A man, a van, a rolling drama unplanned

I’m not sure what lesson to draw from a near-nightmare travel experience not long ago on the way into Washington D.C. But you know when someone says, in a tender act of inspiration, that it’s not the journey but the destination, don’t always believe them. This one was all about a most harrowing journey.

I flew into the Baltimore airport and, having sifted the options for getting into Washington, I booked a shuttle van that, with the likelihood of multiple stops, would eventually take me directly to my hotel.

The first hiccup was a mere Hadley Hemingway moment. When my van number was called, I was all the way to the door before I realized I’d left my backpack behind -- the backpack with my laptop, my life’s work, inside. Not unlike the tragic day in 1922 when Ernest Hemingway’s wife lost a valise with all his early manuscripts in a Paris train station. That legendary crisis, of course, was going through my head as I ran back to the bench where I’d been waiting. OK, the pack was still there. Onward.

The van had three other passengers and two stops. The driver turned out to be somewhat tentative, though often insistent when adjacent to more aggressive types. I ended up navigating when he missed one exit and nearly missed two others. And by my count, in something more than an hour’s journey, our van encountered four near sideswipes and maneuvered into two near T-bones.

But the real drama came from the seat behind me. An older man was expressing some discomfort and by the time the van made its first stop, somewhere in exurban Maryland, it seemed he was undergoing something like a medical emergency or psychotic episode. He let out a scream, he said he was going to kill himself, he tried to escape out the back door of the van as the first passenger was getting out the side door. The driver pushed him back inside. I asked the man’s wife whether her husband should go to a hospital or whether we should call an ambulance. She said he’d be OK once he got to their daughter’s place in Virginia. I asked whether the daughter could meet the van somewhere, but, no, she was working.

 I tried two or three times to determine from the driver how long it would take to get to their stop. He was a little rattled but finally consulted the GPS and came up with 20 minutes. I relayed the news to the ailing man. His wife had given him a nitroglycerine pill, and he began to calm down. Not for long. We were in the midst of bumper-to-bumper highway traffic when he stirred again, making a gesture toward the side door handle, which was locked and unable to be opened from the inside. I wondered how an ambulance or a police car could ever find us in the stream of slow-moving traffic. I told the man gently to chill out and assured him we’d be getting to their destination soon. He sat back.

At one point the man muttered something to his wife about killing two guys and how it wasn’t worth it because he didn’t know them. I was pretty sure he was talking about the driver and me. I tried to remember the name of that hi-jacked bus movie with what’s-her-name. And I felt at times as if we’d been deposited in a cosmic episode of Law & Order. If only Mariska Hargitay or Ice-T were on hand to save the day.

After recovering from one of those missed exits, the van finally arrived at the narrow, tree-lined street in Arlington, where the couple’s daughter lived. As they departed the woman turned to me and mouthed a thank you. After the man alighted, with help from the driver, he turned, looked at me and stuck out his arm for a firm handshake. “Take care” was all I could muster.

As the driver sat back down I gave him a tap on the shoulder. “We made it,” I said. He thanked me, said we couldn’t have survived without my help. “It’s tough getting old,” the driver said. I couldn’t agree more, though I realized the man might not have been much older than me. There but for fortune. Next stop: my destination, a D.C. hotel.

From the Archives: A Mamet Discovery Prompts Unearthing This Piece About Hemingway and TV Writing

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           While researching another project recently at the Harry Ransom Center, on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, I followed a digression into Hemingway territory and learned something I’d never encountered before. The playwright David Mamet (right) had once set out to write a screenplay based on Across the River and Into the Trees, one of Hemingway’s most problematic novels. Problematic because most critics hold it up as one of Hemingway’s worst. That may or may not be true, but despite its flaws, the book, like several of Hemingway’s lesser works, does serve up some elegant writing here and there. So, Across the River, published in 1950, is at least approachable on a prose, or sentence-by-sentence, level.

            Mamet recognized the novel’s reputation but once noted in an interview that great plays often lead to lousy movies and perhaps the reverse may have been true for a bad book. I’m not sure his logic on paper was quite that clear, but I think that was what he was trying to say.

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            Mamet has often been creatively compared to Hemingway, which, in that same interview (with Playboy, in 1995) he deflected: It would be a “heavy, impossible burden. You know, you can’t play Stanley Kowalski without being compared to Marlon Brando – even by people who never saw Marlon Brando in the movie, let alone on stage. He revolutionized that role and the American notion of what it meant to act. The same is true of Hemingway and writing.”

