the thousand-track mind

Volumes in the Schuyler House, Albany, NY. September 2004.

I’ve just been perusing my library. (I curate it through LibraryThing, not GoodReads or the like. It’s an obsessive need to categorize every ‘thing’. I have mentioned this before. ) I’ve periodically jettisoned books which I presume I will no longer want, yet approximately 1500 books remain. Of these, 422 are unread. Another couple dozen are in various stages of being read: books I put down but mean to pick up again; books which are anthologies of marginal interest; but mostly books which are collections of works by favorite authors of which I have read but one of the works.

More importantly, of those 422 books, I have tagged 72 of them as “to read ASAP”. So, one in six. I do not read quickly. I subvocalize which slows down the reading pace but makes it more enjoyable for me. I don’t subvocalize when studying because I get bored with required texts no matter how interesting. It’s amazing how quickly you can work through a nonfiction text when you are just trying to get the gist out of it. This actually is the reason I rarely read works about sociopolitical topics. They state their case in the first few pages and one can just scan the rest of the work to see the supporting arguments–it only takes 15-30 minutes. But back to the library, and my point…

Due to this subvocalizing habit, I (sadly) read only 12-20 books each year. Books which are “good for me” but not written well take longer because late in the evening when I am most likely to read, they fail to capture my interest. Then too, my devotion to computers and smartphones has rewired my brain such that I expect instant gratification from a book. I generally have a rule to read at least 50 pages of a book before bailing on it. With Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum I gave it 100 pages since it was so incredibly long. (And I’m glad I did.) Lately I’ve had to increase all books to 100 pages because I lack the focus I once had. Right now I’m reading The Cold Millions by Jess Walter. I was ready to bail after 50 pages, but now I’m into it and will finish. But so what? There are those 422 books…

When I peruse the titles of those books, particularly the ASAP list, I want to read them all. NOW! The next book in Donald Harington’s collected works? Absolutely! Lawrence Durrell’s semi-travel-oriented work Prospero’s Cell? I must! “I can’t finish his autobiography without reading what he wrote at that point of his life!” Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy? I’ve been waiting years to read that! But what about the nearly one dozen unread books I have by Jim Harrison? Or the half dozen José Saramago books which I haven’t read yet? And how about what is likely the final book of Gabriel Garcia Marquez which I will ever read? What about all those one-offs that sound so good, which friends have recommended, which critics laud, which any literate person would have read by now?

I need that Matrix thing plugged into the back of my head to enjoy them all, NOW, before my literary ambitions explode within me. I need a thousand-track brain. Except…

Just because there are 422 books representing perhaps as many as 35 years’ worth of reading at my tortoise-like reading pace, and just because I have but 20-25 years remaining on this mortal coil, why should I worry about checking all those books off of the list? Isn’t there joy in the anticipation of pleasure? Doesn’t it heighten the overall enjoyment?

Some highly literate person, a writer and reader–I cannot bring his name to mind nor find it in my books–had just moved to a new house in Paris. The move consisted mostly of boxes and boxes of books. One of the movers asked, “My goodness, have you read all of these books?” And his reply was perfect:

“Of course not! That’s why they’re there.”

For us, the literate and always-reading, an optimistic, pleasurable future is measured in the books we’ve yet to read. As with so many things in life, not jumping to a hasty decision to read them as soon as we hear about them has helped us to avoid the casual, gee-I-wish-I-hadn’t-done-that feeling which marks the impetuous commitment romantics make with each new date. The elderly professor who guided my Junior Colloquium gently disabused me of my first choice of study for the colloquium: “Well, Steinbeck is an acceptable choice, but don’t you want to choose an author whose reputation is undisputed at this point?” This was 1982. Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. I was 28 years old, and I didn’t understand that my advisor had actually lived through the events described in Steinbeck’s book. She had been about my age when Steinbeck published it. We settled on Machiavelli’s The Prince and the Discourses. I’ve taken her lesson to heart. Works which speak to generations, which command respect, which make a forceful commentary on human existence need decades to be sorted out.

