Throwback Thursday: The ER and the Stroke

When I quit the day job, nine years ago now, I inquired to volunteer at a local hospital, and was processed through a formal application and selection drill: application with references and background check; tuberculosis test and booster shots; orientation that included a grand tour of the byzantine hospital bowels; attend specialty departmental training; get a branded work shirt and a photo badge, a job post, and a schedule. I was assigned to the Emergency Room.

There were two main entrances to the emergency room, out back, where the emergency vehicles (ambulances, fire engines, police cars) enjoyed a red carpet treatment, and out front, which was open to the general public, patients arriving alone, with a partner, in small groups, by car, cab, city bus, bicycle, or on foot, in all manner of conditions, inside and out, physical and mental and emotional, in every kind of weather. I worked the out front entrance.

At first, I was given three main duties or responsibilities: I maintained a fresh supply of wheelchairs at the entrance and greeted patients who needed one at the sidewalk or curb, wheeling them inside and up to the reception desk; I walked around the waiting room tidying up and cleaning as necessary; and I handed out bottled water, blankets and pillows, and ice packs. Occasionally, I ran errands out of the ER, collecting wheelchairs that had wandered off like shopping carts from a grocery, or picking up something special for someone from the gift shop or cafeteria, or showing some lost visitor the way to the elevator that would get them to the floor they wanted. On my way back to the ER, I might slip into the chapel to ensure there was at least one candle still burning.

Usually, I was the only volunteer on a given shift, or a couple of shifts might overlap, and another volunteer and I might bond and compare impressions. I had agreed to work any day or time, which meant I got some evening and weekend shifts, when the main hospital felt sort of like a ballpark when there isn’t a game going on, but the ER concession was busier than ever.

One of the shift supervisors was keen on keeping everyone looking busy. Usually, everyone was busy, but Big Nurse, I’ll call her, though she was a tiny lead wire, frowned on any posture that might suggest idleness or shiftlessness. At orientation, the topic of blood was introduced. Not for the squeamish was the ER. If you had a problem with blood, they could find you a job in an office somewhere, safe from the oozes and crusts. Still, volunteers should all avoid blood contact, and in any case, would not be required to touch anything, well, bloody. One evening, I wheeled a patient holding a large rag under her arm into the waiting room. She was quickly admitted, but we had stopped a few moments outside the ER. On my way back with the wheelchair, I noticed some blood pooled on the tile floor. I told Big Nurse about it. Well, she said, clean it up, and she handed me a pair of gloves, a spray bottle of cleaning solvent, and some towels. Throw the towels and gloves into the toxic bin when you’re through, she said.

I sprayed and scrubbed the floor clean of the blood and properly disposed of the tainted tools of the trade. Returning to my station, I looked back at my work, and there gleaming in the unfriendly light of the lobby was a spot in the tile floor that looked as clean as the holy grail. I had either washed clean through the floor finish, or the rest of the floor had not been cleaned in some time.

You might think a visit to the ER a rare occurrence for most individuals, but there were a few regulars everyone seemed to know by name, and one, in particular, was adept at making a scene. The night I met him, he was being treated like the boy who cried wolf one too many times, and he was not being admitted. I was asked to help him out of the lobby. I asked him if he’d like a wheelchair. No, he said, grabbing and wrapping my arm in his, spreading an amazing swath of sweat across my bare arm. Just hold me up and help me walk, he said, assuming now the most stoic of attitudes. After helping him out, I went to the restroom and scrubbed my arms as if I was heading in to surgery, unsure if the ER was my calling.

The reception desk work station separated the waiting room from the general emergency room complex. After I’d been a few times on her shift, and possibly after seeing I could handle a bit of blood and sweat, Big Nurse began to give me jobs inside the ER. You entered the actual ER through a large set of automatic doors, the opening big enough to wheel a chair or bed through. Immediately inside the ER were smaller, private hospital-like rooms where nurses and doctors completed patient triage, fixed small complaints, prescribed, or ordered x-rays or other tests, admitted patients or sent them home. Down the wide hall and around the corner from the private rooms, a large, well-lit theatre-like area was rigged with gurneys, nurse stations, and assorted medical equipment. It might have been some back stage of a movie studio lot. This is where the patients who arrived in ambulances were admitted and worked on by shapes in green scrubs wearing masks and plastic gloves.

My new jobs inside the ER proper included remaking beds, tossing used pillow cases into the laundry and fitting on new ones, tidying the exam rooms, emptying trash cans, replenishing supplies, including gloves and towels and tissues. I came and went purposefully, mostly ignored, everyone busy. Back in the waiting room, a couple of children were playing a game of running around in circles. Big Nurse told me to gather them up, take them to the back where there was a kid’s play area, and read them a story or something. She said this with such optimism and confidence you might have thought I had included a stint with Mr. Rogers in his wonderful neighborhood on my resume.

As a volunteer, I had a prepared, approved script should I get any questions from people in the waiting room. I am a volunteer, but I know you have not been forgotten. Sometimes, I would walk to the work station and look at the check-in chart, returning confidently to the waiting patient, assuring them they were still in line. Still, there would be questions I could not have answered if I wanted to: why am I here; why is this happening to me; what’s taking so long; I was here before them; how much longer? I’m going outside for a cigarette – will you come and get me if they call my name? They don’t call it a waiting room for nothing. I started bringing some supplies from home: crayons and coloring books for the children; old New Yorker and Rolling Stone magazines; a couple of used Louis Untermeyer poetry anthologies; a couple of decks of playing cards. The supply had a way of getting used up; things disappeared.

Big Nurse handed me a clip board and told me to call the patient’s name and escort them into an exam room in the ER. I walked out into the waiting room a few steps and called a name, ending it with a hopeful question mark: Joe?

Occasionally, I was invited by a patient to sit and talk, which meant to listen to what had happened. Sometimes, things slowed down, and I walked around the waiting room collecting magazines, picking up empty bottles, tossing used ice packs. The emergency room is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year long. At home, I got busy doing some other things. I missed a week in the ER, then another. And at some point, I realized I probably wasn’t going back. I wasn’t going to be one of those volunteers who had logged in a record number of hours for the year and had their name recognized on a display board in the lobby.

Instead, as these things happen, one Saturday afternoon, I found myself waiting in the waiting room of the ER. Susan had driven me down. Apparently, I was having a stroke. I don’t remember any volunteers. We waited a long time. I felt better. I told Susan I was going to tell them I was going home. They checked their log. Why are you here, again? I tried to explain again what had happened. But I seemed ok now. Well, you’re here. You should talk to someone. We’ll get you right in. And they did. And I was admitted and stayed a week. About a year later, I wrote a little piece about the experience the Oregonian published, which you can read here.

For those who might think of the world as a waiting room, find someone who appears to be waiting, and offer them something to help with the wait.

Back Story Folk Guitar

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This Yamaha Red Label FG-180 guitar was probably built in 1969. The woman in the guitar store next to the Loyola Theatre in Westchester said Jimmy Webb had been in the week before and picked up this very Yamaha and played a few chords. She couldn’t believe I’d never heard of Jimmy Webb. It was March, 1970, and I’d just returned from active duty in Forts Bliss and Huachuca. Having talked to some other guitarists, I already knew the FG-180 was the guitar I wanted for the money I had, factory made in Japan, so inexpensive, but playable, reliable, and sound worthy. The guitar, case included, cost $100, a Martin dreadnought knockoff, no extra charge for the Jimmy Webb back story.

A back story is a forward. The forward is not a trailer, nor is it an abstract. The back story never spoils. It’s an appetizer. The back story, moving forward, provides the predicament that explains the current situation. Without a back story, new episodes drift aimlessly and meaninglessly, random dead links. The back story deflates absurdity and fills the reader with hope. The back story is a proposal, a hypothesis, an argument.

My first guitar was a hand-me-down from a neighbor friend, but its neck was broken by an early girlfriend jumping off the top bunk. I then purchased for $25 from an ad in the South Bay Daily Breeze newspaper, a nylon string, plywood top Orlando.

What is the relationship between physicists’ string theories and guitar? The on-line forums for both are full of confusing, contradictory claims, but full of back stories. A guitar often comes with a back story. Several guitar cases were recently spotted for sale in thrift shops, but the guitars were long gone. We might have some idea the age of the universe, but is it old or young, and what does it matter? The Ventura guitar case the guitar shop offered to throw in today shows the wear and tear of travel in a deuce and a half, to Fort Liggett and Camp Roberts and Camp Pendleton, and later trips to gold rush country and various ocean beaches, and not a few years sleeping in a dank basement while the guitar enjoyed an open stand in the living room.

This FG-180 has a spruce, two-piece solid top, mahogany sides, and a two-piece mahogany back. The neck is a thick bar of nato of one piece with the head. The fretboard is one quarter inch thick rosewood. The Yamaha link (above) says the backs were three-piece, but the top and back of this one are both two-piece, book matched. The bridge is rosewood. The FG stands for folk guitar. This one has a thin crack in the back of the head, at the top of the neck.

The top under the bridge has lifted some, and the head crack is a bit worrisome; light or extra-light strings will reduce tension. The FG-180 is now set up with D’Addario XL Chromes, flat wound, jazz light gauge, electric guitar strings. The electric strings when played acoustically don’t produce as loud or deep or full a sound as acoustic strings, but they pop, ping, and twang, “like a steel rail humming” (Pete Seeger, “Hobo’s Lullaby”), and if you do want to plug the guitar into an amplifier, use an old fashion, Dean Markley sound hole fitted pickup.

