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Archive for April, 2007

So It Goes

More sad news:  Kurt Vonnegut died.

Vonnegut was a very important part of my life as I was growing up.  I was eleven, I think, when I found his collection of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House, at a library used book sale.  I loved the stories and went on to read two of my dad’s Vonnegut books–Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions–and then devoured everything the local library had.  The librarians at first were reluctant to let me check them out, but our family was well-known to them (my dad was president of Friends of the Library) and they realized that my parents were the permissive type when it came to reading materials.  I think I was the first person in town to read Jailbird when it first came out.

I tried to write like Vonnegut for a while.  I wrote weird, not-quite-scifi stories with characters doing strange and improbable things.  It made me realize that simply being weird was not enough to create great, funny, touching fiction.  One day, when browsing through the stacks, I found a book by some author whose name I now forget.  The cover of the novel proclaimed that this author was just like Vonnegut.  Thrilled to have found another author to read (I had finished everything by Vonnegut that our library had), I checked it out and took it home.  I couldn’t get past the first ten or so pages.  It wasn’t funny.  It wasn’t compelling.  It wasn’t at all like Vonnegut.

This experience was one of the first times that I can remember having such a reaction to a book.  I don’t mean it was the first time I did not like a book, but it was the first time that I understood that a book and my appreciation of its merits were not simply a matter of a few literary traits.  That is, quirky characters with strange names (Kilgore Trout, anyone?), weird locations (Tralfamadore), funny linguistic tics (so it goes) are not all that matter in a literary creation.  There has to be something more, something deeper.  For whatever reasons, Vonnegut was able to achieve something deeper for me while that Vonnegut wannabe could not.

For a lot of reasons I felt like an outcast when I was a little kid, partly because I moved around a lot, and partly because I was in some ways not exactly normal.  Vonnegut and his not so normal stories was a thrill and a comfort.  He became for me a wildly strange uncle who took me to the carnival freakshow, where we both laughed ourselves to tears and threw up after too much cotton candy and sweet orange soda.  He let me know that when things were not okay I could deal with it; he never lied and said everything’s going to be all right.

I met Vonnegut at a book signing at the Borders bookstore in downtown Manhattan.  The store no longer exists: it was crushed when the Twin Towers fell.  This, to me, seems like a fitting place to have met the man who evoked the horrors of war so well with his description of the firebombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse Five.  He was a funny guy, making strange quips to the people who were getting their books signed.  He growled something at me that I couldn’t quite understand, but he flirted with the woman behind me in line.

My high school English teacher was in a hotel bar one night when he saw Vonnegut.  The way my teacher told the story, he looked up and caught Vonnegut’s eye.  He gave the author a little nod, as if to say, I see you and acknowledge you, but I’m not going to be an annoying fan.  Just then, a young man and his girlfriend saw Vonnegut, and the young man came up to him, all celebrity-struck.  Vonnegut wearily turned on his barstool, not looking forward to the gushing.  He then saw the girlfriend.  “She is beautiful!” Vonnegut said, and agreed to sign an autograph and talk to the couple.

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.

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A Couple of Poems

About ten or twelve years ago I was in the big Barnes and Noble at 66th street in Manhattan and I pulled Kim Addonizio’s book of poetry, The Philosopher’s Club, off the shelves. I opened it and browsed, backwards, from the last poems to the first. The last poem I saw, then, was the first in the book, and it was what clinched the deal for me. Here is “What the Dead Fear”:

On winter nights, the dead

see their photographs slipped

from the windows of wallets,

their letters stuffed in a box

with the clothes for Goodwill.

No one remembers their jokes,

their nervous habits, their dread

of enclosed places.

In these nightmares, the dead feel

the soft nub of the eraser

lightening their bones. They wake up

in a panic, go for a glass of milk

and see the moon, the fresh snow,

the stripped trees.

Maybe they fix a turkey sandwich,

or watch the patterns on the TV.

It’s all a dream anyway.

In a few months

they’ll turn the clocks ahead,

and when they sleep they’ll know the living

are grieving for them, unbearably lonely

and indifferent to beauty. On these nights

the dead feel better. They rise

in the morning, refreshed, and when the cut

flowers are laid before their names

they smile like shy brides. Thank you,

thank you, they say. You shouldn’t have,

they say, but very softly, so it sounds

like the wind, like nothing human.

And now here is one from Billy Collins, originally printed in Questions About Angels, but I’m taking it from my copy of Sailing Alone Around the Room.  It’s called “the Dead”:

The dead are always looking down on us, they say,

while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,

they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats of heaven

as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

 

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,

and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,

drugged perhaps by the hum of a warm afternoon,

they think we are looking back at them,

 

which makes them lift their oars and fall silent

and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

Obviously, I’m following a theme here, but it is a sort of accidental theme, if that is possible.  I wanted to think about poetry, and Addonizio’s poem immediately seemed fitting, and then I looked into Collins.  What strikes me is how amazingly close the two poems are, so much so that I must wonder if Addonizio had read Collins.  I love the way both poems feature a sandwich–a strange observation, perhaps, but let me see if my comparison works.  A sandwich: of course that is what the dead would eat.  And when they watch us doing our everyday things, our sandwich-making must look so mundane and homelike and simple and safe.