            That said, the discovery of these Mamet notes sent me back to a newspaper piece I wrote – yikes, sixteen years ago -- that connected some dots between Mamet and Hemingway through the craft of television writing. That piece also made a nod to the likes of Aaron Sorkin and Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of a TV series of the day called “Gilmore Girls” and now the creative spirit behind one of the most popular and lauded new streaming series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (on Amazon Prime). Again, Hemingway. I watched a few more episodes of “Mrs. Maisel” the other day, which gave me further impetus to repost this piece.

 

The following article first appeared in The Kansas City Star in November 2002.

 

Motor mouths: Smart and savvy TV writers figure it out: Papa knew best

 

“Wall Street Journal says people are talking really fast on

television.”

  “You don't say.”

  “No, really. Especially on `West Wing.' “

  “Smart show.”

  “That's right. Mostly written by a guy named Aaron Sorkin.”

  “All that politics _”

  “Ripped from the headlines!”

  “And real-life drama.”

  “It's nice that Bartlet and his wife are getting closer.”

  “Illness will do that.”

  “I suppose. But it's about -- “

  “Power and powerlessness.”

  ”Good way to put it, but I've been thinking about this TV thing for a

long time. And one thing the Journal didn't mention -- “

  “Only one?”

  “Well, a few things, but one important one was the real source of that

dialogue.”

  “Yeah?”

  “Straight out of Hemingway.”

  “Howzat?”

  “Sun.”

  “Sun?

  “The Sun Also Rises. All that Paris banter. All those young hipsters.”

  “All that drinking -- “

  “That, too, but I first noticed this a few years ago on another show

Sorkin did -- `Sports Night.' “

  “That ESPN thing.”

  “Something like that. But it was great. Behind the scenes at a sports

talk show that had virtually nothing to do with --”

  “Sports.”

  “Yeah. It was all about the people. And they talked fast, and they

talked on top of each other and they completed one another's --”

  “Sentences.”

  “You've got it. And for some reason that's why I put two and two

together.”

  “And came up with Hemingway.”

  “Listen to this. It's when Jake Barnes invites a passing woman to sit

down and have a drink. He's the narrator:

 

  “What's the matter?” she asked. “Going on a party?”

  “Sure. Aren't you?”

  “I don't know. You never know in this town.”

  “Don't you like Paris?”

  “No.”

  “Why don't you go somewhere else?”

  “Isn't anywhere else.”

  “You're happy, all right.”

  “Happy, hell!”

 

  “I see what you're talking about.”

 “Things happen fast on TV comedies, and even some dramas, and this

article I read said it had to do with cramming lots of scenes in a show to

keep people laughing. Wears some people out. ‘Lucy’ was funny. But

‘Seinfeld’ was faster. Just like those old screwball comedies from way back

when.”

  “Yeh, yeh, yeh.”

  “I might add that ‘Frasier’ is just as clever, more urbane, but

slower.”

  “It takes time to make a latte.”

  “And you know `Seinfeld,' that show about nothing.”

  “Yada yada yada.”

  “Exactly. Know where that comes from?”

  “I'm getting a feeling --”

  “Yep. ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place.’ Seinfeld did yada yada. Hemingway

did nada nada. Read it and weep.”

  “Will do.”

  “These really good TV guys -- Sorkin, David Chase --”

  “ ‘Sopranos.’ “

  “Yup. And Matt Groening _”

  “ ‘Simpsons.’ “

  “Roger.”

  “Homer?"

  “No. Roger. As in `Roger that.' You're right. ‘Simpsons.’ But what I was

trying to say -- “

  “Before I interrupted --"

  “Was that the best of this stuff seems to be so aware of things. Aware

of the world. Aware of pop culture.”

  ”Uh huh.”

  “I mean, some of these guys even love books.”

  “I'll never forget that Jack London episode of ‘Northern Exposure.’ “

  “Brilliant. That's what I mean. Or Amy Sherman-Palladino.”

  “Who?”

  “She writes `Gilmore Girls.' There's some media-savvy dialogue, for you,

even though it feels a little forced.”

  “She's no Hemingway, you mean.”

  ”Well, I don't think I'm too far out on a literary limb with that

theory. Surely Sorkin read `Hills Like White Elephants.' “

  “Who hasn't?”

