Please stand by ~

To Higher-Ups:

The Technical Team has noted serious technical difficulties with Blog entitled “Vapor and Flow,” with no forward (or backward) movement observed since mid-January. Blog is currently parked in the Driver’s front yard, where it seems to be accumulating trash. Driver has not yet had it put up on blocks, but Technical Team is on alert.

Team suspects a problem with the fuel injection system, though without hands-on investigation it is impossible to tell whether the gasoline tank might simply be empty. Team had noted some juddering of the steering wheel, accompanied by slightly erratic driving, in December and early January, indicating the need for immediate tire rotation and rebalancing. In addition, tires should be checked for wear. Driver has done none of this.

Driver herself, rather than repairing the Blog or addressing various ethical quandaries in her life at the moment, has become obsessed with the dog urine stains in her carpeting and the possibility of replacing the carpeting with something that can simply be hosed down. She daily repeats a monologue that always begins the same way (“I can’t stand this! What am I going to DO?”) and ends the same way (“But how would they move the piano?”). Technical Team estimates that said piano, a tall, ancient upright, weighs slightly more than a Volkswagen Beetle, flower holder included. Unlike a Beetle, the piano would probably not float, although Team finds this an intriguing question and would very much like to be notified of the results of any experiments along these lines. LOL.

Excuse us, that was unprofessional on our part. To continue, Driver also appears obsessed with a new personal best in Scrabble: her highest-ever non-bingo word score (GAZEBO, 84 points). While interesting numerically, this is judged by Team to be a rather trivial achievement in the grand scheme of things and recommends that Driver should just Get Over It.

Excuse us, please ignore editorial comment. Finally, Technical Team notes that on multiple occasions recently Driver has stated that she “dodged a bullet” because the voice student portion of a recent music recital was cancelled. This comment has been flagged for further analysis, but Team can only assume that someone slated to attend said recital was prepared to use firearms in the event of Driver singing. Team has insufficient information to gauge (pun! LOL) the appropriateness of the posited firearm use.

Excuse us again; Technical Team is fatigued and too easily amused. Team judges that Driver is currently earning A’s in Reading and Scrabble (quantity only), D’s in Physical Therapy and Caregiving, and F’s in Voice Lessons (lack of practice), Problem Resolution (dithering), Diet Remediation (inaction), Photography (inaction), and Blog Repair (inaction and negligence). Given this poor functioning, Driver’s hair looks better than might be expected, although Team is not well trained in assessing such matters.

In conclusion, Technical Team advises continued close monitoring of Blog and Driver, with future updates as necessary.

—Submitted February 23, 2014, ungodly hour of the morning
(Technical Team wishes to note that it has worked overtime on this report and would like to be duly compensated. Thank you.)

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Steve ~

Note: This is a very long post, but for me it is a necessary tribute and a necessary corollary to an earlier post. A handful of Facebook friends will have read parts of this essay on the FB memorial page I set up for Steve.

In my post Into the Confessional I talked about the death of my second husband from alcoholism and my responsibility for his death. But “alcoholic” carries such profoundly negative connotations that it obscures the person who suffers from the disease. I would hate for anyone to think “Steve = alcoholic.” He was smart, funny, creative, nice—and a true original who had more peccadillos than an armadillo (one of our favorite animals). I’ve never known anyone like him.

Steve was the type of person who always stopped for road-crossing turtles and moved them where they were going, no matter how much peril this entailed for our own car. He loved animals, all animals. In his last few years he became a vegetarian, a choice that perplexed his parents and took them about three years to accept. He had a multi-volume animal encyclopedia that he often browsed through, and he’d frequently show me a picture of something like a naked mole rat or a fennec and insist, “I need one!” I liked the animals he showed me too, but I had to tell him no, which made him pout.

Steve, age 32

Steve, age 32

In the early 1980s Steve co-managed a used-record store in St. Louis and then one here in Carbondale. He was an expert on rock, jazz, and avant-garde classical music in particular. As a young man, he worked for a time as a janitor; with a St. Louis friend, he recorded three albums under the name The Janitors. He came to believe that Bach’s cantatas were the most sublime music ever written, but he also loved the Beatles with almost equal passion.

