Every Empty Space Sings, If You Listen

This quote comes from Oliver Beer, a British conceptual artist, in a short interview by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker Magazine.

When I read it, I stopped reading and starting thinking about empty spaces and the whole idea of emptiness, in our wallets, in our lives, in our minds, in our future, and, for most of us, what we find when we are looking for abundance.

I didn’t learn how Beer got the idea for creating what Gopnik calls “the most eccentric and original keyboard instrument in the history of Western music.” But I did learn his method.

He selected thirty-two, among several hundred pots, cups, bottles, vessels, containers and other hollow objects from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, some of them never previously exhibited. He based his criteria on the sound made by the hollow area, which he detected by dangling a microphone into the space, amplifying the ambient sound and assigning the object a place on a chromatic musical scale. Museum staff later inserted the microphones into the objects.

Beer did not touch, tap, strike, rub or do anything to the objects to produce their sound. He merely increased the volume on what the microphone detected.

“Every empty space has its own resonance, one that’s based entirely on its geometry,” he said. Above, beyond and beneath the sounds you may be hearing right now, is a tone specific to the room you’re sitting in. It may be masked by the fans from the heater or air conditioner, exterior honks and whistles, the occasional whine from your computer’s hard drive, or the grumble from your torso as your digestive system turns that coffee and sandwich into something your body may use.

All that other stuff is what we hear most of the time. But, if it were possible to quiet all of that, and, perhaps, amplify what is happening in the seeming emptiness around us, we would hear the tone.

After assigning each museum object a note on the chromatic scale, Beer tied them in electronically to a keyboard that he called the Vessel Orchestra. Play a chord on the keyboard and the objects’ unique sounds are blended into that chord. Play Chopin, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Duke Ellington or Elton John, and you hear a composition coming through an unusual, but eminently listenable musical instrument.

I don’t play to go to New York to hear a Vessel Orchestra performance in the near future, but they’ll still be singing when the instrument is disassembled and the objects go back into the museum’s stores. “That Iranian jar,” Beer said, “has been singing D-natural for several thousand years. That’s the humbling thing about this. These objects are going to outlive the Met[ropolitan Museum of Art]. They’re going to outlive the English language. And they’ll still be singing the same notes they’re singing now.”

Well, maybe. Earthquakes, changes in taste, economic reversals and the slow deterioration of the object’s materials may…change their tune (pun intended).

But I’ve long been drawn to the mystic’s idea that what we perceive as empty may contain hidden beauty, if we only knew how to find it.

What we may call empty is not just what is enclosed by a vessel, or a room. It could be land that has no immediately exploitable value. It could be a culture whose ways and means seem simple, repetitive and unpractical. It could be the hours we must endure in an airport when unforeseen circumstances delay our connecting flight. It could be state of our finances, or a moment when everyone turns to us for a solution to a problem, and we are “empty” of ideas.

We already know that the “space” that surrounds our planet is not empty. A wind of hydrogen atoms blows from the sun. Radiation of numerous and various frequencies zigs and zags about. Asteroids the size of a lentil, or the state of Texas, tumble in the darkness, and, in order to make complicated mathematical models function properly, astrophysicists have posited the existence of “dark matter,” stuff that is “out there” that we haven’t found a way to detect.

When they look back from the vantage point of success, many artists, entrepreneurs, craftspeople, and others who may be searching for their destiny–have become grateful for “empty” periods in their lives–those seemingly interminable times when they felt they were wandering without aim or purpose in an inhospitable wilderness–because those moments led them to a greater understanding, a new direction or, at least, helped them decide not to do what wasn’t working previously.

And, as soon as we have received the gifts such emptiness brings, we are certain that the path ahead will contain nothing but abundance. We are so certain that we will never be uncertain, confused or forced to find the meaning, beauty or necessity in emptiness, again.

Until it happens. I find myself empty as a teacher. Two previous gigs to which I was looking forward vanished at the last minute. Attempts to gain a third has bogged down in mysterious tedium that will not lift for several months.

As in most periods of emptiness, I find myself trying to cope with the fact that none of this is my fault.

And I am not in the same wilderness I experienced when I was younger and teaching–writing, journalism, history, martial arts–became meaningful. I can welcome this one a little bit, and spend more time writing and reading. Perhaps a new, and better preoccupation will arise.

Until then, I am learning how to listen.

