Time Enough at Last

June 14, 2016



I had my vacation reading packed for travel, the last Umberto Eco, the newest Murakami, several volumes of poems I wanted to reread without distraction, and my new travel companion, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a novel I read only in places other than my home. Literature has developed specialized contexts for me. When I think of myself, I think of myself as ‘the reader’, one writers imagine, engaged, articulate, and active. In spite of my handicap of reading slowly, I am patient and willing to stay in a literary relationship. I’m a cash customer, I purchase the books I read. I ask no mercy from my authors and in turn demand they deliver sophisticated thoughts and ideas, not merely kill time or invent thrills. Beach reads and murder mysteries annoy me. The farthest I’ve gone down that path was Sherlock Holmes, but only as self-required reading in my Victorian period. A fascination that actually started as a teaching project when I was working in Galveston Alternative Center for Education. I wanted to connect the curriculum with preparing students to visit and participate “Dickens On the Strand”.

It was an edgy, complicated social and literary endeavor. Thestudents were ‘alternative’ to being thrown out on the streets for the greater good of their high school, but still required by law to have a school placement. ”Dickens On the Strand” is the traditional celebration of Charles Dickens imaginary visit to Galveston. Nine blocks of the old historical district fit themselves out for hand bells, charming parades and an open street costumed party. It’s the beginning of Christmas. Quaint shops, twinkling lights, buskers and carolers. It was less racist than Victorian England, but it was de facto segregated (as much of Galveston was). Although the majority of the students I taught lived no more than ten blocks from the Strand district, none of them had ever attended. To my belief they were far more Dickensian than the folks who rented gowns, capes and canes to stroll the fantasy laid out in Galveston’s historical district.

My students believed they lived in G-town and they were G4Life.

When fantasies collide they best one often hopes for is irony.

Sherlock Holmes, even in film version, was incapable of holding our collective attention. The dialog was too overwrought, the restraint of the English class system too condescending, and Sherlock himself was just too annoying for us to battle through, and any essay topic from a Sherlock Holmes story is constantly doomed to explanation rather than interpretation. Dickens we could bring to life, a bowdlerized version of Jekyll & Hyde and by way of Internet “Jack the Ripper” these fired synapses and made connections. I made the same bargain with my students that I make with the books I read. I won’t waste precious reading effort with foolish practice exercises. If they’re going to work hard, they’re going to get paid. Freshman read A Christmas Carol, sophomores took on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Juniors and Seniors combined to work through Oliver Twist.  As we wrote we explored Dickens’ works and life, life during Queen Victoria reign, websites in England, the US and Japan, and the wonderful Brown University Victorian Web. They wanted the real literature, the same as other students. We all swam in Victorian literature and history. As the Strand date approached they knew more about our reading than anyone in the school that expelled them. They knew why gentlemen didn’t button the bottom button on the waistcoats, why ladies walked on the inside of gentlemen, where treadmills came from and what the staves in “Christmas Carol” were. On the day we attended “Dickens On the Strand” they recognized what was portrayed and they in turn were recognized as apropos portraits. It’s the type of genuine relationship more and more frequently denied students and teachers. It was one of the possiblitites teaching literature can provide. Reading was life changing.

In spite of burgeoning MFA Writing programs, there is a painful decline in the appreciation of capital L literature. There are many inter-related explanations for this, increasingly moderated curricula, focus of standardized testing, social media hive mind, loss of program funding, CAI lessons, the decline of libraries, anti-intellectualism, data driven values, and like philosophy, there’s not much money in reading literature. Beyond these cultural forces reading faces much more competition than it did when I was young. As I grew up it was books, senseless TV, family movies, church,sports or go to your room and build models. But now television and movies have transformed their forms from a half an hour or forty-five minutes of instantaneous gratification into long, brooding, completive inventions.