In Astra Taylor’s film “Examined Life,” Slavoj Zizek explains how we are seduced by ideology. If the universe has a back story, our present predicament can be explained, even if the explanation makes no sense. The Big Bang is a big back story. When an effect tickles or bites or bombards or floods us, we search for a cause. We reconsider our back stories.

We somehow must work and rework, correct or clarify, our back stories into our instantaneous presentations and performances amid the distractions, commercials, hypes, phobias, click bait, news tsunamis – the whole bafflegab of what’s up now.

Zizi Papacharissi, in “A Networked Self,” appears to understand the ability to “back-story” (to verbalize a noun, to go with the flow, “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” as Eliot said in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) as an adaptation skill, the ability to adapt to changes in social environments, from a supposed fixed state, where the self was assumed to be a character bound in a book with a lineal story, to a fluid self that is constantly seeking its own level, walking on the deck of a small boat, changing with every social interaction, mimicry as a survival technique (elasticity of demand in a social market):

“Narratives about the self have always been performative. That’s what renders aspects of our identity a discourse. What changes is that performativity is augmented through online means of self presentation. And it is this enhanced theatricality, afforded by certain online platforms (SNSs, and various forms of blogs and microblogs), that individuals find most appealing.

Sociability is practiced to the network, via the network. Performances of the self enable sociability, and these socially oriented performances must carry meaning for multiple publics and audiences without sacrificing one’s true sense of self. These polysemic performances not only contain many layers of meaning, but are remixed and remixable – sampling digital traces of identity to piece together performances that are further remixed and re-interpreted by multiple audiences and publics.”

That could be used as a back story that may now explain the emergence of the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s. The revival, originally acted out in small coffee shops, living rooms, and campus settings, was at first minimally commercial. Few expected to earn a life-long living from singing folk song covers, but that wasn’t the goal, and the identity of the performer was inseparable from the identity of the audience. The audience participated in the performance. But that participation wasn’t a surge of fans aspiring to go on stage. There often wasn’t a stage, and each time a song was sung it was renewed in an altered form. Many of these performances were not recorded. They were passed on as living songs. Folk music is chameleon and transferable.

One of my older sisters sang in a high school folk group, “The Travelling Trio.” Their travels did not take them out of the Los Angeles Basin. They sang in living rooms and the local high school gym. Imagine a young Judy Garland singing Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train.” But unlike my sister, whose voice flowed like melted chocolate over fresh strawberries, your voice sounds like a galvanized plumbing pipe rattling in the wall with trapped air bubbles. Such a voice might confuse Tom Waits with Hedy West. Still, your Kentucky grandfather played the spoons and the harmonica, to add more filler to your back story, and you were an easy target for the music bug early on.

But a singing gig was not to become part of your back story. You played finger style. You liked the guitarist John Fahey, saw him play at Long Beach State and again at the Ash Grove. Not only did he not sing, on stage he never said a word. You were playing what you pretended was folk blues and fell into jazz. You took up what you called jazz guitar, though not everyone necessarily heard it that way.

Classical guitar lessons are useful for a few years. Your fingers already know how to play, but your brain doesn’t always know what they are doing. Over time, you’ll use up several teachers who will walk you through a couple of Aaron Shearer books, and a few of the Frederick Noad books, and teach you the Segovia scale method (which you might later hear Joe Pass dis, along with the number system). Your first teacher will probably introduce you to Leo Brouwer and his “Etudes Simples.” The Cuban composer’s short pieces are of course not all that simple, but at least you don’t have to sing. You’ll learn to read, slowly, like a stuttering primary school student, and learn enough to work through a Dionisio Aguado book, “Studi Per Chitarra,” on your own. You’ll learn by heart the old cliché: “The guitar is the easiest of instruments to play poorly, the most difficult to play well.” You’ll return to jazz and folk and find your breath and take solace in another cliché: “Close enough for jazz.”

Close enough substitutes feeling for the pursuit of perfection which as Cornel West explains in “Examined Life” is the romantic road to disappointment. So it was in the spirit of close enough that I answered an invitation from Sunshine Dixon to read a poem at an artists’ reception in the campus library, but I suggested that instead of reading a poem I might bring my old FG-180 guitar and sing a folk song. I worked up a folk version of “Gospel Plow,” using Dylan’s version on his first album as inspiration. If a recording pops up on-line somewhere I’ll add a link to the back story or upload a piece of it to SoundCloud. Maybe sister Peggy Ann will tune in.

And if you’d like to read more about the artists’ reception, Sunshine and I collaborated on a short article now on-line here, already part of a back story.

Backstage

Anti-anti-anti: The Deviancy of Poetry

Pocket Poet BooksThe most deviant of poets stops writing poetry, like Rimbaud, or tries to change the game, like Nicanor Parra, whose “Anti-poems” must contain the seeds of their own destruction. If poetry is already anti-language, what is an anti-poem? Deviant < Latin: “a turning out of the way.” To turn away from, as great musicians may turn away from their instruments once they feel the deviancy they introduced has been assimilated. What is assimilated is no longer anti-anything, doesn’t sound new anymore, or has become such a part of the din it has lost its resonance.

Another David Biespiel argument afoot, stirring up a postmodern poetry desert storm, right around Dylan’s 30 minute MusiCares Person of the Year acceptance speech, in which Bob explains to his critics how some do it and others may not. “But you’d better hurry up and choose which of those links you want before they all disappear.”

Poets see something the rest of us may see but call it something else. This is deviant behavior, the web of a spider on hallucinogens, but why must it also be someone’s head aflame in the fall?

We might look forward to an anti-essay, an anti-novel, an anti-comics. The ultimate anti-work can’t be read by anyone, including its author. It’s born a mystery.

Intro. to Fragments: Journals claiming they are open to all forms of poetry, but follow with, but make sure you read us to see that you fit. Fit what? Can’t deviate from deviancy, what use is it? Well, but as a group, deviating from all this other stuff. What other stuff? Other forms? Other voices, other rooms. What room? You know, the one “where the women come and go, Talking of Michelangelo.”

In grammar school, the Sisters of Mercy taught us to syllabicate antidisestablishmentarianism. At the time, we thought it the longest word in English, and we learned to say it, touch it, feel it, but no one knew what it meant. There was no Wiki where we could look it up. On a dare, Laurel Hurst stole a glance at Sister Maryquill’s desktop dictionary. He returned, his knuckles raw from a ruler, and rumored it all came down to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. By high school, Laurel would become an anti-disestablishmentprotestpoet, haunted by the postmodern “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Deluxe words. I’ll take a chocolate malt, fries in a basket, and a cheesepoem deluxe.

Since a reasonable reader’s expectation or assumption is that any given poem may confound, confuse, or obfuscate, referencing some arcane or esoteric or privileged knowledge or experience about how words or ideas work, any given poem that does not do these things might look like anti-fit to a poetry critic, but will it be an anti-poem? What would an anti-poem look like? A poem that aspires to middle class respectability will like water seek its own level. Poetry needs the middle class, but the middle class does not need poetry. If it did, we’d see Poetry next to People at the drugstore checkout stand. But we get our poetry where we find it: Fishwrap.

What would an anti-essay read like? What would an anti-photograph look like? Or an anti-speech sound like? Is the anti-form always mistaken for satire or cartoon? Aesthetic standards of the neighborhood. The propaganda of advertising. Deceitful come-ons. Pathos. What’s the point of saying something virtually everyone will agree with? Those churches are empty most of the time. Who moved my assumption?

Consider Queen Mob’s TeaHouse, where you can read movie reviews by reviewers who have not seen the movie; this is theory uncrated from the academy, both feet off the ground. Alt, alt, mea maxima alt. Eliot: “…like a patient etherized….” Toto, I don’t think we’re in the Victorian Age anymore. Irony, satire, and sarcasm tools of the modernist trade. What’s the difference between an idea and ideology?

Biespiel in his post-rant and Dylan in his address are saying something similar when it comes to a moral evaluation of the use of language as art. Dylan sums it up with the quote he references from Sam Cooke:

“Sam Cooke [Dylan said] said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, ‘Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.’ Think about that the next time you [inaudible].”

Penelope Fitzgerald

Susan, post El Porto
Susan, post El Porto

Hermione Lee’s recent Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life occasioned a number of reviews in the usual places. Most touched on the questions of how did Penelope do it (the uncanny way she cleans up the mess by throwing out the novelistic clutter extraneous to her enriched needs, leaving almost every sentient sentence embering in its own mystery), and when did Penelope do it (she did not write and publish her first novel until around age 60). Writing and publishing a novel are two different activities. Writing one at any age seems unremarkable; publishing one, at any age, may be. Readers often gawk and might wonder if Penelope was a so-called “late bloomer.” But the flower seduced into blooming too early may come to regret a late frost. In any case, there is little evidence that Penelope was a late bloomer. Her writing seems set in her past. The novels are reflections, reconsiderations of experience, of a life rooted in the mutation and gestation of failure. Failure, like slapstick, can be funny in a way success can never be, but only a writer bloomed wise (rather than, say, embittered) from omission will get this. Slapstick, too, is found where the waves of success (swells that break in a timely manner) dissipate on the strand of a listless audience.

The narrator of a Penelope novel, always in third person, tells only what she wants to when she’s good and ready, often slipping very close to first person in what James Wood calls “free indirect style,” but might pull back and mention a year, not all that useful a piece of information, actually, considering 1960 aboard a barge on the Thames hardly suggests an environment the same as 1960 up from the Strand at El Porto, except that later it might help explain a question of whether or not television was invented yet or were the characters too poor or too bohemian to own one, and one begins to see the ship of one’s own home going down in a domestic storm just as easily on 44th in El Porto as on the Thames in London. Domestic themes are at once both universal and local; what matters is both what is said and how it is said. One doesn’t navigate one’s way through domestic turmoil following some staid rubric or outline; one lives through the hullabaloo and just maybe survives alone to tell the tale. And you must tell it as it happened, full of confusion and doubt about what might come next, wind always full in the sails, or might have happened, if someone, anyone, had their hand, even once in a while, on the tiller.