I could whittle down the list to an acceptable number for the remaining years I have left, leaving a bit of room for books which enter my universe day to day. But I don’t want to “tidy up my affairs” before the end of my life. I want to leave a messy, tangled knot of good intentions and half-finished projects, and that includes my reading list(s). I want on my deathbed to say, “shit, I never got to read…..!” followed by an explosion of titles. I would like the names of these books to be whispered with urgency as I expire. I want to be still in the process of living.

letters

A letter from my father to his cousin during WWII

During my adult years I developed a letter-writing habit. Perhaps it was always there, instilled by people who could count on nothing so much as a letter. Phones were problematic. Nothing else existed for communication except telegrams–“someone better be dying or sending us money”–or an in-person visit. Obviously one didn’t jump in the car and drive 285 miles across the state just to discuss the weekly news, find out the latest on your cousin’s marriage, or to  shoot the breeze. (I’ll admit that in college on several occasions I more or less did the latter: I would pick up and travel a couple hundred miles or so just to say “hi” to the family, and as a young man I would routinely drive dozens of miles on a whim late in the afternoon to catch a dinner in a nearby city or visit a girlfriend or somesuch.)

Ultimately no other communications medium served the role of the letter–certainly not telephones. During the first ten years of my life (into the early-1960s), my family paid only for party-line phone service. When you picked up the phone, if someone was talking, you just put the receiver back on the cradle of the desktop-model black telephone. In addition to scrimping on telephone charges by having a party line, my parents learned from their parents that one didn’t make long distance calls on whims, one didn’t linger on long distance calls when they were made, and one didn’t call collect except in the most dire of emergencies. Today’s ubiquitous carrying of a smartphone makes one instantly available. Today our calling plans include the costs of everything–long distance, calls between carrier systems, voice mail, the addition of extra lines, and the ability to download data to our handheld computers. It makes the concept of the desk-bound black telephone seem a relic from further back in the past than just 50 or 60 years.

Habitually writing a letter, though, became ingrained into me even as others my age leaned into the idea that long distance phone calls could be made more often. I’m sure the phone company (there was but one no matter where you lived) made it easier somehow, with a calling plan or discounts or something. My family wrote. It hadn’t been a long time since letters were the only form of communication other than telegrams (see above). My grandparents were born just as telephones were being introduced to the world. It took many years for telephone lines to be strung to all the corners of rural America. One wrote, and one wrote often. Young men with reputations to uphold stayed at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) where they were encouraged to “write your mother”. My parents undoubtedly had access to telephones in their homes–especially my mother since her father worked for the telephone company. Beyond the house, in the dormitories and fraternities/sororities of college, and perhaps even as new graduates, they didn’t have their own telephones. Letters sufficed.

I remember the letters from my father’s parents (mostly his mother) which arrived weekly. Grandma would type them on thin onion-skin paper so that she could put carbon paper between two pieces of paper and thereby make a copy as she typed. One would be sent to my father, her elder son, and one to my uncle, the younger son. To be fair, grandma would alternate pages of the carbon with originals because the carbon copy was fuzzier. A three or four page letter would alternate between black (original) and blue (copy) pages. That was a lot of news! Grandma believed in not wasting the paper. Margins were about 1/4 to 3/8 of an inch all the way around; the letters were single-spaced.

My mother’s parents were less frugal. My grandfather’s employment entitled them to lower-cost telephone service, and my grandmother was more likely to pick up the telephone to communicate, usually on a Saturday morning. I know this seems to negate what I wrote earlier, but this was an exception due to Grandpa’s privileged employment status. These calls were not frequent: no more than two per month. I believe my grandfather wrote his only daughter occasionally, putting pen to paper longhand like many people did, writing cursively.

My parents thus inculcated letter-writing into me, a habit which has not been broken these 50 years since I left home. Our communications became much more frequent and regular with the advent of email. For the last 15-20 years of their lives, my parents would email a letter to my brother and me, usually on a Saturday. My brother and I would each respond to that letter with our own, and the weekly news would be transmitted. In the two years since my mother died and left us to our own devices, my brother and I continue to send the weekly weekend emails, although we also use texting for shorter notes. It pains me to see this skill die out as younger people today disdain email entirely and communicate in other, more terse formats. After thousands of years the letter appears to be dying out as a common form of communication between friends and family members. This rewiring of our brain and of society does not bode well. Humans, never great at believing the best about strangers, have retreated into communication silos out of which we had only recently been attempting to break.

