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Describing The Elephant: Part 3

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<——-Start of essay

The days after were, of course, mournful. Jim had left a wife and two teenage children. I can’t imagine what they felt. John and his wife found out from Rebecca about my experience and they invited me to dinner. I could tell them little. Although I knew something was wrong when the telephone rang, I wasn’t able to tell what it was about at the time. I got a look and a listen into another world, but only a for a few seconds. Perhaps that’s all anyone gets.

Some say the supernatural compares favorably to the elephant in an ancient Hindu parable. In that story, several blind men touch different parts of an elephant. One touches the tail, one a tusk, one an ear, and so on. None of them experiences the same thing and none can agree on what the elephant looks like. Just like the blind men and their elephant, I could only describe a tusk or a tail.

I had never really considered the supernatural before, except as a statistical matter. Was everyone who reported a supernatural experience wrong? Everyone who had a premonition, a marked foreboding, a communication from a dead relative, could all of them be wrong? I had never before paid this thought much mind. And now I, too, was a person with a claim, but at least I had a witness. Rebecca had seen my distress. I had panicked over that one call, that one call, out of dozens that had come into the office that day. Because she had witnessed what happened, I never look back on the occurrence and think I imagined it.

People asked if I felt anything religious. I didn’t feel the presence of God, or anything like that. But was it powerful enough to be God? Certainly—powerful enough to raise the dead or part the Red Sea. As for the negative: I don’t know if there is a hell, but I would not want to be on the wrong side of that power.  In the world I felt, anything had been possible.

I can’t believe I alone have experienced something from beyond, and I refuse to believe that power will extinguish when I die. I can only see it continuing.

However, looking at the sun demands a price. Two weeks later, my first violent nightmare occurred. I had never had nightmares before, but this was a muddled mess, with Jim’s hunting dogs barking and the sound of shotguns going off. A man with a handlebar mustache appeared. I immediately felt he was responsible for Jim’s death. I woke up with adrenaline coursing through me, panicky and afraid. I didn’t want to discuss it, but I did ask John about the strange man I saw. John couldn’t help me. He knew no one who looked like that.

Over the next several months, more nightmares found me. They grew worse and more intense. They were never the same, but they had a central theme. I was always killing someone or someone was killing me. The nightmares wallowed in blood and slaughter. They delighted in murder. As time went by, I began to have two, three, and sometimes four nightmares in a single night. I became a wreck, unable to sleep, frightened to do so. If I tried to go back to sleep too quickly, the nightmares would often begin right where they had left off.

My brain was broken.

The nightmares waxed and waned in frequency but by April of 1990 they had become extremely severe. I sought psychiatric help and got no relief. I began different medicines, none of them helping. I wanted to flee. I wanted to run from work and run from Davis. I wanted to run to Mexico, deluded by the thought that perhaps I could outrun these terrible dreams. I remember the night before I quit John Gray.

My worst nightmare came that night. In that terror I was swinging a baseball bat at the heads of little babies. I was smashing their heads in, one by one, swinging constantly, constantly killing. This grotesque experience convinced me to do something different. I needed to concentrate solely on getting better. That morning I quit my job. I left my beloved work truck, the traveling Labrador, Penny, and the best boss I ever knew.

Continues here —->

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Literary Magazine submissions Magazine article Thoughts on writing Uncategorized

Describing The Elephant: Part 2

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John Gray was a busy company. In the late 80’s, we did a million dollars of business each year, operating within a sixty-mile radius of Davis. We had four telephone lines into our undersized office and they were always ringing. On the afternoon of the 28th, I was relaxing in the office. It was a brilliant October day with colored leaves and a little warmth in the air. I was petting Penny, John Gray’s yellow Labrador. I was fond of Penny and took her on rides in my company truck whenever I could. John once said she was the only female he knew that always wanted to go somewhere.

I was seated across from Rebecca’s desk. She was still working as J.E.G.’s irreplaceable office administrator. She finished a call and put the phone down. A strange thought entered my brain. One good call, one bad call. Now why did I think that? Before I could answer myself, the phone rang again. Only this time it had a different ring. Very different. There was an odd tone to it, flat and mechanical. The bell tone was gone. Rebecca didn’t seem to hear any change. But it was obvious and frightening to me. It could not be sounding different, but it was. Here was an appliance as common as a coffee maker, now acting in a completely different manner. I’ve tried hard to explain how strange and menacing it sounded. It would be as if your father turned to you one day and then spoke in your mother’s voice.

