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Unstuck in time from April 8, 2016
Unstuck in Time
I have a special fondness for time travel stories. They’re such wonderful vehicles for talking about fate, free will, and the nature of stories themselves, after all, stories are made out of time itself, and yet they are completely free to travel unfettered around in it as well. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut has a fine understanding of this. So fine, I suppose, that it is actually where I learned this.
In Slaughterhouse Five, the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is unstuck in time, and moves through different episodes of his life in a non linear manner. I have been thinking about this a lot lately as this is what seems to be happening to me these days at the library. I have worked here for more than two decades. One moment I am downstairs watching the O.J. verdict in a break room that no longer exists and the next I am showing people how to use our programmable paper books which don’t yet exist as I write this. For a few minutes I am buried in an endless crush of book returns that I could never hope to get caught up on, and then I am watching our big check in machine toil away for me, taking care of the job handily, as I sip a cappuccino.
Then I am at the front desk with some co-worker. There have been hundreds of them. I turn to this person and ask how long they’ve worked at the library.
“Almost six months now.” They answer. “Why do you ask?”
“I just wanted to know where I am in time.”
I remember when they’d worked here for eight years.
Proper Care and Handling
I know that everyday that you receive a manuscript query from an unknown author is an adventure of discovery, and you are keen to tear right into the pages below. But hold your horses! At least, just for a minute or two. You may well enjoy my collection of attached essays as is, but if you’ll allow me the unusual opportunity to explain how to read these essays your experience will be vastly richer. Indeed, read properly, you will find these essays revelatory, magnificent, and all that you have sought for in your medium length publishing career. So bear with me.
How do you feel about wine? Many studies have shown that if people, even experts, are told, in a blind tasting, that a particular bottle of wine is expensive they will rate it higher, far higher, than a comparable wine that they are told is not expensive. And if they are told a wine is cheap they will rate that even lower.
No one wants to be a fool, which is why all these tests are a little cruel. But let us accept the psychology: A lovely, fancy, expensive, Chateau Margaux, served sloppily in plastic cups at a neighborhood art opening of no great distinction is not likely to elicit epiphanetic ecstacies from even the most studied palates, whereas a $9 shiraz served with all pomp and hushed tones by a sommelier whispering tales of terroir and black cherry and smokey rose petals likely will.
But let us, you and I, not throw all our objectivity out the window. Let us reserve some respect for the scrupulous craft of wine making at its highest level. Let us say a gorgeous, meticulously nurtured wine, tasted in convivial mise en scene and with serious respect can, given its fair chance, raise the roof of the soul because of what it is. And a mass produced wine, though capable of bringing joy, can’t reach the stars no matter how high and mighty the wine glass.
Which brings me back to my enclosed essays. These are essays that have been thrown to the world of the Internet like dross wine. Essays scattered ridiculously to the wind to find their way. Essays crammed in corked bottles to bob in the ocean forever. Essays plunked unceremoniously on your desk like all manner of unsolicited bulk rate prose. Whether they are the finest of their kind, or merely workmanlike, what chance will they have, and how will we know?
You may be thinking then that I am going to suggest that the way to read my work, to their best effect, is with careful respect, as if something fine and good has been delivered to you, and that with a little care they will bloom in your mind. You may even find that a bit cheeky, and believe that you are better than any wine taster, able to evaluate purely, in any situation. You may think “Let his work scrap it out like any other work. If it is good, I will know.”
But no. That is all wrong. I am not asking for paltry half measures anyway. I do not request a quiet, ahead of time respect to let my pieces flourish. If that were all I were asking I would simply trust your judgement.
I am asking you, suggesting, that to get the best experience from reading my pieces, you must decide now, with a razor sharp and impermeable will, that I am a genius and that you will never see the likes of my work again. You must decide that you are in the presence of a once in a lifetime mastery operating at the outer edges of your comprehension.