Most people seemed to recognize right away that Steve was a good-hearted person. Here was one act of generosity: Once when he was at the vet’s with our dog Sammy, a young client discovered she had no money to pay her bill. Steve offered to cover the charges. Our vet didn’t let him, but she often speaks of that gesture. On the other hand, Steve was capable of crimes against humanity, or at least music browsers. He was fond of telling me about the time at the St. Louis record store when he played Yoko Ono’s screechiest LP at top volume for 12 hours straight. Apparently not too many people browsed the bins on that day. It’s a wonder the store stayed in business, but it did well with Steve in charge.

Taken together, these two anecdotes epitomize the fact that Steve was a paradox. He was kind to people, yet he generally didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought about his actions. Nor did he mind making people feel uncomfortable or even driving them temporarily insane. In music, he had a tremendous capacity for loudness, dissonance, and the avant-garde. In his personal life, it was just the opposite. The modern world was too “noisy” for him—too many aggravations, impediments, hassles, and impositions for him to easily endure. He frequently said that he was born a few centuries too late.

He could never have been married to a normal, talkative, high-energy person. Whenever I became somewhat animated or enthusiastic in conversation, he accused me of “fizzing and popping.” I’m not sure if I ever pointed out that many of his LPs consisted largely of fizzing and popping, but he knew there were certain ones that he could play at top volume only when I was out of the house. These LPs stressed me out, but Steve enjoyed them and I think they helped him cope with stress.

Steve also used The Weather Channel as a calming agent—this in the days before the endless sensationalistic series it now favors. Often The Weather Channel was on at our house for hours, yet neither of us ever seemed to know the forecast. One morning we blearily watched the “Local on the 8s,” then looked at each other and said in unison, “Did you catch that?”

Steve was not materialistic. He bought used books and used records and little else. Eventually he did start amassing a CD collection, which burgeoned when he began an endeavor to Acquire Every Bach Cantata Ever Recorded (more than 200 are extant). He meticulously kept track of this project on sheets of graph paper. After his death I kept the papers, but let most of the CDs go. The sheer number—more than 80—was just too overwhelming to deal with in the midst of the hundreds of other CDs, LPs, and tapes he owned.

Steve liked the fact that he was born on the same date that Shakespeare was (probably) born. April 23 also is World Book Day, which seems appropriate. Steve loved books. He used to buy arcane, ratty old paperbacks—nonfiction, usually on history, philosophy, or art—for a quarter or so at the library book sales. If he spent more than a quarter, you knew it was something that he really wanted. Kurt Vonnegut was the major exception to this thriftiness. Steve would spring for a hardback when a new Vonnegut book came out, if I hadn’t already given it to him for a present.

Steve, age 48

Steve, age 48

Some other people and things that Steve liked: Bertrand Russell, Douglas Adams, Monty Python, Star Trek, Nick Drake, Eric Dolphy, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Jan Garbarek, Glenn Gould, chopped garlic slathered on thin-crust pizza, Sriracha Rooster hot sauce, desert boots (remember those?), black T-shirts, Asian paintings, African sculpture and masks, found objects used as art objects (I’ve kept a small green sewer lid he found before we were married), “Barney Miller,” “The Andy Griffith Show” (and its theme song, which he recorded onto a tape loop), Woody Allen, independent and foreign films, really bad movies (he called these “Liberty” movies, after the decrepit Liberty Theater in a nearby town, which showed mostly really bad movies for a dollar admission), “High Plains Drifter,” Sophia Loren, Heath Bar Blizzards, pocket watches instead of wristwatches, minimalism in almost every area of life, porches, trees (he couldn’t bear to see a tree cut down), and National Geographic, especially the maps they sometimes included.

A born nature lover, Steve had his happiest times during high school and college when he and his friend Perry hiked all over southeast Missouri and southern Illinois. Certainly Steve and I had our best days during vacation trips. I loved showing him places that were close to my heart from family vacations, but even better was traveling where neither of us had been before—like Craters of the Moon National Park, in Idaho, or New Hampshire’s Kancamagus Scenic Highway in the fall. Steve’s favorite states were Maine and New Mexico, along with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The remoteness was part of their appeal, I think. Had we ever made it to Alaska, I’m not sure I would have gotten him back to southern Illinois.