 

 

 

 

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Hometown News

I was in another city, staying at a hotel where someone puts copies of the local newspaper on a horizontal surface in the lobby. I opened the hometown paper and I was shocked at how “thin” it was.

Thin is what print media people call a publication that is lean on advertisements, or has little of the stuff you’d want to read, or both. Having worked for numerous publications over the years, I learned to recognize the unique character of each magazine and newspaper by “listening” to the conversation going on between the journalism and the advertisements.

In this newspaper, the conversation was barely a whisper. Fifteen years ago, when I lived in this city, the conversation was complicated, compelling and habit-forming. You wouldn’t read the paper as much as return to favorite sections, columnists, cartoons, colorful inserts from the grocery stores and, when you were feeling desperate, the help-wanted section. I also grew up reading, and eventually writing for, the glossy city magazine whose enigmatic, cautiously anonymous personals were devoured by my parents. Who is looking for what in a relationship, they wanted to know, from whom?

I didn’t see the magazine in the hotel. Instead I found a glossy that was just advertisements, with a few articles that might as well have been advertisements. I closed the “book”–as print journalists call a magazine, and, while fully aware of the many changes that are threatening the end of printed journalism, I couldn’t help but feel troubled.

When you write for a publication, you get to know the people whose “headshot” photos float above the columns. Some are just as crazy, prim, loud (if they write sports) and manic as you’d expect. Others are clearly hiding behind their words. Like most clergy, who have different personalities when alone, and when preaching to their flock, they are grateful for the distance their sermons create between themselves and those who show up, listen and give some money.

I was only briefly on the staff of a publication and, for all the obligations, complications and herd-mentality tedium full-time employment brings, I missed the over-caffienated late nights to meet deadlines, the breezy banter of story-generating meetings (sometimes at lunch, sometimes in a tiny office with a window without a view), the yammering swagger of reporters coming back from the hinterlands with a “story you won’t believe,” and then, that special moment when the book arrives from the printers and all that work suddenly becomes–real.

I can’t remember a moment in my lifetime, or in history, when it wasn’t fashionable to dis the news media. But, like any insider, I object to outsiders dissing what isn’t true when there is too much stuff going on that’s worth dissing. Journalists can be lazy, biased, vengeful, petty and so enamored of their point-of-view that they will avoid, or diminish, what complicates it. But they all know what the truth is, and I’ve never met anyone in print media who let mere human frailty stop them from digging for it, verifying it and writing it so everyone understands.

Yes, they have been wrong. Names are misspelled. Quotes are taken out of context. Sometimes what seems true five minutes before a deadline becomes not-quite-right when the story is read. Retractions, corrections, amendations and “follow-up” articles appear after that, but they are not always read. Hometown news is not one thing that’s over and finished with a news cycle. It’s a string of things that become part of your life.

If you can find that string. I live in a region that is supposed to be covered by our big city newspaper, but isn’t. The local newsweeklies are not as thorough, or as personal, as the local daily paper that arrived on my family’s doorstep every morning. My wife had to search the internet to find out why a pair of helicopters were circling an area about a mile from where we lived–someone walked into traffic and died.

Don’t tell me that the loss of one life is insignificant compared to the terrors and horrors of that get national attention. What is news in your neighborhood defines your character. It is a collection of things you care about, talk about, fight to change, try to stop, laugh about and, if you knew the person who died, feel a loss that you remember later in life, when you may be living elsewhere, but feel the tug on your heart that only the hometown newspaper can bring.

Will we find any of that on the internet? Some of it. But most people are on the internet for reasons that have almost nothing to do with what is happening in their neighborhood. Searching for hometown news–if you can find any–is a thing you do after you’ve done other things.

When I opened that thin newspaper, I recognized one or two people I used to know. Missing where so many others, including

1. The travel editor who, having visited several balmy locales, resolved to wear white trousers for the rest of his life. His vow did not last the winter.

2. The copy editor who introduced me to the music of Bessie Smith.

3. The book editor who took me seriously as a writer and historian, though my published books were genre mysteries.

4. An alcoholic reporter who, in the grand tradition of drunk journalists, spent most of his time in bars, but had an uncanny talent for finding local sources precisely when they were needed.

5. An exasperated editorial page editor who kicked a trashcan across the newsroom and, for reasons I’ll never know, asked me, of all people, if I was aware of the bivalve metaphor. I asked for clarification. “This place,” he said, “is like a clam. The ocean flows through it and the crap stays.”

“If it stays long enough,” I replied, extending the metaphor, “it turns into a pearl.”

