Category Archives: Three Paragraphs

Slumber Parties, Cancelled Surgeries, Distant Flamingos

The daughter of one of my colleagues recently celebrated her ninth birthday. Three or four other young ladies were invited to spend the night. Unfortunately, the evening turned sour when one of the guests – a strong personality – led a sort of revolt against the birthday girl, recruiting others to her side and refusing to participate in the planned activities. Tears and recriminations followed, and the night was largely spoiled. I had a slumber party on my ninth birthday too. Adam and Chris and Neil were invited. We camped out in the living room, our sleeping bags thrown down in front of the TV. We drank gallons of Mountain Dew and Dr Pepper and ate M&Ms and Reese’s Pieces. After my parents went to bed, we watched episodes of Benny Hill on the local PBS station. It was, at the time, one of the most outrageously fantastic nights of my life. The lesson here is never plan activities.

Someone ought to invent a word for the special pleasure of cancelling surgeries. Twice now I’ve scheduled a hernia repair surgery and subsequently cancelled it because I felt so well. Anyway, it’s a minor hernia. In the past three years it’s only rarely caused me notable discomfort. I figure, if I can hike nine miles with a heavy pack and suffer no ill effects, why volunteer myself for the carving table? I’m in no rush to be anyone’s roast turkey. St Paul in his letters complained of a mysterious “thorn in the flesh,” a temptation that pestered him to no end. I’ve come to believe the apostle had an inguinal hernia too. It’s a convenient complaint for a regular church attender: you’re immediately off the hook when fellow parishoners want help moving their pianos. The temptation, however, is real, and St Paul was a passionate man.  For all we know, he may have scheduled and cancelled dozens of surgeries all over the eastern Mediterranean.

On a father/daughter birding expedition last month, I was shocked to see, at a great distance but still unmistakeable, a flamingo in San Francisco Bay. I would have doubted my own eyes, but apparently there have been several confirmed spottings in the past two years. My daughter was ecstatic, breathless, leaping up and down and shouting her astonishment in an attempt to interest passersby.  How, and why, had it come here? Despite the absurdly pleasant weather we’ve had this winter, Northern California is not yet the tropics. David Sibley in his field guide assures us that any flamingos spotted in the western continental United States are escapees – from the zoo, presumably, or from some Hollywood celebrity’s or tech magnate’s personal golfcourse. My daughter and I prefer to imagine that our flamingo was simply fed up with all the other flamingos back home – their gossip, their politics, their pet causes. It wanted some quiet, some isolation, some anonymity. But anonymity is hard to come by when you’re the only bright pink animal around for hundreds of miles.

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Finding Yourself Locked Out

For the first time, I locked us out of the house. It was Sunday evening and we were taking the kids to see a movie. I was the last one to step outside. I pulled the door closed behind me and immediately recognized what I had done. The wife had not brought her keys and we had no spare hidden away. My daughter insisted on checking everyone’s pockets for herself but it was no good. Home was inaccessible, nor could we get into the car. It was dark and getting cold, but we had our coats. At least it wasn’t raining. At least I had my phone and was able to call the emergency locksmith. Forty minutes and $140 later, we were back inside, and we made a later showing of the movie. All told, it was a very minor inconvenience, but it startled me: my inability to shelter my family or myself, the insecurity of our security, the ease with which we were exposed.

My daughter – the pocket checker – has recently discovered new anxieties. Mostly they turn on the question of her health. She suddenly feels funny. Is her heart beating too quickly? Is her breathing okay? Will she choke on her dinner? These fears, I’m sure, have something to do with her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis and the last two-and-a-half years of worry and chemotherapy and frank conversations between Mama and Papa in the kitchen. Her uncle also had a heart attack, and Papa himself talks a lot about trying to avoid one. A few days ago, putting my daughter to bed, she asked for assurance that she would wake up in the morning. She worried that by letting go of herself in sleep she might slip accidentally into death. Sweetheart, I told her, have you ever died in your sleep before? No? Don’t worry, then. You won’t lock yourself out of tomorrow morning by stepping into the dark tonight.

If man is born in freedom, with infinite possible futures open to him, the fact of living at all will require that he is locked out, finally, from nearly all of them. Sometimes further accommodation is simply not possible. We age and grow and so lock ourselves out of the womb, out of childhood, out of our parents’ home, out of youth. We make friends and pursue lovers and so exclude ourselves from other friends and other lovers. We make any number of choices, but eventually there comes a final door for each of us. We will step through it and it will close and we will find that we have left the key inside. Eventually, then, we do step into a night (cold and black, or warm and bright with stars – who can say?) which locks us out of tomorrow morning. Dithering in the hall, however, you find that straining to hold open multiple doors at once will get you – precisely – nowhere. Like death, life only happens when you lock yourself out.

