did not take the care to understand Iraq. He also did not take the care to understand himself. The sense of reality that might have saved him from catastrophe would have taken the form of some warning bell sounding inside, alerting him that he did not know what he was doing. But then, it is doubtful that warning bells had ever sounded in him before. He had led a charmed life, and in charmed lives warning bells do not sound."

—"Getting Iraq Wrong" Michael Ignatieff The New York Times Magazine August 5, 2007

We Are Their Heaven Print E-mail

GP__Me_1( / Shorts July 2007)

In the last year of his life, Grandpa Wallin quit driving. For years he tooled his big Plymouth over the beveled streets, the grey, rough asphalt dark from rain or silvered by the sun. When my brothers and I rode in the back seat, he’d crab, for God’s sake, stop all that commotion. On Sundays he used to ride with us to our ritual breakfasts, a family outing so Grandma didn’t have to cook. One day, we were half way out the door when he said he didn’t feel well and was staying home. He wasn’t sickly. A retired newspaper ad salesman of fifty-three years, he seemed to be at work even at home, putting on a white shirt every day and sitting in his chair, reading. He was as stolid as ever to my nine-year-old mind. He might have been tired, though I don’t remember him napping except, maybe, when the book got dull and it rested on his stomach. (The man checked out four or five books a week from the library, Zane Grey and Frank Yerby, and read religiously.) Someone said he might have had indigestion, especially after my family’s breathless eating when we descended on our grandparents every holiday. Grandma Wallin would press him to say what was wrong, but he didn’t say. He fluttered a hand at her. Don’t fuss. Leave me be, woman.

The rest of this story is available as a Kindle eBook at for $1.99: "We Are Their Heaven."

The Age of Memoir Print E-mail

Leger_Woman_with_Book(Review Americana, Volume 2, Issue 1, Spring 2007)

For the past year, I've been monitoring the New York Times' nonfiction paperback bestsellers, and I find that 80 percent (12 of 15) are either memoirs or autobiographies. It's true that because I write critically about memoir as well as teach and write the form, I'm partial. But memoir's popularity still astounds me. It's the literary form of our time. Why?

Americans are an impatient lot. We don't want to wait until we're old and grey to discover what has mattered to us. The memoir has evolved so that octogenarian or college student can use the form to examine the emotional truths of their lives. Unlike autobiography, memoir doesn't require swaths of time to pass before a writer attends to an illness, a joy, a tragedy. If you haven't already, read Joan Didion's sudden memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, the immediate telling of her husband's death in 2004.

Mother In Her Casket Print E-mail

Mom Early 1940sPotomac Review Issue 39 Spring/Summer 2005)

Because the casket will be closed for the funeral, I want to view the disease-ravaged body of my mother as soon as the embalmer gets her ready. Five months from diagnosis to death. My brother Jeff and I were with her at the onset of the fast-metastasizing cancer but not at its end. We called every Sunday and she said, “I’m doing OK. You don’t need to come. Let’s wait and see.” The doctor’s phone message was abrupt, jarring. The plane flight, numbing.

Laid out, sunk in the plush bed, she seems trapped under gravity’s anvil. The burial dress my brother selected—white shirt, grey skirt, grey tweed jacket—is too big for her. Her hair done, her cheeks cotton-puffy, her glasses (why must she be buried wearing her glasses?) magnifying the willfulness of her eyes, as if she is holding them shut. Her hands are withered to bone, a blotchy yellowish-white. The left one is smattered with bruises from the chemo injections and bloodlettings she endured. A drooping mouth, flecks of dandruff, a strand of hair on her jacket—phantom life arrested in her skeletal agony.

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