He didn’t stay long enough at that newspaper, and neither did I.

 

 

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Should You Pay to Read a Blog?

Full disclosure: where once people paid to read my work in books, newspapers and magazines, I now pay for the privilege of showing you some of my writing on the wordpress platform.

Imagine my surprise when a friend wrote to me about a blog he must pay to read. The blog belongs to an educator who, for a fee, promises to educate.

For most of his life my friend has enjoyed learning and he gladly pays for instruction that furthers his interests. But he’s troubled by what he feels is the instructor’s deliberate attempt to keep the cash flowing, such as ending one post with a promise to reveal an important fact or previously unexamined truth that will make all the other stuff you’ve paid for comprehensible.

He has grown weary of such manipulation. He likes the instructor and is interested in what is being taught but…should he continue to support the blog?

As soon as I heard of this, I was reminded of the slot machine, a device I encountered when I visited the Bahamas and went into a gambling casino for the first time.

The psychology of the machine is simple and precise: you, the gambler, want to win, which, before you approach the machine, is defined as acquiring more money than you currently have. The machine promises that this is possible if you put a little money in. So you put money in, pull a handle or tap a button, and things happen (turning reels that were soon replaced by a video screen, with sound effects). The result? Most of the time, you lose your money, but at the end of a round of “play,” the machine doesn’t make you feel that way.

What you feel is that you almost won. You were so close! If only that reel would have turned one more notch… So you put a little more money in and, you were even closer to winning!

To quote Kurt Vonnegut, “and so it goes.” Sometimes you’re not close at all and you get mad. You feel the machine is insulting you. Or you ask if you, yourself, are the cause of your misfortune? Would prayer help? A promise to God that, if you win this one time, you’ll be the person you think you should be.

What happens? You win! But it isn’t enough. A few coins trickle out into a tray that is designed to make those coins rattle as loudly as possible. You scoop up the coins and realize you haven’t truly won–you’ve put more money into the machine than has come out. But you won something. Winning is possible. And if winning is possible–suddenly you hear sirens and alarm bells go off and you see a few rows away someone has hit a huge jackpot–winning big is possible, too!

What is most insidious about slot machines is that they really don’t appeal to your greed, or your hope that you will be among the few to acquire wealth by luck alone, but to that tense, anxious “almost” feeling that makes you feed the machine with everything you have until, win or lose, win and lose, you have nothing, except the rationalization that all addicted gamblers have when they confront the wreckage their habit brought: they know, deep down, that one of these days, they’ll win so big that everything they’ve lost will come back to them, and more.

Is it possible, then, that if my friend kept paying for this instructor’s blog, he would end with the understanding that all he has done is pay for the long, drawn out experience of being “almost” wise, but that if he continues to pay, one of these days he’ll be really, really smart?

The science fiction writer Philip K. Dick mocked this with Mr. Psychiatrist. You carry around a small briefcase (what we would call a laptop today). Open the case, put some money in a slot and a digitized image on a screen asks you to talk about your problems. The computer behind the image listens. The image begins to describe your situation and, just as you’re about to reach a break-through, Mr. Psychiatrist asks for more money.

To be fair, unless they are tenured at a prestigious university (or if they do private-sector research, or they have consulting gigs), most educators do not earn a decent wage. Some may not have enough cash to pay for a blog.

The history of pedagogy is rife with flatterers, fabricators, fortune-tellers, and dubious viziers who did just about anything to win the favor of the rich and powerful. Socrates–the most famous educator of all–hired himself out as after-dinner entertainment (in Athens, a symposium used to mean “drinking together”).

Having knowledge (or what the profession now calls “content”) rarely puts one on the path to wealth, fame and influence, though Woodrow Wilson, former professor of political science and president of Princeton University, was elected President of the United States.

Can we forgive a blatantly manipulative attempt to make money with products whose only purpose is to leave you hungry for more (James Bond, Star Trek, Terminator, Star Wars, the entire Marvel Comic Universe, the far too numerous Batman and Superman “reboots,” daytime and nighttime soaps, not to mention sit-coms, Upstairs Downstairs, East Enders and Downton Abbey) in an era where similarly manipulative attempts have become a respectable way of doing business?

I won’t. I don’t put anything on this blog that I don’t feel is worth writing, and worth reading. I don’t create controversies, blow dogwhistles or scheme to increase visits. I don’t mention products to attract sponsors.