  “One thing you hear a lot is wordplay. Repetition. You accent something

by repeating it two or three or more times.”

  “Repetition.”

  “It's like ping-pong words. Not sing-song to put you to sleep. Ping-pong to

keep you alert.”

  “Back and forth you mean?”

  “Words ping-ponging, or pinballing. Like one time on `Gilmore Girls'

Rory and a friend were riffing on the word ‘wing-it.’ They didn't know they

were riffing, they were just saying what the writers wrote. But ‘wing-it’ as

a compound verb and an adjective, meaning just the opposite of ‘Zagat,’

meaning you'd look it up in the restaurant guide rather than wing-it. The

friend was having a date and she was worried about not looking

at Zagat and they'd be forced to wing-it. Zagat. Wing-it.”

  “Wow.”

  “It's like action poetry.”

  “Poetry? On television?”

  “TV is literature, you know. I mean look at ‘Sports Night.’ “

  “It's a shame they killed it.”

  “Yeah, that really torqued my chili.”

  “Peter Krause was great.

  “Just like he is on `Six Feet Under.' And now one of those `Sports

Night' guys is on ‘West Wing.’ “

  “The guy with glasses.”

  “But Felicity What's-Her-Name -- she played the lead character, the

talk-show producer -- was married to William H. Macy and they were great,

too.”

  “Great character -- Macy. The ratings consultant.”

  “Huffman. Felicity Huffman. And they're theater people.”

  “Really?”

  “They do Mamet. I mean they're friends with Mamet.”

  “Mamet?”

  “The F-word guy. Plays. Movies.”

  “Yeah, I know, I know. But did you just say, ‘It really torqued my

chili’?”

  “Did.”

  “Where'd that come from?”

  ”People talk that way.”

  “C'mon --”

  “No, they do. The beauty of language. I love it. ‘Torqued my chili.’

Some guy from Oklahoma says it. I heard it at a diner.”

  “A diner?”

  “You know, like in `The Killers.' “

  “Ernie again?”

  “Short story.”

  “Kind of like television.”

  “Except without the ads.”

  “Another reason they talk fast, right?”

  “Yeah. To squeeze in more -- “

  “Commercials."

Flash Fiction: My First Noir

Fiction — writing fiction, that is — has never worked very well for me. This year I’ve been making another run at it. In the crevices around the larger project and a few smaller ones I’ve managed to turn out one story still in progress, one story that felt done enough to submit just recently, and a piece of flash fiction that editors at Akashic Books were kind enough to include the other day in their online series Mondays Are Murder. Akashic is the house that published Kansas City Noir, the fiction collection I edited featuring 14 writers, in 2012. My story here (follow the link) is in Akashic’s Noir anthology style, set in a specific place (Midtown Kansas City). Locals may well recognize the opening setting, daytime in Milton’s Tap Room. And squeamish readers might be aware there’s a NSFW moment near the, uh, climax.

http://www.akashicbooks.com/blue-is-the-color-of-night-by-steve-paul/

The Kansas City Star Leaves its Historic Home

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My friends and former colleagues at The Kansas City Star packed up their stuff the other day and moved from their historic building at 1729 Grand to new quarters in the printing plant across the street. The old brick building is bound for a new future. I wrote this piece for the Connecting blog, which maintains a network for the Associated Press. The AP's Kansas City bureau was housed at 1729 Grand for something like 60 years, so it shares in the building's history as well.

Here's the link (scroll to the second item on the page: http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?m=1116239949582&ca=fe15d003-e1fc-4e3e-b443-141c3f2edd47   

In Memoriam: Michelle Boisseau

This is a belatedly posted excerpt from a piece I wrote for KC Studio magazine. It first appeared online in December 2017 and in the Jan-Feb 2018 issue of the local arts journal.

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Cancer had taken two siblings prematurely as well as her mother, and then, in mid-November, it took her, at the age of 62. But through it all, Michelle aimed the laser focus of her poet’s eye and the wisdom of her philosopher’s heart to carry her — and her inner circle of family and friends — through.