In spite of my predilection for bound books, I try at least, to remain neutral and open about the current and future states of reading. Consider the classic “The Untouchables” versus “The Sopranos” or “The Wire”, or the brilliant use of real time aging and realized fiction of the Harry Potter film/book franchise, or compare Batman as he appeared in Detective Stories #27 with Batman: Year One, Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke , or the variant toned film versions. I laud the collective genius of modern forms. I can divert myself to a binge of series, excellent graphic novels, thoughtful blog communities, complex multiplayer video games, Netflix, Tennis Channel, Hulu, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, e-mails and e-versions of magazines and newspapers, and constant texting to distract me from my chosen struggle to enforce my attention on a device that is a remnant of the end of the Middle Ages.

On vacation I can read or watch any of this without leaving my favorite chair…unless.

Unless something happens to my glasses. I’d been meaning to visit Dr.K., my longtime friend and Optometrist to have an exam and adjustment. It seemed my glasses weren’t clear no matter how often I cleaned them. But the school year and domestic events unexpectedly demanded days and suddenly I was gratefully driving to New Mexico. Except my eyes bothered me. They watered. They ached. Something seemed to be on my lenses. It was overcast and breezy on the drive, generally a blessing driving across west Texas, which in summer can be like driving on a brilliant griddle. Instead it was twelve hours of driving through sharp, gray glare. By the time we arrived in Amarillo I had a headache, a short temper and was an hour too late to get to the gym. The motel I used to have an ugly dog affection for had taken a few steps deeper into the surreality that makes a good story but a terrible night’s sleep.

It took fully twenty minutes of grimacing for the computer to yield a room number, a key and a registration to sign. Our room had been selected by the manager to be a recently renovated one, with wood floors, a queen bed and a flat screen television.  The door was the first one at the end of makeshift stone pathway near the empty swimming pool. After changing the air conditioner setting from frigid din to din, I looked up and noticed the smoke detector near the ceiling had been skillfully covered with a towel. When I attempted to call the desk to inquire about this anomaly, I noticed there wasn’t a phone. Fortunately, I didn’t sit down in the room’s single chair to make my non-call. It had been sloppily employed for other things, fluid things, terrifically non-hygienic things. The flat screen television the manager had proudly promised had indeed been recently screwed into the wall. Judging by the residue, patch and spackle work, it had put up a struggle.  After multiple trips to the lobby, it was clear the Internet was free, but didn’t work. I stood in line at the desk behind a dazed tourist from Germany whose room was flooded by the air conditioner and a man on his way to Missouri who had just spent two hours traveingl two miles on I-40 because a wreck closed the freeway. Waiting in line I recognized my situation could have been worse, and there was nowhere else to go. Cheerfully I mentioned to my wife that the dishabille of the room reminded me of our honeymoon room at The Chelsea Hotel; some things are better left… So I took an aspirin and sang myself to sleep trying to remember all of the lyrics to “King of the Road”.

In the morning I felt much better as I was the only person in the lobby who seemed to know how the waffle maker worked.  Any day that starts with a waffle shaped to resemble the State of Texas is bound to get better. In New Mexico it did. Miraculously there was an Optical Shop in a warehouse store open on Sunday afternoon. I took a number and surveyed the unfortunate selection of frames. In the past twenty-five years I’ve only had two pair of frames, number three was not going to come from their collection. I’m obsessive and my prescription is complicated and easy to get wrong. With the exception of sleeping I do everything with my glasses on. It’s been that way as long as I can remember. I feel about my glasses the way Vikings did about their swords. I want to be cremated with my glasses.

When Maggie called “#95” she looked around and hoped I wasn’t there. She was already tired out by the previous ninety-four. She straightened my wife’s frames and told her not to use the soft needlepointed case. We agreed on something; I liked Maggie already. She took my glasses, surveyed them and looked at me.

“I can’t get them clean.”

Immediately she seemed to know what that meant.

“The coating is coming off. What kind of coating do you have on these?”

