“The Days of Great Usefulness”

Image: 'The Great Bear and the Live Oak,' by Justin Kern

[Image: “The Great Bear and the Live Oak,” by Justin Kern. (Found it on Flickr, and using it here via a Creative Commons license — thank you!) The photographer says that the image puts him in mind of Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble“:  “These are the days of miracle and wonder / This is the long distance call / The way the camera follows us in slo-mo / The way we look to us all…”]

From whiskey river:

In winter you wake up in this city, especially on Sundays, to the chiming of its innumerable bells, as though behind your gauze curtains a gigantic china tea set were vibrating on a silver tray in the pearl-gray sky. You fling the window open and the room is instantly flooded with this outer, pearl-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers. No matter what sort of pills, and how many, you’ve got to swallow this morning, you feel it’s not over for you yet. No matter, by the same token, how autonomous you are, how much you’ve been betrayed, how thorough and dispiriting in your self-knowledge, you assume there is still hope for you, or at least a future. (Hope, said Francis Bacon, is a good breakfast but bad supper.) This optimism derives from the haze, from the prayer part of it, especially if it’s time for breakfast. On days like this, the city indeed acquires a porcelain aspect, what with all its zinc-covered cupolas resembling teapots or upturned cups, and the tilted profile of campaniles clinking like abandoned spoons and melting in the sky. Not to mention the seagulls and pigeons, now sharpening into focus, now melting into air. I should say that, good though this place is for honeymoons, I’ve often thought it should be tried for divorces also – both in progress and already accomplished. There is no better backdrop for rapture to fade into; whether right or wrong, no egoist can star for long in this porcelain setting by crystal water, for it steals the show. I am aware, of course, of the disastrous consequence the above suggestion may have for hotel rates here, even in winter. Still, people love their melodrama more than architecture, and I don’t feel threatened. It is surprising that beauty is valued less than psychology, but so long as such is the case, I’ll be able to afford this city – which means till the end of my days, and which ushers in the generous notion of the future.

(Joseph Brodsky [source])

and (italicized portion):

I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.

(Joan Didion [source])

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Perfect Moments: The Girl Group on the Bus

[Image: The Boy and his classmates, en route from childhood, almost all of them apparently terrified. Click image to enlarge to a less eye-strainingly viewable version, or choose an alternate blowup: left side, full-size (1.0MB); right side, full-size (1.0MB); entire original scanned version (2MB). The Boy sits, flat-headed and a little jug-eared, in the back row, second from left.]

If you’re a blogger: did you ever have that one post which you never thought you’d write? (If you’re not a blogger, just bear with me a moment.) I don’t mean a post too controversial and/or confidential in subject matter. I mean a post about a subject you just didn’t think you could do justice to: it would be too long, or too difficult to write, would take too much out of you. That ever happen to you?

I’ve had this post on my mind for years. Running After My Hat is over four-and-a-half-years old, and I’ve thought about this post that whole time. (The subject, and the incident which the story describes, has been lurking in my head since boyhood, unforgettable and pretty much never far out of reach.) It’s not controversial and it’s not confidential. But boy did I want to write about it. And boy did I want to do right by it…

The photo above was always going to be included with the post. So for a while, I had an excuse for not writing it: I hadn’t scanned the photo. Then I lost the photo for a few years. Then I found it again. I eventually scanned it, a few months ago… And then I dithered.

I’ve been working on the post now for weeks. (Hence, another reason for my recent all-but-invisibility online.) It is, I think, about as done as it will ever get. But at 3,000-plus words (seven pages if printed), it’s way too long to include in a real post — not very nice for anyone who reads RAMH via email or RSS subscription. So I’ve put it all in a separate standalone page of its own. I’ve included the first couple of paragraphs below. If I haven’t scared you away from it by emphasizing its length, I hope you’ll enjoy the entire piece there.

And thanks — not just to readers (that should go without saying), but especially to the post’s never-forgotten subjects.

That last year of elementary school would be forever, in The Boy’s mind, dotted with the footprints of change, of some things started anew and others overturned. Among other upheavals which touched him, he paid attention to a Presidential election for the first time; The Addams FamilyBewitched and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer premiered on TV; the Warren Commission report came out; his friend Lindsay moved away; the Yankees (Lindsay’s favorite team) played their last World Series for a looong time and, shockingly, lost; a country named Vietnam first entered his consciousness; and with the rest of the eighth-grade class, he visited The Museum for the first time ever.

