FORTY-TWO THINGS TO DO IF YOU WANT TO LIVE AS LONG AS POSSIBLE

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There are many joys in living with Bill. However, one of the more dubious ones is having to deal with the ravenous hunger he’s developed since turning 80 for books about the meaning of life and other people’s thoughts on death. As he’ll be 87 at the end of January, by now we’ve got entirely too many books like that around the house, just about everywhere except next to my side of the bed.

As you know, I’m deep into an unpaid career as an ostrich about what lies ahead. So I tend to look the other way when Bill urgently presses some new reading matter of this kind on me with an endearing “You just gotta see this!”  Well, why wouldn’t I? They generally have titles like The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.  In fact, that’s the very book Bill has just thrust into my hands, allegedly for livening up the blog. (He likes to be helpful that way.)

One Day You’ll Be Dead  is by David Shields, who’s a professor in the English Department at the University of Washington and appears in his author photo on the back flap to be relatively young but bald. The front flap explains, “Mesmerized — at times unnerved — by his ninety-seven-year-old father’s nearly superhuman vitality and optimism, David Shields undertakes an investigation of the human physical condition. The result is this exhilarating book: both a personal meditation on mortality and an exploration of flesh-and-blood existence from crib to oblivion — an exploration that paradoxically prompts a renewed and profound appreciation of life.”

Well, I certainly appreciate life. It’s the oblivion business I have trouble with.  I’m with Woody Allen, who’s quoted in the book as having said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I would rather live on in my apartment.”

Mind you, that’s not the part Bill marked for me to read.  (I found it on my own.)  The section he feels good about is on page 186, in a chapter entitled “How to Live Forever (i)”.  I do understand that most of us, remarkably even including me, would not want to live on in excruciating pain, or as a vegetable without cognition or bodily control, thanks to the devastations of Alzheimer’s.  This is for the other kinds of living as long as possible.

Therefore, just in case any of you, even those youngsters under boomer age, might have some proactive interest in hearing the results of Shields’s research on the goal of living as long as possible, I am typing it out here.  That will make Bill happy and get the book out of my office and back onto one of his many shelves. Which will make me happy. I’ve put in the numbers, to make reading easier. Here goes:

If you want to live longer, you should — in addition to the obvious: (1) eating less and (2) losing weight — (3) move to the country, (4) not take work home, (5) do what you enjoy, (6) feel good about yourself, (7) get a pet, (8) learn to relax, (9) live in the moment, (10) laugh, (11) listen to music, (12) sleep 6 to 7 hours a night [that's all?] (13) be blessed with long-lived parents and (14) grandparents (35% of your longevity is due to genetic factors), (15) be married, (16) hug, (17) hold hands, (18) have sex regularly, (19) have a lot of children, (20) get along with your mother, (21) accept your children, (22) nurture your grandchildren, (23) be well-educated, (24) stimulate your brain [does blogging count?],(25) learn new things, (26) be optimistic, (27) channel your anger in a positive way, (28) not always have to be right, (29) not smoke, (30) use less salt, (31) have chocolate occasionally, (32) eat a Mediterranean diet of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, fish and poultry, (33) drink green tea and moderate amounts of red wine, (34) exercise, (35) have goals, (36) take risks, (37) confide in a friend, (38) not be afraid to seek psychological counseling, (39) be a volunteer, (40) have a role in the community, (41) attend church, (42) find God.

Father Shields’s scorecard was 38 out of 42. (Son Shields admits his dad has lost his sense of humor as he’s grown older, so I’m not sure how he scores number 10. Maybe that’s one of the four his father didn’t get.)

I don’t do nearly as well as Shields the elder.  I can’t get along with my mother because she’s gone, and was very difficult to be with before that. Church has never been in my life, and I’m not so sure about God, either. It’s hard to nurture my grandchildren, although I’d like to, because they live quite far away and are very busy with their own pursuits. I do like being right, although I no longer fight on the beaches and refuse to surrender. I sleep more than 6 or 7 hours and don’t know whether that’s extra brownie points or points taken away. I used to smoke, but stopped on June 6, 1969, so how do we score that? And the parents/grandparents: how do we define “long-lived?”