In short, the only thing I “make” from this blog is the satisfaction of writing what I feel is worthwhile and sharing it with you.

My advice to my friend: walk away from the machine for a little while.

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A Way In

I just finished a novel so compelling that for long hours over two days I did little else but read it, marveling at how a story that I would never be able to write, much less imagine, became so beautiful, interesting and meaningful.

The experience of being thoroughly enthralled in a book happens less often now than in my youth, when books became the strong voices in my life. I was at odds with just about everything around me: my parents, my self (I was fat and suffered from allergies), any kind of optimistic faith in the future, my friends, any kind of sport or physical activity. Books were a gateway to different worlds in which I was not odd.

It’s no wonder that I began to write. I wanted to make worlds for myself, and anyone else who wanted to come along. I sought advice from other writers: Fred Pohl, Lester del Rey, Harlan Ellison, Keith Laumer, and I followed that advice: write about what excites you, delights you, what you really want to say.

This advice did not prepare me for the other things that happen to those who reach deep into their souls, fashion a gift made with love, and have that gift refused, reviled, ridiculed or just plain ignored.

Along the way, I DID get some stuff published and heard some nice things from agents, editors, publishers, critics and people who just liked what I offered.

But writing has been difficult. I don’t just want to write what excites and thrills me, I don’t want to be hurt.

When I taught martial arts, I’d get students who had been injured badly in fights they did not win. When it came time to practice a technique, they’d flinch, which would make any kind of practice much more awkward, or they’d become cynical: how is repeating this simple thing over and over again going to change the fact that people who are bigger and stronger can hurt me?

I didn’t have an answer. One teacher did. He said, “love what you do.”

Another teacher said, “Just look for the way in.”

Into that point at which you forget about what happened, or the very real monsters that can harm you again. You do this simple thing.

And, if possible, love it a little bit.

I want to write a book as good as the one I just finished. But I still flinch. I don’t want to feel that what I love is worthless.

I’m looking for a way in.

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Anything Worth Doing, is Worth Doing Badly

I’m about to write something that I fear will be terrible. I’ve been holding off for a while. I fret that this will be the kind of terrible that makes you look into an old, battered empty trash can and see the sticky stuff at the bottom that time and neglect have changed into an unrecognizably loathsome reminder of how truly awful writing can be.

I’ve finished all my avoidance behaviors except this ironic, dragon-swallowing-its-tale, literary version of a Mobius strip: writing about writing that you’re not writing–yet.

Two inspirational quotes urge me on. Both are from G.K. Chesterton, the rotund, prolific wit, theologian and author of the Father Brown mystery series: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

Well…not always. Like most writers who haven’t come to terms with rejection, I can’t help but feel that what was unfinished, finished but spurned, scheduled for publication but never printed, published ineptly, published adequately but failed to speed me down the Yellow Brick Road of success–was inferior, underdone, overthought, half-baked, ill-conceived and so bad that I should tell myself I’m lucky it never saw the light.

Well…not always. Just this morning I was marveling at the tenacity of some writers, who, from dire need or built-in immunity to emotional pain, write and write and write and write until one editor says okay, another says yes, a third says where-have-you-been-all-my-life?, a fourth says no but persuades another writer to do a knock-off for less money, and, then there’s a great big shelf of work, with stacks of books ready for an autograph, and, finally, those awards and honors and….

I wrote and wrote and wrote and I got some articles and books published but I always felt that among the rejects was really GOOD stuff would find an audience one day.

You can write GOOD (grammarians, I feel your pain: One writes WELL) while letting yourself be BAD, at least, in the privacy of your own word processor. Nobody has to see it. Nobody has to know about your secret hope that what starts out stinky and vile might turn out better than you thought.

Isn’t it that true about cheese? Quoth Chesterton: “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.”

As children are silent when they discover the secret of play, which, for children, is no secret. What we adults must do is, no matter how much you believe you know about yourself, your art and your audience, is return to a state of innocence in which you either don’t know what you believe you know, or what you doesn’t matter. Then, as soon as possible, you must appreciate what you’re doing. You MUST have fun, or seek it in some way.

And watch out for the grown-up in the room, that baleful critic who wears big shoes and gazes down from the top of all those grown-up bones and doesn’t understand that all you want to do is have fun with a paper towel roll that, in your mind, is a space ship or a musical instrument or something wonderful that hasn’t been invented– yet.