Of the reviews of Lee’s Life I reviewed, I’ll only mention a few: Caleb Crain in Harpers, “Her Struggle: The reticence of Penelope Fitzgerald” (which I saw note of on his blog but had to renew my lapsed subscription to Harpers to see, only to be thwarted by a six week delay before my first issue arrived, which by then was the next month’s; no matter, by then, impatient, I was able to read Caleb’s review on-line, having gained re-admittance via subscription to go behind the Harper’s pay wall – you need a hand stamp); James Wood in The New Yorker, “Late Bloom”; Alexander Chee in Slate, “The Lady Vanished”; and Levi Stahl, on I’ve Been Reading Lately, “Penelope Fitzgerald’s notebooks.” I mention Caleb’s review because he waited until 46 to write and publish his first novel (following a novella published in n+1 and a number of non-fiction works, including articles, book, and blog); is Caleb a late bloomer? Of course not, but it’s interesting that the setting of Caleb’s Necessary Errors, like most of Penelope’s, occurs decades ahead of its writing and publication. Doesn’t wine aged twenty years taste different from the day it was bottled? Some writers are everblooming. Alexander Chee mentions not just the idea of the late bloomer but recounts the actual critical reaction to Penelope’s success that at the time combined skepticism with derision, as if to have arrived late and wearing a housedress provided adequate support for the claim unprolific oldster can’t write or she would have by now. And Levi Stahl’s review is interesting because it references an earlier review he wrote of Penelope’s The Afterlife, a collection of her non-fiction articles, and on the strength of his review, I picked up a copy and quickly saw that this whole late blooming explanation of anything is a dodge. The clue to understanding Penelope might have something to do with knowledge of patience, as this comment, from Bridget Read’s Paris Review “How She Knows,” explains:

“It is vital to emphasize that Fitzgerald’s novels were not achieved in spite of her domestic life; they were borne directly out of it. Her work is radical in that it suggests that, in fact, a feminine experience, a liminal experience, might be better equipped than a male one to address the contradictions of human existence taken up by the greatest literature.”

Levi Stahl’s review was of Penelope’s notebooks, and he quotes Penelope saying:

“I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost.”

It’s possible that Penelope’s testimony, expressed in her novels, belies even her most perceptive reviewers: did she not feel herself, during all those years of veritable single motherhood and low rung jobs thanks in large part to the miscreant missing husband – did she never feel neither beat nor no direction home?

I am reminded here of Daisy from Penelope’s The Gate of Angels. Maybe Daisy wasn’t born defeated, but loss came nevertheless, which perhaps makes things even worse, for if one is not born defeated, one may not have the skills necessary for sane survival (wit and sense of humor, irony, empathy, honesty, ability to pack quickly and travel light) yet Daisy, in so many ways, never seems either defeated or lost. Even when she is actually lost, as in without a map, she manages to find a way out of that lostness. And of course the lone woman going astray into the for-males-only cloistered arena of Fred’s college is hilarious with irony. Daisy, for her obvious suffering, is existentially happy, the most telling characteristic of her personality, upon her like a birthmark, that she finds it easier to give than to take, to provide for than to ask from.

This sense of being born lost, though, surely is gender neutral, but to find oneself lost with children in tow is a condition most often reserved for women. Reading Penelope, I am reminded of both Stevie Smith and Clarice Lispector, Stevie for humor, Clarice for a style of omission, and both for a hold on the occult. While I was reading The Bookshop, which employs a poltergeist, coincidentally Susan informed me a squirrel had taken up residence in an eve recently slightly opened by ice damage to a fascia board of our old house. I argued, since we had not actually seen the squirrel, that it could be a poltergeist. But Susan said, no, because the squirrel only made noise in the early morning, just before dawn, whereas a poltergeist prefers the hour just after you’ve fallen asleep.

What else characterizes the style of Penelope’s short novels? The narrator often comments on the behavior of characters as if there are three parties at play at once: the character, the narrator, and the author. While to some readers, this may seem like a loose grip on point of view, it’s actually a way of condensing and rotating observation, like with a kaleidoscope. The action is close in, the distant details of world news obviously irrelevant. The focus is on detail – if things seem vague, it’s not for lack of detail, description, or dialog that reveals character. Character as Chaplinesque cog, subject to naturalistic randomness. Free indirect style, with the narrator making evaluative, reflective, and analytical comments, as if claims made may indeed be challenged, though of course there will be no reply. Still, almost everything continually on the go, or on the move, coming, as it were, as surprise. But isn’t that the nature of the domestic, which cannot be domesticated?

So, I’ve read so far, of Penelope novels, in this order, as they came up in library queue: Offshore, my favorite I suppose for its setting of water and boats and mix of characters major and minor as well as the unexpected turns; At Freddie’s, again, a mix of young and old characters, age sometimes having little to do with maturity, and Freddie’s is how all schools should work; The Bookshop, atmosphere so strong you can smell the water and the books and hear the poltergeist and the cash machine; The Golden Child, bit of a mystery this one, though they all contain something of that genre; The Gate of Angels, again, while the plot is dated in a specific time zone, it hardly seems relevant in the sense the characters and their predicaments could be playing out even as we read. And I’m opened now to Human Voices. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I started Innocence, but did not finish it. I had read about a third of it when I nonetheless had to admit that I couldn’t get my ear around it. I think something of the “historical novel” angle and too much of the fairy tale got in my way. Maybe I’ll go back to it some day. It’s often I pick up an old favorite book and wonder, how did I ever find this enjoyable? Likewise, I might pick up a book I long ago was unable to get into, and wonder, how could I not have appreciated this? Maybe I’ll have to wait until I turn 60, a late blooming reader. Meantime, I’ve also put Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald in the queue.

300 Lines from a Walk on the Beach

Manhattan Pier

300 This our endus now loops our open
299 Fall far below, leap over, gambol
298 Careful of grinning Grendels
297 Trolling erasures, elite elides, slow spindles
296 Check under bed and closet before sleep
295 Fear not these claw dark deep
294 Divertissements that ballet
293 Like games of crooked croquet
292 Changing rules as quickly as played
291 Which wicked witch of them
290 Twisted the meme of please
289 Sordid sorcerers in putrid pits
288 Filling upside-down mouths with salt
287 Redacted and redressed in uniform
286 Theatre ushers marching down aisles
285 Espousing enhanced punctum bias
284 Punctuated torts by loco pilot ghost lamp
283 Misfortune’s cunning smile
282 Chained he was to a thorny bush
281 A fire which would not burn
280 In a land of milk and honey tubas and butter
279 Stirred with dollar tallboys
278 Who did a good job revising until all
277 Edited for good PR
276 Like Torquemada the Grand Inquisitor
275 Asking greedy questions no answers satisfy
274 An open hand flat smacks a desk
273 With a question
272 Yes of course it’s why we’re all here
271 About these numbers
270 Each line coded
269 Beginning with 300
268 Moving backwards down to 1
267 To make suspect the lines trouble
266 Can be read up or down vertically
265 Top to bottom or upside-down
264 Or begin on any line in touch
263 Lag a coin upon a line
262 Hopscotch up and down
261 Any pause-positional phrase
260 Allows tracking and trending
259 Where each line presents
258 Measured headway phrenological proof
257 Human nature has not improved
256 In spite of pills and e-gizmo devices
255 Echoing down our hours
254 Speaking of numbers and rhymes
253 He said he was not a party to wit
252 He’d seen better times
251 He danced he sang he twisted
250 In bed pan pain
249 He’ll tell you another thing
248 About this throb and swing
247 How machines must go on clicking
246 Up or down
245 Just so no one falls too fast
244 Goes with subjects trending
243 Each line then fixed
242 In time by dovetail coordinate
241 Number rhyme logos pathos and ethos
240 So readers can shuttle and bounce
239 In and out of these digressions
238 Where we were when were we
237 Oh, yes, Line 275, Q&A
236 About to address
235 Rebuttals, opposing viewpoints
234 Handles in the hold of winter argument
233 Sick of scald cold move quick to summer
232 Surf seen from silence of dunes
231 Where two true blue lovers walk
230 The ice plant garden full
229 Soft flutters, breeze of roses
228 Red petals dropping into sea
227 With flop swish white waves wash
226 Through the quiet blue dunes
225 Where plum flowers float in the air
224 Drizzle down aswoon in color
223 Brimming on curly burled branches
222 Wilting immortally
221 Into plum flower dew
220 Booming shore pound in the distance
219 While in the backyard chess games play
218 And Gnip gnop, gnip gnop, gnip gnop and
217 Baseball, sitting quietly talking
216 The father, Cactus, poking
215 The mother, Twisted Cypress Shadow,
214 Alone on a hill in sensational California
213 The sun cooling off behind them
212 Tendril circles grape the overgrown yard
211 Where kids run to tatters
210 Breezes sprinkle Muscat dust
209 Arms and legs
208 Light up like firecrackers
207 Off they go! Off they go! Off they go!
206 Around and then and than this and that
205 When they stop no one will know
204 The kids dance until the moon glow
203 Soothes their sunburned toes
202 Sleep beneath scrubby oak trees
201 Across the sandy tan foothills inland