At the same time, an enormous surge of power washed through me, like standing three feet from a passing freight train. An unstoppable force, completely awesome in its power. What was happening? As Rebecca reached for the handset, I found myself coming out of the chair, almost shouting at her. “Don’t pick up the phone! Don’t pick up the phone.”

She looked at me like I was crazy. Standing, I looked on in fright as she answered the call. Her expression was quizzical; she clearly could not understand what the caller was saying. And it wasn’t clear whether she recognized the caller. She put down the phone and said, “Now, what was that all about?” I said I didn’t know, but I knew it was bad, very bad. A little dazed, I went home. I didn’t know what had happened, but it was a mystery I could not solve.

The next day I got into work early, as I usually did. No one else was around but John. When he said he had the worst news possible, I thought I had lost my job. And then he said that Jim had killed himself. I broke down and blurted out how sorry I felt for John. It was a terrible morning. Everyone was shocked. No one had thought Jim suicidal. I met Rebecca later. She was at the top of the office stairs. I said, “It was that phone call, wasn’t it?” She nodded. It turned out that phone call was the first message from Jim’s house about his death. Jim had taken one of his shotguns and blown out his heart. Jim’s teenage son discovered his dad’s dead body in a bedroom and was calling for help, desperately trying to reach Jim’s best friend, John Gray.

No one talked immediately about Jim’s death. The coroner refused to rule Jim’s death a suicide. No note. A rumor floated later that Jim might have been having an affair. Did a jealous husband murder Jim? Impossible. What else might be responsible? Some people said he suffered from cluster headaches. Being Jim, he may have ended things when his condition got too bad. Jim always followed through on his decisions. Months later, I heard a note was found in a waterbed repair kit at his home. A pained rambling about his family life. His family never spoke to me about what happened to Jim.

continues ——>

Second company brochure. An installation at Mace Ranch, Davis, California

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Describing The Elephant: Part 1

In 2017 the Temenos Journal published my first creative nonfiction essay. I’m reproducing it here. It’s called “Describing The Elephant.” It’s a long read and often painful, but there is hope at the end, just like all good stories. I penned this introduction:

Asked if the Jedi were real, Han Solo haltingly confesses that he once doubted it. “I used to wonder about that myself. Thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. A magical power holding together good and evil, the dark side and the light. Crazy thing is — it’s true. The Force. The Jedi. All of it. It’s all true.”

“Describing the Elephant” challenges the reader to accept that the supernatural is real and all that assertion implies. Denying the paranormal is easy for anyone who hasn’t experienced it. For those of us that have, we struggle to relate what we’ve seen, heard, or felt.

I was not looking for another world, nor did I think one could exist. Without asking, I was granted a fleeting glimpse of something I cannot fully describe. I am a blind man holding the tail of an elephant, powerless to know the animal’s true, full form. But I know the beast exists. It’s real. It’s true. All of it is true.

Describing The Elephant

by Thomas Farley

In 1985 I went to work for a company called John Gray. After five short years, I left the company with enough life lessons learned to last all my days. And despite a terrible tragedy, I learned the greatest truth anyone could know: that a world exists outside of what we see and feel, that a great power beyond our senses is alive and breathing.

I moved to Davis, California in 1985. I came to live with a girl I was very much taken with. Naturally, I needed work. My school and work background were in plants and I applied to two nurseries before winding up at a landscape contractor called J.E.G. A nice woman named Rebecca interviewed me, and I think she was overwhelmed by my intensity. I had just completed a semester long course at U.C. Davis called Arboriculture, and I would talk to anyone at any time about plants. Rebecca said they’d call if something opened up. The next day they phoned and brought me in. They put me behind a mower.

I thought my plant knowledge made me more valuable than a day laborer, but I happily took the job. I liked these people and this was a large company. Possibilities existed. Owned by John Gray and Jim Stromme, J.E.G. Enterprises was a landscape contractor with a small maintenance arm. On my own time, I started coming in weekends to help out. Two years later I was their commercial maintenance superintendent, a fancy term for a commercial gardener. I ran two crews and we did a lot of work.

John Gray was a dynamic and garrulous individual. He was over six feet and carried his weight well. His build reminded me of a major league ballplayer just past retirement. He had a temper that ignited and faded quickly. Some thought him a frat boy who never grew up. I always had a new joke for him and he appreciated that. He treated his wife poorly and I resented him for it. He allowed mistakes if you were trying to do the right thing. And he was very loyal.

