The Sounds of the Universe Coming in My Window…

On the SoHud Facebook page, there has been an ongoing conversation–almost like watching a stock ticker–about the varied and scattered explosions around Olde North and SoHud.  One poster got the ball rolling by saying, “Sure hope that was fireworks twenty seconds ago.”  There has been speculation about the origin of the sounds, with people reporting their locations and where they traced the sounds.  Were we hearing firecrackers?  Gunshots?  Or, since Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer, did this mean a return of the bottle bombs that were so ubiquitous last year?

The explosions seemed to be consistently timed at one point, so a poster suggested we all stand on our porches and try to triangulate, and maybe figure out where these originated.  The suspects range from the residents of the various Xenos Christian Fellowship group houses, to a house on Medary Ave. where a heavy metal band seems to enjoy practicing regardless of what time of the day or night it is.  Also, today was the last day of classes for Columbus Public School seniors, so there are parties all over the place, and I have seen open containers galore all over a two- or three-block radius around my place.

I dealt with the problem in my usual way.  I was at the laptop reading friends’ blogs online, and I just turned up the volume on the music I was playing–a potpourri that ranged from Steely Dan to Gordon Lightfoot to the Alan Parsons Project to Seals and Crofts.  I heard a few more scattered explosions shortly after sunset, while I was taking a nap upstairs in my bedroom, but I was too woozy from being awakened to go outside to see where it originated.  (Later on, while I was walking outside, there was a slight odor of gunpowder in the air, but nowhere near as strong as it would be immediately after a firecracker or M-80 had exploded.)

Before I go any further, I should note that I cannot take credit for the title of this post.  The title comes from a spoken-word track Jack Kerouac recorded on Poetry for the Beat Generation, the 1959 album he recorded with Steve Allen.

I have wanted to blog about other sounds of the universe coming in my window.  The day I received the keys to this place, I was standing on the back deck and clearly heard the quarter-hour chimes of Holy Name Church, which is about a quarter mile southeast of here.  With the windows open, and minus any noise I create from music or TV, the chimes come through quite clearly, including the Baptism of Bells at noon and 6 p.m.

I have always found the sound of bells to be comforting.  Having grown up in the orbit of Marietta College for the first 19 years of my life, the quarter-hour Westminster Chimes from atop Erwin Hall, which is the most iconic building at the Marietta College campus.  Additionally, the hour and half-hour chimes from the Washington County Courthouse downtown produced a pleasant sound audible almost anywhere in town.

Erwin Hall, on the Marietta College campus.  Photo is from Wikimedia Commons.

Around Easter, Marietta College held (holds?) a festival known as Doo Dah Day–it may be called Etta Fest now.  When I was 13 or 14, the most exciting event was not trying to persuade servers that I was old enough to buy beer, but when a friend from the Marietta College Mountaineering Club let me come into the tower with him.  (I think they planned to rappel down to the ground, but they were overruled by the College, and they settled instead for flying a banner from the tower roof.)

One of my favorite recordings is Mercury’s 1812 Overture on its Living Presence label (Mercury 434 360-2), because it features cannon fire from an authentic weapon used by Napoleon in his 1812 Russian campaign.  Even better, the ending includes the bells from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Canon at the Memorial Church in Manhattan, all of them turned loose and recorded by microphones hanging at different levels in the tower.

Edgar Allan Poe apparently shared my love for bell sound.  Many kids resented having to memorize his poem “The Bells,” and I admit I never fully appreciated it until I heard Phil Ochs set its words to music on the album All the News That’s Fit to Sing.


In the aftermath of 9/11, Muslims who sought to build new mosques in their hometown have often faced petition drives and town meetings to deny them zoning, building permits, and all the paperwork that a new house of worship has to complete before even breaking ground.  These are similar to all the hand-wringing and protests around the non-issue of the Cordoba Center (misnamed “the Ground Zero mosque”) in New York.

One of the lame excuses, in a futile attempt not to clothe their protests in white sheets and hoods, is that the sound of the adhan (call to prayer) five times per day would be distracting.  Most of us have grown up around church bells–and we even sang about them in nursery school.  (The third line of “Frère Jacques” is Sonnez les matines!  Sonnez les matines!)  The Muslim call to prayer would be no more distracting, and would quickly fade into the white noise common in all neighborhoods, within days of a mosque’s opening.