Fully half of Steve’s utterances to me came from other sources. Many of his favorite expressions were used by a subset of guys his age who were smart, deeply weird, and lovers of Monty Python and early Saturday Night Live. Some expressions were Steve’s own, and some I never have found sources for. Whenever I’m talking with someone, Steve-isms constantly fly out of my mouth, as if I’m channeling him. Here are just a few of the things that I heard a lot:

  • “Well, I can go to bed now, I learned something today.”
  • “I wasn’t expecting a sort of Spanish Inquisition!”
  • “Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time!”
  • “Evil, wicked, mean, and nasty.”
  • “42” (said to me with infuriating frequency whenever I asked him a question; Google it if necessary)
  • “Make up your feeble mind.”
  • “My hovercraft is full of eels.”
  • “The wrong side of town” (i.e., anything across the railroad tracks from our house, since that meant he could be caught by a train when running an errand there)
  • “Brrrr cold rays!” (when it was cold outside)
  • “I win!” (the sum total, start to finish, of Steve’s favorite game was simply to say “I win!”)

One original expression of Steve’s that I found hilarious was the time he referred to dog food as “proto-poop.” (Perhaps you had to be there.) Another time our neighborhood association was discussing the party noise coming from a rental house and Steve said to a friend of ours, “Maybe we could burn a boogie deck on their front lawn.” That still makes me laugh.

A quotation often directed at me was “Are you talking Pig Latin? What do all of those words mean?” (from the Dilbert cartoon in which Dogbert is answering the phone at a call center). Any number of circumstances could trigger that one. A saying that I came up with myself (to the best of my knowledge) was “I don’t have to talk to you and I don’t have to not talk to you.” Steve adopted this one immediately and later attempted to claim authorship of it. He was also very much into saying that he was going to copyright the word “the” so that he’d be rich and wouldn’t have to work anymore.

I miss all of this nonsense tremendously. Steve kept his private thoughts just that—private—so to a large extent these and a hundred other like expressions WERE Steve for me.

Academically, Steve was a psychology and philosophy double-major, and he was a special fan of Greek philosophy. This nearly crippled our marriage. One of the most exasperating things about Steve was that I couldn’t get him to discuss problems or to work through fights. Such “conversations” quickly derailed, with Steve heading one way, making intense, incomprehensible statements about Plato, while I headed another, usually trying to persuade him that he needed to take more initiative about things.

Steve’s tragedy was that he didn’t know what to do with his life. He could have been almost anything he wanted to be. Instead, as a master’s student, he racked up what probably still stands as the highest number of incompletes in the history of SIU’s philosophy department. So he worked as a secretary (a high-stress job, as anyone who’s ever been a secretary knows). When he hyperventilated on the way home from work one day, I suggested that he take a year off work and paint, which is what he really liked to do.

He knew a great deal about art, and though few people saw his work, he was an excellent painter of abstract compositions. So he quit work, painted a great deal, and eventually submitted some slides to a top Chicago gallery. Unfortunately, this was equivalent to a writer shooting for publication in The New Yorker right off the bat. He was rejected, but the gallery owner wrote him a note saying that he found the paintings interesting and to let him know if Steve was going to be showing his work in the Chicago area.

This outcome was kind of like winning second prize in the lottery: not what you’d hoped for, but pretty damn good. I knew this from my days of sending out poetry manuscripts to little journals (not The New Yorker), and I told Steve he had netted quite a compliment. But Steve never sent slides to a gallery again. When I began entering photographs in juried art shows in the region, I encouraged him to do the same. You need to build up a résumé to approach major galleries, I told him. No dice. Rejection, I think, just felt too risky to Steve, and it was easy for him to get his back up—especially when he knew his work was good.

And it was good. I still have two big Hollinger boxes full of Steve’s paintings (his medium was undiluted watercolor on paper). His parents took what I call the Rorschach approach to abstract art. Confronted with one of Steve’s paintings, they complimented it but would try their hardest to find something in it that resembled a real-world scene or object. In her mid-70s, Steve’s mom took a watercolor class and quickly showed a lot of talent at representational painting. So a few years after Steve and his dad died (both in 2008), I hauled the Hollinger boxes down to her and let her choose any paintings she wanted to keep. She may not like abstract art very much, but on some level she gets it. Damned if she didn’t pick some of the very best ones.

Steve, age 49

Steve, age 49

A much better cook than I was, Steve made great omelets and an excellent chunky marinara sauce with green peppers, mushrooms, and onions. But some things eluded him. He made several attempts at homemade pizza, but the crust never came out right. One Christmas his parents gave him a bread machine, which led to a couple of near-disasters, which led to the giving-away of the bread machine. And as many times as he tried, his homemade hummus never tasted like the kind in restaurants. But most of what he made was delicious.