In fact, a predominant theme of her most recent book was how we face mortality. “You can’t talk// your way out of this impasse, said the crows,” she wrote in “Among the Gorgons,” her most recent collection of poems. She called this spiraling life we all engage in, the life that always takes us to death, “The Obstinate Comedy.” Just like her, she might have found the phrase in the work of Leigh Hunt, a London poet and critic of the 19th century known for his association with Keats and Shelley. But the places her poem takes you — “ahead of me something was// taking up all the space”; “each tree a history of flying in place” — are singularly hers, alive with balletic language, and now ours.

To read the whole thing: 

http://kcstudio.org/remembering-michelle-boisseau-legacy-language/

 

From the Archives: Checking Out of Reality TV and Into a Folk Alliance Weekend

The Folk Alliance International conference is coming up again in Kansas City. For four glorious days in February I plan to immerse myself in a mind-blowing kaleidoscope of musical experiences. This will be the fifth and last (for now) KC conference, and I can hardly wait. I was poking around in search for something this morning when I came across the following, a quasi-political column that I wrote on the verge of Folk Alliance in 2016 and as that horrendous presidential campaign year was unfolding. I don't think I knew at the time that I'd be retiring just a month or so later. This column first appeared at kansascity.com and The Kansas City Star on Feb. 19-20, 2016. Sorry if it takes you back to a scary place.

"Steve Paul: To quote a sage, this land is your land"

By the time you read this I expect to be in the midst of a lost weekend. Yes, I suffer from an uncontrollable addiction — to music — a condition that has been exacerbated by the annual influx of song slingers and guitar players who gather at the Crown Center hotels in Kansas City for the Folk Alliance International conference.

I’ll spare you some of the high points of lyrical heartbreak, dextrous finger-picking and free-form, nocturnal goings-on of the “folk tribe” to which I pay tribute.

But I will thank the organizers for providing a timely and immersive break from that other tribal ritual consuming so much air space these days. Most of the music-making has taken place out of range of any 24/7 news coverage of the presidential campaign, and I’m happy even to give up glancing at my Twitter feed for at least an hour or two at a time.

That’s not to say this presidential campaign has unfolded without a certain entertainment value. But, Donald Trump in a pissing match with the pope? Who could have seen that coming?

Speaking of torture, the results from two more contests will be flowing into our screens this weekend. It has been difficult to sense any shift from recent trends in momentum, which has the leading candidates of both parties locked in unexpectedly close and death-to-the-finish battles.

If we’re lucky, the Republicans could lose a candidate or two after this weekend’s results. (When exactly will Ben Carson get the message that, aside from not having a clue, he doesn’t have a chance?)

As the GOP field narrows, it won’t be quite so easy for Trump to dominate in the race for committed convention delegates. With fewer candidates in the mix, runners up will have a better chance to reach voting thresholds (often 15 or 20 percent) that will allow them to land apportioned delegates.

So the acid-drenched battle, primarily between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, for second and even third place will mean more as the race churns through the Super Tuesday contests (March 1), Michigan (March 8) and a group of meaningful primaries in the middle of March.

Among the Democrats, it’s fair to ask the Hillary Clinton camp exactly when and where did they miss the signal that Bernie Sanders was riding forth on an express train.

Did anyone expect that Nevada, with its large Latino and union factions, would wind up neck and neck? It’s quite reasonable to suggest that Sanders’ message of income inequality resonates in a place that is so much defined by the haves and have nots and so largely populated by those who toil to serve the wealthy.

Clinton’s baggage remains heavy, though a majority of Democrats still view her as the party’s best chance to defeat whichever contorted Republican survives his party’s offensive demolition derby because, of course, no candidate is ever perfect and no politician is ever an angel.

Sanders’ appeal to the idealism and rebellion of youth (and many of their feel-the-Bern elders) will be a strong storyline when the history of this presidential campaign is written. So will the utterly surreal and weirdly American story of Trump, no matter what happens in the coming months.

I’m looking forward to dropping out for a couple of days. It might feel something like having a real life, not a constant loop of polling updates, attack ads, verbal inanities and solemn dissection of all of the above. I’ll miss the Sunday morning shows. I’ll take the news in small doses.

Maybe I will think a bit about Nevada this weekend, given that I’ll be holed up inside a hotel where time will stand still and machinations of the outside world will hardly penetrate. Just like Vegas, that is. But for this weekend at least I’m hanging my hat with the music makers. And if there’s any justice in this world, they are the ones who will inherit the earth.