The Museum was one of two large and world-famous museums of science in the nearest city. It specialized in what was called “natural history,” a subject of which The Boy had made a hobby since, well, since he was The Little Boy: rocks and minerals, plant life, dinosaurs, birds and animals… For this reason alone, The Boy looked forward to this field trip. He couldn’t imagine how the excursion could affect him more deeply.

As would become his habit in life, however, The Boy failed to anticipate the large inner events to be found in real-world ones, no matter how small or how outsized…

continue reading “Perfect Moments: The Girl Group on the Bus” —

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Perfect Moments: The Author’s Book, to Its Author

[Ed. Note: minor identifying details of this recently discovered letter have been obscured, to preserve the anonymity of the parties involved.]

Dear J_____,

So, you have finally finished me. I suppose I should offer not only thanks but congratulations to you — if so, then, sure: Congratulations! But I also can’t help thinking that maybe we both pulled our weight on this project.

True: you “had” the “idea” for me, twenty years ago. You’ve told the story often enough, in my presence and otherwise; it’s hard for me not to know how it went. You’d just finished reading Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils, about the cantankerous elderly friends living out their lives in Wales. And you were in a bookstore — a Borders, wasn’t it? or a Barnes and Noble? — in Marlton, New Jersey, looking around for the next book to read. Maybe a classic, you thought, embarrassed as always and forever by the gaps in your self-education. And there you found it, in paperback: an edition of Le Morte d’Arthur. “I’ve never read that,” you thought. “It’s about time…!”

Well, however it came to you — you need to know: authors don’t own their ideas. Their books don’t even own their ideas. Stories are just sort of floating around all the time, in the air, waiting for someplace to tie up. An author is just a big ol’ Zeppelin mast, and a book the cable which moors the one to the other. So don’t go getting all full of yourself. Right place, right time: that’s you, for once. But that’s me, too. And that’s our big old Zeppelin.

And how’d we do, finally?

You probably have no idea at this point. I know I sure as heck don’t. But it’s been a kickin’ fun ride, hmm?

(I mean, when we haven’t been flat-out sick of each other; people who know each other as long as we have, face it, eventually run out of stuff to say and imagine there is nothing more to say. We’re always wrong about that, of course. And often the best conversations just come out of nowhere, the peculiar sort of nowhere marked by deep, prolonged silence. We had some of that, too, and plenty of those conversations.)

One thing I always enjoyed watching you do was fretting over a plot point that you knew stuck out like a misfit prosthetic. It was almost cute. (Sorry. It was.) You’d sort of write through the awkward moment, often recognizing right away that you’d have to come back later — marking it with [square brackets], and sometimes also caps and boldface and punctuation for emphasis, like [SAY WHAT?!? HAVE GOT TO FIX THIS!] If you were a hairdresser and I was the client, it’d be like a brightly colored clip you fastened to a handful of my hair. All I could do was sit there in the chair and pray that you’d remember it before (in one of your characteristic impatiences) sending me out the door. I didn’t think I’d have the nerve to remind you myself. But I didn’t need it. In the final editing passes you — wily you — had your word-processor’s text-search feature tuned to look for the square left bracket character, knowing full well that you never used it in “real” text.

So you cleaned me up, finally, and then you went through me once, twice, three times with what you hoped was an ever more finely toothed comb of language. I’d see you brought up short by a dull passage. Jesus Christ, your eyes said, If I think this is dull…! Out would come the power tools — a pneumatic jackhammer at the outset, in later phases one of those little battery-powered Dremels — and you’d go to work on the verbs and the prepositional phrases, doing that little thing you do when an adjective bugs you and turning it somehow into a phrase which said the same thing. (A character would not be satisfied, you’d think at such moments; he or she would glitter with satisfaction.)

If nothing else, then, even if you — we — didn’t always do the absolute best for the story, we always managed to keep ourselves entertained with the puzzle of presenting it.

I don’t know what any of that means, not in the big picture. (Remember, at this point I’m no more capable of dispassionate appraisal than you are.) I don’t know what comes next, not really, and am a little scared by it (as I imagine you are). I hope you continue to at least like me, even if “love” right now is a state more to be aspired to than a description of our actual relationship.