Then, from there, go look upon my essays. If you see nothing, look deeper. Scour them for their velvety tannins and endless finishes. Hear the voice of God in them, notes of chocolate, and the breath of tall grass in rain. Faced with their obsession with trifles, their preposterous vanity, and their discursive rambling, pick out the thread of holy music lying in wait for true souls and pure seekers. Believe in your heart in their beyond-all-measure worth until the universe’s answers are suddenly lying at your feet, shuddering, still live and smoking with the lightning bolt of truth. And if you read them over and over again, certain of their immortal soul, but are unable to divine any magic, do not give in to your doubt. Look deeper, again and again, until, bleary eyed, full of skepticism and hungry for illumination, it all falls into place and you realize this, yes, this absurd fool’s work, unacclaimed, almost abandoned by the world, is endowed with an endless brilliance that cuts a swath through the measly face of modern literature as we know it, and finally, in the darkest times, rips the clouds away to reveal, against all the odds, that the night is full of more stars that any of us ever dreamed was possible.
And then at that point, with regret, politely decline to publish them, because, seriously, even I can see how that’s hardly likely to attract many readers or sell many books.
Thank you for your time.
With all due respect and appreciation,
Sometimes when I write about a subject here, no matter how fiercely it had been churning inside me, when I write it, it’s like it’s released. Whether it’s the aggravations of some awful co-worker, an obsession with fruit syrups, or some bit of nonsense rampaging through my brain like a gaggle of frisky coyotes, I give voice, and there is silence. Maybe all art is like a more or less polite exorcism. We invite some demon to possess us. We’re lucky if it’s a terrible one. This terribleness is usually indicated by causing a spinning head and a lot of throwing up. Then we begin the pleasurable and laborious exorcism, the setting down of the right words, the sentence testing, the exasperated starting all over again, the ceremonial 14th rereading. And then it’s over. The demon is safely locked away in a poem, or a painting, a cartoon or a blog post.
But it’s a tricky process. Sometimes the exorcism doesn’t take. Sometimes there are still things to be said.
Those are the ones I keep coming back to. Sometimes they are too mighty to get at; my anti-quest for fame, the complexity of book jacket covers, my feelings towards the automated check in machine. Some are fathomless, like cats or birds, and some are trivial and require a lighter touch than I can sometimes find, like the passive aggressiveness of bicyclists, or people returning books in stacks as the pleasant machine voice is asking them nicely to return their books one at a time. But whatever it is I keep trying. The exorcisms never end. And if I can’t get these demons out I don’t mind too much. After they’ve been in there awhile they’re my demons. Irritating, yes, but like bits of sand in an oyster, they are layered and transformed in me. Whenever I get one of those pearls out you know it. You may even comment.
“I liked your post today.” You say when this happens.
“Thank you.” I say. “I miss it already.”
It’s No Secret to Me
Each individual piece of art that has ever been made is uninteresting to most people.
It’s a strange way to look at it, but accurate. I can easily wander around my workplace and find people who couldn’t care less about Bob Dylan. Indeed, it’s just a handful who do care. Van Gogh? Mary Oliver? Caravaggio? Ursula K. LeGuin? Drawing from a pool of 40 or so culturally involved library workers I can rest assured that we would get nowhere near a majority interest in any of those lions, and would do no better with anyone else. And no doubt the fractional percentages of interest we do get in, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald, would drop significantly in the backroom of a library in Indonesia.
Nothing made by the hand of man has been loved by most people. When it feels like everyone around you is fervently talking about Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones or Gone Girl, take a breath. Look around. It’s just four excited people, loud in the way of people in a group, feeling the numbers on their side. Twenty people scattered around those four have busied themselves, trying to make a little space to breathe. They don’t care. They love something else.
There is always something else.
This morning I woke up with a line from a song in my head. It’s one of my favorite songs ever. Getting up has been so hard for me lately. Something about this song today helped me get up, this line:
Just don’t make me go through this again.
And then as my eyes clear the song comes to me:
But oh, it’s one more tune,
I can’t figure out.
Just don’t make me go through this again.
And I can wake up.
Who knows this song? It is not famous. My friend Grape wrote it.