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Bless Me, Blogspot, For I Have Sinned. It Has Been Nine Weeks Since My Last Entry…

With Susie away for the weekend, I decided that I was fresh out of excuses for not writing in my blog.  When I pulled up the Website to begin typing, I was appalled to see that it has been over eight weeks since I last wrote in here.  I have been alternating all fall between a malaise where holding up my end at work and at home is my major accomplishment, and bursts of short-lived manic energy that usually end up producing nothing constructive, either at home or creatively.

Susie is spending this weekend as a chaplain at a Junior High Youth Conference at West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in Rocky River, on the west side of Cleveland.  She left last night, and will probably be back late tomorrow morning.  She and I are both a bit humbled by the fact that our involvement in National Novel-Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) crashed and burned quite early into the “competition.”  I think she lasted a little longer than I did, but at least she has the constructive reason that she is also working on a writing project with a friend in Akron.  Their manuscript is a shared Google Document, and they work for hours each night online.  (The earliest practitioner of this that comes to mind is Stephen King.  When he and Peter Straub were working on The Talisman, in the early 1980s, their respective word processors were connected by telephone hookup–a primitive modem–between King’s house in Maine and Straub’s in England.)

Susie’s site (work experience) at The Graham School this fall is a twice-weekly stint in the Human Resources Office at the main library downtown.  She is finding the work–mostly filing and compiling packets for new employees–to be quite boring.  I come down on both sides of her predicament.  I can understand her dread of boredom.  As I have learned at my own job, especially in the last two or three years, extreme boredom leads to severe depression for me.  As I age, I find myself less able to combat or offset depression than I did when I was younger.

At the same time, the realist in me wants to tell Susie that there is a name for going someplace you really don’t want to go, and spending the entire day doing something that bores you to tears.  The name for this is employment.  (I have often wanted to say this to parents of gifted children who wring their hands about how bored their children are at school.)

There is probably a cause and effect at work here, but when I decided not to continue with NaNoWriMo this year, ideas for the novel I began (about four or five pages, altogether) began popping up.  I have begun to jot these down in notebooks, and will keep filling them in as they come my way, and in October begin working on some type of outline.  And at midnight on November 1, 2013, I’ll begin the book again from scratch.

I bought this Jack Kerouac Bobblehead from the Lowell Spinners, and put it on my desk in the hope (vain, thus far) that it would inspire me to keep my nose to the keyboard, much like Schroeder’s bust of Beethoven atop his toy piano.  Still has yet to happen.

Steph made a brief trip to Columbus last month, and all went well.  She made the trip so Susie could apply for a passport.  Since Susie is a minor, both parents have to be present when she applies.  Susie will be going to Costa Rica in January on a school trip (“Winterim”), and we wanted to make sure that the passport was in her hands well before her departure.

The only frustrating moment was when we applied for the passport itself.  Steph and Susie went to the FedEx Office downtown for passport photos, and then met me outside the post office across from the building where I work.  According to the State Department’s Website, we could obtain a passport at this post office branch.  When we got to the counter, the clerk told us that they hadn’t handled passports in years.  After venting some frustration, we took a taxi to the main post office on Twin Rivers Drive, where we knew they processed them.  The clerk behind that counter was a joy and a delight, and we finished the process in less than 10 minutes.  (Susie’s passport came in the mail last week.)

The passport will also come in handy next summer, when Susie and the youth group in Columbus hopes to fly to Romania, which is the first place where people first began to call themselves Unitarians.  This will include tours in Transylvania and Hungary.  In a way, it is analogous to a trip to Rome or Jerusalem.  Once Susie comes home from Costa Rica, I’m going to put an ad in Ohio State’s student newspaper, the Lantern, looking for someone to tutor her in Hungarian.

One place where Susie and I differ is that she still has not outgrown trick-or-treating.  I never cared much for it after I got to be about eight or nine, despite my love for sweets at the time.  Susie turned 15 last month (I bought her Taylor Swift’s new album, Red, and my friend, comic book writer Ken Eppstein, graciously signed a set of Nix Comics for her), but she was glad to walk around with a 12-year-old girl from church.  Columbus was quite the exception, in that trick-or-treat took place on Halloween’s actual date, October 31.