Eric and Joe in Ione Nov 2007 124_4118564776_l

200 Near Meone, Jockson, Cutter Creek
199 Wettown below the melted mine
198 The yellow hills of old rust rush country
197 An orange must buries cast aside graves
196 Panning for nuggets off the cliffs of Meone
195 Outside the tavern
194 Where four women sit talking, patiently waiting
193 Wreathed with lavender and rosemary sprigs
192 Vitis californica
191 Four men come forth from the bar
190 Little prairie oysters swelling
189 Following one another out the pub
187 Need ride can’t drive you reading then ready for what
186 Like sheep and shamed they all were too
185 A few pints and darts at the bloody pub
184 A red hot game they all thinking go now for a goal
183 Tupping and that one was naked shorn head
182 Coat he forgot in the cab the little lost lamb
181 A couple of pinks and he would think himself lucky
180 She would if her Leo came home growling
179 Grabbing at her nape punch his lights out
178 And what when he’s not drinking he’s napping
177 Comes licking and purring he does
176 But he knows she means business
175 Imagine that poundage going at you forty times a day
174 Him scaring the bejeezus out of the little ones
173 With his botched teeth horrid breath and moody books
172 Bloody ignorant tongue drooling from his mouth
171 How much did he drink as if he could remember
170 Walking on his knuckles hunkered all thick brow lost eyes
169 You’ll catch your death of pneumonia
168 She told him he was actually in the gutter
167 Oh my god yes in the muddy scummy gutter the snipe
166 Scooted by his sweatshirt covered in cake she jumped
165 Moving slowly toward his prey the domesticated cat
164 His huge orange head lunging his lion ears
163 Accruing all that sounds like dust
162 The one with the long tooth stood on his hind legs wobbling
161 Warbling and pounding his chest falling into a deep fit
160 Coughing and choking and falling all over her
159 Hog boring slipping and suckling into the mud
158 Root for what for a cold carrot or radish she took
157 Some muck to dip it in jay suds they ought to
156 Shut that place down for the good it does anyone
155 Four housemen of the cover-up
154 The bum with his rhetorical situation
153 Punctuated equilibrium audience
152 Faces in the occupying crowd
151 A hem for a hat, a this for a that
150 Trade and barter, deceive and trick
149 For a bite for a ride
148 Take all of it all the wave the foam
147 Rye knot kneaded loaf laze and loll
146 A penny a line for a true one, half price otherwise
145 Who thought to make copies
144 Some greedy scholarly degreed griot
143 A self word-made bard
142 The verdure wort
141 In the rise of the root
140 She’s getting ahead of herself
139 Nowhere near the start or finish
138 Some swelling by the wayside
137 Some rappelling down on the face of it
136 Some scaling mixing a podium
135 In each line a toehold though explicating
134 Some hanging, still, resting on their exegeses
133 Reading solo rock climbing
132 Into the pleasant roped pipes
131 Don’t look so absurdly cold
130 Pour hot lead, drink salt water
129 Ale’s gone sour, grass dried frizzy
128 One man’s ears another’s kazoos
127 She hates it when people do her like that
126 Not too much around here mama don’t allow
125 Eating pig’s knuckles with sauerkraut and malt
124 The air clear and a rich flourish of waves foaming
123 Over beakers, the sand berms brushed smooth
122 Nightlong offshore blow, calm now
121 The wave surface rigid glass
120 The whole scene as clean as an experiment
119 The thunder of the closed out barrels
118 At the end of the pier past the break over the swells
117 A rush of fish smell mixing with surge and smoke
116 Bunsen burner to keep the fisher warm
115 The clock above the bait shop points up and down
114 Below the pier the swells emerge from deep water
113 A hooded wine the swell’s slow purr
112 An outlier swell appears bullish reaches
111 A clapping point and a seagull flaps off
110 Spontaneous symmetry breaking
109 Flying up to the pier alights atop the clock
108 One surfer predicts another and at sunrise
107 More surfers appear and at noon
106 Flocking to the south side of the pier
105 There are more surfers than can be accurately counted
104 Entering the waves random wanton
103 They disappear under the rushing foam of the inside
102 Breaking waves and emerge laughing and paddling
101 To reach the swells outside the break

100 One waves to another, they look up and wave at the fisher
99 Who waves back, entangled in the waves
98 Of nothing missed passing between them
97 The pier trail fails ahead
96 Across an ocean of chaos
95 A test which will not be measured
94 A failed word wrongful malediction
93 Only in so far as language goes
92 The wave performation syntax repeats
91 With a constant rote result, and that’s something
90 At the end of the pier there appear two solutions possible
89 Combining polymorphously into a molecule of nonsense
88 The ocean empties of meaning permitting accidents
87 Smoking and drinking joints
86 Below the jetty on the south side
85 Sea wrack and brine gulls down
84 Broken sand dollars
83 A beachcomber for miles
82 Pockets full of shells and small rocks
81 At the end of the pier at the end of the roundabout
80 A plank, in the shape of an h
79 The fisher walks out with gaffe
78 To aid in landing an unusually large catch
77 A halibut, a barracuda
76 Bait bucket alive with bubbles
75 The waves split around the pilings
74 The fisher walks out onto the h plank
73 Something jumps in a rush to the water
72 Disappearing into the slushy grey soup
71 Waxing waves scouring the beach
70 Leaving the pier to its sleepy creepy decay
69 While the ocean supreme creams
68 Barnacle covered pilings
67 All that muscled beach
66 At the end of the railway crossing
65 Old men wizened as raisins stuck on the strand
64 The wiriest of them fingerpicks a guitar
63 The only other sound the wheeze
62 The tavern door spins
61 As to the tap they go
60 The women rocking to and fro
59 As if on a boat putting out to sea
58 And then went down to the pub in shifts
57 Factories now running night and day
56 Knitting and crocheting
55 An assortment of needles and pins
54 It’s an old yarn an old man’s tale
53 The homonym got the best of him
52 His reflection in the salt water
51 As he fell to pay his visit
50 The year the waves broke over the pier
49 Surely an end was near
48 400 blows and the sea divested
47 The year of the great flood
46 The land sinking easily away from the sailor
45 40 worried days and 40 sleepless nights
44 Wood filled would the old tug hold
43 The oxpecker kept watch while the rhinoceros slept
42 The old books would serve as ballast
41 On the deck he built an altar
40 Which worried his wife
39 Later in life
38 Fish appear in her sea
37 Little wheels of fog reeling out of the water
36 A bead of sweat on his brow
35 Somewhere during the rosary
34 The rummy one
33 Sticks out his tongue
32 Ad libitum
31 Ad lib scat
30 Noise
29 Into silence
28 All this sand, ashes
27 Out of the moonlit water
26 Comes a procession up the beach
25 Rings and in vestments weary
24 Music, erratic mutable jazz
23 Haloes his balding plate
22 A host the size of a deluxe
21 Where the surfers eat and drink
20 Fish burritos and beer at Serena’s Seafood
19 It’s too late now to stop
18 They keep after these questions
17 He knows the answer but waits
16 Waves closing in closing out
15 Leaks reveal nothing
14 Later he’ll call the plumber
13 Taps pipes lightly with ball-ping hammer
12 The night sinks stink
11 Reveille revelry diesel bus starts up
10 Still dark draft out of the water
9 Bags the grounds for the morning
8 Barista in a long green beard
7 Two cappuccinos with foamy angel wings
6 Dodge into a coffee house dive
5 A couple of horned larks warbling across Eden
4 Blinding flashes in camera obscura
3 Paparazzi at the Gates of Paradise
2 One was never enough
1 In the beginning was the wand and wave

The Syllabication of Desire

You are here.In “The Stylization of Desire,” William H. Gass[1] complains philosophers have ignored the body. I guess if you live a life of the mind, you don’t dwell on the accoutrements. You save your energy for argument. Gass argues an evolution in the development of human desire, from a direct recognition and fulfillment to more sophisticated, abstracted satisfactions. A fly fisherman ties his own handmade, artificial flies onto barbless hooks, intending to catch and release fish not to be eaten. That’s my example, not Gass’s, and the fish dances, which is already style, but does the fish find or hunt the fly? While the fly fisherman is hooked on a style, not the object of his desire?

Gass says his subject is, indirectly, style, not desire. The hungry man finding food employs a different style from the hungry man hunting for food. The man who is not hungry, but who knows at some point he must eat, develops rituals when repeated over time create their own needs and wants, which may or may not have all that much to do with food anymore: on which side of the plate should the barbless hook be placed?

Style is need become recreation. Substitutions are impurities, and style is anything but a distillery. Style is additives, an acting out: a method, a process, a procedure, elliptical, indirect, never subtle. And style is a tool, a way of reaching for something just beyond immediate grasp or sight. In 1971, when Gass was writing his essay, the goal of music may have been lost in the style of sound systems, in stereo equipment, components, each creating its own desirabilities. The sound system is a stylization of music, as music is a stylization of sound. The war was sixteen years old, also a style, because there was no end in sight. It was the long reach of promise, the promise of style. You could master MLA, even if you had nothing to say. You could still read for style, before theory stylized the wrecking ball. Theory is a means to no end, all style.

By desire, Gass means basic human needs. By style, he means the infrastructures erected culturally and socially that achieve goals to reach those needs. To create the infrastructure, people have to agree about what they want. Things they want are then called values. Values are the styles of desire. You wanted a fish, to eat. You may have seen a bear or a bird snagging a fish from a river. You watched the bear eating the fish with her hands, cold, river to mouth, maybe a rock for a table. You could learn to do that too. But now you can grab a can of tuna off the shelf at the supermarket. You get a job so you can pay for the tuna. The job probably has nothing to do with fishing. It takes a whole lot of infrastructure so you can make a tuna salad sandwich, and all kinds of new needs are created along the way which have nothing to do with fishing for fish.