In Key West, Exploring the Many Alluring Worlds of Caribbean Writers

            An uncanny bit of synchronicity lit a fuse underneath the recent Key West Literary Seminar. The seminar, devoted this year to “Writers of the Caribbean,” kicked off in early January on the very day that Washington D.C. fell victim to reports that the alleged leader of the free world had disparaged various brown-skinned homelands as “shithole countries.” Edwidge Danticat, a New Yorker who writes frankly and plaintively of her native Haiti, addressed the matter head on from the seminar stage. The first words out of her mouth on a panel on “unpacking paradise” the next day: “I’m apparently from a shithole country … so we never had that paradise.” Others throughout the weekend echoed her disgust -- sometimes subtly or ironically, sometimes quite openly. But the subtext certainly heightened the seminar’s great opportunity, which for me was to discover a vibrant geography of literature with which I’d had far too little experience.

            The spirit of Derek Walcott, the great poet from the island of St. Lucia who died last March, infused the seminar. Elizabeth Bishop, who lived in Key West in the 1930s and ‘40s, was cited frequently as well. I’d been reading some of Walcott’s long-line poems recently, and I flashed on my only personal encounter with him. It was 1999 in Boston – he was teaching at Boston University at the time – and he was one of the many global writers invited to speak and sometimes argue during an event commemorating Ernest Hemingway’s 100th birthday. Walcott was somewhat dismissive of the worst of Hemingway’s tendencies but gave him credit for infusing some of his prose with the sound of fine poetry. The examples he read, as I recall, were convincing.

            Hemingway’s name barely came up during this Key West seminar; I’m sure if it had, the writers who identify as Caribbean would not have been overly kind to the privileged American who made Cuba his home for two decades. Then again, the great Cuban writer Leonardo Padura, another big-name seminar participant, has acknowledged his debt to Hemingway. (In Cuba, he said, everyone wants to plagiarize Hemingway.) The outsized appetites of Padura’s recurring character, the police detective Mario Conde, certainly parallel Hemingway’s at times, though Padura’s prose, in its English translations, tends more towards lush expressionism, as if he were a painter with an overloaded brush, rather than Papa-style restraint. Padura still lives in Havana, where he manages to walk the fine artistic line that criticizes by slant and irony and thus allows him a certain protected status as well as the ability to publish outside Cuba. Nevertheless his account of the brutally unfair publishing system in Cuba was enlightening. A writer spends three years working on a novel and gets about $250 from a Cuban publisher, he said: “Being a writer in Cuba is practically an act of faith.” (The seminar happened to align with an art exhibit by the youngish Abel Barroso, a highly ironic and talented Cuban who also has earned the chance to show and sell overseas. We had met Barroso in his home during an art tour five years ago, and it was rewarding to see and hear him, during an opening event, surrounded by large and memorable pieces of his work.)

            Caryl Phillips delivered one of the major highlights of the seminar when he read from a forthcoming novel, A View of the Empire at Sunset. In it, he imagines an episode from the life of the complicated writer Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea) as she returns to the island of Dominica, where she’d grown up before setting off for her Bohemian existence in London, Paris and elsewhere. Little is known about her six weeks on the ground there, which gave Phillips his opening for invention, he conceded. His excerpt was stunning, and I’m sure I was not the only listener planning to snatch the novel up when it comes out in May. Phillips, another displaced islander, also impressed with a keynote essay at one evening’s tribute to Walcott. Phillips spoke about Walcott’s early experience in New York, amidst the theater world in 1958-59. It was a period of mostly unhappiness. Walcott was largely alone, ignored by the literary elite and too disciplined for the Beat crowd, Phillips noted. He cut his fellowship short. “In New York,” Phillips said of Walcott, “by learning what he wasn’t, he learned what he was – a West Indian.” Phillips’s rather downbeat portrait prompted the publisher Jonathan Galassi to lament the next day that Phillips had left out Walcott’s later successes. Well, sure, but it bears reminding that true achievement often follows failure, and the status of a Caribbean outsider in New York’s high-brow white culture was a point not lost on the rest of us.

            Jamaica Kincaid shared a typically circuitous essay on the subject of cultural appropriation. She began with an image of Dana Schutz's controversial painting of the embalmed mangled face of Emmett Till, and came down on the side of chilling-out about it. "All that we make belongs to all of us," Kincaid said. "The only thing we can't take from us is freedom."