But Bill says we’re doing everything right, despite the occasional hamburger, and it doesn’t have to be perfect.  I say it’s not quite a crock of you-know-what because it does point us in the right direction, but take it with a grain of salt.  (Not too many grains, though.)

And now we’re done and can go back to what we were doing before I began.  I hope Bill is pleased.

BLOOM AT STOOL: A SCATALOGICAL INTERLUDE

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[Prefatory note #1:  The word "scatalogical" is from the Greek skat-, meaning excrement; akin to Old English scearn, meaning dung; cf., Latin muscerdae, mouse droppings]

[Prefatory note #2:  Quoted passages, possibly offensive to some, were written by James Joyce, not me.]

[Prefatory note #3:  Driven by scientific curiosity as to what it might do to the stats, I thought of captioning this post "Leopold Bloom Takes A Shit,"  but chickened out at the last minute, just before clicking "Publish."  It might have drawn a bad crowd, with no intellectual interest whatsoever in that towering masterpiece of twentieth-century literature, Ulysses.]

Okay, now we can begin.

Extremely diligent readers of this blog may recall my mentioning Bill and I were planning to sign up for an eight-week course on James Joyce’s Ulysses, scheduled to begin in October. In case you don’t recall, I’m telling you now: that’s what we did.  Bill likes the professor, whose lectures we have enjoyed before and who has a jolly laugh, which is why Bill enrolled.

 [Bill also has great skill in making thoughtful comments in class which in no way reveal he hasn't done the assignments.  I, on the other hand, overly anal since day two of toilet training, am compulsive about turning every page and -- in this case -- trying to understand what's on it.]

I had tried to read Ulysses once before, when I was twenty and still a student at an institution of higher learning, where I eventually produced a fifty-page paper about this big and heavy book, relying greatly on the published critical wisdom of Edmund Wilson and others. I have almost no recollection of what I read, or wrote.  In the intervening years, I again tried twice more, on my own, and both times failed, once sinking at section three, the other time a little further along, at section nine. [Both of these sections, I might add, are almost impenetrable to the lay reader.] There are eighteen sections all told, consuming 650 large pages set in very small type, in the latest, approved, Gabler edition.

This time I have armed myself against the reading with James Heffernan’s DVD lectures on Ulysses (previously given to senior honors students at Darmouth), and with a ponderous tome, The Annotated Guide to James Joyce’s Ulysses by Don Gifford, that purports to explain away every geographic, religious, historic, linguistic and mythological complication and complexity in the text — by means of a nearly line-by-line parallel reading which may make things nearly as confusing as plowing on without the annotations.

Why am I taking these heroic measures to meet such a challenge in my dotage?  Because, like Mount Everest, it is there.  And because I am supposed to be a knowledgeable literary type. (Ha!) And because if I don’t get through it this time, I probably never will. But I will be able to say I gave it everything I had.  And if that’s not good enough, I can always fall back on the losing lawyer’s excuse on my deathbed: “You win some, you lose some.”

Yes, I exaggerate; some parts are less hard than others. Some parts are even pleasurable. Or, as the pretty white-haired lady sitting next to me in class mysteriously remarked last time, “delicious.”

Here (for example) is a hard part.  It comes from the mind of one of the three main characters, young Stephen Dedalus, as he walks along the beach on the way back from a job as part-time instructor in a private boys’ school. [It's from the dreaded section three.] Don’t knock yourself out. And please don’t ask.  I’m putting it in for purely illustrative purposes.

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and sea wrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver. rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them colored. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in.  Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.