The object of desire is mystified by egress, the tool, the way. The path becomes the object of desire, as in Zen. Gass visited Plato country, maybe, but he seems to have been looking for a way out. Today’s gentrifications imply style, new rituals in old neighborhoods, where you can no longer belly up to the bar and drink beer from a bucket, which was also a style, but one now no longer valued. Styles change as values change. Gentrification is a means-end inversion, where desire for the object is lost to desire for the tool, and tool instruction becomes ritualized: indentured servant, laborer, apprentice, master, homemaker. This is the abstraction away from the body, from hammers and nails to blueprints and picking out your wall and rug colors and appliances. Houses, once homes, are now investments. Houses are the shells of families. The oldest ones have ceilings and walls and floors layered with sediment, basements full of dregs, the debris of style. An investment is not a body. But investments, like bodies, can get run down. Style is a value. Values are mutable.

But while the philosophers may have avoided the body, the poets embraced it as well as all of its functions. First comes the body, then the mind. That’s not to say the body is always taken seriously. From Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale,” a situation comedy:

“Speak, sweete bird, I know not where thou art.”
This Nicholas anon let fly a fart,
As great as it had been a thunder dent*;                     *peal, clap
That with the stroke he was well nigh y-blent*;                 *blinded
But he was ready with his iron hot,
And Nicholas amid the erse he smote.
Off went the skin an handbreadth all about.
The hote culter burned so his tout*,                             *breech
That for the smart he weened* he would die;                  *thought
As he were wood*,  for woe he gan to cry,                           *mad
“Help! water, water, help for Godde’s heart!”

From Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Episode Three, Stephen on a meditation walk:

Cocklepickers. They waded a little way in the water and, stooping, soused their bags and, lifting them again, waded out. The dog yelped running to them, reared up and pawed them, dropping on all fours, again reared up at them with mute bearish fawning. Unheeded he kept by them as they came towards the drier sand, a rag of wolf’s tongue red panting from his jaws. His speckled body ambled ahead of them and then loped off at a calf’s gallop. The carcass lay on his path. He stopped, sniffed, stalked round it, brother, nosing closer, went round it, sniffling rapidly like a dog all over the dead dog’s bedraggled fell. Dogskull, dogsniff, eyes on the ground, moves to one great goal. Ah, poor dogsbody! Here lies poor dogsbody’s body.

From Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” 21:

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into new tongue.

and from 50:

Wrench’d and sweaty – calm and cool then my body becomes,
I sleep – I sleep long.

The body is energy, energy heat; how to cool the mind? Sprinkle some water on it.

In “Being Peace,”[2] by Thich Nhat Hanh, we find a tool that might be used to solve Gass’s algorithm, that style (means) usurps ends (desire), a game Gass calls civilization, the realization of values. Civilization is a clock, the stylization of time. It’s hard to live in the moment when the clock is ticking and clicking away. Tests are timed. Clock in, clock out. Days are geared for what comes next. Hanh’s solution, simply put, is to be in the moment, which requires body and mind to come together, stop arguing, come to some agreement. Hanh offers a three-fold mantra that blends breath (an amalgamation of body and soul) with mind. Breathe in calmly; be calm. Breathe out and smile. It’s not easy to smile under rigid conditions, but it’s even harder to feel anger, frustration, envy, or any of the other so-called deadly sins when smiling. Bringing the present moment into focus cuts style short because there’s no reliance on a past or future moment. There is no time for playing games, for acting out, for conceits and deceits. And there is no need for revisions.

In “Being Peace,” Hanh identifies three energies: sexual, breath, and spiritual, a trichotomy, but peace requires oneness:

Breath energy is the kind of energy you spend when you talk too much and breathe too little [many examples of breath energy can be found on The Coming of the Toads blog, including this post]. Spirit energy is energy that you spend when you worry too much and do not sleep well.

The Zen practitioner works on conserving energies, though if describing an expert at it, work might be the wrong word.

For some reason, we have language. What is language? Do all animals have it? Do plants have languages? Writing is the stylization of language. Metaphor is style. To live in the moment as Hanh suggests, to meditate, sitting or walking, may require thinking anew and reevaluating the primacy of words as a means to cut away from the hankering that looks before and after and pines for what is not.[3] To live in the moment may mean to abandon metaphor. To liken this moment to some other moment we must leave, momentarily, this moment.

Hanh’s mantra can be shortened to four words: Calm, Smile, Present Moment. Present can be substituted with wonderful. This is the syllabication of desire, but can it be done without words? Below is a table I created containing variations on the mantra, simple syllables, monosyllabic, mostly. Read vertically top to bottom or horizontally left to right or right to left. Note the mantras are presented with their counter or anti-moment-mantras, the desired calm moment placed near its opposite, acknowledging tension and conflict and the difficulty of doing this, of being calm, of smiling (Hanh is talking about smiling in the face of suffering), while some attempt has been made to create a cycle using the four seasons:

Calm Storm Smoke Motion Drizzle Quiet
Smile Frown Swell Blow Open Spring
Present Absent Green Tube Empty Mouth
Moment Nowhere Dwell Past Scene Space
           
Thorn Palm Face Prayer Smooth Light
Snarl Wave Play Tick Listen Place
Reach Hand Wall Honey Summer Reel
Mist Balm Way Brim Water Well
           
Naked Red Still Rough Sweet Noise
Laugh Close Rest Remit Toss Circle
Full Scar Walk Future Soft Moon
Ocean Door Rhythm Evening Fall Flat
           
Snow Freeze Silver Bleary Cold Cool
Spur Scowl Thaw Abstract Breathe Call
Hither Fix Winter Weary Slow Bird
Rapt Incessant Drip Notion Motif Bell
           
Calm          
  Smile       Wave
    Present Current  
      Moment  
Eat Drink Enjoy Labor[4]  

[1] “The Stylization of Desire” appeared in The New York Review of Books, February 25, 1971. It’s paywalled, but the first few paragraphs can be viewed. I have it in an old copy of “Fiction: The Figures of Life,” a collection of Gass essays from late ‘50s to early ‘70’s.

[2] “Being Peace” by Thich Nhat Hanh. 1987, 2005. Parallax Press, 118 pages.

[3] from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s, “To a Skylark,” stanza 18:

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

[4] “And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.” Ecclesiastes 3:13 (KJV).

Ruddy Rubescent Red

RedIf you’re thinking about figurative language (and who isn’t?), you’ve probably bumped your head on the thought words have meaning, but whose? And too much meaning for their own good, or ours. We pick words like bananas, firm but yellow, not too green, ready to eat. We try to narrow our meaning, so as not to be misunderstood. Ambiguity is not valued in certain kinds of communication, but confusion is hard to avoid because readers puzzle over variations in a word’s meaning, and may disagree or simply read differently the meaning or significance of even the simplest of words.

It’s hard to stop words from connoting, from loitering. Words hang about, and we’re unsure what they’re going to mean next. Words are two-faced, and when you talk out of both sides of your mouth, you’re really asking for trouble. Denote this, literally, as if we are running our tongue around an auricle. The connotative meaning of a word is its suggestive, associative meaning, definitions farther down the word’s trough in the dictionary, the entry to the word corral. You might find a connection in its etymology between a word’s denotative and connotative meaning. The suggestive meaning of a word might include a cultural, technical, auditory, or personal source. Connotative meanings may be widespread and commonly understood, or limited to idiomatic or idiosyncratic inflections understood by only a few.

Try on, for example, the word red, the color, one of the three primary colors, located on the color wheel between orange and purple. What are some connotative meanings of the word red? Ideas, emotions, or things we might associate with red: shame, fear, or embarrassment; danger, risk, or emergency; love, passion, or temperature; emotion, anger, or temper; communism, US Republican states, or wine; blood, sacrifice, or courage; prostitution, fast cars, or valentines. Of course we think context is also a kind of corral, but its fences are weak.

Figurative language involves more than connotative meanings, but the difference between denotation and connotation provides an effective illustration of the difference between literal and figurative language, and since one of the characteristics of literature is the conspicuous use of figurative language, an early awareness that words may mean more than we want them to mean is useful. At the same time, literature involves more than the use of figurative language. Flaubert is very much interested in literal meaning and in literal descriptions. A Simple Heart might be described as a realistic portrait. But when Flaubert describes Felicite early in the novella, she is said to wear a red dress all through the year. A perspicacious reader may ask why a red dress? Why not a blue or green or white dress?

The narrator of “The Custom House” introductory chapter of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter seems to be a perspicacious reader:

But the object that most drew my attention, in the mysterious package, was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded. There were traces about it of gold embroidery, which, however, was greatly frayed and defaced; so that none, or very little, of the glitter was left. It had been wrought, as was easy to perceive, with wonderful skill of needlework; and the stitch (as I am assured by ladies conversant with such mysteries) gives evidence of a now forgotten art, not to be recovered even by the process of picking out the threads. This rag of scarlet cloth, — for time and wear and a sacrilegious moth had reduced it to little other than a rag, — on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital letter A. By an accurate measurement, each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length. It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honor, and dignity, in by-past times, were  signified by it, was a riddle which (so evanescent are the fashions of the world in these particulars) I saw little hope of solving. And yet it strangely interested me. My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside. Certainly, there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind.