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Me and Lizzy

Great Grandma Koboldt and Me

I knew two of my great-grandmothers, and was close to one of them, but I have a picture of myself as an infant in the arms of a third, and of this one I have no memory. She lived halfway across the country, we rarely saw her, and she died when I was still small. In the photograph she is smiling and holding me like a football, or like a platter of fruit which she has just found in a surprising place. She is wearing a striped muumuu and, clearly, a wig. We are in the hallway of her home in Jefferson, Iowa. There’s an American flag to one side and a shelf full of plastic flowers and knick-knacks. Behind us, at the edge of the picture and atop a piece of furniture, there is discernible the antler and ear of a painted deer statue that would later inhabit the atrium of my grandparents’ home in Concord, California. The picture must have been taken in late 1973 or early ’74.

What I know about this great-grandmother I can summarize in one paragraph. Elizabeth Ann Wilson was born in Greene County, Iowa on New Year’s Day 1889. People called her Lizzy. She was the daughter of George Wilson and Hannah Naylor. She married my great-grandfather Charlie and they had one child, a daughter, who would become my paternal grandmother. Lizzy was a schoolteacher. In a box somewhere I have a copy of a Philology textbook from which she taught, with her notes in the margins. According to my grandmother, my great-grandfather once discovered that Lizzy kept a bottle of whiskey hidden in a cupboard. From this single episode my grandmother – a lifelong teetotaler – concluded that her mother was a secret alcoholic. Lizzy began to slide into dementia when she got quite old. The Apollo moon landings she believed to have been staged in Hollywood. Airplanes to her were demons screaming through the sky.

Every Christmas my wife and I agree that we ought to print more of our family photographs rather than store them on the computer, but we never get around to it. The other day my wife confided that, in fact, she had mixed feelings about owning very many printed photographs, even of the children. The trouble, she said, is that in the end they all go tragically astray. At best they are kept in the family for a few generations and then are lost or thrown out. More likely they end up in bins at antiques shops or in the hands of strangers for whom the faces in the pictures suggest nothing more than an era or a puzzle of relationships and circumstances. Our names and biographies effaced, new ones are imagined for us by people whose names and stories we ourselves will never know. Cut off from us, our images live an afterlife of their own. But this thought does not produce in me the same dismay that my wife feels.

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Seeing Things

Ever since the first two protozoa were joined in holy matrimony, husbands have been amazing (and not infrequently aggravating) their wives with their talent for looking directly at an object and yet failing to see it. I know that my own gifts in this department are remarkable. Certainly it was of men and not of women that Jesus spoke when he said in St Matthew’s gospel that “they seeing see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.”

While it’s possible to look at something without seeing it, it’s also possible to see something without looking at it. I will occasionally set myself the following exercise while staring out the window of my commuter train, stopped at a station, or when standing in a doorway with a view of a room before me: I direct my gaze toward one thing (a cloud, maybe, or a lamp) but purposely neglect it and pay attention instead to the other objects within my field of vision, though they may be out of focus.

Rather than the cloud or the lamp at which I’m looking, I will notice the treetops bobbing in the wind, the figure of a man walking by, the picture hanging on a wall, or the books stacked on a desk. With my eyes still focused elsewhere, I may try to pick out all of the horizontal or the vertical lines, or all the red objects, or the rounded ones. If you are able to do this, congratulate yourself, but don’t expect the world to understand. Any third party observer (your wife, for example, or Jesus) will think you’re simply not paying attention.

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The Woods

Sunol Wilderness landscape, California

It seems natural to me that someone who likes to be outdoors walking under the trees will also like to be indoors reading. Both are woodsy activities, the first self-evidently so and the second for the reason that paper has been made primarily of wood pulp for the past two hundred years. There is a special relationship between books and trees, and the reader and the hiker are not rarely the same person. Anyway, reading and hiking together make up 95% of what I would rather be doing at any given moment. I’ve never felt there was any disagreement between the two activities. Our library at home I consider a little forest, and any little forest makes an excellent library.

It’s one of the better parts of living where we do in coastal Northern California that we’re able to hike comfortably year-round. It never snows at sea-level (at least not since I was a child), the rain in winter is infrequent enough, and the heat in summer is rarely severe. In addition to the numerous state and county parks where you might go exploring there are dozens of undeveloped open space areas that have been purchased and set aside by altruistic civic groups. In fact, there are so many of these public open spaces in the San Francisco Bay Area that I’ve never managed to visit even half of them. All told, they must contain thousands of miles of hiking trails.

This past weekend, hiking in the Sunol Wilderness area (my photo above), I unintentionally terrified my daughter by reminding her to look out for mountain lions when passing under oak boughs. Hiking in the woods here isn’t entirely safe. In addition to the mountain lions there are also rattlesnakes, and no end of poison oak. I’m lucky in that both my children like to hike almost as much as they like to read. But the little forest of books at home has its dangers too. Physically or intellectually, certain books are still out of reach. Perhaps it’s wise to anticipate threats. A little preparation can make the unexpected discovery of wild eyes staring at you from the branch above less frightening, and more thrilling.