What is it about the presence of grown-ups that reduces that spaceship become cardboard, a piece of trash that was on its way to the can but caught your eye because you didn’t think it was trash?

You didn’t even think.

You just picked it up and turned it into something–

Wonderful!

 

 

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The Return of the Pump

It isn’t grammatical. The word doesn’t even sound like what it is. But, today, I felt it. The Pump was back.

For about twenty seconds. I sat on the exercise machine, took a breath, and there it was: the impossible, unreasonable and thoroughly unrealistic feeling of indomitable power that zings and zangs through your muscles after a round of exercise has actually done some good!

And, like the satori that sages say presages the moment of enlightenment, it was gone before I realized what it was. I stepped away from the exercise machine and lingered a little too long in the Swagger Lane–that corridor between the machines that the Beefalos and the Spandex Queens sashay up and down, their eyes not quite on their cell phones so they can see, peripherally, who just might be checking them out.

I don’t exhibit this behavior because, at my age, with my gut of expanded wisdom and a male-pattern-bald head that is like is like a sign that says OLD, nobody checks me out. I might as well be just another geezer staggering among the machines, adjusting the weights way down until a child could move them.

But this time was different. I didn’t FEEL like a geezer. I felt like I did years ago, when I’d exercise as much as two hours a day, in a gym, running or doing karate and yoga (sometimes on the same day!). I’d endure a few hours afterward aching, limping, or, when I went to Peru to hike the Inca Trail, gasping for breath and emotionally shattered that so much dedicated muscle moving hadn’t saved me from altitude sickness–but, at least, I had moments when I felt the pump, that endorphin-juiced, swagger master, superhero thrill.

I guess the word comes from the slang “pumped-up,” which suggests that wherever you were, you’re temporarily something else, due to some kind of deliberate action that may, or may not be ethically sound.

I first heard about “the Pump” in karate class, when my teacher warned that just because you’ve blocked a punch and counter punched so much you can do it without thinking, doesn’t mean that you can conquer the world.

But you can’t deny that there is something exciting about confronting danger (the punch) and deflecting it so that you not only survive, but you also take control (symbollically, of course), by either counter-attacking with your own punch, or neutralizing your opponent with take down. It isn’t quite a “natural” high, you don’t feel good as much as you feel powerfully adequate. An exercise freak I once knew described as exactly what happens after you do twenty push-ups. You get this tightness in your chest. Your fingers are splayed out. Your arms are stiff. You’re breathing a little too fast and you’re secretly grateful that you don’t have to see that groady patch of the mat zooming up and back.

But you think you can conquer the world. You want to do what you previously thought was unwise, unsafe, dangerous or thoroughly stupid, like marching into a South Philadelphia bar in a Dallas Cowboys football jersey in a South Philadelphia bar. You are overwhelmed by how impressed you are with yourself until–

The person waiting patiently behind you drops down to the mat, springs into push-up position and does forty.

But I couldn’t help but recall the months and years after I had my heart attacks. The pills, and an oppressive weariness that hung over me like cloud, transformed me into a creature of chairs who interupted his relative motionlessness to walk the dog. Occasionally I’d seek youthful glories by doing my karate katas, or going for a short run that left me feeling worse than I was before I began. So I’d do nothing much for a while and run out of breath climbing the stairs.

I also put on weight.

Not good.

Three months ago I decided to do go back to the gym and, on alternate days (or when I succumbed to the inertia that everyone with a gym membership has), go for a run.

I felt terrible exercising, and was a weary mess for hours after. At the gym I’d become tired and strangely nauseous, as if all those abdominal machines were mashing up my innards.

Soon I had runs that didn’t feel so bad. The old runner’s high occasionally returned. I got ideas for novels, stories–blog posts!

The activity was giving me better posture. The gut became slightly less profound. Some clothes fit better.

But the gym was still an uphill crawl. Until today. For about twenty seconds, I felt The Pump.

And in that instant, all that awful struggle vanished.

It felt good.

 

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Readers Block

Ever get it? You go to the library, or come home from the bookstore, or unpack the box from Amazon, turn to Page One and…

You put the first book down, and the second, and the third. You go to the window and see a convertible car zoom by with the top down. People in the car are laughing and playing music too loud. You think: I have a convertible automobile. I can put the top down. I can play music too loud. I can laugh and act like I don’t care.

You glare at that stack of books–am I any better for having read them?