I love it like I love Nowhere Man or Karma Police or River. It is not due to my personal relationship, to my great affection for the artist, though I have those. I just love it. We are free to pretend that that is a normal thing, because it is. Grape wrote a masterpiece. Masterpieces are not so rare, but that doesn’t make them any less wonderful. The famous ones are the tip of an iceberg. Almost no one will ever see most of the ones that have been made, the thrown away manuscripts, burnt paintings, songs that were never recorded, books that couldn’t sell their paltry 1000 print run and faded away, scribbled poems, transcendent home movies. There are millions and millions of them. They may or may not find more than a single person to love them, but the beauty and wonder and feeling they evoke in a single person cannot be diminished.
What makes art a viable commodity anyway? If two percent of an audience loves it we can make it business, but if only half a percent loves it we can never send it around. That’s just money talking. That’s just the disease of culture, the weakness even in the heart of democracy.
Here is your Internet. Here is your Publishing industry. Here is your library. Dig deeper, but you cannot get there. Much is buried. Most is lost. Have friends. Listen carefully. See the graffiti under the bridge. Hear the song in the cafe. It’s all around you.
It’s no secret to me,
That what I’m missing,
Is the very thing I wanted out of life.
It’s all around you. And all the wonder and heart, it’s all yours alone.
2/26/22 for 7/20/15
8/12/21: Weird experiment day!
Today I am going through every page I have in Life is a Fountain and adding something hopefully relevant to it from the annals of Clerkmanifesto. It’s my desperate attempt to freshen up everything after being away for a couple weeks. This has been challenging in some of the other rooms of Life is a Fountain, but it’s all this room is!
So here you go, one about Lake Superior just after we returned from another trip there:
The thing that I reliably forget when I go on a trip to a beautiful place, like the north shore of Lake Superior, is that all my ramped up, picture postcard visions of my journey will curl in the reality of it. I will take all my eagerness to see a moose, or my vision of the lake, or my dream of what peace is, to the actual place, and though everything looks right, when I unpack my carefully nurtured perfections, a wild wind immediately picks them up, whips them into the air, and dashes them into pieces on the rocks.
“Here I am then.” I say.
My wife and I have come to this lovely Frank Lloyd Wrightesque house on the shore of Lake Superior for the second year in a row. Because we have been here, and at exactly the same time of year, it was easy to have held cherished visions of the place; the water, the view, the fires, the air, the birds, the stars. And though these visions do strangely seem to fall completely apart in the uneasy tumult of first arrival, after a day or so they mostly reassemble themselves into something wonderfully familiar, and yet entirely their own.
But I also had new ambitions for this trip. All that wild water out my door and at my feet stirred a longing to be on it. And while the rigamarole of testing and dragging up my inflatable canoe and all its attendant equipment stood as a barrier, as did my trepidation about the lakes mercurial tempestuousness, and my fear of its icy dangers, as I prepared to come here these barriers slowly broke down. That thought of me on the water, out there, part of the lake, looking up at our house rather than down at the water, floating out among the shorebirds, eye to eye with the wilderness, slowly peeled away every resistance I retained until, on the very first morning at the lake house, I was pumping up my canoe, assembling kayak paddles and life vests, and entirely ready to pursue the perfections and wonders of my small floating dream.
It was sunny and 70 degrees. The lake was much on the calmer side of its nature. I dragged the surprisingly heavy inflatable through the thick weeds and grasses and wildflowers while my wife brought our equipment. We struggled over the rocks to a suitable launching place, and we set off onto the largest freshwater lake in the world.
It was much as I presented at the beginning of my comments here. My precious visions of boating wonders, my postcard dreams, were picked up by the winds of reality and dashed to pieces on the rough stone shore. Then they were picked up by the wind and dashed some more. Then they were blown into the pine trees and ripped apart on their branches.
No, it was nothing dangerous or dramatic. The lake did not suddenly surge with despotic waves, nor did the sky abruptly peel over with darkness, issuing ominous bolts of thunderous light. It was all small things really, small but insurmountable.
My wife climbed into the boat and then I followed, my foot dowsing in freezing water as I pushed off and then immediately seizing with one of the bizarre and painful cramps my feet are prone to. As I struggled with this we oriented ourselves on the water and made sure of our ability to move up the shore, down the shore, away from the shore, and, most importantly, towards the shore. Right about at that point the swarms of biting flies found us.