            Along with the superstar presenters such as Phillips, Danticat, Padura, and Kincaid, the seminar gave voice to a slew of younger writers. I’d read Teju Cole (Open City and some of his writing on photography) and Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, but had not yet encountered the likes of Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Kei Miller, Ishion Hutchinson (National Book Critics Circle winner in poetry for 2016), Nicole Dennis-Benn, Andre Alexis, or Tiphanie Yanique. Each had a unique perspective on where he or she had come from (Antigua, Jamaica, Trinidad, U.S. Virgin Islands) and what informs the poetry and prose. I read one of Hutchinson’s book’s on the airplane heading home. Rowan Ricardo Phillips began his wide-ranging, beautifully rendered keynote talk ("I Who Have No Weapon But Poetry") with a reading from Emily Wilson's new translation of The Odyssey (note to self: must read). He read the chapter where Odysseus confronts the Cyclops and tricks the sleeping giant with the "No Man maneuver," suggesting perhaps the potential power of a Caribbean identity as No Man. (Read Polyphemus as the U.S., or the current POTUS?) And it was a subtle prelude to Phillips's later acknowledgment of Walcott, whose masterwork is the epic Omeros. (Time to revisit that, too, and to read Rowan Phillips's books as well.)  

            Marlon James’s novel is steeped in Jamaican patois. He had trouble writing it early on, almost defeated by the task of juggling its multiple voices, he said, until someone suggested he read William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I also appreciated his shout-out to Jessica Hagedorn’s novel Dogeaters (1990), which I’d admired years ago, as the “greatest novel about Jamaica” even though it’s set in the Philippines. I never got a chance to suggest to James that A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of a Man Booker prize, reminded me a bit of Richard Price’s streetwise novel of young drug dealers, Clockers, but it did. I’ll look forward to a forthcoming TV series based on James’s big novel. James is an executive producer and one of five writers working on scripts for the 10 episodes (for Amazon). More power to him.

            All of this literary immersion, of course, takes place deep in the heart of Duval Street, the spine of Key West’s daily carnival of unleashed hedonism. Key West is slowly recovering from the hurricane that ravaged the middle Keys; though it suffered relatively little damage, Key West is still affected by misperceptions, and the tourist business did not yet seem fully up to speed. Some street performers certainly were having a tough time of it. “These literary fuckers aren’t giving anything up,” said one noodling flutist. He was crouched on a sidewalk down the block from the San Carlos Institute, a historic Cuban building that houses the annual seminar.

            I felt rather lucky landing a place in the seminar, which has been going on for 36 years. The seminar sells out quickly and seems to have become a literary playground for Key West’s high society. (Next year: Margaret Atwood!) Oh well; I can think of worse places to take a winter vacation. And the chance to expand my literary boundaries and add to my must-read piles seems kind of worth it.

10 Thoughts About Boston for a Friend Who's Moving There

A friend is moving to Boston so I gave her some thoughts about my hometown. I haven’t lived there for many years, but I get back every so often and love to experience new places and old. Some people will find this list clichéd or surely incomplete (no mention of public transit? I love the T). So be it for now.

(I’ve gotta say, the other day I got a lump in my throat when the Patriots came back to win that AFC championship game. The Pats are not exactly my first team, but I was a little surprised to sense the hometown pride. Turns out I’ll be in New York on Super Bowl Sunday. It’s not quite halfway between Foxborough and Philly, though close enough, and I suspect there won’t be many Patriots fans in the sports bars. We’ll see.)

So here goes. Not in any particular order.

Fall in love with the ocean. Sandy beaches on Cape Cod to rocky coast of Maine. Find the places that move and mesmerize you.

Neptune Oyster Bar, North End. Yes it's tiny and sometimes takes hours to get in, but I like the place, especially sitting at the bar. Some of the freshest oysters, etc., in town. Lobster rolls two ways. Good beer and wine.

Harvard Square. Overly gentrified and sorta too trendy, but it's the heart of intellectual and multi-cultural Cambridge. Bookstores, shops, restos, coffee or tea and the leafy pleasure of walking around Harvard Yard. I bought my first jazz albums at the Coop just about 50 years ago (Coltrane, Monk, Cannonball Adderley) and my first copy of Howl at the newsstand outside. The vibe remains if you know where to look. Try the Red House (was closed for renovation last time I was there) or new place, Waypoint. Always new restaurants opening.

