Thursday, February 22, 2018

While I Can Still Remember This

In which I begin by lamenting what I have forgotten and end by lamenting over what I cannot forget.

After not working out at the gym for about two years I surprised myself by opening my combination lock on the first try, the three numbers etched into my mind but uncalled upon for months.  I felt pretty smug about this.

My body has been steadily disintegrating for about fifteen years.  Whose hasn’t?

The Liard Hot Springs south of Whitehorse on the Al-Can Highway is one of my favorite stops.  I was therefore surprised that my sons were not looking forward to stopping there on our second time driving north together.  “We call that place the Pools of Misery.”  I didn’t get it.  “It’s all old people in there," they said, “Complaining about everything in the whole world.”

Last week I could not find within my memory the name of the largest mountain on the skyline on the west side of the Chugach Range.  It is a mountain I look at every single day (cloudlessness permitting) and have climbed dozens of times.  But I could not remember its name.  This was alarming.

Henry Staten used the metaphor of going to a library shelf and looking exactly where the book should be on the shelf, but finding the exact space the book was suppose to inhabit empty. I only remember the metaphor, not the phenomenon it was supposed to illustrate.

The Chugach skyline from north to south: Tiklisha, Tanaina, BLANK, O’Malley, Ptarmigan, Peak 3, Peak 2, Flattop.  They appear in different orders depending on your vantage point.

It’s happening, too, with names of books and authors.  I once had a heightened ability to call these to mind instantly. But less so now.

Although I generally sleep poorly, sometimes just before dawn I fall into a profoundly deep sleep.  When I awaken from this state I am conscious only of being awake, alive, in my body.  It takes a couple minutes before I remember I have an identity, a name, a history.

I lost the name of an author when I was teaching the other day and my students said I needed a memory box, like the kind Jonathan Lethem constructed (out of words) for his characters in Gun with Occasional Music, written in the early 1990s.

“Man,” Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1834, “is a tool-using animal.”  Though we now know of animals that use tools.

When someone “consults” their memory in Lethem’s dystopia they take out a small electronic box and ask it a question and the memory box answers them in their own voice, rather like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa.

“Memory was permissable when it was externalized. And rigorously edited. That left you with more room in your head for the latest pop tune—which was sure to be coming out of the nearest water fountain or cigarette machine.”~Lethem

My smart phone is sort of malfunctioning: it now must be turned off to be charged.  Every morning I turn it back on and a date and a time flash on the screen.  But it’s not today’s date or the present time, nor the previous day’s.  As far as I can tell it’s a completely random date and time.  Then after a pause, the correct date and time appear.

I am reminded that there is information stored in my mind that I don’t know is there.  To “prove” this to myself, I look at a list of the Top 100 Hit Songs from 1966.  Down at the bottom I see Johnny Rivers’ Secret Agent Man.  Haven’t heard this, or thought of this, in decades. But the tune and words come back to me in a flash.

In the third quarter of 2012 one billion smart phones were in use.

Off and on throughout the day I tried to remember the name of the peak, but it would not be summoned.  A full day passed before I looked it up in my datebook.  I knew that I had last climbed it on New Year’s Day: Wolverine Peak.

No one knows anyone’s phone numbers any more: our phones “save” them for us.

But I remember the phone number of the house I lived in up to 1965: Garfield 2-6612.  I also remember the phone number of Twin Pines Dairy: Texas 41-100 and I hear it in the voice of their television ad: “If you want worry free/ home dee-liv-er-y/call Twin Pines/Texas four one one oh oh.”

My laptop computer and cell phone are memory boxes.  My journals, notebooks, drafts, photographs (slides), published works. My laptop tells me there are 12,348 photos stored in its memory.  In the future almost none of these will survive and what has it all been, really, except an overstatement of the fact: “He was here.”

After my son died I sometimes listened to a long voicemail message that he had left on my phone.  And wept again when that phone lost its memory.

Nietzsche defined man as “the remembering animal.”  But we all know that remembering is not specific to humans.

My grandmother spent about the last six years of her life in a nursing home bed.  She couldn’t see well, but recognized me because I wear a beard, that she did not like.  Conversing with her was difficult, but my aunt would prep us with “talking points,” as if much of what was in my grandmother’s head was inaccessible, but with key phrases we could unlock little anecdotes.

It’s okay, I guess, that my son’s voicemail message is lost forever because the message itself was sadder than the fact of having lost it.