But I remember what it was to fall in love, J_____, oh yes I do. And I bet you remember it, too. I think in six months’ time, a year, five years, somewhere downstream, we’ll both be able to look back at this moment and say:

Ah, yes. That’s what I really meant when I said I wanted to love, isn’t it?

Your book, always,
S__________

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Perfect Moments: Two Beautiful Women, a Certain Amount of Booze, and Maybe I’ve Got a Story…!

In the mid-1990s, boy, was I ever confused, perplexed, and probably (by many measures) in need of adjustment. Especially about my writing.

Here’s what my quote-unquote oeuvre consisted of then:

  • A non-fiction Op Ed memoir(ish) piece in a regional edition of the New York Times.
  • A published mystery. (Depending on who I was talking to at the time, I sometimes called it a published novel, with an exquisite inner — and yes, entirely maladjusted — sense that this actually made a difference.)
  • Opening chunks of a sequel to the mystery, for which my publisher made an offer I could refuse.
  • A short story, published in a literary magazine in Massachusetts.
  • A handful of “completed” short stories.
  • A larger handful of incomplete short stories.
  • Several completed non-fiction pieces, of the essay/”creative non-fiction” sort.
  • Some software reviews and how-to articles in a few computer/Internet-related techie magazines.

Oh, and I’d also done one complete draft — one — of a, well, a novel I couldn’t otherwise categorize. I’d gotten feedback from several advance readers of that draft: difficult, disturbing feedback, for the most part (or so it seemed to me). Feedback which praised the writing as writing but left the readers dissatisfied, wanting more. Wanting to understand what it was they had just read. Wanting me to decide what sort of book I meant to write. Did I think of it as a “literary” book? Then perhaps I didn’t need to work on it much more. Or did I want people to read it and recommend it — did I want people to enjoy it? Ummmmm, well… (Followed by a certain amount of uncomfortable silence, throat-clearing, and scuffing of feet.)

With that feedback in hand, I’d begun a second draft. And then stopped, about halfway through.

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Perfect Moments: “I Shot ‘im, Paw.”

The house in which The Missus and I live now is over twenty years old, as is our immediate neighborhood. But the area in general has only recently started to get built up. Real honest-to-gods wildlife, not yet squeezed out by housing and new roads, can still be spotted here and there — foxes, a rare deer, hawks and eagles, armadillos. We’ve heard reports of coyotes (although we haven’t seen any in the ten years we’ve been here), and a snake may show up from time to time.

(One particularly heavy rainstorm drove some rattlesnakes up to our elevation. But that was very, very unusual.)

Before moving here, though, The Missus and I lived over on the other (older) side of town. A wooded area abutted our back yard, true, but it was enclosed by shopping centers, apartment complexes, and the like. We had a good number of feral cats, which we caught, neutered, and re-released. But otherwise (and not counting everyday North Florida fauna like opossums, little lizards and frogs), nada.

Except the raccoons.

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Not “The End,” But Maybe The End

Nothing definite yet, of course. (It won’t be definite until I wash my hands of the last galley edit, ha.) But I think Seems to Fit ends as follows:

Woot.

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What Takes You Back?

Yesterday, Granta magazine kicked off a new collective-memory project called “Nostos Algos.” From a publicity release which just made its way to my Inbox:

The word ‘nostalgia’ comes from the Greek words nostos (‘a homecoming’) and algos (‘pain, grief, distress’). We have all known the desire to return to another place or time, and the feeling of being unable to truly go back. Nostos Algos is a collective exercise in bringing the past into the present and making it part of a shared experience with fellow users and the imaginations of Granta’s famed writers. After you post your memory, it will appear in a live feed and be matched to an extract from our Online Archive. Alongside your musings will appear words from Doris Lessing, Arthur Miller, Ryszard Kapuscinski and many other distinguished authors.

I have no idea, yet, if there’s some way to follow the project online in any ongoing way. You can pass individual posts to Twitter and Facebook; but I don’t see an RSS link there, and as far as I know the site doesn’t have its own social-networking presence. I’ll check on this and update this post as needed. (Note especially that the memories can be no longer than 500 characters; this means that for Twitter, at least — with its 140-character limit — some truncation will take place.)