See what I mean? But after sections one, two and three — which all concern Stephen — we move on to Leopold Bloom, a thirty-eight-year old advertising salesman (married to Molly Bloom, the third major character), whose father was Jewish but converted to Catholicism, yet who is still generally an outsider considered Jewish by the Irishmen he meets at work and throughout the day.  If Stephen is cerebral (an understatement), Bloom, although far from stupid, is definitely a man of the body. We are first introduced to him in section four (after 41 pages of Stephen) with this opening paragraph:

Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

I like Bloom.  Although I don’t like urine-scented kidneys, I do like  the way his mind works and the language in which Joyce accompanies him throughout his day.  Bloom is keeping me turning the many many pages in each week’s assignment. He is kind, and feeling, and although he has employment and marital difficulties, he enjoys whatever small (usually earthy) pleasures life may bring his way. That includes his time in the outhouse.  (No indoor bathrooms for the lower middle class in Dublin on June 16, 2004.)  I even identify with him there. Although I have baby wipes and real toilet paper and a nicely white-tiled bathroom of my own, I too like to read in the john, like Bloom; and hold back to enhance the eventual release, like Bloom; and don’t at all shy away from subsequent aromas arising from the bowl. (Also like Bloom.) And occasionally think, though not very seriously, about making money from writing, just like Bloom does.

Bloom’s pleasures at stool are the first time in English literature since 1400 — when Chaucer included a tale about how to divide a fart in twelve parts in The Canterbury Tales – that we get plain language about where food goes after we ingest and digest it. And since this is a blog about writing and reading and some of the things I’m doing and thinking about as I get old, here’s a choice (albeit abridged) passage about all that from section four of Ulysses – not only for educational purposes, but also to accompany or perhaps even stimulate the beginning, or end, of your day. Besides, I’m spending so much time with Stephen and Bloom this month and next, I might as well wring a post out of them!

The scene: Bloom, dressed for attendance at a funeral later on, has just finished cooking and eating his breakfast in the kitchen. Pork kidney browned — nearly blackened — in a pan with sizzling butter, bread to dip in the gravy, and tea (with milk). The cat gets the burnt bits.  She’s already had a saucer of milk.

He felt heavy, full: then a gentle loosening of his bowels. He stood up, undoing the waistband of his trousers. The cat mewed to him.

– Miaow! he said in answer. Wait till I’m ready.

….A paper. He liked to read at stool. Hope no ape comes knocking just as I’m.

In the tabledrawer he found an old number of Tidbits. He folded it under his armpit, went to the door and opened it….

He went out through the backdoor into the garden: stood to listen towards the next garden. No sound. Perhaps hanging clothes out to dry. The maid was in the garden. Fine morning….

He kicked open the crazy door of the jakes. Better be careful not to get these trousers dirty for the funeral. He went in, going his head under the low lintel. Leaving the door ajar, amid the stench of mouldy lime wash and stale cobwebs he undid his braces. Before sitting down he peered through a chink up at the next-door windows. The king was in the counting house. Nobody.

Asquat on the cuckstool he folded out his paper, turning its pages over on his bared knees. Something new and easy. No great hurry. Keep it a bit. Our prize titbit: Matcham’s Masterstroke. Written by Mr. Philip Beaufoy, Playgoers Club, London. Payment at the rate of one guinea a column has been made to the writer. Three and a half. Three pounds three. Three pounds, thirteen and six.

Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding but resisting, began the second. Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone. Hope it’s not too   big bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! Costive. One tabloid of cascara sagrada. Life might be so. It did not move or touch him but it was something quick and neat. Print anything now. Silly season. He read on, seated calm above his own rising smell. Neat certainly. Matcham often thinks of the masterstroke by which he won the laughing witch who now. Begins and ends morally. Hand in hand. Smart. He glanced back through what he had read and, while feeling his water flow quietly, he envied kindly Mr. Beaufoy who had written it and received payment of three pounds, thirteen and six.

Might manage a sketch. By Mr and Mrs L.M. Bloom. Invent a story for some proverb. Which?…….

He tore away half the prize story sharply and wiped himself with it. Then he girded up his trousers, braced and buttoned himself. He pulled back the jerky shaky door of the jakes and came forth from the gloom into the air.

In the bright light, lightened and cooled in limb, he eyes carefully his black trousers: the ends, the knees, the boughs of the knees. What time is the funeral? Better find out in the paper.

And then — enough dalliance!  On with the day.  As we we should be doing, too.

