I’m a writer in Italy. So I’m supposed to write about it?

Isn’t living in Italy different? If it’s different, doesn’t that make it interesting? If it’s interesting, shouldn’t I be writing about it?

I live my life day to day. It doesn’t seem that interesting. Except for some things that are amazing.

For instance: The coffee is always good.

Also: Italy is really old.

The house we live in, for instance: The engineer who is helping us sort out some problems with the title say it was probably built in the 12th century.  But who keeps track?

Now that’s kind of interesting.

How’s the book coming?

This morning at Caffe la Posta in Castiglion Fiorentino, as I was trying to read the Italian newspaper, I ran into professor Giuseppe Alpini. He asked me how the book is coming.

Oh, you didn’t know I’m writing a book?

I am writing a book called The Split-Second Forever. It is about how sudden decisions change lives for years and sometimes generations.

The idea for the book came in the early morning darkness in June 2015, when I awoke  at the Residence Le Santucce in Castiglion Fiorentino after a very vivid dream. I felt in the room with me a nurturing and reassuring presence whose form I could almost make out in the darkness. It is a very hard thing to describe, but I felt that the spirit of the place was communicating with me. At that time I had no idea that we might move to Italy, but the very next month my wife Norma and I decided to sell our San Francisco house and move to Castiglion Fiorentino.

By November we had sold the house and were staying at Le Santucce, the renovated medieval convent where we had been holding writing workshops. I began writing about Le Santucce, the family who  live there,  the man who rebuilt it, and the conditions under which it had been destroyed.

It was destroyed by American bombers on December 19, 1943. Over seventy people in the town were killed in the bombing. Such are the tragic things of war, and such is the tragic history of Italy’s involvement in World War II.

In order to tell the story of Le Santucce I interviewed many people, and the theme of split-second decisions began to take form. Mirella Raffaelli, matriarch of the family, told me how she met her husband to be on a train from Orvieto to Milan in a very romantic way, through a split-second decision. I then thought of her  son-in-law Alfeo, who decided to transform the pile of rubble left from World War II into the beautiful place now known as Residence Le Santucce. I then thought of the decision my wife Norma and I made in the summer of 2015 to sell our house in San Francisco and move to Castiglion Fiorentino, where the Tanganelli family cared for us and helped us make a new life in Italy.

I thought of the many decisions, germinated in an instant, that have shaped lives for generations. I thought of how that feeling of rightness comes over one, and of the struggle to determine if that feeling of rightness is a genuine harbinger of good fortune or if it is, as from time to time happens, a sinister delusion. Is it the voice of God, of one’s conscience, or some hidden desire twisted into an apparently divine presentiment?

I interviewed people and studied Italian history and pored over Renaissance manuscripts and slept and dreamed and imagined and studied. I wrote to scholars and writers. I wrote to Tobias Jones. I enlisted the help of a brilliant local translator. I interviewed everyone I could. I did not yet see a clear narrative arc. All I knew was that I wanted to write a book about the rebuilding of Le Santucce, how it came about and why.

Unless you are a writer or a worker in the publishing business you may not know that to publish a nonfiction book it is customary to first create a proposal and submit it to an agent. This is a process akin to slicing off thin strips of your own skin and boiling it, only more painful and not as interesting. Nevertheless authors around the world do this every day. When I had been writing for almost two years I turned to the task of pitching the book. In the course of that I visited a writers conference in Florence in the spring of 2018 and there I met an agent, a kind, practical man of  taste, humor and intelligence, who looked at my writing and exclaimed, “This is beautiful. You are a beautiful writer!” I sensed what was coming, having been in the business a long time. After reading it in wonder, shaking his head, his parting words were, “But what’s the payoff?”

These words echoed in my head for months. I took notes, played with titles, made word clouds, sketched, dreamed, read histories of medieval convents and building techniques, histories of Fascism and Tuscan families, of Florence, of the Renaissance, of churches and agriculture. I prayed for some kind of narrative arc to come and asked myself why I wanted so much to tell these disparate stories–two beautiful twins on a train from Orvieto to Milan in May 1952, American bomber pilots in December 1943, a man deciding to turn a pile of rubble into a beautiful building in June 1990, our decision to sell our house and move to Castiglion Fiorentino in July 2015.