The rest is a blur.
I remember looking up at our house. That was okay. And I remember seeing several of our neighbors houses along the shore, which only made me wonder how if one is going to spend a million dollars on a house why would one not focus on the beautiful and harmonious rather than on the Big and There, but admittedly my mood was not at its most forgiving by then. I have a vague sense of paddling, looking down to the stones in clear green water, and swatting. Oh, no, actually I remember the swatting clearly. I remember whacking two flies biting my knee and killing them both in a single blow. I think that was my major highlight of the whole excursion. I can remember clearly that I did not anticipate that that would be my highlight, but it was. I can even now feel the murderous triumph.
We came ashore, half stashed/half abandoned the boat, and hurried inside. I stood looking out the windows at the serene and beautiful lake in the sun. I was sweating. Sweating! I dislike sweating and feel I should be free of it if I’m going to come this far north, even in the summer, especially in the summer.
“I’m never going outside again!” I vowed to my wife.
The breeze slowly came in through the screens, and my brief flurry of sweating abated. It was quite nice in the house really. What a blissful and excellent plan to never leave it again. How wise and clever I was.
Then I heard the call of a strange bird. I scanned along our many windows searching for it, but I could not see it. I wanted to see it.
“Oh well.” I said, and I stepped outside.
I walked along our long balcony following the sound of the bird. The bird flew off and disappeared, and I ended up on the the far corner of the balcony facing the woods just above where we landed our boat. The breeze was perfect. The air was wildly clean. The lake made a stirring and gentle noise on the shore that you could feel inside yourself. What was all this harmony everywhere? The world was illuminated. The miraculousness had a strange quality, and my eyes cast about for some kind of source. I looked down to the edge of the woods and saw it there, my glorious Lake Superior boating dream, dashed, by the wind and flies and cramps onto the rocks, blown into the trees and torn into thousands of pieces. There, under a gentle sun and soft light and pure air, under a clean heart and happiness, was every piece of that broken dream, identifiable now only as wildflowers.
I rarely think of it anymore, but there was a long ago time in my art school days when I got obsessed with Raku. The ceramics department had some large plaster molds and there was one simple two-piece mold I liked of an old, squared milk jug. I made up a ton of these old milk jugs and then bisque fired them in the school’s huge gas kiln. These were just a pretext for my Raku glaze experiments.
In the courtyard of the art department was a ragged little gas kiln with a door one could pull up by a jury-rigged metal side handle. This was the Raku Kiln. I found old ceramic raku glaze recipe books in the College Library and mixed up dozens of different raku glazes to slather over the milk jugs. The only ingredient I remember now from any of them is Tin Oxide. I’m pretty sure Tin Oxide was important. I could fit one of my jugs at a time in this little kiln. It took awhile to get to temperature, but I had to pay attention to it. There was no thermometer or cone (an object used to measure heat in kilns) so I had to eyeball when it was ready. It was blinding hot when I opened the door to check, and the jug glowed bright orange. I could tell it was ready by the liquid look of the glaze on the clay.
When it was all ripe and fluid I’d pull the jug out with large metal scissors tongs. Quickly I would drop the ever so slightly molten ceramic piece into a metal garbage can filled with newspaper and sawdust. I, or maybe someone assisting would throw more newspaper on top as fast as possible and as it all erupted into giant flames we’d slam the garbage can lid on top, suffocating the fire. This process would importantly suck all the oxygen out of the glaze’s environment.
Then I’d let it cool. It was exciting. And I never knew what I’d get.
The best results were a kind of mad swirl Art Nouveau psychedelic abstract expressionist iridescence. Golds would stir into bronze with hints of sapphire bleeding into pearl and silver. Something mundane like ocher would spill heavily through the surface and be subsumed by copper and brass. Kandinsky would meet Klimt and then sputter into Pollock, but all just in an accidental sort of way.
I loved it.
Here then, answer me this: What’s your favorite color?
Yes that’s a question for a 6-year old, unless you happen to have a favorite color, wherein it suddenly becomes a question with an answer. My favorite color is Raku.
What is the color of Raku?
It is like earth-toned psychedelic. Iridescent planets. It is the color version of smoke.
