Friday, June 25, 2010

The Olivetti lettera 32

Yet another material burden I relieved myself of when we moved was typewriters. I had two: an electric Brother, which was state-of the art on the eve of computer world-dominance. and even had a clumsy little memory. I also had a garage sale portable that I thought of as an objet-d’art.

I had previously jettisoned my rebuilt Remington on which I typed some of my undergraduate essays. It had a big dent in the carriage that I covered with an epigraph from Dylan’s Idiot Wind “Their minds are filled with big ideas, images, and distorted facts.” (Had I to do over I might choose from the same song: “You’re an idiot, babe, It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.”) I plucked the letters off the keys with a pair of pliers before I let it go.

Last week I plucked an Olivetti lettera 32 out of the trash. Oh man, I always wanted one of these. (Would now be a good time to confess that I can’t even actually type? I can process words with two fingers, which is fine because I can do that about as fast as I think (in other words not very fast) and then revise the heck out of it).

An Olivetti lettera 32 is a beautiful machine. Cormac McCarthy typed every one of his novels on one and then auctioned his off for the startling price of $254,000. Then he bought another one, but in better condition. I read that he paid a little over 300 for it.

When I needed Eddie, the main character in my novel, to buy a typewriter in Mexico City 1974, he bought himself an Olivetti lettera 32. Thus, he owned one before I did. He could also type better than I can, though I don't think I mentioned this in the book.

Last week I was watching the film version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. And sure enough, when Tom forges letters on Dickie’s typewriter to provide a paper trail suggesting Dickie is alive (and not dead, at Tom’s hands) he types them on Dickie’s lettera 32. However, the lettera 32 was not produced until 1963 and The Talented Mr. Ripley is set in the late fifties. Thus the movie was sloppy and totally unrealistic. Just kidding, it’s a terrific film.

But 1963 was an auspicious year: it’s said that every war correspondent writing from Viet Nam did so on an Olivetti lettera 32.

I’m going to order some ribbons for it. Then, after the apocalypse, when the grid has collapsed and word processors can’t be powered up because everyone only has a tiny bit of power that they have to save so they can blend up a pitcher of margaritas, I’ll sit on an orange crate in the market typing up letters and legal documents for hire. I’ll do yours for free, so long as you’re not in a hurry.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Report from Kachemak Bay Writers Conference 1

First: hats off to Carol Swartz and all, particularly the splendid Michael Cunningham, who set the tone, for three great days. I put the number one after my title to blackmail myself to write up more on the conference later. Meanwhile:

Why I Am Who I Am* (and also ***)

An exercise** prompted by Dinty W. Moore

My grandmother’s hands were strong; she needed them to be so to wrangle 50 pound sacks of flour in her bakery. When I think of the phrase “work your fingers to the bone,” I think of her hands.

And, then, of course, as I grew and she began to shrink, so did her hands. Her knuckles swelled and her veins rose to the surface. Liver spots.

She ended her days bedridden in a nursing home. There, my aunt painted her fingernails almost daily, a luxury she had not known in her working life.

By the time I was born, the Rouge had been polluted by a hundred years of sewage and industrial waste. Some days its odor rose up out of the woods like an invisible fog, a distinct odor, but of what? Sulphur, rotten gas, vague chemicals, dead fish, the bodies of carp rotting in evaporating pools where earlier in the spring the river had spilled over its banks. None of this quite captures the river’s peculiar foulness, which to us was natural: it was just the Rouge.

Rouge River
Asian Carp
Approaching thunderstorms
Felician nuns
Pagan babies
Red peril
Bomb shelters
Homemade popsicles
Tornado warnings
Fire drills.

The modesty of my childhood might be measured by the relative tameness of the phrases we were forbidden by our parents to speak.

Considering them now, I see that they are really both saying the same thing:

“So what?”
“I don’t care.”

Ironically, “I don’t care” often meant something like “yes, but you decide,” or “yes, but I don’t wish to appear greedy.”

“So what?” was pure insolence, and was understood as if intended to make my father’s head explode.

In our house, where there wasn’t much of anything, everything mattered.


* The four prompts for this exercise were given to us by Dinty, then we shuffled them into a random order, and only then were we told the title to the piece we had just composed.