I usually mark the occasion by listening to a compact disk of Orson Welles’ infamous dramatization of The War of the Worlds, broadcast October 30, 1938, which scared the nation to death by describing an invasion from Mars in the form of news bulletins and the diary of a survivor.  (I was pleased to see one Facebook friend posting allusions to the broadcast: “Listening to Ramon Raquello and his orchestra.”  To show him I was in the loop on this, I quoted the voice of a ham radio operator after the Martians conquer New York: “2X2L calling CQ, 2X2L calling CQ.  2X2L calling CQ, New York.  Isn’t there anyone on the air?  Isn’t there anyone on the air?  Isn’t there… anyone?”)

But on the weekend after Halloween, I went to a very festive post-Halloween party at a friend’s house that is about a five-minute walk from home.  The young woman who hosted the occasion is fun to be around, and you are always in a good mood when you leave.

Saying goodbye to Amber, hostess extraordinaire.  (I have been a teetotaler for almost 15 years, but usually in party pictures, I’m the one who looks like he most has his load on.  This is one of the rare exceptions.)

 


Susie and her friend are working on a novel that includes a heroin addict as one of its characters, so as part of her research, I showed her Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955).  She watched with one eye and kept her other eye on her laptop for most of the movie, but she sat in rapt attention and stunned silence during the withdrawal scenes.  This was not Reefer Madness’ silliness.

I was happy about Obama’s re-election, although I did not stay up to wait for the announcement.  I went to bed a little after 10 on Election Night, and at that time Mitt Romney was leading by some 80 or 90 electoral votes.  Susie was awake before I was on Wednesday morning, and I asked her on my way out the door.  She told me that she learned sometime around 11:30, from one of her friends on Tumblr.

What struck me that morning was that regardless of who won, I still would be getting up, catching my bus, and going to work, making payments on Susie’s trip to Costa Rica, and mailing a check to my landlord.  (The governor’s race in 2014 is another matter altogether.  Governor Kasich has announced that he plans to run again.  His dream for State workers is for us all to be living under bridges and drinking Night Train while his cronies run privatized State agencies.)

Memories of a Retired Hitchhiker

Susie and I are at Kafé Kerouac, a coffee house/bar named for the patron saint of hitchhiking, Jack Kerouac, at the moment.  (Kerouac’s 90th birthday would have been on the 12th of this month, but, unfortunately, he drank himself to death in 1969, aged 47.)  She and I are in the front room, and pages from the first several chapters of Kerouac’s opus, On the Road, adorn the north wall.

The north wall at Kafé Kerouac, decorated with pages from On the Road.

Something that brought the long-moribund subject of hitchhiking to my mind was seeing that one of my Facebook friends was listening to Vanity Fare’s “Hitchin’ a Ride” on Spotify.  I’ve been in an advanced and rapidly progressing state of ennui lately, which is one of the reasons for the paucity of blog entries.  (I deleted two previous entries after only writing a sentence or two, so I’m hoping to get myself back on track by writing in here tonight.)

I should preface what follows by saying that my hitchhiking days are far behind me.  I haven’t done it since the summer of 1989, and I am sure that it’s more dangerous now than when I was a teenager and a young adult.  (It’s never been 100% safe.  When my thumb was my primary mode of transportation, it horrified some of my high school friends.  I still remember one of my classmates looking at me, slack-jawed, and saying, “Paul!  You’re going to get your head blown off!” when I casually mentioned I would be thumbing to Athens–a distance of about 48 miles.)

The first time I hitchhiked, it was not my idea, and I was far from enthusiastic about doing it.  It was in August 1979, and it was a relatively short trip.  I was 16 years ago, and I was traveling to OPIK ’79, a regional Liberal Religious Youth conference.  (OPIK–rhymes with topic–was an acronym for Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky.  In 1979, it took place in Michigan, for reasons too complex to explain here.)  I had been on the bus from Columbus since noon on Saturday, August 18 (the conference began the next day) with a young woman from Columbus named Suzanne, who was also headed to OPIK.  We arrived in Kalamazoo around midnight, and no one at the conference site was answering.  (OPIK ’79 took place at Circle Pines Center in Delton, which was about 25 miles away in Barry County.)  So, since we were marooned at the closed Greyhound station for the night, we sat on our suitcases most of the night, talked, ate date bars, and I read, wrote in my diary, and tried in vain to sleep, using my windbreaker as a blanket and my typewriter case as a pillow.