None I knew I had paid for, but coatings are already applied to most lenses, so I had no genuinely useful information. I did however; possess a copy of the prescription. Presenting my prescription, I asked if she could use it to make me a pair of contact lenses without my reading correction so I could drive. We still say “make” in a nostalgic sense. No shop “makes” lenses in that they manufacture or grind them anymore. It’s too expensive to fight the economy of scale. I can buy glasses on the Internet from e-businesses that already know who I am, what I want and sells cheaper than Walmart. Most optometric offices examine your eyes, order your lenses and frames, and make sure they’re correct. They provide expertise and relationships. It’s why I visit Mark, both because he’s careful and competent, and because his father was my optometrist and we’ve know each other longer than my last two sets of frames. We call each other by our first names. In Maggie’s world I was the ninety-fifth person she’d seen on a Sunday afternoon in a crowded store that was still grabbing numbers. She wouldn’t even unfold the prescription. But about the coating…

“Dawn.” She said handing back my glasses. “Clean them with Dawn. It will take a long time and then they’ll get cloudy, but Dawn.”

I know I have Dawn at the place in New Mexico. I love Dawn.

So I’m in the mountains of New Mexico slowly, gently washing my glasses, coating them with Dawn, soaking them, waiting and repeating. Little by little they’re getting clearer. Mark called back. He didn’t know about Dawn. I asked him about an Internet hack I read of using SP30 sunscreen as a cleaning solution. It took over twenty years of building our relationship for him to be able not to sound like he thought I was vacationing next door to a meth lab. He’s sending me an emergency set of contact lenses. When I return we’ll make a new set of glasses. Neither of us want to think about finding new frames.




Farewell, Farwell

June 7, 2012

 I badly wanted to leave Texas. I wanted to leave Texas badly.