Speaking of which: Craigie on Main. Between Central and Kendall squares in Cambridge. One of my go-to restaurants. Again, I like the bar: creative cocktails, good wines, French-style cooking. Pricey, but you can get a burger too. One of my Boston faves.

The Granary Burial Ground. When you walk the historic streets of downtown Boston take a stroll through this quaint old cemetery. It'll put you in touch with the spirit (and spirits), you know, names like Adams, Franklin, et al. (Photo)

Boston Common. One of the nation's truly great public spaces. Parkland, pond, etc. On northeast corner, on Beacon Hill across from Statehouse, don't miss the bronze sculpture (by Saint Gaudens) commemorating the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the black soldiers fighting for the Union in Civil War (photo). And a few steps away from there is another great (and expensive) Boston restaurant: No 9 Park, one of restaurateur Barbara Lynch's signature places. Thoughtful, creative, potentially romantic.

The art museums: Museum of Fine Arts and the Gardner (photo) are mere blocks apart, so plan a twofer. (At the MFA, don't miss the sublime installation, "pivot blue green," by former Kansas Citian Anne Lindberg, in the contemporary wing; look up. Photo) Harvard's museums also worth checking out. And the ICA, near the Seaport (take the Silver Line!), is cutting edge in a cool building (photo).

Bukowski. OK, not every joint has to be expensive. This great dive bar and griil will appeal to your inner beer nerd. It's up a side street from Prudential Center (where you can indulge in the new Eataly). Good burgers and sandwiches; sassy servers. Pretty sure Bukowski, named for the grimy LA poet, is cash only.

JFK Library and Museum. To be a real Bostonian you must make a pilgrimage (via Red Line and a shuttle bus) to this important place of local and national history. The library also houses one of the most significant collections of Hemingway material, in the non-public research rooms upstairs. Let me know if you go and I will try to drop a word and get you a peek into the Hemingway Room. Also new out there is a Ted Kennedy center, but I haven't been there.

Fenway. Quirky and iconic. Surely you'll go there to see the Royals. Fun option: try the Bleacher Bar. Some seats have a window view overlooking center field, or there's TV above the bar. It’s open year round if you’re in the neighborhood. Also in the neighborhood: Eventide Oyster, a Boston branch of the well-regarded Portland (Maine, of course) restaurant, opened to wild expectations in 2017.

This food thing: A sweet and melancholy affair

I have a large appetite. Food is not just nutrition but celebration. And life is too short to eat boring food, just as it’s too short to drink unremarkable wine. So I splurge sometimes. I cook with focus, adventure and a kind of subdued passion. I go for new tastes.

Yet, lately, I tend to eat less. Call it diabetes discipline. That’s optimistic. The numbers are good, though my liver would tend to disagree. Still, if tempted with a whole roasted fish or an oozing burrata with smoked trout roe, I’m all over it, at least for a few bites. Turns out that a heaping plate of crispy beef from a local, old-reliable Chinese restaurant can remain the centerpiece of four leftover lunches. I mean, why stuff yourself?

These thoughts began arising as I read a new collection of the late Jim Harrison’s food-and-life essays. The book’s title, A Really Big Lunch, refers to a spectacularly excessive, 37-course feast (or was it 42?) put on by a French chef and friend of Harrison’s. Even Harrison, whose appetites clearly were larger than mine, felt overwhelmed, almost defeated at one point. Harrison holds nothing back as a writer, and some readers might be turned off by his lecherous confessions and old-school impropriety (the essays reach as far back as the 1970s). But looking past all that, which, in the current sexual-harassment environment, becomes admittedly harder to do, he has wise and entertaining things to say about food and wine. I plan to cherry-pick some of Harrison’s wine writing for a paper I’m planning to give at a Hemingway conference, in Paris, in 2018. And imagine my surprise when I realized recently that in my modest collection of bottles I’ve got a Domaine Tempier Bandol from a few years back, which apparently was Harrison’s favorite wine in the world.

So, food, wine and cooking. From time to time I pay attention to the appetites.

On a fall Saturday, with nothing much else going on, I turned some of the last of our yard tomatoes into a marinara. They were not lovely orbs. They weren’t even deeply red, but they would do for a kitchen improvisation. It took a while in boiling water to loosen their skins, but when that was done I set them aside to cool. Chopped onions and garlic and the last of some baby carrots in the fridge. I was hoping to add tomato paste to the simmering stew, to add some color and heft, but alas I could find none on the shelf. Here’s a suitable substitute: a small jar of prepared tapenade; hmm, red peppers, some kind of cheese, why not? The tapenade turned the marinara a bit orange, but with salt, pepper and dried herbs, it all tasted pretty fine nearly two hours later when I turned off the burner. I put some of the marinara in a bag to freeze, and held out a good portion to eat the next day.