Morning came, and we splurged on a big breakfast in the Time Table Inn, the bus station’s restaurant, tried Circle Pines Center again, and finally Suzanne heaved a sigh and said, “Well, let’s hitch.”  This was long before the days of Google Earth and GPS systems, so we roamed around a bit before we found M-89 West, the road that led from Kalamazoo to Delton.  Once we found that, a friendly guy in his 20s named Stephen gave us a ride straight to Circle Pines’ parking lot.  I was happy to add a new experience to my résumé–hitchhiking–but my first order of business was to find a cot.  When I found one, I immediately collapsed fully clothed, shoes and all.

This experience emboldened me, and when I got back to Marietta, I talked the ears off anyone who asked me how I spent my summer.  I managed to resist the temptation to embellish the trip beyond the 25 miles from Kalamazoo to Delton, yet the account caused many to further question my sanity.

For the remaining three years I lived in Marietta, I overcompensated for my earlier reluctance to hitchhike. It was analogous to someone overcoming a lifelong fear of water and the next day deciding to swim the English Channel.  (The concept of the golden mean remains totally foreign to me to this day.)  The following summer, I stuck my thumb out on State Route 550, destination Athens.  I had not thought to let my dad know where I was going when I left the house that Saturday morning.

I did not make it to Athens, but the reason for aborting the mission were truly in character.  On the way up 550, I encountered Carpenter’s Books, one of the most unusual bookstores I have encountered.  It was in a man’s garage, and the place was wall to wall, floor to ceiling loaded with books.  Carpenter also raised chickens and sold eggs–quite a juxtaposition.  I spent maybe $2 to $3, and came home with a large box full of paperbacks and hardcovers.  As usual, my choices ran the gamut from Gold Medal originals by writers like Peter Rabe and Richard S. Prather to odd volumes of Harvard Classics and Black’s Readers Service classics (The Works of Tolstoi and The Works of Doyle).

After some test runs to Athens, I made my first “big” trip in May of 1981, a month before I graduated from high school.  I was en route to Washington, D.C. for the biggest protest since the Vietnam era, protesting the military presence in El Salvador and the military buildup overall.  I took the bus as far as Cambridge, Ohio, and then set out on I-70.  I was dressed in jeans, a work shirt, and hiking boots, and I carried a small backpack–only enough room for a change of clothes, my diary, and a book or two.

I was buoyed by my success.  I made it to D.C. in three rides.  The longest was a driver who picked me up around Quaker City and took me as far as Hagerstown.  A second ride (by a contractor who was at Catholic U. the same time my dad was) got me to Gaithersburg, and a third ride dropped me off on M St. in Georgetown.  I had turned 18 earlier that week, which meant I was finally legal to drink beer.  And I marked the event in style.  I had my first legal beer at Clyde’s of Georgetown, which was the prototype for the gathering place in St. Elmo’s Fire.  Its lunchtime menu inspired Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight.”  (Since I had just read William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, I had searched in vain to find The Tombs, the bar where whiskey priest Damien Karras cries into his suds to a fellow priest about his lack of faith.)  I remember the polyglot conversations at the tables around me, and the pay phones in the rest room.  I spent the remainder of the night wandering around Washington, and buying The Washington Post as soon as it rolled off the presses.

Getting home was no fun.  I had a ride to the infamous Breezewood, Pa. from Silver Spring.  Breezewood is the “Town of Motels” just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, eloquently described by Business Week in 1991 as “a polyp on the nation’s interstate highway system.”  I was stuck there for hours, so much so that if Breezewood is the first thing I see when I die, I will know beyond a doubt where I’ve gone.

I won’t list every journey I made by thumb, but the memorable one came in the spring of 1982, when my LRY friend John (whom I met at the aforementioned OPIK ’79) came to visit me in Marietta.  Going to all of Marietta’s points of interest does not take long, even with a trip across the river to the Fenton Art Glass plant in Williamstown.  Bored, John and I were doing the “What do you wanna do?”  “I dunno–what do you wanna do?” thing, when I said, in jest, “Let’s hitch to D.C.”  The next several hours consisted my burning up the phone lines to find friends of friends (multiplied ad infinitum in the D.C. area where we could sleep.  The calls started at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Washington office, and became quite hydra-headed.)  Both of us owned Paul Dimaggio’s The Hitchhiker’s Field Manual, and we had both read our copies to tatters, since it had become a weird kind of Bible for both of us.  During the journey, whenever we argued over where to stand on the road, Dimaggio’s word was law.