John’s partner, Jim Stromme, was the epitome of a hard-working contractor. Tall, deeply tanned and muscular, Jim was an authority on everything about landscape construction. You learned when he talked. A very supportive boss, he was always telling us to make a decision and then move forward. I never socialized with Jim, but we went to many trade shows and drank heavily. He’d give you time off if you had a personal problem. And he wouldn’t ask why.

The last time I saw Jim was on a late October morning in 1988. I think it was Tuesday, the 25th. Jim was getting into his work truck, one as big and sensible as himself. (We loved our trucks at John Gray.) He was in a bad mood that morning and sounded a little depressed. Not unusual for Jim. He said something bitter, but I can’t recall what it was. I do remember what I told him though, something uncharacteristic for men in a construction company. “You know, Jim, you and John are the best bosses I’ve ever had.” He did a double take, his head turning around as he got into the truck. I can still see that last look on his face, one of puzzlement or being confounded. How hard it is to read people. He drove out of the yard and I thought nothing of the matter until the next day.

Continues ——>

John Gray and Jim Stromme

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And a Glenlivet To Go

A rainy night in San Francisco, the kind of persisting rain that paints the streets even blacker. Puddles everywhere along Clement Street, the “New Chinatown” as the San Francisco Chronicle called it. Although Chinese lived and worked on the street, there were plenty of places a round eye could go to feel at home. San Francisco’s best thrift store was on Clement, along with a two-story used bookstore called Green Apple that was ripe with reading. See’s Candy was a must stop because they gave out free chocolate samples every day. The Yin Xing Food Company welcomed everybody. They had things you never knew people could eat.

If you braved Saturday night crowds you could be in and out of bars and clubs of all descriptions. The music from Nine Inch Nails poured out of one club, Reznor’s downbeat lyrics not realizing that we had met Y2K and gotten through it. But you could find Depeche Mode records at another club if you wanted the 8o’s. Depeche Mode. What was the song? “I’m taking a ride with my best friend. . .”

Anyone who saw the pair might think them a couple. Perhaps. They were laughing, pointing at people, wandering in circles, going nowhere and having a wonderful time doing so. They just got off a noisy bus from North Beach. She had bought him a lap dance at the O’Farrell. He bought her a lap dance. Now, they talked about the attractive college volleyball player they wanted to stalk. They tippled on several miniatures, not bothering to hide their drinking in public. Theirs was a relation built on indulgence. Permission. And single malt Scotch.

Tracy spotted the pair the same time her friend did. A man and woman getting out of a white Volkswagen Cabriolet, with the woman exiting the driver’s side. Obviously, her car. She, driving the boyfriend around. These two passed a flower shop, still open, and walked into the restaurant next door. Tracy’s friend pointed out the problem. The man walked by a flower shop and didn’t buy his date anything. Tracy’s eyes narrowed. Years ago, Tracy was a Revlon Cover Girl and had been to New York City more times than she could count. She had been emboldened by the City. But San Francisco was different. San Francisco demands a particular panache.

She bolted into the florist and bought a big bouquet. Armed with a dozen carnations and roses, she walked into the restaurant and confronted the couple, now sitting at their table. Her friend waited nervously, peering through the window as Tracy shook the flowers at the man, all the while lecturing him. His date was a picture of smiles and delight. After giving the girl the flowers, Tracy marched out.

“I told him he was good looking. But not that good looking. That he’d needed to try harder.” And then they laughed and walked down Clement Street, hand in hand, just to hold hands, with the rain coming down and the music pouring out. Thinking of Scotch.

I wrote this quick quip for the fourth assignment in the Writers Studio fiction and poetry workshop I am taking.  Criticisms below. This is the kind of good feedback you’ll get if you take one of their courses. I’m having difficulty understanding each assignment’s goals, however, although I am working quite hard to adhere to them; the fault is mine.

Assignment goals:

Using third person narration, describe a place, describe people, and describe a main character. Refer to a particular era in time.



What a great moment when Tracy (drunk, carefree, bold) buys the bouquet, marches into the restaurant and gives the guy a good talking to! And what an efficient bit of storytelling to have Tracy sum up the scene to her friend with three simple lines of dialogue – very cinematic.