FOUND IN A TWEET: “THE ONLY LANGUAGE I SPEAK,” BY VICTORIA CHO

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Nearly one year after beginning to blog, I’ve finally stuck a big toe  — just one — in Twitter. About certain matters, mainly digital, I’m very slow. (I think I’ve mentioned that before, but thought I’d repeat it just in case anyone forgot.) It took half a day for me to master the Twitter button widget. Thank God for Julie Lawford – who knows the ropes, and kindly offered to guide me through the quagmire of hashtags and punctuation when I tweeted helplessly in her direction.

So now, at bottom left, anyone with patience and time to kill can see the most recent sound bites I’ve managed to tweet. But that’s not what this post is about. Besides, there’s not much extra there you won’t find here — certainly not much of substance. 140 characters is practically jail for folks like me who need freedom from word counts.

Will all this toil in Twitter’s vineyards bring more views to TGOB?  Only, I suspect, if I spend far more time than I’m willing to contemplate in building up follows on Twitter.  As the young might tweet: OMG!

However — and this is a big however — on my very first day of following other people’s tweets, I did discover something:  A link to a splendid post that beautifully illustrates the benefits of addressing the blank page or screen bird by bird.  (See Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, four posts back, in “Give Yourself A Short Assignment.”)  Which just goes to show there are rewards in heaven for the various purgatories on earth, such as learning to tweet — in this case, one less post I have to dig out of myself and a lovely read for you.

Although the link was to a piece in Perigee, a WordPress blog maintained by Apogee: Reclaiming the Margins, a literary review interested in issues of diversity and ethnicity, I couldn’t find a reblog button. (Shame on you, Perigee or Apogee.)  So I’ve had to recopy it  (which is not exactly a reblog, but the best I could do). It comes from Issue 3 of Apogee, and was posted on September 22, 2014. I’m thumbs up both on what it says and how delicately it’s put together — rather like a collage (which I understand its author also practices). I do hope readers and writers who stop by at TGOB will enjoy it too:

THE ONLY LANGUAGE I SPEAK

By Victoria Cho

My elementary school classmates ask, “Are you from China?” “Are you from Japan?” I say no to both. They ask, “So where?” I say, “My parents are from Korea.” They ask where that is. I say, “Close to China and Japan.” They don’t ask any more questions.

***

My brother and I are sent to a summer camp for Korean Americans in a small Korean town. The other campers are surprised we don’t speak Korean. The teachers give lessons on Korean music and food. My brother and I are bored and play basketball. When we return to Virginia, my parents ask if we picked up any Korean. We shrug and say, “Not really.”

***

I am a college freshman. I join the Korean American Student Association. We’re planning the first outing of the year, and someone recommends a club. Someone else says, “That place is too white.” I realize the only places I go are full of white people. I realize I’d feel uncomfortable at a place full of Koreans. I drop out of the Association. I make new friends. None of them are Korean American, but a few are not white. It is my first time with not white friends.

***

In Thailand, locals greet me with, “Konichiwa.” I assume my colorful outfits and short haircut reflect Japanese trends. I almost don’t get a job teaching English because the school principals don’t believe I speak English. I tell one principal, “English is the only language I speak.”  She asks, “But your face?” I get this question everywhere. Vendors and tuk-tuk drivers ask where I’m from. I say “America,” and they ask, “But your face?” I say my parents are Korean, and they nod with satisfaction.

***

People say “Konichiwa” and “Ni-how” to me on the streets of New York. They are usually non-Asian men and occasionally teenagers or children. My responses range from, “I speak English” to silence to curse words. Sometimes waiters or shop owners in Chinatown or Sunset Park say “Ni-how” when I enter. I speak English, and they switch. The transition is fluid and forgotten.

***

A guy I am dating says I am the third consecutive Asian woman he has dated. I think of the time one man told me Asian women are known for having small, tight vaginas. I think: everyone I have dated has been Caucasian and male.