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Night Work, Reading by Nose, The Master

In fact, I write for a living – or that’s mostly what I do. Of course, the sorts of things I get paid to write aren’t generally my idea of literature. They’re press releases, talking points, media pitches, byline articles, company reports, strategic messaging documents – that sort of stuff. I like to say that I’ve been quoted in most of America’s major newspapers but never under my own name. I generally keep a strict division between office life and home life. Work, however, has been bleeding into every corner these past few weeks. The size of our team has been reduced by two thirds, but our work load not at all. I hardly notice the robins and juncos out my office window anymore, or the fact that the magnolias are blooming. I barely find time to read, much less to write for pleasure. Most nights I dream about work, about drafting FAQs and bullet points and policy analyses. Years ago at the salmon cannery in Alaska, a Mexican coworker named Lenin told us that this sort of dream work has a name in Spanish: trabajo de la noche.

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James Duval Phelan, who had a glorious moustache, was mayor of San Francisco from 1897 to 1902. He later served as a U.S. Senator for California. Between these two assignments, in 1912, Phelan built a country manse on the slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains above Saratoga. Though born to an Irish immigrant who had made his fortune in the Gold Rush, Phelan named his county residence Villa Montalvo and laid out an “Italianate garden” on its grounds. When he died in 1930, Phelan gave the property to Santa Clara County. Today it’s a public park and an arts center with an artists’ residency program. Not long ago I was hiking with the wife and kids through a grove of second-growth redwoods above Phelan’s Villa when I caught a familiar, very specific odor. It took a moment to place it, but I finally did. Beneath the trees, the orange blanket of rotting needles gave off a musty aroma that precisely reproduced the smell of my 1946 Viking Press edition of Saki’s Complete Stories, the one with the brittle, yellowing pages.

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I never had much use for the Henry James titles (Daily Miller, The Portrait of a Lady) that we read in college. In fact, I never had much use for James until I was in my late thirties and read The Aspern Papers and The Beast in the Jungle and attempted (twice) to read The Ambassadors. I’m presently making a continental tour of his novellas and shorter stories. From the handsome Library of America edition covering the period from 1884 to 1891 I’ve especially enjoyed The Pupil, The Liar, The Patagonia, and The Lesson of the Master. Why is it that James suddenly works for me? His “supercivilised” world of upper-crust Victorian socialites and moneyed ex-patriots might as well be the Japanese Middle Ages for all the likeness it bears to my own life and milieu. But his language is surely a factor, a potent mingling of cool precision and warm ambiguity. It works on me like a drug. James’s main appeal, however, may be his capacity to see into the complexities of his own characters, to make them so perfectly transparent to us while preserving a core of personal mystery. After an hour reading Henry James, I find that I look at others around me with refreshed curiosity.

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Bill Murray

My wife informs me that she had a romantic dream the other night involving Bill Murray. I asked her whether it was Ghostbusters-era Bill Murray or present-day Bill Murray. She wasn’t sure but said that his hair was definitely gray. It seems that as we age our notion of what’s attractive in members of the opposite sex keeps pace with us. When I was eighteen, I remember thinking it impossible I could ever find a thirty-eight-year-old woman appealing. Now I’m amazed to think that I ever found eighteen-year-olds appealing. When I’m seventy, I suppose that fifty-year-olds will look like pre-adolescents. At any rate, I can hardly blame Mr Murray for taking his chances with my wife.

Meanwhile our cat has died. More precisely, she was euthanized. It turns out that she had cancer in her bowels, which probably explains why she had taken to shitting in the hallway and vomiting over par this last year. She was just shy of twenty. I married into her acquaintance, but my wife had adopted her as a kitten from the Humane Society, back when Bill Murray was notably less gray than he is now. I used to make morbid jokes about the cat, as if I might willingly hasten her departure from this vale of tears. But in fact I miss her getting in the way when I’m reading on the couch. I miss her too-early good-mornings and the patter of her little feet on the wood floors.

Praying at bedtime with the kids, we ask God’s mercy on the soul of our cat. I suppose that cats must have souls as well as people. Why not? We miss them similarly when they’re gone. Reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey the other day, I found this poignant bit on mortal farewells: “The world gives and takes away, and brings sweethearts near only to separate them again into distant and strange lands; but to love is the great amulet which makes the world a garden; and ‘hope, which comes to all,’ outwears the accidents of life, and reaches with tremulous hand beyond the grave and death. Easy to say: yea, but also, by God’s mercy, both easy and grateful to believe.” It’s the kind of passage I might like to have read at my own funeral, by Bill Murray.

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