Sometime during the summer, we will have the memorial for my father.  He mentioned, offhand, almost joking, the night before his surgery that he wanted his ashes scattered on the beach just south of the Rock in Morro Bay.  It can be a difficult beach to get to, but it is so very close to the center of town, and that is a large part of its appeal.  I have thought about reading a poem or two, because I think that is something my dad would have liked; he always did get a thrill out of the fact that I teach English.  Perhaps these poems will work, but I will keep searching.  Any suggestions?

 

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About a month ago I abandoned my old blog and deleted all but two of the posts. I had had enough of the process, and I found myself worrying about posts I had written, thinking that I should have said something else or I should have made some point more clear. The tone, purpose, and direction of the blog seemed to have escaped from my control, and I needed to escape. Almost immediately, I secured my domain here at WordPress, in case I decided to start the blog anew in fresh surroundings and with little of the baggage of the old blog. The WordPress site has lain fallow for weeks, though, and I was not sure when I would return to writing. Recent events, though, have made me wish that I had a space to relieve my thoughts. It has almost felt as if writing is some sort of waste product–sort of intellectual urine, perhaps–that needed to be voided to make myself more comfortable.

Readers of my old blog may remember that I traveled to Houston back in November to see my dad, who had been diagnosed with a large tumor sitting on his basal ganglia deep in the center of his brain. He had surgery, a long, long procedure, and had moved on to the rehabilitation phase of treatment. Although there were some complications (a blood clot at the venturi drain in the skull, an infection), he responded fairly well to treatment and came through his radiation and first round of chemotherapy with relatively bright prospects. A new MRI revealed that the bits of the tumor left by the resectioning had vanished under the combined chemical and atomic assault. We all cheered upon hearing this news.

But then, for some unfathomable reason, his condition began to deteriorate. He started to lose the neurological gains he had so painfully made in the previous month, and his confusion increased. He became too weak to stand. Doctors thought that the steroids that he was taking to reduce the swelling around the site of the tumor were causing problems, so he began to taper off them. Instead of getting better, though, he got worse.

My step-mom, who was doing virtually all of his in-home care (he was allowed six hours of in-home nurse care every other week by his insurance), was growing frantic, frustrated, and exhausted. He continued to decline, and we decided that this was not what my father wanted: he did not want to live a life that was a life only in the most technical of definitions. Instead of moving on to the third and final stage of chemotherapy of dubious value, my dad would receive palliative care.

That was about two weeks ago. My dad’s condition continued to slide inexorably down, and Julie called me on Saturday with the news that he seemed to be fading quickly. I purchased airline tickets and packed my bags. On Sunday, less than an hour before I was scheduled to drive to the airport, Julie called again with the news that my dad had just died.

I had known since November that the type of tumor my dad had was always fatal. The one-year survival rate is somewhere in the neighborhood of 30%, and there is essentially no long-term survival rate. From this point on, my consciousness was split. One side knew the necessity of planning for death while the other persisted in hope. The hoping side must have prevailed, despite the fact that the other side had logic, medical science, rationalism, and my respect for academic truths behind it. When I heard that my father had died, I realized that the idea of preparing for death is a largely symbolic exercise. You can anticipate it, you can realize it is imminent, you can know it on an intellectual level, but you cannot know it on the visceral level where we–or I, at least–seem really and truly to live.

Before my dad went in for the surgery, Julie and I told him, joshingly, that he had better watch out. We had discussed our plans for him, post-recovery. He was going to go back to school and finally finish his college degree. He was going to come up to spend some time with me in New England. He was going to sit down and do some of that writing that he was always planning. Did we know that we were, almost literally, whistling past the graveyard? I think I did, but again, that realization occupied only half of my consciousness.

I guess the point that I am trying to make is that death is a sneaky thing. It can rush up at full speed, in plain sight, and still be surprising. Trying to understand it is like trying to grab hold of a jet of water: it has a feel, a texture, even a shape, but it resists any attempt to encompass it. And grief, that chief of death’s entourage, is equally sneaky. It hides, waiting for you to turn around, and then it leaps out and enshrouds you in that dark blanket again. Yesterday I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror out of the corner of my eye, and something–the set of my shoulders, the shape of my head, I don’t know–reminded me so forcefully of my dad. And there it was again–grief laughing like a maniac, ecstatic that it had caught me, again and again.

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