You’re definitely enlisting aspects of the Strout here, giving us an overview of the place, using a conversational narrator who knows the place but has a broader perspective than the inhabitants, viewing the inhabitants of the place through the eyes of others, and gradually zooming in on a particular set of characters in a particular time period (love the mention of Y2K, which seems so quaint now!).

But, as another commenter noted, a lot of Huntington slipped in to the narrative – my sense is that each week you start your assignment still heavily influenced by the previous one. I’m thrilled to see you internalizing all these styles and narrative methods, but I do think that sometimes you make your task harder by not studying the week’s excerpt really closely and trying out its approach. What I mean is that Strout begins by creating a little intrigue and a time frame (that summer Mr. Robinson left), which focuses the story and sets up readers to expect a mystery of sorts. I do get some mood from the start, a strong sense that San Francisco is a kind of feast for the tourists – the book store is “ripe,” the chocolate is free, and there are exotic offerings for the adventurous.

I also wanted to point out the fact that the material you choose tends not to be the most natural fit for the techniques the assignments ask you to try out, and I’m not sure if you do this on purpose or if it happens somewhere along the way as you feel out each story. That is, last week the assignment asked you to tell a story via a series of “snapshots” of people in a certain state of mind, with absolutely no back story. Instead you wrote a story about an unfolding relationship that required a fair amount of back story and required a fair amount of time spent in the thoughts of one of the characters. This week the task was to work with a single place (which you did beautifully) and to zoom in gradually to one locale and then to one character in that locale, which is quite different from what you did. I think maybe you ran with the idea of showing us one set of characters through the eyes of another set, and this you did like a pro (but note that with your focus on so many different things at once, I don’t learn anything at all about Tracy’s friend).

Keep in mind that I don’t want to stifle your imagination! It’s doing its job very well, as you keep coming up with these unusual scenarios. But I think it might be a worthwhile task for you to work even more closely from the excerpt, even going line by line to see how the author set up the story or poem.

Image of a rainy Clement in the Outer Richmond from:

Thoughts on writing Writing tips

Plan a Beginning, Middle, and End

Rudolph Flesch suggested we plan a beginning, middle, and end. Sound advice.

The lead sentence should lead the reader in. The beginning paragraph should introduce the subject or subjects. Succeeding paragraphs should illuminate those subjects. An ending should wrap up the topic just discussed.

A lead sentence should be snappy and to the point.

“I don’t like peanut butter and jelly, I love it.”

The lead paragraph gets us ready for the individual points to be discussed. A quote is often helpful.

“I don’t like peanut butter and jelly, I love it. James Garfield once said ‘Man cannot live by bread alone; he must have peanut butter.’ Aside from neglecting admiration for jelly, I heartily agree with the president’s remarks. In this article we’ll look at the roles that bread, jelly, and peanut butter play in forming this quintessential American sandwich.”


  • A paragraph or two on bread.
  • A paragraph or two on jelly.
  • A paragraph or two on peanut butter.
  • A paragraph or two on making the sandwich.

A concluding paragraph summarizes or pulls together the different elements of the essay. Adding a quote can help. Look for an appropriate one before writing the ending, so you can better shape your last paragraph. I see potential in this Anna D. Shapiro quotation:

“Everyone has the talent to some degree: even making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you know whether it tastes better to you with raspberry jam or grape jelly; on chewy pumpernickel or white toast.”

The ending is the second most important paragraph in an article. (The lead is the most important because you have to get the reader to read.) Without a proper ending you’ll leave readers dangling. If you can hook your last paragraph to the beginning, make it echo, very good. In my case here, I’ll leave you with another quote from Flesch. “Say what you have to say, then stop.”



My Creative Nonfiction Course Began Today

The Berkeley extension course I wrote about before (internal link) started today. It’s a writing course devoted to nonfiction. I think I’m going to like it.

The interface used to assign work, provide grades, communicate with the teacher and so on is well thought out and I’ve had no problems accessing the virtual classroom. Students don’t communicate in real time, rather, we are given a week to complete reading and participation tasks; the only time we need to be online for very long is when we post comments and replies to a discussion board.

The textbook is The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. Phillip Lopate is the editor. When I got this 777 page tome I was disappointed — no index! Most writers and researchers would quietly put such a book back on the shelf without further consideration. But an index may not be needed for a collection of stories. We’ll see.

The class size is small, with less than ten students. I think this will keep the instructor from being overwhelmed and perhaps enhance our chance of success. For now, I have three essays to read and a personal profile writing assignment to write. I’ll keep you informed.