I doubt I will see the next evolution in communications between friends and family members unless someone comes up with a method to visit one another in person easily and on a whim, a la the transporter we see in our sci-fi stories. The face-to-face video calls (FaceTime, et al) would seem to bridge the gap between letters and that instantaneous travel. It will have to do. I don’t see the point: an emailed letter is more convenient because it doesn’t demand that I drop everything to answer it. The video call won’t permit me to derisively laugh at the foibles of others (without their knowledge), encourages me to make sure my bladder is empty, doesn’t let me study the words to make sure I understand what the sender wants me to understand, and gives me nothing to refer back to an hour later. On the other hand they permit the sharing of laughter, of music, of certain sights which might be within the range of the device. Ultimately, though, the video call remains a “call” and not a literary device–and for that reason I mourn its seeming demise.

how to be a writer, part one

As I do near daily, I’ve been perusing the sale books on Kindle (thoughtfully curated for me by two purveyors who I presume must get a cut). Ivan Doig, an author of the Pacific Northwest and the northern tier through Montana, has a book there today, Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America. Unlike most of his books, this one is nonfiction, described as a long-distance dialog between the author and a 19th century American named James Gilchrist Swan. Swan wrote, in Doig’s estimation, about 2.5 million words in his daily diary entries spanning four decades. Doig caught my parents’ eye several decades back, and they bought several of his works. They also made time to go to his readings at Auntie’s bookstore in Spokane, WA, where they lived. The more frequently I see Doig’s works highlighted in this e-book missives, the more I regret not taking the books with me when my brother and I settled up their estate after our mother died in 2019.

But this book evoked other feelings and led to these sentences. Intrigued by the book’s premise, I read the sample of it provided by Amazon. The simple manner in which Doig details how he came to write the book brought a pause. Doig describes first how his encounter with Swan and his diaries led Doig to think he would need to write about it. He found later that the man’s couple dozen careers and other numerous interests couldn’t be contained to the short format of a magazine article, Doig’s then stock in trade. He eventually spent three winter months along the coasts of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, stomping around Swan’s environs as he read the diaries. Doig carried on a diarist-to-diarist conversation with Swan and thus the book was born and published in 1980. (I am taking some license here since I’ve only read the sample online.)

Doig’s ease and compulsion to write fascinates, irritates, motivates, and ultimately frustrates me. At 68 I still pursue the dream that One Day I Will Be A Writer. I have spent half my lifetime failing at that, another half ignoring it, and this past year I’ve attempted to resuscitate this dream which will not die. All of this is despite the evidence that I lack the one thing that would define me as A Writer in my own eyes: writing, on a regular basis; writing, because I had to; writing because there were sentences and paragraphs and chapters which must be written down to get them out of my head. I simply have shown myself time and again that I much prefer other things to writing. I lack the self-discipline to do it, despite having the discipline to do such things as track my daily alcohol consumption for the past ten years, to sing in choirs, to act in plays, to watch hours of television every day, to cook, oh my god, to cook.

This seeming lack of will to consummate a stated dream came to a head in 1992 when, needing a fresh start after a divorce–“if you’re a writer, why aren’t you writing,” she said–I quit teaching English to 13-year-olds (a near-pointless occupation in my opinion) and headed across the continent to Philadelphia. There, I told myself and dozens of others, “I will be a writer!” I rented an apartment that was not cheap, my first mistake. It was around the corner from a woman I was dating, my second mistake. When the checks from my former school district ran out, I cashed out my teacher’s pension. This may or may not have been mistake from the Life Dream perspective, but it definitely was a mistake from the financial perspective: it cost me 10% in penalties but it was enough to live on for a year. (Nine years of teaching for one year’s income. Seems inherently wrong.)