But until today I had forgotten my favorite color for a long time. And I hadn’t thought of Raku for many years. It was minus six degrees F outside in Minnesota, and I was on my walk along the river. I saw two lumbering woodpeckers and nothing else alive. After an hour of brisk movement I was almost starting to warm up. Then I headed into the University Campus. I was walking in a bike lane next to a sidewalk because no bikes were using it and the footing was better there. On the sidewalk next to me were three enormous turkeys. I see these turkeys a lot around town, but this time we were especially close to each other. Their plumage was as if on fire in the cold hard fierce winter sun. One of them ruffled his feathers.
And I remembered.
Country Folk Blues
My wife saw him first. He emerged from the Metro Mobility Bus, struggling slightly with his guitar. Metro Mobility is the door-to-door bus that helps the infirm or disabled get around these twin cities. It was good news to see him, this old man, walking slowly, but ably enough. It meant that The Open Mike Night at the Riverview Cafe would be a good one.
Fairly speaking, Open Mike Night at the Riverview Cafe is always pretty good. And despite the old man’s auspicious arrival, this Open Mike was one of the least interesting I have seen in awhile. Always suffering from an old white man syndrome, Thursday’s Open Mike was at its worst in this regard. I don’t have anything against old white men, especially as I’m working my way to aging into one, but we were wall to wall with them here. We might have been two hours into the show without an exception to the demographic, and for the whole of the night “fiftyish” would have qualified any singer as a mere babe in the woods.
That might not have been so bad if it weren’t for a problem of musical sameness rearing its head too. Start to finish was crowded up shoulder to shoulder with songs of deep Americana: Country Folk Blues. Dirge music, rust belt Union Songs, sad tales of broken down cars, lost dogs, and love gone wrong. This was dusty stuff, and though a notable proportion of the songs were written by the performers themselves, there was nothing in them to show they weren’t all songs from the 1930’s. I’m not saying this music doesn’t interest me, but a little emotional variation, an occasionally different genre or tempo, can exert a powerfully refreshing quality on the listener’s ability to absorb, to feel, and to see.
Poignantly, things started steadily improving only as the crowd thinned down, better music to a smaller crowd. We were a little looser with wine and beer, more forgiving, and clearly bettered by a dwindling count of audience members who were anxious about their own upcoming performance. By the time the old man came on I doubt there were more than a dozen of us out watching on the cafe floor. The old man hooked his guitar up just like everyone else did. The night’s host set the sound for him, and the old man sat down and played. It was every bit Americana; Old folk blues just like we’d been hearing most of the night. But here it was suddenly revealed. Split open. This was how it was supposed to be done. The lyrics were all heartbreak, but so was his voice, beautiful, cracked, burnt hard in an old fire, but clear. No dirge these songs, because on the refrain that voice of pain and age and sorrow turned. It soared up piercing and giant and sharp. The feeling filled up all the pain so high that for a brief second it floated into heaven, up to that place where something catches in you and your heart leaves the room. For one weird, soaring moment it leaves the world and it leaves all of time.
Then it comes back, drifting down. The old voice again. The old man, no polish or fame. No following. Everyone taking it for granted. This is how art usually is.
Nothing to see here.
He finishes up. We applaud. He unplugs his guitar and shuffles off. Just another one of the night’s performers. Maybe in another world, a world more just, roadies are packing up his guitar for him. The limo waits for him backstage at Carnegie Hall or at the old Ryman Auditorium. Maybe in another world he got everything he deserved, and so did you, which, at the very least, is a little more than you have now.
Fly and Me
The lake house my wife and I are at is perfect. This may not be the nicest thing to tell you. It lacks grit and reality for any reader and changes even the least boastful of all writers (which I already severely lack any claim to) into a bit of a braggart. But I cannot tell you this tale without starting here. It is perfect here. And perfection, personal and eternal though it may be, also somehow only exists in bookends, in the niggling bits of imperfection that obsessively sketch its borders. This is about a small imperfection looming large and the restoration of harmony.