I realized that what connected them was that in each case, with a paucity of concrete information, with a great many unknowns, someone made a snap decision that changed lives for years or generations. The results were not always positive. For instance, on December 19, 1943, a pilot made a decision, having been unable to strike the primary target because of bad weather and poor visibility, to release thousands of tons of bombs over the medieval Tuscan hill town of Castiglion Fiorentino, killing over seventy men, women and children. On the other hand, a young woman on a train in 1952 decided to ask the soldier she had been flirting with to please mail a stack of postcards for her as he stepped down off the train in Bologna, leading to a marriage and children and the eventual rebuilding of Le Santucce.

So that is what I am writing about, and as Professor Alpini inquired about progress on the book I told him it was going slowly. Not the writing! I hastened to add. The writing is going great. It’s the selling. It’s the creating of a pitch and the sending of the pitch to agents and the waiting for a response.

That seems to be taking forever. But I sense that somewhere, someone will make a split-second decision that will change my life forever.

Cary and Norma Go to the Theater

In our little town in Italy there is a cool little theater like something out of a Wes Anderson movie called Teatro Mario Spina and since I was a boy I always wanted to have a box seat in a theater and whereas you’d have to be a Getty or a Blum to have one in San Francisco here in Castiglion Fiorentino we just had to go chat up Paolo at the edicola, wading through the Italian jazz magazines and the dubbed DVDs because he is the king of local entertainment and for what it would cost to go to one opera in San Francisco we got season box seats at the Teatro Mario Spina and that’s how we got to see Duo Baldo who were both hilarious and friggin’ virtuosic and you can’t beat that.

Seriously, we laughed a lot and the music was amazing.

I came home and I was so happy I wrote this blog post.

Teatro Mario Spina in Castiglion Fiorentino

Three Quick Thoughts on Living in Tuscany

  1. No kidding, people are different here.
  2. Everything’s got a story and often it’s a long story.
  3. We’re glad we got out of San Francisco when we did but the real Tuscany is both much more amazing and much more about regular daily life than the brand “Tuscany”  co-opted by sellers of “Tuscan-brown sofas surrounded by Tuscan-yellow walls,” etcetera. That’s all. Just something I was thinking about. Keep in touch. Missing all our friends in the States.–Cary T.

    Hi there, I’m waving at you from the grounds of Iris Origo’s famous estate La Foce.

Why we had to get out of America

(UPon reading “Fear of Freedom” by Carlo Levi)

It was necessary to get out of America because America had become a monster, an unrecognizable foe, a fascist seedling sprouting on the fringe of consciousness.

It was necessary to go someplace far away from America to sit and contemplate, to try to regain the self.

I’m going to read this piece here: (Tasso Hostel open mic, Florence, Italy, Wednesday, June 6, 2018, 8:30pm!)

Italy was a renunciation, a place to flee to, a refuge. Though it was in reality a practical move, of course it seemed crazy and in our hearts we felt crazy and that craziness, that suddenness was itself a sign of our confusion and hurt, our fear, our fed-up-ness with America. It was a sudden, satisfying point of surrender, a throwing up of the hands, a turning over of the table on which the chess pieces defied us, a walking-off the field, a giving of the finger. Not that we thought it was the end-all solution; Italy was, rather, the next dry stone to jump to in the middle of a growing tumult of water, soon become a rapids.

We left America before we knew precisely where we were going. We knew we were going to Castiglion Fiorentino, that people there would welcome us, but beyond that we only knew we had to get out of America and that Italy was a place to land, a place to pause while we come to our senses amid the onslaught of America’s blind romance with fascism.

You’ve done it once already, Italy! You’ve gone fascist, seen its awful consequences, and with the latest government perhaps you are trying to return to that! Yet somehow Italy’s fascist turn is not so traumatic as America’s. Now it’s America’s turn and it will be historic and ugly and interesting also but we did not want to be there for the full pageant of death. We did not want to stay and resist because we felt we no longer had enough partners in resistance, having witnessed a melting away of our comrades!

We were like children awakening from a dream on a field of battle, finding ourselves abandoned and thus fleeing to the first available shelter. Did no one else see what was happening? Yes, they did, but they thought they could oppose it and by opposing it thus fix it but we saw it as too monstrous a wave, not a thing we could fix because we ourselves were creating this fascist wave, in our refusal to believe what we were creating, all of us, in our creation and our resistance, all of us together in our resistance not seeing that even our resistance was subsumed by this thing, this monster of democracy transforming itself and all of us with it, into fascism.