Our name for the trip was the “Nobody Said It Was Easy” tour.  Nobody said hitchhiking was easy, this is true, but the song “Nobody Said It Was Easy (Lookin’ for the Lights)”, by the Louisiana band Le Roux, seemed to be on the radio or tape deck of every car picking us up.  In Bethesda, we hopped a Metro bus that put us in Dupont Circle.  John and I were both tired and cross from the long journey and inadequate nutrition, and John was skeptical of my claims that we had made it.  I was vindicated when the escalator in the Dupont Circle Metro station brought us to street level.  I nudged John.  “What?” he said testily.  Without a word, I pointed at the lighted dome of the Capitol.

My final hitchhike was from Cincinnati to Columbus in 1989, illegally, since I used Interstate 71 the entire way.  Not a memorable trip.  In my journal, I wrote about it in two sentences, and devoted pages more to the subsequent visit with Adam Bradley.

Kerouac’s Biographer Reads at (Where Else?) Kafé Kerouac

Yet again, I have to kick off an entry by apologizing for my absence from this blog.  Several consecutive weeks of 56-hour work weeks does that to you.  (I thought my latest gig at the bookstore would end with the Winter Quarter rush, but that was not the case.  I emailed my supervisor to let him know I had a new cell phone number, and he replied by asking if I could work nights Monday through Thursday “until further notice.”  I need the cash too much to decline, so I accepted.)

This past week broke the repetitious cycle of get up-work at Job #1-walk to Job #2-go home-collapse, at least temporarily.  Gerald Nicosia, author of the definitive biography of Jack Kerouac, Memory Babe, made a brief trip to Columbus, as a part of a trip to Oberlin.  He and I have corresponded (by snail mail, and less frequently by email) for the past seven or eight years.  While researching my near-completion-for-the-past-few-years memoir of Robert Lowry, There Are No Promises Here, I wrote Nicosia to ask him for information about Lowry’s publishing a short excerpt of Kerouac’s book of Buddhist meditations, Some of the Dharma in 1958.  (I go into more detail about this in this 2007 blog entry.)  I thanked him for his help, he wrote back, I wrote back, and we have been writing almost non-stop since then.

When Gerry began planning for a trip to Oberlin, he suggested flying into Port Columbus, renting a car, driving up to Oberlin, and then spending time with Susie and me before flying back to the Bay Area around San Francisco.  Since he and I had never met in person, I was crazy about the idea.  He has long been “the best friend I have never met,” since our entire friendship had been one of correspondence.

He was sitting in his rental car on my street as I walked from the bus stop Wednesday night, after the bookstore job.  (He had heard me talking to someone as we walked up from the bus, and recognized my voice from the taped letters I had mailed him.)  He was staying in a motel near Riverside Methodist Hospital, but wanted to meet Susie and me, and spend some time before shaking off the jet lag and retiring for the night.  When Susie came home a little while later,  we headed for the Blue Danube for a late dinner.  (That’s the first place that I take guests when they come to visit.)

When the plans for Gerry’s visit to Columbus began to solidify, my next move was to email Mike Heslop, who has owned and operated Kafé Kerouac for the past eight years, and suggest that Gerry do a reading there.  Gerry and Mike emailed back and forth a few times, and then Mike emailed to let me know he had arranged a reading for Friday (last night) at 7 p.m.

I would have wanted a larger crowd, but the people that did come were genuinely interested in Kerouac, and were familiar with On the Road and Kerouac’s other writings.  (One person asked questions about Satori in Paris.)  Gerry brought several trade paperback copies of his newest book, One and Only: The Untold Story of On the Road, which appeared in November.  This is the story of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady’s madcap trips back and forth across the United States, as told through the eyes of Cassady’s first wife, Lu Anne Henderson (known as Marylou in On the Road.)  Gerry spoke of his friendship with her and with Kerouac’s daughter Jan (who wrote the novels Baby Driver and Trainsong, and who died of renal failure in 1996), about his co-author on One and Only, Anne Marie Santos (Lu Anne’s daughter), and about his role as a technical adviser on the On the Road movie, which began production in 2010.