Steve was less attentive to his appearance than just about anyone I’ve ever met. When his parents expressed their disapproval (“Why don’t you take some pride in how you look?”), he reminded them of what the Bible had to say about pride. (He was an atheist, but couldn’t bring himself to tell his Southern Baptist parents.) Steve felt he was unattractive—I never could convince him otherwise—and I think he just trained himself not to care. In the profile picture I posted on his Facebook memorial page (see above), his beard is neatly trimmed, but in the early years of our marriage it was long, skimpy, and scraggly, so that he looked a bit like an underfed Scots-Amish farmer.

The profile picture also shows Steve’s beloved hemp hat. He found these hats at the Neighborhood Co-op, and I bought one too. He loved this hat so much, he would have slept in it if he could have. He wore his winter and summer, outdoors and indoors, day and night, virtually 24/7, for years, until the sweat stains made it look as if he’d spit tobacco juice over the whole thing. Then holes developed where the brim attached. Finally even I couldn’t stand it, and I gave him my own hat, which I seldom used (too warm). He wore it sometimes but frequently reverted back to the Hat From Hell. The hat made Steve instantly recognizable on campus and in Carbondale generally.

On the rare occasions nowadays when I see a tall, thin guy wearing a similar kind of hat, my heart stops momentarily. I’m thinking it always will.

Failures of a book evangelist ~

At book sales and thrift shops I sometimes collar complete strangers who are perusing a book I’ve admired and urge them to buy it. Although this degree of enthusiasm doesn’t seem to have endeared me to anyone, I can’t seem to stop—encouraged, possibly, by the fact that no one yet has told me flat-out to shut up. Sometimes someone will talk to me, briefly; often people just sort of nod and edge away. As a confirmed book evangelist, I should perhaps add snake handling and talking in tongues to my efforts, because I’ve made only one convert to date. That is, on only one occasion have I known someone to read a book I’ve recommended. It’s #2 below, and my friend liked it very much, so at least I’m 1-0.

Since blogs seem an ideal platform for both evangelism and didacticism, and since the well of inspiration has run dry in other areas, I thought I’d push…um, recommend…a couple of dozen novels or short story collections published since 1980 that I can’t imagine anyone not admiring. How arrogant, eh? But I love these books. I LOVE THESE BOOKS and I want to share them with others, even JUST ONE PERSON. Most of these authors are well known, but some of the picks I’ve made haven’t gotten the attention they deserve.

  1. The Risk Pool, Richard Russo
  2. The History of Love, Nicole Krauss
  3. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
  4. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
  5. Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby
  6. Charms for the Easy Life, Kaye Gibbons
  7. Lighthousekeeping, Jeanette Winterson
  8. Postcards, Annie Proulx
  9. The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, Brady Udall
  10. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories, Alice Munro
  11. The Gold-Bug Variations, Richard Powers
  12. Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami
  13. A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, Julian Barnes
  14. Illumination Night, Alice Hoffman
  15. Jazz, Toni Morrison
  16. Collected Stories, T.C. Boyle
  17. Moo, Jane Smiley
  18. The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver
  19. Apologizing to Dogs, Joe Coomer
  20. Felicia’s Journey, William Trevor
  21. I Was Amelia Earhart, Jane Mendelsohn
  22. Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
  23. Skippy Dies, Paul Murray
  24. The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker

As long as I’m pushing, here are four more excellent books from this period that, amazingly enough, were made into excellent movies that stayed true to the source.

  1. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
  2. The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
  3. The Shipping News, Annie Proulx
  4. The Hours, Michael Cunningham

(I haven’t yet seen Life of Pi, but given the reviews I’ve read, it should be on this list as well.)

Because I’m the daughter of a champion list-maker, I keep a list of the books I read. It reminds me of authors I’ve enjoyed and books I’d like to re-read. At the same time, however, it’s a source of embarrassment, because I’ve forgotten every detail of many of these books.

I recently read an article about Philip Roth and thought that I really have given Roth short shrift and should read some of his later books. Consulting my list, however, I see that I’ve read The Anatomy Lesson and The Human Stain and The Dying Animal. (Plus Patrimony, which I do remember, perhaps because it is a memoir of Roth’s father’s aging and death, and it includes a horrifying scene that will stay with me forever.)

