A Smudge and a Bird

September 10, 2010

I was watching reruns recently of my favorite show, ‘The West Wing’. There’s a scene in one of the last few episodes where the character Toby Ziegler, once a powerful figure at the White House, is now awaiting prison for a security leak. He is incredibly idealistic and the conscience of the West Wing. Now he’s reduced to sitting in his apartment waiting for punishment, so he starts rereading and comparing different copies of the Constitution (believe me, this is his idea of fun!). He notices a place where in some copies there’s a comma and in other copies not. It changes the meaning of the sentence, so he calls up and has someone check the original. He’s told, yes, there is a comma. Or is it a smudge? They’re not sure.

This is a kite

This reminds me of the famous Freudian analysis of Leonardo Da Vinci’s childhood, which, no matter  what else you think of Freud (in my case, not

This is a vulture

much) is fatally flawed because of a mistranslated word in a document he used in his research on Da Vinci. In one of Freud’s interpretations, he extrapolates from a childhood incident with a vulture that it is a symbolic remembrance of suckling at his mother’s breast, and interprets the memory as a fantasy with mythological connotations. All of this is moot, because it is based on a translation error where the word was for the bird  ‘kite’ instead of ‘vulture’.

What I learn from all this is how easy it is to say the wrong thing or build an intellectual edifice based on a small mistake. It makes one almost terrified to put any thoughts down.  I probably should reread this blog a few dozen more times.


On writing, or lack of it …

May 31, 2010

photo by Matt Namin

I’ve always wanted to be a writer.   I read constantly, I make my living selling books,  I am immersed in books, literally. Boxes of books totter over my bed threatening to collapse on me. I’m sure I’ll end up as one of those stories in the paper some day, ‘Recluse found dead under mounds of books’.  But for all the ingestion of the printed word over more than half a century, not much has been produced in return.  Occasional blogs, memoirs on the computer for my kids to find some day when they try to figure out who the strange person was that raised them, aborted stories and novels that never see completion.  It’s not that I don’t have a lot to say,  I’m a very opinionated person on almost every subject (though I do tend to change those opinions frequently).

So why aren’t stories and articles and scripts pouring out? What strange writer’s block has constipated the creative process for decades? I’m beginning to suspect that I have to stop reading much to start writing.  I think that the literary tunnel to my psyche is so flooded by the torrents of writing coming in,  that the struggling creations trying to work their way upstream to the outside are just swept away.

So to test this theory I am going to try to stop reading much.   This will probably prove to be much harder than giving up cigarettes or heroin, I have been reading probably an average of a book a day for most of my life.  I can’t envision what a life devoid of literary input would be like.   Has anyone else had these thoughts and tried to stop reading? Are there support groups where we can go and say “Hi, I’m Roger and I’m a reader”?


My Grandmother, Old Ironsides, and Immovable Objects

August 23, 2009

My grandmother passed away a few years ago, in her 90’s and still the terror of the rest home where she was living. She was an amazing woman, when my grandmother met an immovable object, it moved! I loved her very much. There is much of her stubborn resistance in me.

I was probably around ten years old when these events took place, I had a younger brother and sister spaced out at about two year intervals. Every summer we’d go to Grammy’s for a week or so in the summer (we had a grandfather, but he’d given up arguing with her years ago, and my main memory of him is sitting back in a corner wreathed in cigarette smoke, doing crossword puzzles, and hardly ever speaking).
Part of the visit every year would be a cultural trip to Boston, which always included walking the Freedom Trail around downtown Boston. She would also pick a couple of other things to see, such as the Art Museum or the State House. This year she had decided that we were going to see Old Ironsides.
My grandfather would always drive us to the end of the subway line in Natick, gratefully drop us off, and head home for some peace and quiet. He was too wise a man to want to accompany us. The system was; Grammy would hold my hand, I would hold my brother’s hand, and he would hold my sister’s hand.  We must have looked like a team of mountaineers roped together. This formation would be held whenever we were on the move, which was most of the time.
My grandmother, who was a rather small elderly woman, got us off the subway somewhere in the North End, and we marched down streets until we came to a military gate with docks and ships visible in the distance. A  sailor in uniform with a rifle was standing guard beside a small gatehouse. Without stopping, my grandmother (with us in tow) started marching past.
“Ma’am, stop ma’am!” He was very young and obviously not used to dealing with determined grandmothers, though I’m sure he could have stopped Soviet spies and such without so much difficulty. She kept onwards paying no attention, so finally he interposed his body with the rifle held across his chest to physically stop her. She finally stopped and informed him we were going to see Old Ironsides. He then informed her that this was the Coast Guard Base, and that it was over at the Navy Base further around the harbour. Poor man, he thought this would end the matter. He did not know my grandmother. With a yank on my hand, forward march again! The sailor jumped in front of us again and repeated what he’d said, sounding more panicky as he realized he was losing control of the situation. My grandmother didn’t stop, but plowed right into him as he tried to stand his ground.
“I’m a taxpayer, and you work for me!” she exclaimed (probably one of her favorite lines) and pushed onwards. Somehow, to this sailor’s credit, he prevented her from pushing past him without actually having to shoot her or anything. She didn’t admit defeat, but off we went back up the street, with me trying to be rational with my grandmother, explaining Old Ironsides wasn’t there. She was furious, and next thing I know she drags the human train of us into a Navy recruiting office she’d spotted. She always carried a huge purse on expeditions, and as the astonished recruiter sat behind his desk where he’d been eating his lunch, my grandmother started stripping all the wall racks of pamphlets, taking every one of them and stuffing them in her purse.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but ….” before he could figure out quite what to say, my grandmother had finished and glancing around to make sure she hadn’t missed any, started marching out the door.
“I’m a taxpayer and these all belong to me!”  She had had her revenge.