Surely everyone reading this post has something to contribute. And how cool would it be to see your entry matched up with a selection from Granta‘s remarkable, wide-ranging past? Of its modern incarnation, the magazine’s “About” page says:

Since 1979, the year of its rebirth, Granta has published many of the world’s finest writers tackling some of the world’s most important subjects, from intimate human experiences to the large public and political events that have shaped our lives. Its contributors have included Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Saul Bellow, Peter Carey, Raymond Carver, Angela Carter, Bruce Chatwin, James Fenton, Richard Ford, Martha Gellhorn, Nadine Gordimer, Milan Kundera, Doris Lessing, Ian McEwan, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jayne Anne Phillips, Salman Rushdie, George Steiner, Graham Swift, Paul Theroux, Edmund White, Jeanette Winterson and Tobias Wolff. Every issue since 1979 is still in print. In the pages of Granta, readers met for the first time the narrative prose of writers such as Bill Bryson, Romesh Gunesekera, Blake Morrison, Arundhati Roy and Zadie Smith; and have encountered events and topics as diverse as the fall of Saigon, the mythology of the Titanic, adultery, psychotherapy and Chinese cricket fighting.

Whoa, hmm?

See the dozen or so most recent entries which others have posted to Nostos Algos, and tack on your own to the stream, here.

For more details about the project, see the publicity release (139KB) itself.

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Perfect Moments: The Boy, the Wintry Day, the Film, the Flash of Panic

On a recent wintry day, The Boy (Who Was No Longer a Boy) and The Missus decided to go to a movie.

Now, because the day was in fact wintry, and because “wintry” seldom applied to weather conditions where The Boy and The Missus lived, they needed to undertake certain careful preparations in advance. Warm clothing needed to be retrieved from dusty closet recesses. Human bodies needed to be tanked up with caffeine and/or cocoa.

And then there was the matter of The Boy’s hands.

Especially in chilly, dry conditions, the skin of The Boy’s hands — more precisely, his fingers — tended to dry and chap and split rather painfully. Depending on his mood and energy level and the available time, he might choose to ignore the problem; to “lotion up”; or to go the whole hog — applying ointment and BandAid(s) to the affected digit(s). On the afternoon in question, The Boy decided to go the whole hog. Indeed, not only did he swath his index finger in two BandAids, he actually sealed the edges and the fingertip with waterproof tape: the finger wasn’t merely bandaged, it was sheathed in what the Crayola people used to call (in benighted non-PC days of yore) “flesh-colored” plastic.

And then he and The Missus embarked.

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Perfect Moments: Birds of an Earnest Young Feather

How do people form their first enduring friendships, anyway — I mean, their very first friendships (like at age 5 or 6), and very enduring (like spanning decades)?

Maybe it’s different now, what with parents arranging “play dates” and similar activities. But when I was a kid, these things (looking back on them now) seemed to develop haphazardly, utterly by chance, with friendships forming and disappearing like condensation on the inside of a window…

I have dim memories of my very first friendships, because those boys moved away within a year of my meeting them. (I remember, specifically, a name — Craig Brashear — although I’m not sure of the spelling, and  no longer recall if he was the one who lived on Walnut Street or the one who lived on… was it Edgewood Avenue? Oakford? Craig, are you out there?)

But I do have specific memories of my friend Ron: I think he was the first one I started hanging out with on my own, rather than as a mob of boys who’d gather (say) in the Clipsham family’s side yard to play football.

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Of Time, Things Small, and Things Green

Typestick Thank-You Card, from Green Chair Press (click for original)From whiskey river:

The Moment

Walking the three tiers in first light, out
here so my two-year-old son won’t wake the house,
I watch him pull and strip ragweed, chicory, yarrow,
so many other weeds and wildflowers
I don’t know the names for, him saying Big, and Mine,
and Joshua — words, words, words. Then
it is the moment, that split-second
when he takes my hand, gives it a tug,
and I feel his entire body-weight, his whole
heart-weight, pulling me toward
the gleaming flowers and weeds he loves.
That moment which is eternal and is gone in a second,
when he yanks me out of myself like some sleeper
from his dead-dream sleep into the blues and whites
and yellows I must bend down to see clearly, into
the faultless flesh of his soft hands, his new brown eyes,
the miracle of him, and of the earth itself,
where he lives among the glitterings, and takes me.

(Len Roberts)

Not from whiskey river:

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