***

A drunk young man on the subway asks where I’m from. I say, “Virginia.” He asks where my parents are from. This is what people ask when they want to know why you look like you do. I reluctantly say, “Korea.” He asks if I speak Korean. I say no, and he wags his finger at me. I stop speaking to him and look annoyed. He apologizes. I think of my guilt that I do not speak Korean the rest of the ride home.

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Victoria Cho’s writing has appeared in The Collagist, Quarter After Eight, Word Riot, and Mosaic Art and Literary Journal. She was born in Virginia and now writes, collages, and plays in New York.

ARE YOU A JEW?

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[When I began this blog eleven months ago, I promised myself my children and grandchildren would be off limits. Period. No telling tales about them, however loving, that would forever float around the digital universe to haunt them till the end of time. Therefore this story is about another boy.]

Once upon a time, say in September 1978, a little boy moved with his mother, father and older brother from New York City to a small and pretty town on the south shore of Massachusetts called Duxbury.  It was the first place the Pilgrims had come after spending the winter of their arrival in the New World on the Mayflower, the ship with which they had made the voyage.  As soon as the weather warmed up, they sailed across Massachusetts Bay and called the place they landed “Duke’s Borough.”  [I forget which Duke, but you can be sure he was English and Protestant.] John and Priscilla Alden built a house there, now a tourist attraction. The town also has a monument erected to the memory of Miles Standish.

An executive search lady had steered the little boy’s parents to Duxbury because it was equidistant between Boston and Hyannis, on Cape Cod, where she was hoping the little boy’s father would accept a position as CFO for a privately held corporation. According to the little boy’s mother, who tended to be hoity-toity about such things, public schools in Hyannis were unacceptable, and there were no private ones anywhere near, except Catholic parochial schools, which were also unacceptable because the little boy’s parents, and therefore their children, were nominally Jewish.  Also she felt she might die if she couldn’t get to a big city once in a while, preferably one with a reputation for culture and learning, like Boston.

Thus Duxbury it was.  When the little boy’s older brother first heard where they were moving, he asked, “Is there also a Chickenbury and a Turkeybury?”  But he was already beginning to make sardonic comments about many things, even though he was only eleven, so never mind that.  Duxbury was certainly lovely when the family came up one weekend to look at it before making a commitment — all  green trees, and winding roads, and historic New England houses with plaques bearing dates of construction going back as far as, and occasionally even farther than, the late eighteenth century, and steepled white churches of nearly every Protestant denomination dotted here and there on well kept lawns.  There was also one red brick Catholic church, and a yacht club with its own tennis courts and golf course, and a beautiful expanse of golden beach on the Atlantic Ocean reserved for town residents.

They moved in on the first Saturday in September. School began the following Monday. The little boy’s brother was in a higher grade, in a different building, served by a different school bus. So he would be going alone to his new school. In New York, they had walked with friends from their apartment house to their respective schools. The yellow school buses here were new to them. On the first day, the little boy’s mother therefore walked him the half-block down their street to the corner where the lower school bus would pick him up, and waited until he was safely inside.

She was back on the corner at 3:00, when school let out. The  little boy descended the bus steps, happy to see her, and took her hand as they ambled back to the house. “You don’t have to come anymore,” he declared proudly.  “I can do it myself.”  In the kitchen, she poured him a glass of milk to go with the plate of chocolate chip cookies on the table, and sat down opposite to ask how his first day had gone.  Everything was good, he assured her.  Teacher nice, other kids fine. Except for one thing on the bus in the morning. “What thing?” asked his mother. So he told her, which is what he’d been wanting to do all along.

********

A big kid had got on at the next stop after his and sat down in the empty seat next to him. A very big kid. [As the lower school to which the bus was going only went through fifth grade, the size of this "big kid" must be considered in relation to the size of the little boy, who was about to enter fourth grade. We're not talking teenagers here.]

The big kid looked the little boy over. “Never saw you before,” he said. “New?” The little boy nodded.  The big kid asked his name and where he lived.  “What kind of name is that?” he wanted to know. “My name,” said the little boy, bravely.