Recently, too, I decided that it was high time I read The Golden Notebook. And I guess I will have to, because evidently I retained nothing from reading it—as I just now discovered—in 2004. Dozens of other books have escaped my memory completely. What is Once Removed, by Mako Yoshikawa? Or American Fuji, by Sara Backer? Or True Enough, by Stephen McCauley? Is that even fiction? I forget most of the nonfiction I read, too.

There are novels I’ve read three times that I cannot recall the ending of. This bothers me no end (pun not initially intended), especially since my memory has always been my strong suit. When I complain to friends about this odd impairment, they make little soothing sounds instead of acknowledging the truth: Apparently I tear through books like candy, not stopping to savor them or contemplate them. When I try to discuss books, I sound like an amnesiac with little unconnected sparks of memory. (Fortunately, this is less true of classics than of contemporary fiction, which strikes me as a subject for rumination and possible tedious philosophizing).

Given these limitations, it may be arrogant for me to have set forth a list of books that I like so much, I literally want to push them into people’s hands. It’s probably arrogant even absent these limitations. But the books above I can vouch for. I can even talk about some of them.

Trust me.

I’m dying here ~

I’ve had little time lately to think about this blog, but as I grow older I’ve been thinking about my deficiencies and when life started going south. Flunking childhood had a lot to do with that. Take a look at the wondrous things I never mastered:

1. Blowing bubble-gum bubbles.
2. Whistling.
3. Hula-hooping.
4. Crossing the monkey bars.
5. Rollerskating, except for rollerskating on rough gravelly sidewalks.
6. Turning a cartwheel.
7. Standing on my head.
8. Throwing a softball.
9. Catching a softball.
10. Hitting a softball.
11. Sledding.
12. Swimming with any degree of competence.
13. Climbing trees.
14. Eating bugs.

What a dud! Even I wouldn’t have chosen me for teams in gym. (Interesting, the proportion of adults who claim the experience of being chosen last. Either their memory is impaired, or the last-chosen are very disproportionately represented among writers and actors and such.)

I could run, and I could ride a bicycle….I did love riding my bike. And I achieved one other near-mandatory childhood accomplishment: hurting yourself badly enough to require stitches. Yet even that I did in a sedentary way. Did I launch myself off the roof in a brief but glorious belief that I would fly? Sadly, no.

I was sitting on the back porch steps and somehow fell off, putting my front teeth cleanly through my….whatever the area between your chin and lower lip is called. But it hardly counts, since I did that when I was 2 and it couldn’t be chalked up to bad behavior. I had to be told some years later what happened, although I have a wispy memory—probably my earliest memory—of my mother rushing me to the doctor’s office across the street, and sitting on her lap across the desk from the doctor when all the painful stuff was over. I carry the scar to this day but can’t point to it as a badge of courage. Such a waste!

Like so many childhood duds, I found solace in books. I began reading at age 3, which led to several cringeworthy episodes, such as my mom making me read to my nursery school teacher to prove I could do it (they didn’t call it pre-school then). Yet both of my parents took a strong ethical stand against showing off or bragging in any context. It could get me or my sister into trouble, so we didn’t do it. My mother, the hypocrite! Dad wouldn’t have made me read for anyone.

Much more embarrassing was the day my kindergarten teacher sent me, alone through the echoing hallways, up up up to the eighth-grade class to read, sort of like a circus freak giving a show. This was not only humiliating, it was scary, because written on the blackboard was an equation, something like 8 + n = 14. Math with letters??! This was a truly alarming concept, and I was sure I’d never to able to comprehend it. Eighth grade would be my downfall. My struggles with performance anxiety may date to this episode.

Still, my early childhood was generally happy, especially during road-trip vacations in my family’s blue Volkswagen Beetle. But when I was 8 I learned that, like bugs and birds, I would someday die. On the instant I became terrified of death. Thus the end of Eden.

The fear of death has ruled and ruined my life. Some of my friends know this and some don’t. Medication has helped a lot over the years, but now I’m debilitated and the end isn’t somewhere beyond the horizon anymore. I don’t plan to write about it. I didn’t set out to write a confessional blog or a memoir. Bathos is pathetic (ha!). But like pitcher Nuke LaLouche in “Bull Durham,” I seem to be starting out with erratic control. You may remember this: In one game, after Nuke’s control has improved dramatically, the catcher (Kevin Costner, in what I think is his best role) instructs him to hit the team mascot with his next pitch. And so he does. Costner looks at the hitter and says, “I wouldn’t lean too far in.” He pauses as the hitter looks at him. “I don’t know where it’s going.”