We are much in and out here, onto the balcony, testing the air, down to our great lake, in and out through sturdy wood doors made, like our walls here, mostly of glass. Outside there are sometimes many bugs, and I have perhaps enough mosquito bites to satisfy those readers bored with my claims of perfection. Sometimes we are chased inside or just choose to come inside and someone slips in with us. A moth is not so great a problem, and I have caught one in a glass and taken it out. A mosquito or two is a misery, but it is not hard to get lucky with a stray swat, and, if not, ten minutes of concerted hunting will always do the trick. A fly though, a fast, uncanny, smart fly can be a small torture of surprising persistence and near unsolvability. Last night such a fly slipped into our house.
This fly was a genius and a miracle of speed, a master of irritation. It began its visits at dawn, buzzing loudly about our heads, landing on our skin, circling, racing, always patternless and endlessly interested in our company. For reasons of its own it would disappear until the exact point where my spirit would start to calm, and then it would return. All through the morning hours I’d engage in long, futile hunting expeditions with a rolled up magazine. I’d wait for it, through long tracking operations, to land some place whackable, and I’d whack. There’d usually be a slight injury to my hand, a loud noise, and a curious sense of missed opportunity, curious because one wonders what opportunity I was missing when I was not getting within the realm of distant hope of even coming near this fly.
I wanted to kill this fly very much.
I was not going to kill this fly.
The morning advanced and the fly only grew faster and louder and smarter.
I so wanted to kill this fly.
I won’t draw this all out with all the long tales of all the ridiculous things whacked and flung with all the comedy of something so utterly without effect. But it was all there. Know that it was there.
I was in the kitchen. The fly landed on the counter. My thousandth chance. I swept my hand across the counter, an odd attempt even more futile than most, and the strangest thing happened. I caught the fly. I caught the fly!
I took the fly outside. I threw it out of my hand onto the wide wooden plank of the balcony railing. The fly, unphased, looked up at the sun and clouds and felt the wind.
“It’s nice to be outside.” It seemed to say.
I breathed in the perfect air that smells of pines and almost of the sea. I was calm for the first time in five hours.
“Yes it is.” I seemed to say. “Yes it is.”
Lately I have been buying small bags of pine nuts, precious pine nuts, over at my local co-op. Global warming, several years ago, began wreaking havoc on the pine trees whose nuts are large enough to harvest. If I recall correctly the Pinon Pine in particular was hit hard by rising temperatures. And so, accordingly, pine nut prices soared. I stopped buying pine nuts. I’m thrifty.
But inch by inch their $30 a pound price tag became more normal to me. And inch by inch those little nuts looked more appealing to me. Finally I bought some. “Hello.” My mouth said. “These are my favorite nuts.” And then my mouth added “EVER!”
Here are two stories from our vast array of cultural fictions that have made an enormous impression upon me over the years. They run through my mind. They are a portion of my personal mythology. In one young Charlie is a lover of chocolate. But his family is so desperately poor that chocolate is far too grand a luxury for them. Nevertheless, for this incredibly sweet and decent kid, on his birthday, they manage to get him a single bar of Wonka Chocolate. Oh how he treasures it, nibbling it and making it last as long as possible. To have a chocolate bar! To get to taste chocolate, even if only a tiny bit, every day for a month!
The other story has our hero invading the home of an impossibly rich person in the grim future it sometimes seems we are heading to. He opens the refrigerator. There is a small jar of strawberry preserves. He takes a spoonful of these strawberry preserves made with honest to god strawberries. Has he ever had strawberries before? Is it the memory of a vast, unbelievable childhood luxury? One little spoonful. Could anything ever be more exquisite or precious?
And so I buy pine nuts, my favorite of all nuts. Thirty dollars a pound, ten cents for each tiny nut. Scallops go for $25 a pound, as does good quality tuna, who would ever have guessed that one? A third of my shopping list goes to wild luxuries, figs, maple syrup, and ever they inch away from my means. Ever I chase them down.Perhaps some of them will slip away forever. One day maybe I will never be able to afford a cashew or a piece of wild smoked salmon. And alas for our natures, my nature, that the second before they disappear forever, they are at their best, the elephant, the polar bear, pine nuts, life itself, the most glorious thing in all the universe, and then gone.