One Sunday, we found some frozen lamb chops in the freezer. I chopped onion and garlic. I opened a red wine (a mass market red Zinfandel) and a jar of vegetable stock I’d made around Thanksgiving. Ta da: braised lamb, with little potatoes and carrots. We ate lamb chops for days.

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As a onetime restaurant critic, my radar remains fairly well tuned when we go out to eat. Yet, I failed myself on a recent trip to Toronto. Though I managed to sample a decent variety of tastes in a couple of days – pub food, tapas at a trendy Sherry bar -- I missed the hugely important world of alluring Asian cuisines that seem to define dining in that capital of cultural diversity. Next time, for sure. A recent trip to Atlanta gave us a sampling of that city’s burgeoning fine-dining scene, though we barely scratched the surface. In Boston this fall, at the Neptune Oyster Bar (pictured), I managed to consume some of the finest oysters on the half shell I’d ever met. In Kansas City, I’ve sampled a couple of promising new restaurants lately and always find pleasure and creativity when returning to old favorites (Novel, the Rieger, the Antler Room, to name just three). And I had one of the best meals of the year when birthday splurging in Corvino’s Tasting Room (details in a previous blog). But I always have to remind myself that some of the other best meals of the year occurred in domestic settings: A humbly generous and bustling family meal around an extended kitchen table at the Zia Pueblo in New Mexico; an intimate and poignant Thanksgiving tribute with family members of a close friend who had died just the week before.

With the holidays in full swing, I expect much feasting ahead, some of it happy, some, so it goes, melancholy. The warmth of the kitchen, the clink of glasses, all that love on our plates – sure, we can’t help but feel grateful for what we have.

Behind the Scenes with the Dylan Papers in Tulsa

I've had a thing for Tulsa the last few years, ever since I wrote about the opening of the Woody Guthrie Center in what has become a vibrant arts district on the edge of downtown. Last year, one of my last columns before I retired from The Kansas City Star, was about the acquisition of the Bob Dylan archives, which are now being processed in Tulsa (here: http://www.kansascity.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/steve-paul/article65479467.html). This week, while making a Tulsa stop on my book tour, I got a chance to visit with the Dylan archivist, Mark Davidson. He gave me an introductory tour of the archives, showing me examples of their broad scope.

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Scraps of paper with Johnny Cash's phone number and address. A business card for Otis Redding. Manuscript song lyrics in formation. ("Farewell, Angelina" ... ) Letters from the likes of Allen Ginsberg. A sweet note from George Harrison, here in its entirety: "Dear Bobbie, Thanks for Nashville Skyline, it is beautiful. Love to you all..." Photos from the Rolling Thunder tour-- Dylan at Jack Kerouac's grave; Joni Mitchell, enraptured and looking up at Dylan from her front row seat at a concert. (I happen to be reading David Yaffe's new biography of Joni, which, of course, covers the odd vibrations of that tour.) The black leather jacket that Dylan wore during the shocking electric show at the Newport Folk Festival in '65. And, curiously, a large hand drum owned by the late guitarist Bruce Langhorne, which inspired Dylan to write "Mr. Tambourine Man." Rather than the familiar tambourine, this is a shallow drum like an Irish bodhran, but usually identified as Turkish. Its stretched leather has patches of dark wear, like an ancient rubbed object. Mark Davidson flipped it over and showed where a bandaid had been placed over a small split. The drum came from the Langhorne estate. The George Kaiser Family Foundation, which has funded much of the cultural expansion in Tulsa in recent years, added it to the Dylan collection, because, Davidson said, "It was a good fit."

The archives are open only to researchers, and I hope to return some day to work on a project. Work has begun into transforming a building into a Dylan museum just down the block from the Guthrie Center. And keep your ears open for further developments on the musical archives front as Tulsa and its savvy philanthropists build on a very good thing.

Sorry, no photos allowed. But here's an image of the Helmerich Center for American Research, where the Dylan archives are housed, and one of the Zarrow Building, which will become the Dylan museum.

   

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