All we could do was flee, because we have had experience with such a thing, and so we fled, and because we wanted safety and quiet and thought we could not afford to live in Florence we landed in a tiny town with art and museums and coffee, where we had patrons and protection, a family who knew us and would watch out for us, watch over us. Yes, we fled America for the protection of an Italian family whose kindness touched us and made us feel safe, even as we realize that the fascist organization called Casa Pound, after the great and misguided poet Ezra, that the young fans of fascism have their secret club meetings and their powerful and cultured members, who seem to treat the fascist underground like Club 54,  the Fab Mab, or CBGB, a private club of raw elegance and sophistication where the right sort of disaffected intellectuals torture themselves in artful and subversive ways.

It cannot be just a flirtation, it must mean something, this romance with fascism. It cannot be just puppy love.  We cannot say that this flirtation is not a genuine cry of anguish, any more than we could deny that punk was a primal scream as much as a musical style, only later cleaned up and made expert entertainment by a little band from across the Bay called Green Day. Whom I adore, btw, just saying social upheavals are not just stylistic adjustments.
And now I seem to have fallen silent, reading Carlo Levi, being reminded of the necessity of resistance and seeing that I have left the playing field and my comrades. We resist the surface of fascism while our machines tirelessly breed it from within! Because fascism turned out to be from within, and inescapable.

I mean that we sought a certain comfortable respite in order to wait and see what happens and not wait until everyone was fleeing, until we had been reduced to rags and were marching out of the city with a million other refugees. We wanted to be among the first to leave so we could set up house and welcome the others who stayed longer, who had more faith, who thought that fascism could be resisted and defeated while we believed that it was something dormant now awakened in the American soul, finally, after such long devotion to democracy. We thought it was far scarier than others seemed to think; we sensed its beginnings early. We sensed that our comrades did not see it and could not be convinced of its inevitability.
We are friends with the fascists; it has not come to war yet; we eat together, we sit around a table with those who quote Mussolini and idolize a past of violence and repression, who root for fascism like it’s a rock band, a favorite show, a fashionable shoe, to put on for the streets and the dinner tables and then take off at night, casting off one’s murderousness, one’s erotic fascination with dark domination. Believing that it does not grow in the night, but it does. It grows in the night and awakens stronger until eventually it, the plaything fed by darkness, eventually it grows larger, becomes the monster and master and begins to whip us mercilessly until we become the servant, meekly polishing its guns and submitting to its violent violations of our bodies.
Those last few months in San Francisco we had a feeling things would not end well; we saw the fascism of the technocrats, their dreamy hypnotic envelopment in code, their repudiation of the family meal and preference for solitary pizzas in front of streaming glowing code running down their green laptop screens like rain, their superman fantasies, uber mensches taking Uber to the mansions of their uber bosses. We had a feeling that America was ripe for an earthquake; it was that feeling of acrid stillness and violent unease, and so we in an instant decided to crack open the magical egg of real estate, convert our house to money, take the money and run.
Now we are here, safe high on a hillside, watching and waiting–and going to the Tasso Hostel every month for the Open Mic!

New Years Day 2018

“I’m still alive!”
is something you shout
from the crevasse
to the rescuers
whose pick axes remind you
because you are still a poet although stuck in the ice
of cartoon implements from TV in Florida
and this is how you hope to go
one day but not yet because
the medicine was good and you are still here
a bit of a miracle but
as they with their chisels chip and hammer at the ice
that preserves you like an aspic of creative, this whole
human mess we’re in for a flash is also frozen like an X-ray
of the sun, leaping fusion mountains unsurfable
and now in tuscany looking west at rooftops
Two arms reach out a window shaking out a rug the
miracle of my rescue gets another dial click as
Scientists gather like in Florida TV sci-fi in black and white
and something I remember after surgery barely walking how I
Suddenly wanted pink and yellow shirts and
Soon as I could drive the V-8 Tundra I drove from the beach
down to mall and went to Nordstrom’s and bought these outrageous
pink and yellow shirts.

Linked-In proves: I know an awful lot of people not very well at all

It is a job to get all the social media accounts up to date so I can tell everyone to buy the Finishing School book as a gift this gift-giving season and hopefully some will do as I command, I being master of the universe in my own head. But wow. So I go to Linked-In, which I hate, or at least have hated up to now, and I think, I have to get the info on this awful thing up to date just in case a few people may be reached through this channel, and I may also connect maybe with some people I haven’t talked to in 40 years.

