I’m a bit worried these days by how little I have, or care, to say. Other people’s words don’t hold much interest either. It feels ridiculous that we should be required to have opinions and perspectives, or that we should need to express them. These days I avoid conversation. I switch off the television and radio and wonder why we can’t be content, like Bertie Wooster in Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, to “just exist beautifully.” How different – how better –things would be if we could only dial down (by fifty percent, say) the chatty sociability of the species.
Alfred Kazin in A Walker in the City describes the challenge of speaking when he was a child: “The word was my agony. The word that for others was so effortless and so neutral, so unburdened, so simple, so exact, I had first to meditate in advance, to see if I could make it, like a plumber fitting together odd lengths and shapes of pipe.” I don’t stutter like the young Kazin did – but like Kazin, maybe, I’m more fluent on paper than in person. Without a drink in me, I’m am awful talker. Three minutes into most conversations I become so distracted by having nothing to say that I cease listening too.
When I was four or five years old we lived in a small house built during the war with a rose bush out front and a big sycamore (I think it was) in the backyard. One afternoon while playing alone I found an old rusted tea kettle under the leaves and put the spout to my lips, pretending to drink from it. At once I felt a fluttering on my tongue and against the roof of my mouth. I opened up and, to my astonishment, a moth flew out. That’s how it ought to feel when we speak: like some living thing – a moth, a tiger, a whale – has just launched itself from our tongue into the air.
A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste. The wife accused me of tossing out the leftovers when I’d cleaned the kitchen the other night. They’re in the fridge, I said, you just haven’t looked hard enough. But no, they were not in the fridge. Impossible, I said, I remember very clearly taking the glass container from the cupboard, putting the rest of the curried chicken inside, sealing it closed …and putting it right back into the cupboard again, where, thank God, it’s still safe.
What Dreams May Come, Barefoot and in a Bathrobe. It was a chilly morning. On the platform below, just as my commuter train was pulling away, I saw a man in a plaid bathrobe. He was maybe fifty years old, graying, barefoot, but otherwise well-groomed. He didn’t appear to be homeless. He walked ten quick paces, stopped, and lifted up the hem of his robe. He reached down toward his wiggling toes in slow-motion disbelief. Only then did he realize it wasn’t a dream.
Vengeance is Mine, Saith the Squid. I was eating lunch at the local Japanese ramen shop, lifting a spoonful of precious broth to my lips. Just then, from the next room, came a colossal crash. Someone had dropped a bank safe, a quarter-ton barbell, or the frozen corpse of a rhino, and the whole room shook. The broth, in which drops of squid ink were suspended, splattered across my shirt. From beyond the grave, the bitter cephalopod had taken its revenge.
I was sick at home with the flu the other day when my daughter brought me her copy of Tove Jansson’s Moominpappa’s Memoirs to read. The story opens with Moominpappa himself sick in bed, acting like a baby, afraid he’s going to die and that all the treasures of his life experience will be lost. So he sits up and begins writing his memoirs while sipping a rum toddy and smoking his pipe. Moominpappa has romantic notions about himself. He was born, he says, under propitious stars. Though an orphan, he suspects he is a child of royalty. He admits to making slight embellishments in recounting his life story, but only for the sake of providing “local color.”
Is there such thing as a Protestant Sick Ethic? I feel like a cheat when I read while sick in bed. If I’m reading and hear my wife (a responsible person) walking down the hall toward the bedroom, I’ll drop my book on the floor or hide it under the covers. Not that my wife would scold me for reading, but I can’t avoid scolding myself if I’m caught. If you’re so sick and miserable, I tell myself, then be sick and miserable all the way. Surely, if you’re well enough to enjoy a book, you can’t be that sick, can you? Probably you’re just lazy. If I were more adventurous, like Moominpappa, I might not care. I might read in bed all day long, every day of my convalescence, and never feel guilty about it at all.
Being ordered to read by my daughter simplifies things. I’m only humoring her, putting on a good show of fatherly indulgence despite the fact that I’m suffering. But I wonder if reading while sick in bed may actually be therapeutic. A good book expands our scope of life, and even a minor illness like seasonal flu can feel restrictive. Reading is a form of experience, and if the world as we experience it in a book isn’t quite the same thing as the world at large, sometimes it’s close enough. Facing a storm at sea, Moominpappa asks his friend Hodgkins if he’s ever been in a gale before. “Certainly,” Hodgkins says. “In the picture book A Voyage over the Ocean. No waves can be bigger than those.”
I had a friend in college who would shut himself in his bedroom every afternoon and force himself to laugh at nothing in particular for exactly five minutes. It was one of the “Daily Habits of Joy and Excellence” that he’d recommended to himself and posted on the wall of his apartment: laugh for five minutes each day. Listening to him from the other room, you got a strange feeling. To think that you lived in a world where people would shut themselves in their rooms and laugh alone. How funny, or sad.
My son, age nine, is a collector of jokes. That his father isn’t a collector of jokes is one of the great disappointments of his childhood. He only likes funny books these days. His favorites include Garfield comics and Tom Sawyer. He recently wanted something new to read so I handed him my copy of Code of the Woosters, warning that it may be premature. He gave it up after only two pages, bogged down by Bertie’s euphemisms for cocktails (“morning revivers,” “tissue-restorers”) and the implausibility of anyone being named Gussie Fink-Nottle.