At first glance, we want nothing past denotative meaning. We get the literal meaning, forget the word, and move on. We don’t even bother rolling the word around in our mouth, tasting it before we swallow a meaning, minding our manners. The sentence got us to where we wanted to go; no need to get out and look under the hood. And we often keep connotative meanings, when we do experience them, to ourselves. And denotative meanings are fairly reliable, often going unchanged for long periods of time, while connotative meanings may change relatively quickly. We might first associate the color red with love, roses, and amorous adventures, but when Stephen Crane titled his novel about the Civil War The Red Badge of Courage, we may safely assume he was thinking the color of red might suggest something more along the lines of fear, blood, violence, and sacrifice. In the earlier parts of the 20th Century, and particularly during the 1950’s in the US, the word red was often used to suggest an association with communism, as in “the Red Scare”; a reference to a “red state” today appears to reverse that connotation. And then there’s true blue, Mary’s color.

For some reason, for Robert Burns, in his poem “A Red, Red Rose,” a single red was inadequate. Why does he repeat the word red in the title and the first line? Does he simply mean a very red rose?

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June…

For William Blake, in his poem “The Sick Rose,” primary red also seemed inadequate. How might our reaction to the poem change if Blake had said “Of red joy” rather than “Of crimson joy”?

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Is Burns’s rose blushing? Is Blake’s crimson closer to the color of blood than red? How might our reading of Blake’s “The Sick Rose” change if the line read “Of bloody joy”?

Even if we don’t make an effort to think consciously about the effects of words upon our reading experience, connotative meanings influence our comprehension and reaction. It is difficult to avoid the effects of connotation, of suggestive meanings. Remember the effect of the sound of fingernails being scraped on edge across the face of one of the green chalkboards back in grammar school? Words make noise. Noise soothes or grates. Words have texture and color and flavor. Some words are soft, mushy, others strong, firm. We like some words; we dislike others. When we get a bunch of words together we don’t like, we might say poetry, and spit them out. Or there’s been a stampede, words running ruddy and rubescent, out of the corral. But we can always brush away the ruddy gnats and make banana bread.

Dear Reader: “Charming Gardeners,” by David Biespiel

There used to be a public telephone booth down on the corner from our place, the kind the caller entered through a panel glass door and dropped coins into the phone, outside the cleaners, across from the realtor’s office, the street corner just a dot of commercial activity in an otherwise residential neighborhood. The telephone booth got hit with graffiti occasionally, or a pumpkin around Halloween, and the glass was often in need of repair. The door broke and was discarded, the telephone book disappeared from its chain, and finally the box was taken away. The booth attracted activity, some locals opined of the nefarious sort. The booth might have represented to some a stranger. At night, a small lamp lit the booth. Outside the booth, a couple of newspaper stands added to the tiny urban pastoral. One day, out walking, I passed by the booth, and the phone rang.

On the corner across from the phone booth stood a blue mailbox. The mailbox got more business than the telephone booth, but not enough, apparently, for it too was taken away. The newspaper boxes that stood next to the phone booth have also been removed. The cleaners closed, and for a time the corner reminded me of an abandoned gas stop on a two-lane road bypassed by a highway. Bit of an exaggeration, that, but not much, for like the telephone booths, many of the mailboxes in the Southeast Portland neighborhoods are disappearing, and the small bookstores, like the newspaper stands, are being rooted out, also. Last year, one of my favorite small bookstores, Murder by the Book, at the west end of the Hawthorne district, met its demise.

Really? Are we to read yet another letter on the disappearance of newspapers, books, newsstands and bookstores, and poetry?

Not at all. Some things don’t change, among them, Emily Dickinson’s one way missive: “Her Message is committed / To Hands I cannot see.” And what better way to illustrate the stubbornness of the staying power of poetry than a book of poems in which each poem is a letter to someone? We save letters, but first we have to write them, send and receive them.

Poetry, as John Cage said of music, occurs whether we intend it or not, but we won’t have the unintended poetry of letters if we stop writing letters. The democratically accessible form of the letter is still with us, even if mailboxes are becoming scarce. Is an email not the same as a letter? An email is a phone call compared to a letter. Letters don’t have the immediacy of an email. Letters are not immediately delivered, and we don’t expect an immediate reply. We might wait weeks or months for a reply, or years. But we probably wouldn’t resend the letter, noting “2nd request” in the subject line, as we do with emails. Letters can be a bit of a hassle to write, requiring a kind of toolkit: paper, pen, table, envelope, address, stamp, mailbox. Letters, perhaps, require more of an occasion than emails, occasion to write, more of a purpose. If you really want to get someone’s attention, you don’t send them an email; you write them a letter. Letters are more difficult to forward than emails. And the letter might be returned, as emails are sometimes returned, too, as undeliverable. Or a letter might wind up in the dead letter post office, and you might never know if your letter sent was ever received or read.

Melville’s Bartleby worked in a dead letter office before going to work as a scrivener for the lawyer who narrates the tale. Where have all the scriveners gone? The poet Charles Olson’s father was a mailman. In “The Post Office: A Memoir of My Father” (1948), Olson describes how, through office politics, misunderstandings, and general stubbornness all around, his father had his mail route taken away from him. Olson explains the importance to letter carriers of personalized routes, but also explains how the letter carrier is important to the community of people on the route. Olson explains how the mail carrier becomes a confidant reader and the most knowledgable person in the neighborhood of personal affairs:

“Mail, over any length of time, will tell secrets a neighbor could not guess. Nor do I mean the reading of postcards or the ‘lamping’ of letters. Nor what a man hears over a coffee. Or that a man’s mail does not always come to his house, or a woman’s either. It lies more in the manner in which people look for, ask for, receive their mail. And talk about it” (43).

Olson insists this is “not to be mistaken for nostalgia,” for the post office was akin to the military, and letter carrying is hard work, hard on the body. Yet the loss of Olson’s father’s route was both the loss of valued labor and the loss of an identity. Not for nothing does a man wear a uniform.

Another Charles and poet, Charles Bukowski, explains further, in his novel “Post Office” (1971), about his days as a letter carrier in Los Angeles, in bitter, sardonic, and laughing prose, what carrying the mail is all about:

“There were 40 or 50 different routes, maybe more, each case was different, you were never able to learn any of them, you had to get your mail up and ready before 8 a.m. for the truck dispatches, and Jonstone [supervisor] would take no excuses. The subs routed their magazines on corners, went without lunch, and died in the streets” (10).

But the point here is that bit from Olson about “how mail is received.” That’s the poetry. And try giving someone a poem, not publishing a poem, but just give someone a poem, as a letter, and see how he or she receives it. You’ll learn more about that person than you might learn sitting over coffee or beers talking about children or baseball.

I’ve often felt about poetry what the poet Marianne Moore said in her distinctive poem titled, simply, “Poetry”:

“I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all
this fiddle.”

But fiddle is a perfect word to describe the activity of poetry, where the gig is a jig of restlessness, and I like to fiddle, more and more these days, if fingerpicking the Telecaster qualifies as fiddling. And I like to watch a fiddler at work, pushing and pulling the bow. In any case, we might get very little actual fiddling at a poetry reading. By the time the poet takes the mic, the fiddling part is over. He puts the bow aside and starts to talk. But the poem as letter suggests an importance Moore’s definition seems to discount. Don’t go near the water if you don’t want to get wet.

DB ReadsThe rectangular space of the swimming pool, the opening of the swimming hole, the lake or ocean cove below the cliff as a page. The poem as a dive, form, and a form of competition, an argument. The poet, a high diver, slips into the water, no splash, no wake, surfaces, swims to the ladder, climbs out, takes his seat. The poet David Biespiel has been a diver. I don’t know if that matters much to the enjoyment or understanding or getting at his poems, overall. But I thought about it as I walked down to Powell’s Books in the Hawthorne district a week ago to listen to David read for the launch of his new book of poems, “Charming Gardeners,” the poems conceived and formatted as letters. I listened, observed what I could of the audience, doodled some, was distracted by the books on stacks surrounding the podium and audience – some funny titles out of context, ironic when juxtaposed to the reading, the room holding the Young Adult category of books:

“Hideous Love,” “Wild Boy,” “How to Love,”  “Pretenders,” “Frozen,” “Sick,” “The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire,” “Chasing Shadows,” “Captain Cat,” “A Taste of the Moon.”

I need to get back over there and browse through some of them.

The last time I was at Powell’s on Hawthorne for a reading was to hear Patricia Marx, of the New Yorker, upon the launch of her new novel, “Him Her Him Again the End of Him,” (2008). There were about 12 people in the audience on a bitter winter evening. I was there with Eric in support of some high school assignment-deal. Patty tried playing a recording of some kind, but the technology failed for some reason. But I enjoyed her, nevertheless. A live reading is like live music, better than radio, but only in some ways. Because listening to the radio at home, you can get work done around the house. But in a reading you have to sit still and be polite (Biespiel’s was not a Beat reading accompanied by a jazz combo) and not fidget, sort of like being in church, the folding chairs as uncomfortable as pews. This isn’t always the case, depending on venue. The Robert B. Laughlin lecture Eric and I attended (out on another high school assignment junket) back in 2005 sported a rowdy crowd of all ages and disciplines, as the rousing Q&A following the lecture showed.