I took a part-time job as a proofreader for business correspondence in an attempt to stretch the pension withdrawal further. This proved to be a mistake because I had to do it from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. which in turn caused me to invert my daily cycle. I had a beer and ate dinner around 8 a.m., then went to bed. I woke at 2 to 3 in the afternoon, ate breakfast, took care of personal business, and attempted to write for a few hours while waiting for my love interest to get back from giving dance lessons to the bored. This usually occurred around 9 to 10 p.m., so I would then find myself drifting off to sleep again around midnight, only to wake at 3:30 a.m. and repeat the whole thing. It left me in a mental daze, partly because the job devolved into only three days a week (Monday-Wednesday-Friday), and I would attempt to return to a normal cycle the rest of the time. I also joined a choral group at the local community college and began classes to join the Roman Catholic Church. These activities impacted the odd schedule too. Looking back, I see that I developed a lingering depression of sorts, not deep, but enough to kill any initiative to do anything. Throughout my life I’ve repeatedly quit activities that required one to hustle a job. Why I thought it would be different this time, I do not know.

I have pictured myself as a writer since I was 13 years old. My language arts teacher one day barked out, “Pilcher! Where’d you learn to write?” When I told him it mostly came from my parents and their love of language, he said, “You should consider writing for a career.” Boom. I was screwed from that point forward. Despite a continual set of data from my schools regarding suitable careers for my talents and preferences (as indicated by now-dubious tests), I persisted in thinking I would be a writer. Not just any writer, but a writer of fiction. High school brought a two-year sojourn into journalism and caused me to apply to the University of Montana for its then-renowned School of Journalism. I began having second thoughts after I was accepted but while still in high school. I had returned to “creative writing” as we called it then. For reasons that will be detailed elsewhere, I spent my entire freshman year of college without ever entering the School of Journalism either academically or physically (to the best of my recollection). With no idea what I really wanted to do–where was my drive to be a writer then?–I dropped out of college to build up cash for another stab at it. And no, I didn’t write in the 15 months I spent working before re-entering college. This time I wasn’t going to be a writer, but a recording engineer…until I switched majors to radio-television news. Not liking the idea of doing that for a living, I attempted to build my own major out of R-TV news and Economics, which would’ve caught the eye of any college advisor of the past 30 years, but back then did not. I dropped out of college again and attempted to write short stories. I did not write many, finished fewer, and none were good.

After five months of this I said to myself, “If you don’t get your ass back in college for real, you’re never going to get a degree. Just get a journalism degree. If you’re on deadline, you have to write.” I enrolled in yet a third institution (the University of Washington), got the degree, and went to work for a weekly newspaper in the Puget Sound area. There I took photographs, sold a little advertising, wrote enough news to fill five or six pages every week, pasted it all together, and drove it to the printer’s shop every Tuesday morning. After three years I moved across the state and did more or less the same thing except in a more professional setting. Within nine months I had gained an editorial position (pretty much doing the same thing except with more pages to fill), had met the woman who became my first wife, and quit to get a teaching degree. I disliked that reporting required you to go out and find the news. I disliked much more that I had to sell ads on the side. Too much hustling. My fiancée taught. “We can have summers off together.” Sounded good to me.

Which brings me full circle. How can one regard oneself as a writer but not write? I’ve known speed junkies who dashed out drivel and thought they had written the beginnings of the next Great American Novel. I’ve known persons who write anecdotal stuff similar to a bad holiday newsletter, publish it on Facebook, and get a few hundred responses all saying, “you should publish this! It’s so good!” I know a person right now who labors mightily to write about his encounters in Christian spirituality. He has about three or four readers who actually leave comments, and he acknowledges my writing skills compared to his. But in my eyes, he is A Writer, and I am not.

Doig’s simple explanation of knowing he needed to write something represents exactly what has been missing for my past 50 years: a compelling, primal need to write, an urge or urgency which drives one to write. I’ve had this need only when teachers assigned papers or when a new week’s blank pages of newsprint caused my stomach to clench up all those years ago. In my later years I wrote business reports and standard operating procedures. It was in the business world of all places where I recognized a need to write. Now that I have retired, so too have my incentives.

I envy the Doigs of the world. Perhaps, just perhaps, I can find the elusive desire to capture words my soul commands must be captured. Until then I will continue to wait for the occasional spark, such as the one which prompted this.

a blush of robins

January 2020, Spokane, WA.

There are at least 15 different collective nouns for robins, most of which seem to refer to actual European robins, not the thrushes Americans call robins. I like blush. I watched a group feast on leftover apples one morning, orange on orange, then discovered the robins across the street where they had gone to refresh themselves.