The next year she decided we were going to tour the governor’s mansion, which had tours of public parts of the building like the White House. We were in our usual formation following behind a tour group, when my grandmother suddenly veers off and through some door on her own. “Grammy, we’re not supposed to …” and was met with her usual admonishment that we were taxpayers and this mansion belonged to us. We passed through several rooms that were obviously not intended for public viewing, they looked more and more like rooms people actually lived in. Finally we came to a large living room, with a somewhat elegant woman sitting on a couch. My grandmother marches up and sits down beside her.
“Hello, I’m Ruth Ward, and these are my grandchildren” and started reeling off our names and ages. I was mortified. The woman turned out to be Mrs. Peabody, the governor’s wife, and she was very nice about the whole thing. In fact, her and my grandmother exchanged Christmas cards for many years after that. There are many more adventures with my grandmother, I’ll probably write about some more of them sometime.


And I Had Such a Great Anecdote for Reader’s Digest

August 17, 2009

     The News that Reader’s Digest was filing for bankruptcy hit me hard. I had been saving an anecdote for years I’d been meaning to send in.  As a bookseller I have very mixed feelings about Reader’s Digest, I loved the humorous anecdote sections when younger, something about their essential common man touch really appealed to me. Maybe they were a precursor to reality TV. But their condensed books filled me with loathing. ‘Here is a great book, we have shortened it for you!’ Ecccch!

readersdigest     Well, not to fear, they are just reorganizing, see this for more details ‘Readers Digest Filing for Bankruptcy, But Will Remain in Dental Offices’  from ChattahBox.com. But it made me realize, why tell the anecdote in Reader’s Digest, when I have my own blog!  So here it is!

     A few years ago I was looking to buy a twin bed for my daughter. We live in a university town, with people coming and going constantly, and I saw a used one advertised in our local on-line classified. So I called them, they didn’t speak English that well, they were a family from Korea going back home after the husband had obtained his graduate degree. They said to come over and see it, so I drove into town to see the bed. The husband proudly ushered me into a bedroom and said ‘Nice twin bed!’. The bed was not a twin bed, it was probably a king sized bed. I explained to him that this was not a twin bed. He insisted it was, called out something in Korean, and in came running his two 6 year old twin boys. He pointed at them triumphantly and said ‘It is very good twin bed!’


The Blue Sun and Other Tales of the 1950’s

July 29, 2009

bluesun

Back in the 1950’s, the pressure to conform, which is always present in society, was much more above ground and unified. And to make things even more fun, Freudian psychiatry was the hot thing.   I was no six year old James Dean, but I had my own quiet rebellions. I was forever getting in trouble for being different in simple ways, I used to hold my scissors differently for instance, and believe it or not, this drove my teacher to distraction. But the big blow-up happened when I colored the sun blue.

I knew how to read long before starting school (hey, I’m a bookaholic!). This in itself caused problems, my teacher would not believe I could read, the other kids couldn’t read, and when I tried to demonstrate she would always say I memorized it. I had a children’s book at home about astronomy, where it explained the sun was just a star, and stars came in different colors. So when it came time to color in the sun at school, I colored it blue (in truth, probably being a show-off). The teacher had me stand up in the front of the class with my blue sun, and carefully explained to the class, that the only permissible colors to color the sun were yellow or orange. As I stood there subjected to the cruel laughter of those six year old clones, I tried to explain to them about the sun, and stars, and that there was more to the universe than yellow suns. And of course, was sent to the office to see the school psychologist.

Back then it was the popular thing to have a school psychologist to even out the bumps in the otherwise smooth student body. Ours was this very patronizing woman I loathed. She had a doll house in her office, single floor ranch (we all lived in fairly identical houses like that in the suburbs) with no roof. She had me sit in front of it, and gave me small plastic figures, explaining “this one is your father, this one is your mother, etc”.  Then she asked me to put them in the house doing things they would normally be doing. Was she kidding? Did she really not expect me to mess with her head? I put my mother in the bathtub, my father upside down in the chimney, can’t remember what I did with my siblings, but I’m sure it was something twisted. Then the questions started, did my father drink a lot (my parents never drank), did my mother ignore me, etc. She finally called my parents in. I don’t really remember exactly what happened then, but the next year we moved away from suburbia to a rural home in a small town full of eccentric people. I know in part my parents did this for me, I love them very much for always letting me be me in a time when that was not the norm.

I always hated coloring after that. I think this dislike even extended to animation, I never really liked cartoons though I loved TV. My friend @CTK1 was trying to get me to color something for a coloring contest, and I actually found myself still pretty much blocked almost 50 years later. I told her my sun story, and she urged me to write a blog about it. This is it. I just colored the blue sun at the top. Thanks Tina!