It’s an illustrative grammar exercise that devolves around adverb placement assuming there is no duality of intention that a person could not simultaneously want badly to leave a state and want to leave it badly. Let me begin by saying first I am that person and that duality of purpose comes as no specific surprise to me. It’s been a demanding school term. It was a demanding school term. Here again grammar and tense fail me. What has happened isn’t over until it can exist in a firm grammatical structure that can accommodate and contain that event. I can write, “My father is dead.” as if that event doesn’t continue. As if my Father isn’t both alive and dead in my mind. I can still hear him, see him sitting in his chair snoring, and even feel him act on me and in an instant remember the feel of the frozen granulated dirt I put on his grave. “My father is dead.” is common assumed to be a sad occasion from experience, there’s relatively little nuance to indicate my feeling as the speaker, and no indication of the emotional morass that the death of a parent leaves any writer trying to compose a path through. Simply, writing is only an indicator of an event, but its failure can indicate more than grammar implies. The school year is over.
For the first time I can remember, it was the last day of school and I wasn’t cheerily chatting with friends, scrounging boxes or dumping a year’s worth of work into plastic bags and dragging it out into the hall. My boxes were already loaded and labeled, the desk emptied, room swept, key turned in, forms signed. I wanted out as soon as I could legally leave. I wanted it over for a hundred reasons I could detail, but won’t. More than anything I needed closure on the events of the year; I didn’t feel like I could contain them and balance my life much longer. I believed until I left the jurisdiction of the State of Texas something might happen to confound the end of this event. From this irrational sense I fought back a steady physical impulse to flee, when I had done nothing wrong.
The events of the school term are completed, but not finished.
This year my assignment in the Behavior Support Class was difficult emotionally and physically demanding. The boys wore me down with their incessancy, but they were hardly the worst students I’d encountered. They were casually destructive, but seldom violent. By the time I arrived part way through the second semester they had a lot invested in noncooperation. Our progress was glacial. They demanded my total, constant attention. For six periods a day I was called on to conscientiously watch their needy variety of ‘look no hands!’ behaviors. If I wavered, they raised the level of attention seeking…cursing, tantrums, throwing books, papers, destroying pens and markers, tossing the contents of the supply closet, insulting the three long suffering aides to pray for transfers…whatever violations of common sense and decorum they felt would be needed to have my attention returned to them. But mostly the boys ran. They left our classroom, took off from the aides, they ran the halls when they felt misjudged, angry, tearful and sometimes bolted for the sheer pleasure of it. They outran their previous teachers, classes and schools. They seemed to need to run.
The boys weren’t the problem, their problems were the problem. Every morning they got off the bus in a private storm of genetics, childhood trauma, unfortunate circumstances and family dynamics that constantly shifted and changed. Each boy’s internal sense of urgency projected him near or away from obvious classroom cooperation and satisfaction into realms of active half fantasies, remnants of lost half-memories, or distorted visions of expectations they had for themselves or someone had imposed on them. On occasions they literally destroyed my lesson plans, but generally they performed something that appeared to be a school task. Then stopped dead when they felt they had accomplished as much as they felt was appropriate to their day and their sense of self. They didn’t feel fettered by school rules or structures and not infrequently would launch intramural excursions to visit the principal, but mostly it seemed they wanted someone to pursue them…to relentlessly bring them back safely. By the end of May my capacity to function in chaos seemed to be diminishing, but so was theirs. They wanted to be in our classroom. They even did class work. I believe we had accomplished a fundamental kind of exchange, a growth perhaps that will allow my successor to move forward more easily. I hope so.
That’s as good a face as I can put on those three months. It was physically demanding and emotionally draining hard work. Too often I felt insecure about my position and relationship with the administration of my school and district. A lot of people seemed to want me to do a lot of different things. What I felt and perceived and what appeared to be happening were often conflicted and occasionally persecutory. I felt like a film noir detective who has to solve a crime where he’s the fallback suspect. I was continually trying to solve crimes that weren’t quite completed. This conflict spoke to something deep and anxious in my background, not necessarily heroic or ideal, but with deep roots. My lineage comes from families of immigrants, not detectives; we avoided crimes.
Let’s assume much that I’ve written this far is true to some extent, that is, it all occurred in some demonstrable fashion. I can produce witnesses, evidence, ect… Assuming all that, I drove for the New Mexico border the dawn after school ended like an escaped convict. I wanted out of Texas with the blind belief that simple, physical distance might offer some form of salvation. Although I was in a Toyota loaded with books and luggage, I took off running.
Anyone who has undertaken crossing Texas recognizes what a struggle it is. I’ve done it enough times. For me to traverse the 640 or so miles of what invariably seems like harsh weather between Houston and Farwell is pretty much 10 hours of squirming hardship. I can’t sleep or read in moving cars. I watch the road. I make notes. Chew gum. Time/spatial memory is one of my strengths. I know where we’re going; I know where we’ve been, constantly. I remember where we stopped the last time, what we ate, what the weather was like. I can’t remember the number of anyone’s telephone, any bank account, or the street number of the office I worked at for eight years. But traveling through places I don’t have any conscious interest in recollecting, that’s our different story.
Outside of Abilene I reminded my wife of the tumbleweed she ran into several winters ago. I can describe the interior of the KoKo Motel and damp texture of its frightening shag carpet. I know exactly where I parked both times, winter and summer, when we stopped at the Sweetwater Motel, where to step to avoid the pipes and holes in the parking lot to get to Buck’s Barbeque. I can revive the relative strength of the aroma issuing from the feedlots from seasons past.