January 2020, Spokane, WA

This occurred two months after we held my mother’s funeral.  When not watching robins, I spent bittersweet time wallowing in the memories of my parents, my relationships with them, and growing up with my younger brother–in short, my familial life–while I sorted through the accumulations of two lifetimes. The word “wallow” serves better than “savor”: the latter implies a taking in, a controlled appreciation, a distinction between myself and the memories; the former captures my headlong dive into the totemic magic and power of objects which transports one involuntarily to other places in time and space. “Wallow” accurately conveys being in the memories, one with them as they washed over me, a miniscule little man leaping into a snifter filled with rare cognac, voluntarily giving up all control, at times wondering if he will drown. Nevertheless these memories, like the cognac, provided a warming experience within and without.

Each object could open a trapdoor in my emotions, sluicing me downward, backward in time to feelings and events held in thrall by the fallibility of my memory:  the coaster my mother brought back from Spain when my father fulfilled her lifelong dream of going there…

Wooden coaster, Spain.

…the footstool which sat in my maternal grandparents’ living room until it sat in my parents’ living room and now sits in my library…

Footstool, circa 1920s

…the pen and ink reproduction of Lake Quinault Lodge in Olympic National Park where my parents visited with the dearest friends of their later years…and where I introduced my wife to the magic of the Washington State temperate rainforest…and where we in turn visited with our dearest friends…

Lake Quinault Lodge, Olympic National Park, Washington State, USA

New doors opened, new memories were made:  discovering via a piece of masking tape on the bottom of a teapot that a tea set which sat in our house for decades once belonged to my great-grandmother, who died over a half century ago…

Bavarian tea set, early 1900s

…that my maternal grandmother had been a flapper, wearing this dress…

Flapper dress with handsewn beadwork, 1920s

…that my mother appeared to save every letter I wrote to her throughout my life…that my father was both more obsessed with record-keeping than I had suspected and less organized about it than I had thought…that my brother was very artistic in elementary school as evidenced by all of our school papers having been preserved by my mother.

When I acted in community theater, I read Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone. After the typical introduction and notes sections, Johnstone presented four sections, the final of which was entitled “Masks and Trance”. I likely do Johnstone an injustice here, but what I’ve taken away from the section is that objects can possess an actor if the actor permits it. Further, the same object will induce similar acting performances from two different actors. Masks in this sense do not need to be facial coverings, although much of Johnstone’s work was with traditional comic or character masks which cover the top half of the face. The Charlie Chaplin Tramp costume represents a mask. Chaplin is quoted from his autobiography as saying this about what happened after he chose baggy pants, a tight jacket, a false moustache, a cane, and big shoes: “…I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and make-up made me feel the kind of person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on the stage he was fully born…with the clothes on I felt he was a reality, a living person. In fact he ignited all sorts of crazy ideas that I would never have dreamt of until I was dressed and made-up as the Tramp…For me he was fixed, complete, the moment I looked in the mirror and saw him for the first time, yet even now I don’t know all the things that are to be known about him.”

Johnstone speaks intuitive truth, which I experienced as I sorted my parents’ possessions. Though I had little knowledge of the various tea cups and sets my mother collected, a simple reference to her own grandmother triggered the three-generational appreciation for fine china, pottery, and the allure of the Orient for them. I could feel it, not just appreciate it. Similarly, seeing the dress (suit) my mother wore on the first day of her honeymoon created in me the feeling of pride, joy, anticipation, and love for my father which she felt as he took the photograph of her I had seen so many times growing up. Perhaps I leapt to make connections where none existed. Perhaps I merely stitched together disparate memories when I looked at the diamond ring my father commissioned to repurpose his mother’s wedding ring. Perhaps it reflects only the deductive approach of a historian, not the inductive episodes I’ve described here. Perhaps…

That objects carry weight and meaning seems unavoidably true. To dismiss them, to clear them away from one’s life because they represent “clutter”, to periodically get rid of things simply because “I ought to”, to focus only on life experiences–certainly this has a minimalist, zen allure to it, but it ultimately represents a negation of the physical. When the important aspects of one’s reality exist only in the mind, then another may question, “Why are you here then?” This attitude and that question sum up for me the problem with certain Christian scriptures which seem to advise us to dismiss the world as secondary. Likewise the Buddhist notion that life is but illusion avoids the simple fact that we must walk through this illusion until death. To repeat: why are we here then?