Humor, I think, is something we aspire to more often than achieve. But successful humor frequently comes from failure, from incompetence, from a sense of our inadequacy to the task of living – and life’s inadequacy to the task of being lived. Think of Cervantes, of Rabelais, and of Laurence Sterne. Among great American humorists I count Melville, Thomas Berger, and Peter De Vries. A fool on the stage means the play’s a tragedy, but it’s the jester who keeps us company when we’re wandering the barren heath.
I almost killed us last night. I was cooking a batch of nectar for the hummingbird feeder (three parts water to one part sugar), but left the room and got distracted. When a smell like burnt marshmallows finally registered in my brain there was already a heavy, stinging fug in the hallway. Only then, as I ran cursing beneath it, did the smoke alarm go off.
The wife took the pan from the stovetop and set it outside in the soil of an empty flower box. It was full of black, pocked magma, a menacing and alien substance. We opened the windows, turned on the fans, wrapped the kids in their bathrobes and marched them onto the porch. My daughter, age six, thought nothing so exciting had ever happened before. She thought she might even see a shooting star.
We listened to the weird crackling of the lava in the pot, cooling in the night air. Ghost Cat – a neighbor’s white longhair that only appears at night – stepped out and looked in our direction. A black cat by day, a white cat by night? But our luck had held. Our precious flammable books and flammable furniture and flammable selves were unconsumed. Only the hummingbirds would suffer.
In his late essay titled ‘Night and Moonlight,’ Henry David Thoreau writes: “How insupportable would be the days, if the night with its dews and darkness did not come to restore the drooping world. As the shades begin to gather around us, our primeval instincts are aroused, and we steal forth from our lairs, like the inhabitants of the jungle, in search of those silent and brooding thoughts which are the natural prey of the intellect.” Blake’s Tyger! Tyger! hunts by night too.
About nine o’clock on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, after eating dinner and cleaning the kitchen and tucking in the kids, I make myself a cup of coffee and sit down to write. The first hour or so is always a loss, but on a good night I will edit and revise (yet again) a chapter of my novel. I may write something to publish here too. I’ll stay up as late as two in the morning, when the automatic sprinklers cut on outside and the raccoons creep through the oleanders. Other people, I know, get up early to work on their creative projects, but night is when I hear best.
Part of the pleasure of writing, for me, is to knock on things and hear them hum. You’re never sure what notes you might summon from a fact, a character, an observation or idea. The note that you strike with your own knuckles will sound unlike anyone else’s. Even your own knock will sound different tomorrow. The bones in the figurative hand expand, the flesh gets thick and soft, or dry and thin, according to the weather. It all affects the timbre and resonance you discover. When hunting by ear like this (if I can return to the metaphor), I always catch a little of myself in the trap.
There was a five-alarm fire a few miles from our home the other night. I was reading on the couch when the smell crept in through the open windows. After making sure our own house wasn’t burning I got into the car and drove a wide circuit through town. It was almost 11pm and no one was out. There were no sirens, no lights. I rolled down the windows and sniffed at the air. The whole city smelled like a campfire circle.
I must have been seven or eight years old when our Filipino neighbors’ house burnt down. It happened in the middle of the night. I remember hearing voices and walking out of my room to find their whole family in our kitchen, wrapped in blankets, with my mother and father. Police officers and firefighters came in to speak with them. Standing on our lawn barefoot I watched the big house light up in orange and gold.
Before it was torn down and rebuilt I used to run across the street and explore what was left of it, looking for bits of melted glass and shiny things in the awful, charred frame. It was funny to think that I was walking through someone else’s home, that this was a garage, a bedroom, a hallway. When the family moved in again they had the entire street over for a party and roasted a whole pig on a spit in the backyard.
It’s the rainy season in northern California but we haven’t seen a drop since November. The nights are cold with occasional frost. The days are bright and warmer than they ought to be. This is the season, most years, when we guiltlessly spend our weekends indoors with books and board games. Instead we’re obliged to be outside. Saturday we hiked to a little farm in the hills and along the way found a spotted towhee hunting through the underbrush.
In the first chapter of The Peregrine, J.A. Baker recommends discarding any simple notions that would make small colorful birds mere accessories of the landscape. “Consider the cold-eyed thrush,” he writes, “that springy carnivore of lawns, worm stabber, basher to death of snails.” If we have nothing to fear in him, it’s only an accident of scale.
Our most common thrush is the American robin. One evening last week my daughter and I saw fifty of them in the greenbelt behind the house, that apparently inexhaustible nursery of insects and worms. They marched in alert formation, evenly spaced, eastward through the grass. What must the plodding beetle feel to look up into the bright red eye of the towhee or the robin’s depthless black?
Consumer aggression is an American tradition. The ghost of H.L. Mencken was in sardonic ecstasies this past weekend over video clips of Black Friday berserkers punching, pepper-spraying and shooting their way through crowds of competing shoppers to win deep discounts on unnecessary purchases. Everyone loves a good slugfest.
Watching it all from my father’s recliner, I recalled that Homeric scene in Tom Jones when Molly Seagrim, taunted by the crowd in the churchyard, took up a thigh bone from an open grave, “fell in among the flying ranks, and dealing her blows with great liberality on either side, overthrew the carcasse of many a mighty heroe and heroine.” Rather than a thigh bone, today’s Molly Seagrim swings an iPhone or a Blue Ray player.
Of course, it’s equally traditional to be shocked – simply shocked – by such behavior. Like court-appointed advocates for the defense, journalists and economists speculated in the aftermath that The American Consumer had been suffering from “austerity fatigue” and was possessed by the demon of “pent up demand.” This kind of insanity, they mean to say, is just what we need.