So man, it starts in with who do you know, maybe you know these people, or these people, and the names and faces start scrolling down, and I’m there I swear an hour or more, maybe two hours, scrolling through these names and faces thinking I Know A Shitload of People! from the years in San Francisco media and scuffling on the street and being a musician and writing about musicians and from back in the 1980s before I quit drinking, I think I met probably when I was drunk or I interviewed them or they interviewed me or we pumped each other for information and free tickets and records. And some of them were heroes to me, people whose columns I read in the Chronicle, people whose reporting I followed, people who performed and pestered me for coverage of their performances, people whom I admired and people I feared and people I sort of knew from here or there and some of them now that I am clicking Yes Request This Person To Connect on the Hated and Evil Platform Known as Linked-In, some of them perhaps I do not know, or know much better than I think I do, so great is the distance between my memory and events.

People and events I had almost forgotten about:


I hate giving gifts. But …

Here is the thing.

Finishing School Book CoverOur book Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done makes a great gift. I propose it as the solution to all gift-giving problems. And I have somewhat reliable proof, based on real people saying real things without prompting or cash prizes. When we talked about this idea, Danelle and I, when we wrote the proposal and showed it to people, especially but not only people in the worlds of journalism and book publishing but other people too, the thing they said, the overwhelmingly most common thing they said was, “I know somebody I want to give this to.”

So that was something we knew from the very beginning, that this would make a great gift-type book. So naturally we thought the smartest thing to do would be to publish just in time for the gift-giving season. Say, in October, just in time to get the advertising ready and everything geared up for a big push to market this book as a great gift book.
Instead, and surely they had their reasons, our publisher decided to release the book in January 2017. And the launch was kind of a bust for a number of reasons most of which totally having to do with me, which I hope to go into in subsequent posts …


I, too, dislike “craft”

I just read this Alif Batuman piece in n+1 from a few years back in which I found a kinship reading of “craft.” So let me get something off my chest, counterproductive and humiliating as it may be:
Craft is awful. I hate craft!
Instead of standing out there in the hot sun polishing and polishing your doomed anachronistic prose beauty why not instead, today! unleash the wild craftless being within, that incoherent and frightening voice that keeps whispering criminal truths to your inner ear and let it come forth in all its terrible beauty and find its footing on its own, in a process of natural growth? Why push it, mold it, craft it, polish it like a little soldier to line up in uniform with all the other little soldiers of bland literature? Why? when it is a miracle as it is?
I love Amherst Writers and Artists workshops because they make possible a powerful and dignified emergence of the inchoate soul thing, this pure personal voice from the deep well of common humanity. Craft. Fuck craft. Do we humans need craft? No, it needs us. Craft demands that we shape our beings into product. I hate craft.
And yet I have spent the last 30 years practicing and ever-more-elegant craft, worshiping at the altar of “craft,” guiding my boat on a steady course of grammar and diction and usage and coherence … and why? When in my secret and true being I am nothing like the crafted representation of myself that I so earnestly slave over! Why? Because I have also needed to be employed! I have learned and practiced the craft of column-writing and copy-editing and line editing and developmental editing and I have learned the craft of novel writing because I want to be in the room, I want to survive, I want to get paid! I have learned plot and dialog and setting because I want to get into the room where the smart people are enjoying each other. I want their comforts! I want their pedigrees! I am a slave to my own sick, empty need for cultural approbation!
Yet it is true: I hate all of these things. My pure voice rails at these things. It resists. It resists the slightest hint of awkward accommodation or knuckling under. It resists the boring, the routine, the necessary. It resists quotidian requirements because its whole reason for emerging is to escape the quotidian.
This bursting, sparkling, desperate inner being looking for escape and expression must contend with the need to pay the rent (pay the rant?) by doing things that require craft: Journalism, copy-editing, consulting, teaching, workshop leading. And yet at heart it is not about craft. It is about mystery.
Not to mislead: Yes, in AWA workshops we do talk about craft. Yes, it is true ina quotidian sense you can’t go anywhere without craft; it is like air in the tires. But more important we talk about vision and personal truth. For who is going to stop you on the road and congratulate you for having adequate air in your tires?

Indeed in any honest workshop we must talk about craft but I would rather talk about finding the clear water. I would rather talk about finding the central strange inner being that needs voice, that resists easy assimilation, that elbows its way into the room and roars and farts and laughs at us as we slavishly attempt to craft it into something comprehensible. I would rather talk about the incomprehensible. I would rather worship at the feet of this central strange inner being that rightly resists the demands of “craft.”

Fuck craft. I hate “craft.”

OK. I’m done now. I’ll unlock the door and you can leave.