DB Notes 2Poems as letters, or letters as poems, I’m not sure which comes first, but the idea raises the hand for a question. What is the intended audience? And is the reader a voyeur, as David, perhaps jokingly, suggested? And recall Emily’s note: the writer can’t see the hands of the letter holder, not unless the writer is also the letter carrier. The epistle is an old form. David said something about the letter as poem narrowing the audience, the focus now on an individual, not a song to nobody in particular. William Carlos Williams: “To Daphne and Virginia” [his daughters-in-law], the beginning of the second verse:

“Be patient that I address you in a poem,
there is no other
fit medium” (“Selected Poems,” 1968, 134)

DB Notes 1David read five poems at Powell’s on Hawthorne the evening of the book launch reading: “To Wendy from Yellow Hickory”; “To Buckley from Berkeley”; To Wiman from Walla Walla”; “To Lenney from the Greenbrier Hotel,” and “To C. D. from D. C.” These are lengthy, traveling poems that talk and click along like a train (though most of the travel is by plane), engines full of breath. I was reminded of Whitman, the way he adds on, continually, one thought giving rise to the next, unafraid of repetition, commenting on the landscape, ideas, people, as he goes, adding comments, evaluative, reflective, and several of the poems mention Whitman. In “To Buckley from Berkeley,” for example, which begins, “Dear Bill” (as if we are on familiar terms – you see the extent to which the trope can travel), the letter goes on for 18 lines before we get a period, and what follows is this: “That, Bill, and also this:” followed by another 41 lines before the next period. (If unfamiliar with Buckley, enjoy an introduction by viewing video of segments of his TV show, “Firing Line.” Here, via YouTube, he talks with poet Allen Ginsberg, and Ginsberg, another Whitman influenced poet, reads a poem, which he seems to have mostly, impressively, memorized; he wrote it, he says, while on LSD, but watch Buckley’s, famous for his facial expressions, reactions. A better introduction to Buckley is his book “Buckley: The Right Word,” a book I enjoyed.) But some find Whitman an old coot, and Ginsberg, too, and, as entertaining as he was, Buckley was an old coot, too. Even as a young man, Buckley was already an old coot, conservative, tight blazer and tie. Maybe it’s hard to be a cootless poet. But a drift toward cootness was something Ginsberg and Buckley shared.

Anyway, I am very much enjoying “Charming Gardeners.” It’s an encyclopedic book, chock-full of references of every kind, both personal and general. It’s a book that strikes out to find America, an act that may or may not require preparatory reading. There’s a “Postscript” of explanatory notes. The note to the letter-poem “To Hugo from Sodo,” for example, explains that SoDo, in Seattle speak, refers to the area south of downtown Seattle, an area I’m familiar with. It’s an industrial district. From the I-5, drivers can see SoDo sprawled out along the waterfront, the new stadium now an iconic part of the scene. The Seattle Mariners used the acronym in a marketing campaign, “Sodo Mojo.” More poets should attach notes to their work. Marianne Moore often provided her readers with notes. Then again, while sometimes the notes help, sometimes we feel the bottom fall away even deeper. “Charming Gardeners” is so full of references that it will take a long time to read – if one is to track all the references down. But that’s the idea. It’s a watershed, full of names (“…the law firm / Of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassidy, and Corso,” for example – funny, that) and locations all around the country, and events, historical and local. Other topics: baseball, the Civil War, God, cities, politics, illness, love.

That day I was out walking and walked by the telephone booth down on the corner, and the phone rang. Are you not interested in whether or not I answered it? And if I did, who was on the other end? There’s no chance to answer it now; the telephone booth has disappeared. This is why we should continue to write letters. Whether we turn them into poems or not is a different matter. But most people like reading letters; most people like to get mail. But someone has to start the chain. For a poet, a letter ensures, maybe, at least one reader.

Related Post: Walt Whitman and a Letter of Ourself – How a letter I wrote to one of my sisters came back to me, some 40 years later.

Notes On Reading Caleb Crain’s “Necessary Errors”

“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” And Caleb Crain would seem to agree. His recent novel, “Necessary Errors,” is full of conversations, and he’s now providing the pictures in an electronic “extra illustrated binding” on his blog. But any resemblance to the Alice books probably stops there. One of the many surprises in “Necessary Errors” is its realistic style, the writing clear and purposeful, full of diligent detail. The sentences are often shaped to fit the action described: “He watched recede the semicircular – circular, in the water’s haphazard mirroring – portal through which they had passed” (391). Jacob, the main character, is rowing a boat under the Charles Bridge in Prague. The writing is realistic too in that the metaphors are not surreal; they also do the work of illustration. It’s as if in the land of Kafka, Kafka had never written a word – but no, precision is a characteristic of Kafka’s style. His writing is so descriptive and precise we don’t realize we’re dreaming. But metaphor to Jacob is not magic; it’s a way of realizing something unfamiliar, of carrying it home in an idea: “They had both loved the book, but Jacob must have loved it because he had recognized in it a story about his own nature (because Jacob had no brother, the idea of a brother was just a metaphor to him)” (309). Or metaphor is for Jacob a tool to sharpen the precision of a description: “She drew from her purse with one hand her cigarettes, lighter, and wallet, her fingers splayed separately open, at all angles like the blades of a Swiss army knife” (298). The hand does not become a Swiss army knife, as it might in a surrealistic description; the image of the knife provides an explanation of the work of the hand. But Jacob is not the narrator.

One settles into “Necessary Errors,” into the writing, as if on a long train ride. It’s a long book, 472 pages, and disciplined throughout, the closest to a first person narrative a third person ever came. The point of view rarely, if ever, is allowed to slip away from the main character Jacob’s indirect voice. The narrator as an independent character might have something to add here or there, but these are rare exceptions. What does Jacob want, and what is in his way of getting it? He wants to be a writer. But first he must come to understand himself, and to do that he must let go of the very moment he values as the sweetest. Only then can he reflect on its significance, and if he’s articulate and has an artistic temperament, he can put the lost experience into pictures and conversations. Is wanting to be a writer the same thing as writing? Wanting to be a writer is a value, something we desire that is not necessarily good for us; writing is a virtue, something that is both good for us and for others, assuming wanting to read is realized in reading. Are these fairly conservative values, these days, reading and writing? Why does Jacob want to be a writer? Where do his values come from? When he realizes some of the guys in Prague are selling themselves, he objects. “Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion,” Blake wrote. Jacob wants to be a writer to assert his freedom, to establish an independence from institutions that would buy and sell bodies and souls, minds and lives. That we are free to sell ourselves is the great irony of capitalism, of free enterprise. We enter the prize, and are consumed by it.

The conversations take place in Prague among a group of friends unified by their age and circumstance. Communism is thawing, and the idea of being free and enterprising, of entertaining choices that won’t come again, is still a fresh breeze. The torrents of greed have not yet rushed ashore. It seems a good time to live in the moment, which won’t return. Early in the book, Jacob uses a poem by Emily Dickinson as a pronoun antecedent exercise in his English as a second language class. Dawkins quotes from this same poem in “The God Delusion,” but only the first two lines, an incomplete experiment, and gives it the same mawkish sentiment that at first it seems Jacob is suggesting, that we are lucky to be here, alive, given the odds, and as part of his argument, Dawkins gloats over the google of lives who didn’t make the trip; but how does a non-existent being fit into the equation? Dawdling Dawkins misappropriates Emily and misses the pitch. In any case, back in Prague, if it was the sweetest of times, it was the sourest of times: as it was, is now, and ever shall be. For most people, life is not sweet: not for the coal miner with lung disease, not for the mother of twelve, ten surviving, not for the children of brothels, not for the addicted, the imprisoned, the exploited, the shamed. All lives are not sweet, and the argument that they won’t come again, to those drenched in sourness, might seem something of a blessing. But “Necessary Errors” uses the Dickinson idea in a way Dawkins misses. We move away from any moment, and it is this moving, being in this movement, that carries the writing. Afterlife is irrelevant; the present takes the prize, but not because it won’t come again. One must pay attention now, listen, and observe time passing, and then, recalling the moment in a search for time past, things lost, the artist recreates the moment. “There are unhappy childhoods,” Melinda adds (196).

One of the characteristics of the conversations among the friends in Jacob’s Prague is the distinct way each character talks. They don’t all sound alike; they each have identifying mannerisms, personality, speech. When Carl shows up, we know where he’s from; we don’t need to be told. And when Annie says something, we know it’s her; we don’t need, “Annie said.” If there’s a “gah,” it’s Annie, glasses pushed up onto her head, into her hair. There are times when Carl plays a kind of Buck Mulligan to Jacob’s Stephen Dedalus. The omphalos section might make this explicit (229). And Carl’s presence alleviates the possibility of readers burning out on the pondering Jacob. When Milena gives Jacob the gift of the little plastic Christ statue, he wishes Carl was on hand. Jacob thinks, “An American child would be tempted to zoom the figurine around the room” (458). Or stick it on the dashboard of his ’56 Chevy, next to its earth mother, Carl might comment. Annie seems to be Jacob’s favorite among the women. But Beta helps Jacob out of his element and in need, his independence challenged, like a sister. Milena has children, and we see Jacob interacting with them in several very funny scenes. Kaspar is interesting among the men. The rich boy Vincent fills a need (“The very rich are different from you and me”: Hemingway – see the Toads About page). Melinda grows a bit melodramatic in her beauty and her indecision, but one can imagine her being played by Ava Gardner or Lauren Bacall. Milo becomes an excellent contrast to Lubos. By the end of the book, the reader has come to know and to recognize Jacob, his group of friends, and the other characters he comes into contact with, infused in the Prague setting.