My grandmother liked to talk about the night they arrived in Onaway in the Upper Peninsula on the train.  It was raining and they had supper at a diner where she ate stewed tomatoes from a chipped bowl.  This would have been about 1905.

I do have the last text message from him: Yo dude. I fell skating and I’m pretty sure I snapped my ankle. Could you drive me to the clinic please?  I did drive him to the clinic. His ankle would indeed turn out to be “snapped.”  When he died two months later he was still wearing the soft cast, crutches in the back of his snow-filled truck bed.

Nietzsche also claimed that the existence of forgetting has never been proved.  We only know that some things cannot be recollected when we want them.

I have often wondered what else was in my grandmother’s head in her final years, what else over and above the talking points?  We tried to get her to reveal the mystery of her brother’s death.  Uncle Jimmy, my mother and my aunt called him. But she wouldn’t tell us.  It was a secret that she would take to her grave and she wanted it to be that way.  Her knowing smile told us all we would ever know.

The cause of my son’s death, although essentially mysterious, was “accidental drowning.”  His brother and I have theorized that being out of cell phone coverage frustrated him and he threw his useless phone across the river.  Thought better of it and set to cross the river and retrieve it.  Winter in Alaska: hypothermia and drowning ensued. His phone was never recovered.

Human beings are smart phone using animals.  But there is no evidence this usage is making us any smarter: “A "smombie" (a combination of "smartphone" and "zombie") is a walking person using a smartphone and not paying attention as they walk, possibly risking an accident in the process, an increasing social phenomenon.”

My aunt recalled that my grandmother once said that she would never forget the look on her mother’s face when she was told the news about Jimmy.

The last image of my son ever taken was shown to me on the cell phone of one of the officers who delivered the awful news.  I wish that I could forget it, or find myself unable to recollect it.  But the opposite is true: I am unable to not recollect it.

Wolverine Peak.

Wolverine Peak.

Wolverine Peak.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

In Which I Interview Myself with Questions Stolen from Teddy Wayne

Without summarizing in any way what would you say your book (FORTY CROWS) is about?

Any descriptor is a form of summary, and summary is a reduction, so I hate to say it’s a coming-of-age story, even though that’s what it is.  It’s about getting in over your head.  Love, loss, history. You know: go big, or go home.

                                         Photo by Dave Jordano

Without explaining why and without naming other writers or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?

I can barely talk about anything at all without naming writers or books.  But here goes: cultural and historical people and events: Diego Rivera, Henry Ford, Detroit, Viet Nam, Mexico City, the 1970s.  Boxing.  Childhood.

Without using complete sentences can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?

I already didn’t use complete sentences in the last answer, extra credit?  Mainly trying to be a parent.  The job there is never enough time for.  Most of the book was eked out a page at a time.

What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers/reviewers?

I haven’t had too may reviews, but most were positive.  One was not.  I remember thinking “I see what he means” and then instantly put it behind me.  I forget now what his critique was.

If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of requirements and/or talents) what would it be?

You can call writing a career if you want, but it doesn’t pay the bills for very many people.  Toni Morrison and Richard Ford work in universities!  I am lucky to have found teaching as a career and I have often thought about what I would do differently if given the chance and never been able to come up with a better choice.  I think about the first cardiologist I went to. I was about the same age as she was (late 30s!) and she was new in her practice.  It was probably the first time I spoke with a doctor as if we were equals.  Somehow it came out in the conversation that if she hadn’t amassed a zillion dollars in student loans, she would rather be baking bread.  And my condition went undiagnosed for another few decades.

What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?

While I feel reasonably competent at talking about the writing other people do, I tend to look at my own work as some mysterious object I had no conscious hand in producing, like: “Where did this thing come from?”   I have a tendency to want to tell the whole story when everyone would be a lot better off if I could just learn to start in the middle of things, like I always tell my students to do.

How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has, or should have, an interest in what you have to say about anything?

I’m very grateful for every reader who finds me, but, in truth, it’s not a very large club.  Hubris is a double-edged sword: if you don’t have any, you won’t write anything at all; if you have too much you will be appropriately resented.  In Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet, a character says “I want what we all want.  To move certain parts of the interior of myself into the external world, to see if they can be embraced.”  Some days I feel like that.  But mostly when I’m working, I’m in the writing world, and what happens to the work when it leaves me is, quite literally, out of my hands. 

Note: These are the questions Teddy Wayne asked  in “5 Writers, 7 Questions, No Wrong Answers,” in on February 13, 2018.

The photo of the four guys was taken by Dave Jordano, who has two books of photos about Detroit, visit him at Used with permission.