Most of those objects I sorted through have moved on to others’ hands. Like a death from one thousand cuts, I could not transport the contents of a 2600 square foot house to mine. Ignoring marital discord, it simply defied the laws of physics, and it represented a serious challenge to my fiscal state to transport them across the United States. Except for select items, photos must stand in to stimulate my memories now. But I still haven’t captured the magic, the hold these things have on me. Where are the words to describe what I feel when hold a small little lockbox made from metal, fashioned to look like a suitcase from the 1940s, and scarcely large enough to hold a pack of cards? I can tell you how I held this in my hands over the course of my childhood and listened to the coins inside slide around. I can tell you my father threw a few coins in it from time to time, coins which represented singular things to him. I don’t even know why some of the coins were there. What made a particular nickel so important? I even can attempt a description of my young feelings as I looked at a representational suitcase and saw things that suitcases did not have to the best of my young knowledge: straps to tie it up and hold it together; images of stickers from all the major cities and countries where the suitcase theoretically had been; a putty gray-green color accentuated by tan for the faux leather at the edges and on the belts securing it together. I can describe how I would take a little odd-shaped key to unlock the box to view those coins, but how can I convey to you how I still can feel what I felt then at the age of ten simply by holding the case in my hands? How I can see my father at 40 instead of 80? I can picture where it was tucked in the top drawer of his chest of drawers, underneath the white handkerchiefs he always carried in his suits–until he didn’t. I see the arrangement of the furniture in my parents’ bedroom in 1965. I feel the lumpiness of the awful-colored shag carpet rug alongside the bed. It never really stops. I can continue to describe the bedroom, the events which happened there, which trigger other events, other items–because I am at that moment living there-then not here-now.

Am I too old to envision a different way to relate to objects? In 75 years, 100 years will someone like me fondly recall the cumbersome approach to non-fungible tokens (NFTs) his grandparents had, and how he still cherishes them in the virtual vault where he stores them? I think not. Just as archeologists delicately brush dust from clay tablets and vases, so too do we mentally brush the cobwebs of time aside to relive those times we held these objects. In just the same way that we gaze on those ancients artifacts in museums, so too do we mentally consider the displays we’ve built in our mind of all those objects we couldn’t hang onto–and we’ll experience true joy to have a small little museum ourselves, maybe just a part of a shelf, maybe one room of our house, where we can look at the salient objects which invoke these magical feelings in us, feelings we cannot articulate fully, memories we can only share with others who hold them too.

Memories can bring a cascade of others until we are possessed. Sometimes it only takes a blush of robins to trigger them.

A blush of two

Wokeness versus objective reality

You should use your one or two free articles per month from the New York Times to read Bret Stephens’s column “Why Wokeness Will Fail” (published Nov 9, 2021). Although Stephens dwells overmuch on matters associated with racism and the Black Lives Matter movement in particular—opening himself up to charges of “another white guy doing the defensive thing”—his points are well made, accurate, and most importantly, based in reality.

Stephens notes a particularly chilling example from the American Medical Association which apparently has urged redefining terms for patients such that they reflect the inherent racism that created their situation. As he notes, it is Orwellian. I am reminded of the clients I continually met who believed that they could change corporate culture if they just wrote better SOP’s. This is the ‘hall monitor’ approach: give me more rules and I will be empowered. One cannot redefine the world by redefining language. We cannot introduce matters of opinion into descriptive terms of objective reality. A person with little money is ‘poor’ not ‘the victim of economic inequality’. Terms which carry hateful, opinionated connotations do indeed need to be replaced. But projecting a theory onto every situation and redefining the terms? Ridiculous, inaccurate, group-think, the beginning of totalitarianism.

This recognition that Wokeness is a step toward totalitarianism is refreshing. Stephens’s assertion that it is doomed to fail because of the structure of American government and society? I’m not so sure. I would like it to be true, but I have lived too long through the simple—ketchup is a vegetable—and the complex—there were fine persons on both sides—to believe this constant assault on reality will diminish and ultimately fail. Our would-be emperors are often naked, and we must constantly point this out to the gullible.