I used to think so. My mother insisted that reading books was among the best things to do. Traveling and seeing theater were the others. She was so insistent that I read books that, after I read all the books that appealed to me in the local library, she gave me a nearly unlimited budget for buying them.

I devoted so much time to browsing and spending that money in the small, family-owned local bookstore that I got my first job there. I was reading, and finishing, a book every two days when I met my first girlfriend. My reading slowed down. She is now my wife and my reading has picked up again.

I have also traveled a bit and seen some theater. Did they make me a better person?

I used to think so. When you visit another country, even as a tourist who only wants to see the sights and eat some good meals, your experience is far from simple. Things happen in the neutral spaces between the plane, hotel, air conditioned bus. the olive wood factory, the building-that-everybody-visits, the lunch spot where they mix up your order and the last day shopping spree. You can’t help but get insights into another culture and the people who inhabit it, and those inights belong to you. No matter how hard the tour company, the guides or the government tourist bureau tries to steer you toward what they want you to see, you see other things.

That, and you pull back, adapt or, do as I have done: talk to people in a respectful way, sit for a while in one place, and let that place soak in, or ride public transportation, or pick a direction, trust your feelings and start walking.

When you return and you’ve unloaded all the stories about your adventure on whoever is unlucky enough to drive you home from the airport, you later discover that whenever the country (or destination) is mentioned or reported about, or when you meet someone from that country, you feel a connection, a familiarity. No matter how slight this may be, it helps you evaluate and understand in new ways.

Does this make you a better person? Not necessarily. I know tourists who loathe an entire nation based on an airport transit lounge, a single taxi ride, a surly waiter, or a sleepless night in a hotel room that was too much of this, or not enough of that. But then again, I know tourists who have learned, through experience, to take these things in stride, and have come to see themselves in others, no matter how strange those other people may appear.

What about theater? It’s always more expensive than movies, and, when your seated so far away from the stage that hearing and seeing is difficult, you can’t help but wish you were somewhere else.

Until you suspend your indignation, and disbelief, and the art takes over.  What was impossibly dull on the page (if you had to read Shakespeare in college) becomes exciting when it flows through skillful actors and clever production.  You can’t substitute the excitement of being in the presence of living human beings, or the herd-like thrill of laughing and gasping along with the audience.

Theater preaches several important values, no matter what the play may be, or how many people are on stage. The first, and most crucial, is that it is collaborative: many different people have come together to present this show, and many more (assuming the critics were kind) have come to see it. The second is that it is unique: every performance is different and what can make the difference is the audience.  A good audience can raise the quality of the performance.

Finally, theater is ultimately not like other art forms. Even if the actors are film stars, what happens is never the same as what you see on a film, or even a filmed recording of a live performance. The message theater whispers–how actors show you their character, the speed at which the action moves, and how a darkened platform can, with just a few props, become a Danish castle or a “blasted heath”–is the primacy of imagination and collective will. Theater doesn’t happen unless all in the playhouse are willing to believe that it can.

But inept productions really hurt. They make you fret about the cost of the ticket and the chore of going to the theater (even if you’re in a city and the playhouse is a short walk away). You wonder if anyone involved in this agonizing mess knows how terrible it is, and if they are merely doing it for the money (which, for most, is never enough), how can they sleep at night?

Does seeing a lot of theater make you a better person? It’s nice to have savored the major O’Neills, Albees, Shaws, Pinters, Becketts, Molieres, Brechts, Sondheims, Arthur Millers and Neil Simons, as well as Gilbert & Sullivan, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and so many others. You come to understand a new meaning to the word “immortal.” When my son got a small part in a dinner theater production of The Sound of Music, I thought I grow bored from hearing those same songs so often in a show that, with rehearsals, ran for a month and a half. I didn’t. Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin wrote some of the best American popular music ever. It does not get old.

Then, for my 50th birthday, I saw every Shakespeare play, either in a theater or on a video recording. I got over my difficulties with the language and know why so much of Shakespeare really is the best.

Did it make me a better person? Nahhh.

See too many plays that don’t connect with you, don’t satisfy you, don’t leave you with the feeling that you’ve experienced something you can’t get anywhere else–and you don’t want to do it anymore.

Which brings me to Reader’s Block, when you just don’t want to read anymore.