Jacob’s understanding of what’s happening is often complicated by having to translate what he hears and says. He knows some Czech, but he can’t think in Czech yet. The dialog meant to convey other language speech is not surrounded by quote marks but introduced by a dash, creating an effective style not unlike subtitles in a foreign film. Jacob gives Lubos a clumsy hug, which is believable, but then cries, which is not. Or maybe it is. The reader can believe the young Jacob crying, but not the narrator, whose awareness seems third person omniscient but impassable. But are these crocodile tears (36)? We’ve only just met Lubos, and there’s no reason to trust him, and we’ve not known Jacob that long either. Jokes are often difficult enough to understand in one’s native language. Over time, societal values change, what people want changes, but shame has always been used as a tool to control. Sometimes, shame is so severe, a young person, in particular, or a spouse or a lover, will rebel, and walk away. The price that must be paid to enter so-called respectable society is too great, and anyway, beneath the veneer of respectability one finds crisscrossed plies of bias. Scapegoats are often created to transfer one’s shame onto another. In just this way, the anti-gay sentiment in contemporary Russia is a political ploy, a distraction meant to create a scapegoat. In Prague, Jacob has friends, but where can he place his trust? He must proceed cautiously. But he’s not playing games. He’s serious, and he wants to be taken seriously. He wants to be accepted. He is prone to recognizing differentiations. He insists on his own distinction, an ambition that fuels his quest: “He felt so lucid that he seemed to perceive not only the world but also the biases of his own mind in perceiving it” (463). Do we want a literature of want and take, or a literature of give and forgiveness?

“Necessary Errors” is a masterpiece in the ordinary sense of the word, even if it’s not (maybe because it’s not) the masterpiece we might have been looking for. The novel is divided into three main sections and around 100 smaller sections separated by white space (not numbered). Each of the three main sections begins with a Czech name and a literary reference. To what audience is the work aimed? A common reader probably can’t speak to the whole work without taking up some additional reading, Stendhal, for example, which I probably won’t get around to. The story takes place in 1990 and ’91: there are no cell phones, no laptops, no computers, no Twitter or Facebook, no blogs. One possible audience for the book might include anyone weary of all that stuff and wanting a break to reflect – it’s been a busy couple of decades. One of my favorite sections in the novel is the one in which Jacob finds the clumsy Czech-made clothes washing machine in his apartment. This and a few other sections contain Roddy Doyle-like laugh out loud moments. But the washing machine segment recalls another, in which Jacob sits in a bar with some blue collar workers – alienated, and I’m not sure his [or the narrator’s?] economic analysis makes any sense, today, anyway, but at the time maybe it did. Still, the distance between Jacob and the laborers is so huge. There are any number of writers living in Brooklyn, but I’m guessing few of them earn as much as the Brooklyn plumbers. In any case, that scene, in which Jacob reflects on distinctions, the working class, what one might do to earn a living, and beyond, feels incomplete. One wishes for a Blakean marriage of heaven and hell there, where writers might find work and workers might find time to read. But I’ve left the text at this point, so to come back to it: almost no reference is left hanging, and the laborers are recalled, later, but one omission, possibly, is the loose end of Meredeth’s suicide. Maybe it was impractical to draw together all the threads at the end, but Meredith’s omission at the very end is notable. But there are no ghosts in a Garden. At the time the book takes place, the floor of the last two decades is still clean, and one can’t see the litter of the morning after. If one is to live in the moment, one doesn’t worry about epilogues.

“Necessary Errors” is not a roller coaster ride; I imagined myself reading it on a Coast Starlight running from Vancouver to San Diego, stopping frequently to let a few riders disembark, and to let a few new riders board, conversations along the way, taking a break to join a group playing cards in the dining car, every moment sliding gradually behind, page after page. I took that ride a few times, moments long gone. One should read a book as one takes a long train ride toward a distant destination. You can take breaks, and even get off and walk around the station landing for a spell, but once the train starts moving again, you can’t get off. Something like that. Anyway, “Necessary Errors” was published early August 2013 by Penguin in a solid paperback with thick, rough cut pages and extra shoulder, fold in covers (not sure what the technical term is for that type of cover, but it gives the paperback a more substantial feel), and it’s a substantial novel.

Memories and Hallucinations, Real Nostalgia: Bill Bryson’s “The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid”

Electric WaterfallThe notion things change fast doubles in intensity roughly every two days. It takes a couple of days for most changes to sink in. “Who moved the cat dish?” I ask, combing out dry crumbs from between my toes. “Oh, I changed that the other day,” Susan says. Moore’s law observed amplifying speeds doubling every two years. Too bad the Market hasn’t managed as well. If we understand the laws influencing changes, we’re able to merge smoothly into the new wave. Joe’s law says internal speeds slow inversely to external speeds. As the speed of life increases, what we’re feeling inside slows to a crawl. I can feel the cornstarch thickening in my spinning stomach. The waves keep coming. We can roll under, ride up and over, dive through, or turn around and catch one. We get out of the water and consider our memoir, what just happened, what just changed. The waves look different from the beach, not what we remember at all. We get our breath back. We consider the last wipeout.

What is change? Do things actually change, or do we simply wake up one morning and remember things differently? Oliver Sacks, in “Speak, Memory” (New York Review of Books), his title borrowed from Nabokov’s memoir, said, “There is no easy way of distinguishing a genuine memory or inspiration, felt as such, from those that have been borrowed or suggested.” Our experiences – real, imagined, vicarious, read, heard – become stories we retell. “Memory is dialogic,” Sacks says (made from communication with others), “and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.” I’ve only read a portion of Sacks’s latest book, “Hallucinations,” an excerpt, “Altered States: Self-experiments in chemistry,” in the 27 Aug 2012 New Yorker. How does Sacks remember anything? Stories like Sacks’s always remind me of a Salvador Dali interview. When asked if he took drugs to produce his surreal art, Dali responded: “Why should I take the drug? I am the drug.” But Sacks obviously has a good memory, or memories. What’s a good memory?

Speaking of hallucinations and memories, I’ve just finished a Bill Bryson book, recommended by Susan, “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir” (Random House, 2006). Bryson was born in 1951, and the book is about him growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950’s. We see his memory at work, his memory assisted by a bibliography of books about the world he was born into. That world is given particular focus through his witty anecdotes of home, neighborhood, school, and town, personal reflections mixed in with the historical, researched view. It’s an easy to read, enjoyable book, almost subversive the way he works into the telling what might otherwise be a dry history book. We learn, or are reminded, of much of 1950’s culture, politics, family and societal values. Most of the telling, while written for an adult audience, sounds like it’s coming from a kid’s attitude. The kid reports what’s happening to him, but he doesn’t always understand why it’s happening – several levels of irony at work. Susan set me up. “Read this page,” she said, handing me the book one day, “out loud.” I did, and when I got to the bottom I laughed out loud. I didn’t see the joke coming. Bryson figures things out, like the rest of us, a kid on the go. It helps to remember some things. Other things, it helps to forget. “Grape was the one flavor that could actually make you hallucinate; I once saw to the edge of the universe while drinking grape Nehi” (278) Bryson says, blending Dali with Sacks.

Bryson is a prolific writer with an encyclopedic style. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of all the details, facts, numbers, all startling, though you might have been there, too. The chapter on the Bomb brought back memories of the classic classroom aid raid drills where kids practiced scrunching under their school desks in preparation for atomic attack. No wonder the generation grew cynical. Really, these desks were going to protect us? From what? Not from our memories. Here’s an example of how Bryson blends the personal with the researched: “I watched a lot of television in those days. We all did. By 1955, the average American child had watched five thousand hours of television, up from zero hours five years earlier” (279). And then he lists his favorite shows, a bunch of them. His favorite show was the “George Burns and Gracie Allen Show,” which pretty much spanned the 50’s. The key word back there is average, which Bryson was not, but no one is average. Individuals are too unique for any kind of averaging that makes sense (“People are Strange,” sang The Doors, a decade later). For one thing, it doesn’t sound like Bryson watched much TV with his family, but alone, in his bedroom, after he had collected enough cash on a paper route to buy his own TV. Most families I knew had but one television set, and it occupied the living room, an electronic shrine. In our house, it was a shrine, a statue of Mary on top standing on a doily and leaning against the antennae – its tips wrapped in tin foil to improve reception. For a time, it’s where we prayed the rosary together, for which the TV had to be off, though. But the concept of average is a Madison Avenue marketing ploy, and in school, average was a way of keeping kids in line. Anyway, remember the end of the broadcast day, the eerie signal that accompanied the black and white lined diagram on a field of gray, the tubes glowing red-orange like stationary fireflies? Or did I hallucinate that? Then came the teen years and kids grew subversive by not watching TV, while their parents watched the war every night around 6, just before prime time.

The notion that decades of years fix boundaries of anything is silly, but as we leave Bryson’s book on the 1950’s, we are reminded that everything the decade is remembered for is all gone. There is nothing left of the 1950’s. Everything has changed, and while the 1950’s certainly rang up a toll of bad stuff, all dutifully set down by Bryson, the fact that everything changed is not necessarily a good thing. Gone is the closeness, the walks downtown to the grand theatres, the churchyard dinners, the thousands of family owned farms, the tiny farmhouses under trees alongside two lane roads that passed through small towns. Bryson’s view of the 1950’s is a view of a kid growing up in the 50’s. His preference for something like the “Burns and Allen Show” points to something important: George and Gracie were not products of the 1950’s. They came from a different era, their TV show an example of McLuhan’s theory that every new technology takes its content from the content of a previous form: picaresque to vaudeville to radio to TV. It might have looked new, but it was already old. But today things move so fast that we can hardly calculate those changes. Certainly it doesn’t any longer take a decade. Already everything from two days ago is changed, if not two hours ago, if not from the beginning of this post. Dang! I just put my foot down into the kitty litter box. I would like to say I’m going for a swim, but someone moved the ocean.