** This was a great exercise, from a pedagogical point-of-view. I’d put it into my can‘t-miss-magic-hat-of-exercises, for sure. That is, students write very well for twenty minutes. Meaning: students were happy with what they wrote. Meaning: what the students wrote was pretty damned good . . . for an exercise. Mine was about average and wouldn’t have distinguished itself from the students who read theirs aloud. An odd thing I noticed was that all the people who read who were about my age (most of them!) read an exercise that had a lot of common elements, as if we shared some national collective childhood. So, we were tapped into something. But, what I couldn’t help noticing was that exercises (in general, even at their best) have a glass-ceiling: the writing has a long way to go to rise out of the stature of exercise to the status of something aspiring to the condition of literature. Many of us can do a nice push-up, but that ain’t playing the game.

*** A note on the title: jeez, I think my childhood was a lot happier than what follows the title! But of course (great deconstructive move, Dinty) the title follows the text, in its composition, at least. And yet, as Borges has noted: great writing (not mine) is often about darker subjects: happiness is its own reward! Look: I've used exclamation points: I am becoming retarded.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Lost and Found

My current living situation is this: about three fourths of the books I own are stored in boxes in my garage. This is due, mostly, to having moved from a very large house in the rural midwest to a very modest-sized house in Anchorage.

I went out to the garage the other day searching for an anthology in which appears Michael Cunningham’s terrific story “White Angel.” This shouldn’t be so much a needle-in-the-haystack affair: there should be a whole box of anthologies. But I have not seen the box since we arrived here in Anchorage.

What I found instead was my collection of Canadian Alpine Journals, Dougal Haston and Peter Gillman’s, Direttisima, which I forgot I even owned, and which would have been invaluable a few months back when I was writing an essay on Haston. I also found one copy of my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1970). I really like the 1970 edition because that’s the year I started paying attention to words. I actually have another copy of the same edition, so I can have one at my office and one at home. Thus: the other copy of the dictionary is missing. However, on the plus side, I located the third edition of the same dictionary, from 1992. This is my second favorite dictionary. Comparing definitions from these two dictionaries, published 22 years apart, is the best evidence I know to demonstrate that language is fluid, evolving (or, as some would have it, devolving). However, the largest book I own, or once owned, the Oxford English Dictionary, remains missing. I have the magnifying glass, though. I am trusting that it, and the duplicate American Heritage, are out there, along with my vintage Icelandic to English dictionary, which I love purely as an object in the world.

On the plus side I retrieved my mostly unread copy of Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory, as well as the 20th anniversary edition of Boulevard, which belongs at the office with the rest of the Boulevards. Finally, here is the long-lost Illustrated Guide to Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue by Tyson and Cleland which has the best drawings for making and attaching prussic slings, a task which for me never seems to become second nature and which I will be needing very soon for a Byron Peak attempt.

The only books I know for certain are lost were mailed here: one box arrived opened and half-empty. It had been filled with American Alpine Journals and now my collection has holes. The rest of the missing books aren’t really missing, I have faith in their presence out there among the rest of the human detritus for which there is no room indoors: bicycles, skis, wicker furniture, plastic tubs filled with random household goods, studded winter tires, including a set of four for a car we don’t even own. It’s a sad state of affairs, but temporary.

Oh, and I never found my “White Angel.” I found (miraculously) a copy in the library, but what I didn’t find in the library is another story, longer and sadder.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


My mother’s father, Jack Flynn, is the only veteran I know of in my family history. And the only Memorial Day in my childhood that I can remember being celebrated in a traditional way was a singular visit to the cemetery outside of Capac, Michigan where he was laid to rest. I can’t say that I know too much about him, except for the fact that after returning from World War I he finished studies at Detroit College of Law , but never practiced. In fact, never worked, at all. My mother, and her sister, rarely spoke of him—a fact they don’t quite acknowledge, even now. Every year I find out another fact, or two, about him, for example, this year I learned he wore spatz every day. Spatz.

In an early Jules Verne story, space travelers expel a dead dog from their “rocket ship,” only to find that the dog, named “Satellite,” remains with the ship as it hurtles toward the moon through empty space. In this way, Robert Pogue Harrison reminds us, in his book, The Dominion of the Dead, the dead “like to stay close to the living.” I, too, feel that they are never far from us.

So Memorial Day, I think no more nor less of the dead that any other day. I do however think of the past. It’s really the first day of summer. The smell of mown lawn and motor oil. Ernie Harwell’s voice (Godpseed, Ernie!) describing Al Kaline fouling off pitch after pitch until he finds just the one to line into the gap. Strohs, fire brewed for flavor, preferably in long-necked bottles, recapped so many times that they’re gone grey around the edges. Or Faygo Rock and Rye. Vernors. The last days of grade school, the promise of summer upon us exactly like . . . the promise of summer.