I experience it almost daily with newspapers and magazines (and those sneaky online news aggregators, that mix the most vital reporting with such crucial journalism as TOP TEN CELEBRITY VACATION HOMES IN MINNESOTA). I’ve written for many publications, so I respect the effort, struggle and sense of commitment required to report the news. But so much of what is reported concerning daily events and personalities I find horrifying, repugnant, irresponsible and (to use a word that was once apolitical) deplorable. This is not, as some allege, because a biased news media hunts for bad stuff. There’s so much bad stuff going on right now that the good is crowded out.

But we need to know awful things are, so that next time we buy a product, see a movie or vote, we understand more about the consequences our choices make.

My love for books is different. As a child, I read all that I liked in the local library. My mother then gave me a nearly unlimited budget to buy books. When other school kids took home one or two books from Scholastic in-class sales, I carried home a box. Later, I spent so much time, and money, inside the the local, family-run bookstore that I got my first job there. The owners permitted me to take home the paperback returns:  books whose covers were torn off and mailed back to the publisher for credit. Many of my favorite writers I discovered inside a book that lacked a cover.

I was reading, and finishing, a book about every two days until I met my first girl friend. I slowed down a bit after that and, with her encouragement, I decided that my dream of writing books might just come true.

It did, but not without the requisite agonies, uncertainties, reversals, rewrites and rejections that blot the author’s path. Writing also brought many experiences that combined my love of traveling (travelwriting!) and theater (theater critic!). I wallowed in a lot of great, and not-so-great plays and places.

But I never stopped reading until I decided to teach high school. Then I came down with my first and, I hope, last case of Readers Block.

I thought high school would be perfect for me because my wife had been doing it in the sciences. I had taught writing and journalism  at the undergraduate and graduate level, so I thought I could “give back” to the kid I was, and the kids I knew, when I decided to make writing my life work.

To get a teaching license I returned to the best graduate school within commuting distance and took education courses.  What I had heard about education courses was still true: while you may get a good professor, most were taught by teaching assistants using texts that were written by people who did not feel they had to charm, excite or interest me, the reader.

Most, but not all. Of the two dozen books I had to acquire, two were wonderful–a commentary on the political nature of public education, and a memoir written by a rather peculiar individual who decided to read the same book over and over for…I forget how many times. The memoir made one point: rereading is not repetition. Things happen to us, and what we think we’re reading, as we revisit a text.

I also got a glimpse of incongruities, paradoxes and puns in post-modern philosophy that made me hungry for more.

After I got my teaching license, fulfilled my internships and was given the opportunity to take over the classes of a high school English teacher who had been put on leave, I was overwhelmed with the daily stress that public school teachers endure. My wife had warned me that there was more to teaching than standing up in front of the kids and saying the things that would set off light bulbs in their brains.

She was right. On weeknights I came home, I ate a quick dinner and fell asleep. I couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to read a book, or anything else.

But the stress piled up. I became too tired to exercise and put on weight. My blood pressure began to go dangerously high. It is no coincidence that I suffered two heart attacks after I stopped teaching.

My sojourn as a high school lamplighter made me doubt myself and what I truly loved about books, literature and writing. For a long time I’d try to lose myself in a book, and not move past page one.

But then I opened what everyone with Readers Block must find: a book that spoke to me, a book that made me feel it was written just for me, a book that took me into a world that made my own possible, tolerable, endurable and just a little bit wonderful.

I won’t name the author or the title because what speaks to one reader can be mute, and worse, to another. When I taught novel writing at the college level, I assigned my students to read, or, at best, try to read, a book that they would consider to be trash, and then be able to talk about the experience. Beyond the the grandstanding accounts of pure disgust, and the vaguely embarrassed comments about of guilty pleasures, were conflicts between those students who thought a specific book was junk, and others who swore that very same book was a source–for them–of inspiration and joy, and possibly a reason they wanted to become novelists.

What I can say is that, if there is a muse, saint, demiurge, boddhisatva, daemon or kindly spirit that strives to repair a writer’s, or a reader’s broken soul, that being manifests itself, not in a cloud of smoke and fire like the Great and All Powerful Oz, but inside a book that may have been written by an author desperate for money, that could be the sequel to an earlier novel that no one remembers, or a hasty knock-off of a best-seller.

What matters is that the book says to us, in a way only a book can, that who we are, right now, no matter how bumpy our past, is not merely adequate, but abundantly capable of realizing dreams; and that what we want to write, no matter how precious, unoriginal, sentimental, half-baked, or uncommercial, is not only worthwhile, but possible, likely and, for the rest of us, necessary.

Does that make you a better person? Let’s say you become a different person, in just the way you imagined.

 

 

 

 

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