Travel is something in my genetic storm of circumstances, which I seem to have evolved to do.
This trip we thought about visiting some of the music sites mentioned in an article of Texas Monthly. The miles and hours failed to coordinate us with any of the towns with the exception of Littlefield. I confess in decades of living in Texas I’ve only learned about six lines of Waylon Jennings’ songs. Here I’ll also confess as a lack of enthusiasm for visiting Waylon’s Uncle’s liquor store. En route Littlefield is one of the Sisyphean marker towns that indicate how much painfully farther there is to travel in either direction. But we did pause in Buckholds for the Cotton Festival Parade and bought homemade molasses and pecan ice cream, a Mule’s Ear and I texted a picture of a nicely polished Studebaker Hawk to two friends while a polka band played “Wasted Away Again in Margarittaville”. There are distractions other than musicians’ graves.
It would appear in driving by that most of the contents of the State of Texas have been arranged for sale in yards and makeshift flea markets. That the number of craft products that can be made from beer cans is limited in quality, but infinite in variation. Along the roadside there’s a scarecrow world of scrap metal figures welded together to twist in the wind. Car carcasses in yards and drives, or left in groups like rusting creatures in a sty. I saw a Militia Supply store, two places for mud racing, billboard ads for knife sales hundreds of miles away, dozens of discount smoke shops. The places with cars in the lot were Dollar Stores. A dozen varieties of bagged fried snacks and hyper-caffeinated beverages, lottery scratch-offs and novelty lighters were available anytime I paid for gas. My road was awash in burnt coffee, bird whirligigs, double patty burgers, sexual enhancers, cellophane wrapped magazines, bootleg cd compilations, fruit flavored cigars and water for sale in refrigerated cases and outdoor stacks. Driving through towns like Comanche, Eastland, Gatesville, and Gorman, Governor Perry’s “Texas Miracle” seemed more than 600 miles from the voters who put him in office. I’m not sure what I, or anyone, had hoped for, but it couldn’t have been these arrays of deserted shops surrounding granite courthouse squares.
By contrast it seemed there were an extraordinary number of friendly, obese people who had invested in interesting tattoos. The folks at Buckholts were having a good time in spite of my condescension. Plenty of people were standing in what shade they could find talking with their neighbors and laughing because they were glad to be with them. I overheard a man yell “Tell your sister-in-law I’m coming over there this afternoon with gas powered weed eater and a live chicken!” New churches with fresh crushed gravel parking lots were advertising services. One church marquee read ”Pray for America: Chronicles II”. As ever the ranching supply and hardware stores were neatly arranged with tillers aligned like a flight of geese and galvanized steel tanks in concentric displays. Two men in straw cowboy hats stood talking without looking at each other. A combination cattle auction arena and attendant steak restaurant had recently been constructed out of attractive limestone. We were passed by plenty of Super Duty 4x4s and heavy duty dualies in a hurry for Saturday afternoon. Although it was too hot to play on, playground equipment looked new. There was yellow safety foam atop the fences at the ball field. Even though it was ninety-five degrees, a couple of pitchers were warming up in a dusty parking lot.
There’s an attraction to escape to someplace rural, indigenous, or to want to be in the country, that is a kind of common mythic desire. There’s a nascent drive to grow our own food, to work directly at a physical task without a managing intermediary that seems poetic and brave. To not be beholden… a freeman, as I search for language, I find these peculiar archaic terms feel the most comfortable. It’s as if I’m describing something I’ve lost, instead of something I never possessed. The mythos of lost country life is a loss we might offer up as the price for our heritage of immigration and migration; we can possess only a passing sense of home. We have all left some thatched peasant village that’s the movie set in the film about the misplaced past of our ancestry. Simple anthropology demands we have to have descended from some sort of farming community, a proto-community where we weren’t strangers…one that for some reason we have run away from.
Most of us cope with these remnant attacks of our collective past by buying real estate, hobby gardening, lawn care, camping, or driving with our windows rolled down through farm country. But we still believe we could somehow reclaim our missing freedom and independence in those Green Acres. But the reality is farmers are as much in debt, desperately worried, and dependent on the collapsing Greek economy as anyone else. We’re the same. We’re all frightened, but we’re not sure of whom or what. In the global economy we’re all merely costumed variations of people who don’t really matter, except to ourselves.
For me Farwell, TX is on the border between worlds. Crossing over to New Mexico doesn’t feel like coming home, it feels like running away from home. Around six as we approached, the horizon filled with a huge thunder storm and to the south a long glowering cloud of smoke. It’s the kind of enormous weather event that can only happen where the geography is so flat and uninterrupted. That evening the seeming contradiction of a vast fire and even larger storm seemed apt, like a finish line to my flight.
Then, as now, there is always something terrible to leave behind, something terrible about to be done, and an unpredictable world of sudden, terrible collaboration. I know just beyond the border crossing is Fort Sumner, the site of one of Billy the Kid’s peripatetic graves. William Bonnie, one of America’s most celebrated runaways. But Fort Sumner is also home to the Bosque Redondo where Kit Carson, another of America’s mythic runaways, brought 8,500 Navajo people to the brutal dry end of their “Long Walk” after burning their crops, destroying their orchards and confiscating their land. Wherever we run away to, someone has run away from. There’s no place too forgotten or far enough away.
Clearing brush in the Jemez Mountains, the school has already tracked me down by cell phone. Someone wants me to know I haven’t been forgotten; I won’t have to escape.
I remember everything; I remember nothing. I remember nothing; I remember everything.