Gerald Nicosia answering questions at Kafé Kerouac, February 10, 2012.

After living for many years in the Bay Area, Gerry was a little startled to see snow–the first in weeks–begin to fall in Columbus when he returned from Oberlin yesterday afternoon.  It’s been a mild winter so far, and there have been several days when I was completely comfortable walking around in a hoodie or a sweatshirt.

Not the case now.  Normally, except for rush period, I do not work at the bookstore on Saturday.  Today was an exception.  A co-worker of mine is sweating blood about a calculus midterm that he has next week, and he wanted to spend the weekend studying for it.  Since it would mean a fatter paycheck for me, I agreed to fill in for him.  It was quite difficult to leave the warm confines of my bed and house to venture to the bus stop, especially when it’s 17 degrees F. outside.  I had planned to go to the Adult Talent Show at church tonight, but once I’m indoors, I’m there to stay.  I think Susie and I will order in and watch a DVD of Young Frankenstein.
Gerry reading from One and Only.  I introduced him at the beginning of the presentation, but the flash on my camera didn’t work when Susie took the picture of me at the microphone.

Wishing I Was More of a Techno-Nerd

Since I last posted, I learned how to download pictures from my new (to me) DXG camera.  That was how I was able to share the pictures and YouTube footage I shot at the “Kill the Bill!” rally at the Statehouse on Tuesday.  Until yesterday, I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that this camera features the ability to record audio files.  Between the lens and the shutter, there is a small microphone, and close to it is a speaker about the size of the nail on my pinkie.

Currently, I’m a little more than halfway through a taped letter (as in magnetic recording tape) to a friend in St. Louis, a tape I’ve been promising to mail him since before Christmas.  As I’ve been spending my breaks and lunches with my Memorex portable cassette recorder in my hand, I’ve also been wondering about the possibilities that the audio feature of my camera open up to me.

One thought has crossed my mind, the possibility of occasionally posting spoken-word entries to this blog.   I have made very short-lived attempts at keeping taped diaries in the past, never lasting more than a few days.  I was most prolific when I was carrying a microcassette recorder with me most of the time, a machine that has since conked out on me, but which I will replace this spring.

But for the moment, I am stymied as to how to proceed.  I made small sound files last night, of about 30 seconds’ duration max, consisting of little more than “Testing one, two, three.”  I was able to load them to the laptop, but how to get them from the hard drive to the blog is still a mystery to me.

And maybe it’s supreme arrogance on my part to think my life is so worth chronicling that I should endeavor to record it in yet another way.  I already have a voluminous diary, and I think that paper will ultimately keep longer than computer files.  I have this blog, which I’ve kept for four years (including its time on LiveJournal).  So do I need to turn on the microphone and open a vein?

I pondered this for awhile at work yesterday and today.  The surface of my work table here at home is too cluttered (beyond just the usual genius-at-work scattering of papers), but I did manage to clear away some of the detritus that has clogged my L-shaped desk at work.

Quite an odd assortment of inspirational figures.  I’m the only one who could hang up Abraham Lincoln, Jack Kerouac, Elvis, and Fritz the Nite Owl all in one space.  The picture of Susie is a school picture from second or third grade.  And, even though I make snide comments about my hometown of Marietta, Ohio whenever I can, a post card of the banks of the Ohio River, with Front and Greene Sts. in the foreground, hangs where I can see it many times daily.

Some more of the decorations adorning my pod wall.  Susie’s “mug shot” was from when she was in Bugsy Malone, Jr. at the Davis Center for the Performing Arts.  I didn’t have the money to buy a framed print of this New Yorker cover, so I hung up the original magazine cover.  The cast of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit hangs above a picture that a third-grade Susie drew (“I ♥ Chess”) of a chessboard and its pieces.