Then the big kid asked which church the little boy went to. The little boy was next to the window or he would have got up and changed his seat, but he couldn’t do that. So he said he didn’t go to any church.  Not even the Catholic one? The little boy shook his head. No.

Right away the big kid demanded, in a not friendly way, “Are you a jew?”

The little boy had already sensed that “jew” might not be a very good thing to be in this new town. Or at least, not on this bus. On the other hand, he also knew one shouldn’t lie.

So after a moment, he said to the big kid, “Which would you rather be?  A jew… or Hitler?

The big kid had to think about that one.  “A jew, I guess,” he said finally.

“Well then,” said the little boy. “You see?”

*******

“Was that a good answer?” he asked his mother that afternoon.

“It was a very good answer,” said his mother, getting up and kissing the top of his curly head as she went to pour more milk.

The big kid never bothered the little boy again. The following weekend, his mother and father took him (and his brother) to Fenway Park in Boston to see the New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox as a present for his ninth birthday.  It was harder for him to decide which team to root for than it had been to decide what to say on the bus.

His mother is still very proud of him.

AUTUMN LEAVES

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“Aren’t they beautiful!” says Bill.  “They’re just beginning to turn color.”

The autumn leaves of New England are indeed celebrated for their glorious yellows, oranges and reds during the week or two in early October when they flame into brilliant color before falling to the ground to be swept up, bagged and disappear. (Or else to disintegrate into mulch in heavily forested preserves.) I hear enterprising touring companies in England even organize one-week trips abroad to come look.  (Although in my view that’s a waste of a cross-Atlantic journey.  How long can you look?)

We live three states south of Vermont and New Hampshire, where most of the publicized beauty takes place. So what happens here happens several weeks later.  But Bill’s right. (Even though his enthusiasm for the beauty of it is perhaps a trifle premature.)  It’s beginning.  Now that he’s brought my attention to it, I notice it whenever I step out the door:

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It’s also across the way, where our neighbors live, and where it’s even more pronounced:

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Should I be glad we”re soon to have a feast for the eyes whenever we raise them upward?  Or is there something melancholy in this last gorgeously defiant display before the fading of the year?

I suppose it depends on where you stand on life’s arc and how steady your footing.  Now that I’m 83 and — yes, let’s be candid — on life’s downward chronological slope, I can’t help feeling somewhat sad when I see all this dying beauty. And also can’t help hoping I’ll still be around to see it (however sad my feelings) when it returns again and again.

So here’s to years and years more autumn leaves!  Bring them on in all their splendor!  I’m ready.

Autumn on McComb Road

GIVE YOURSELF A SHORT ASSIGNMENT

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IMG_1088I’m not a great fan of “learning to write” stuff for would-be writers.  As fellow blogger Julie Lawford has recently been discussing in her excellent and beautifully written blog “From A Writer’s Notepad,” there’s a huge figurative shopping mall out there, replete with books, courses, workshops, retreats and other sorts of “writerly learning” that can drain your energy and empty your wallet while keeping you from your writing table (or electronic device), if you’re not extremely selective in your choices.

I’ve already expressed myself at length in Julie’s comment section  — possibly at too great length — on the dubious value to the quality of one’s writing in excess consumption of these products. Yes, there is merit in meeting fellow practitioners of what is essentially a solitary endeavor and in getting a feel for the hurdles confronting you in the world of publishing and/or self-publishing. But I stand my ground that the best way to learn how to write is to write…and to read, read, read all your life, both extensively and intensively.

However, there is one book I often turn to when discouraged.  It’s very well known, and I haven’t unearthed anything new in bringing it to your attention.  Its author relies somewhat more on God in her life than I do, but her practical advice is so sound it’s worth looking at again and again when you feel stuck.  She talks about shitty first drafts, about perfectionism, about false starts — and yes, also about character, plot, dialogue, set design. But the chapter I like best of all, the one that really speaks to me, is the one called “Short Assignments.”