The only way I can guarantee not losing a memorandum or procedure list is to tack it to the wall, where my eyes will eventually light upon it.  This means there is usually very little cloth exposed.  Sergeant George Baker  published a comic called “The Sad Sack” in Yank, The Army Weekly during World War II.  One strip showed the hero of the strip at a paper-laden bulletin board.  He keeps burrowing deeper and deeper into the items tacked there until finally, by candlelight, he sees a yellowed order: “All men will fall out promptly at midnight to cross the Delaware River.  By order of General George Washington, 1776.”

The closest the Industrial Commission came to this was when an elderly woman in my department retired.  She had been there since about 1942, and she was hired quickly because most men were in the service by then.  She retired a year or two after I came, and when people cleaned out her desk, they found several uncashed paychecks.  (Compare that to me: If my paycheck is $50 short, I notice it immediately and I’m on the phone to payroll at warp speed.)  I am not sure of this woman’s precise age.  There are unconfirmed rumors that she waited tables at the Last Supper, while others claim she is Millard Fillmore’s illegitimate daughter.

My Writing and Plotting Style: The CONRAD’S CASTLE Method

There were some signs my writing block may be ending.  During my 3 p.m. break, I hurriedly jotted several short story and poem ideas in my breast-pocket notebook, worried I’d forget them if I didn’t put them on paper right away.  Such bursts of inspiration have led me to write, sometimes they’re of very short duration.

I’ve always described my writing style, whether with fiction or poetry, as Conrad’s Castleish in approach and execution.  Not many people get the allusion.

Above is the cover of the book.  I’d best not scan and paste any more of it, ’cause I don’t want to run afoul of copyright issues and laws.

This remains my favorite children’s story, and it was ever since before kindergarten, when I got the book for my birthday.  Conrad is a kid who tosses a big stone in the air.  It remains hovering in mid-air (I spent many futile afternoons trying to copy this trick, in vain), so he gets a ladder, and begins building a castle, presumably pulling other stones out of hammerspace.  As he works, his friends try to distract him and lure him away, the best temptations being, “Hurry, we’re going to watch Harry eat some mud!” and “Do you want to see a dead mouse?”  The castle is finished, hovering in mid-air in all its glory, flags flying and entrances barricaded.  A bird says, “Hey, that’s impossible!  You can’t do that!”, whereupon the castle collapses.  Conrad stands on the rubble, brandishing his fist in a “As God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” gesture, and says, “I can, too!”  He builds another castle, ignoring similar distractions and lures from his friends, and has a much better castle to show for it in the end.

How does this relate to writing?  I’ve taken several writing classes, and teachers have wanted outlines and plot descriptions.  They encourage linear writing, starting at Chapter I and going on until THE END.  Even Jack Kerouac, typing On the Road on a 40-foot roll of Teletype paper, managed to start at the beginning of the narrative and go on until the end, fueled by Benzedrine and gallons of black coffee.

Usually, an idea, a phrase, or even a single line will pop into my head, and if I’m fortunate enough to get out my notebook and ballpoint and write it down, I’ll look at it and then try to think of something to put around it. “That single line is great,” I’d tell myself, “now get 20-odd more to put around it, and you’ll have a poem.”  Likewise, a vignette will pop into my head, often (but not always) based on a past experience or an anecdote someone has told me.  The vignette isn’t substantial enough to be free-standing as a short story, so it hovers in the literary netherworld until I find a plot and supporting characters to put around it.

That’s the Conrad’s Castle analogy.  Our young hero doesn’t build his castle from the ground up (it never touches the ground, in fact), but he throws a stone into the middle of the air and works from there.  I’ve often wondered if Shecter was honoring that great Unitarian sage, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”


This type of plotting and writing is problematic when you (like I) still prefer pen and ink, or a manual typewriter, to word processing.  Using this method, when I composed exclusively on a typewriter, meant many crossed-out passages, paragraphs written in margins, pages numbered “72½”, etc.  (When I was a typesetter, copy like that would drive me absolutely bonkers.)  When I do actually sit down and get to work, the laptop is a blessing, not just because it’s much quieter (I am not gentle with typewriters; I have been told I treat them the way Pete Townshend treats stage guitars), but because I can move things around and insert entirely new ideas and scenarios and have the finished product still look decent.


So, I doubt any writing teacher will endorse this method, at least not in class.  But it seems to be the only way I ever get anything done.


There may yet be hope, since I was sitting at break at 3 p.m. and some ideas came to mind.


We’ll see.