Not surprisingly, it’s a short chapter.  However, it would make a very long blog post, so I’m only going to quote some of it.  But it’s such a good tonic for budding novelists, memoirists, belle lettrists and also bloggers who’ve run out of steam that I thought I’d offer up the choicest parts, including the bit for which the book is named, before turning TGOB in a different direction for a while.  Here it is, abridged. From Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird:

The first useful concept is the idea of short assignments. Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of — oh, say — say women. But this is like trying to scale a glacier. It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up. Then your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back.

What I do at this point, as the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize that the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable, is to stop….[until] I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car — just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.

E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard. [Bold italics added.]

So….I remember to pick up the one-inch picture frame and to figure out a one-inch piece of my story to tell, one small scene, one memory, one exchange. I also remember a story that I know I’ve told elsewhere but that over and over helps me to get a grip: thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day…..[H]e was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

….Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.  It is no wonder if we sometimes tend to take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously…. Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look honey, all we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry. That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take this bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment.

WHICH ONE’S THE REAL ME?

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Those of you who’ve been coming around here for a while will have realized by now there’s a lot of looking back in this blog. It’s certainly not all backward glances yet, thank you. But when one reaches these golden/twilight/over-the-hill [choose one] years I seem to have arrived at despite best efforts to stall, delay, color my hair, and otherwise try to put off the “getting old” for which the blog is named — there seems to be less blogworthy stuff in the day-to-day compared to that rich lode of times gone by with which to fertilize posts and memoirs, and perhaps even interesting pieces of stand-alone writing.

But (you may ask) why do I sometimes write about what I remember in the first person, as if we were having a conversation, only in slightly more “proper” language than I’d probably use if we were just hanging out — and sometimes write about a girl or young woman called Anna or Molly or Sophie?  Some newcomers who have stumbled on the recent set of eight Anna posts and then looked me up have conflated my age with the dates of these stories and quite sensibly concluded in their comments that what I write about Anna is “sharing” or memoir or personal history.

Well, yes and no.  Clearly, Anna (and Molly and Sophie) lived when and where I lived, and had similar parents and similar experiences and feelings.  But when I put all that in the third person I am trying to do something other than tell you what I remember.  Disassociating myself from what I may recall happened to “me” and considering the girl and young woman I was as someone other than me — in other words, putting her in the third person — permits me to write something that’s not really just my personal history, as told to you and you and you, but to paint on a larger canvas and hopefully to suggest something about the times this female person was born into and lived in, the societal expectations for girls and women then in place, the people in her life that she herself would have been unable to understand at the time but who may have had their own problems and concerns and blind spots that would necessarily influence and shape the young woman she would grow up to be.

For example, each of the eight Anna pieces posted just before this one (and the four about Anna posted previously as “from a novella in progress” — as well as the ones not yet written) are intended to comprise part of a narrative of sequentially arranged snapshots of the life of a particular family in mid-twentieth century New York as seen by the only child.  Its tentative title, if it ever gets finished, is “Anna’s Version” — meaning there might have been other ways of telling this story.

The father, for instance, would likely have had an entirely different version of the same events, if he had ever had time to sit down at his Royal typewriter to tell it, including an account of matters about which Anna at the time knew nothing.  The mother’s story would have been a third version (although since she was afraid to learn to type and apparently had no close friends, I’m not sure who she could have told it to). A family therapist — if consulting one was an idea that could ever have crossed the minds of these parents — would undoubtedly have given us a fourth, far more objective, version.

But I hope I have been writing from Anna’s viewpoint with enough implied clues as to what may have made these naturalized parents from another culture the way Anna perceives them, so that it eventually will become a view of what we all do to each other without meaning to — as well as Anna’s story.

Well, enough of that. These possibly overly clinical distinctions may derive from too many years of shrinkage. (Or perhaps too many years of trial lawyering: “Is it your testimony, Ms. ___, that so and so really did this that or the other thing on such and such a date?”)  Now that we’ve cleared up once and for all what I was aiming at (hah!), go ahead and read whatever you find here any way you like.  There’s also plenty of just self-referential me me me rummaging through a basement of memories in these posts to satisfy the most insatiable appetites for “sharing.”

Be my guest.  Enjoy.