Sunrise hints at the horizon, glowing a vivid red against long strands of dark purple clouds. A few minutes pass, and the light has turned to a brilliant orange, gorgeous, illuminating the fractured textures of the clouds which shift imperceptibly, the scene in a slow but fascinating state of flux.
And others sleep.
Earlier this year, I had a mental epiphany reading the conclusion to The Grapes of Wrath, so powerful, so deep, so meaningful. I was glad to be alive, living that rare moment.
And others slept, or engaged in idle chatter, or numbed their senses encased in their headphones.
We have allowed ourselves to grow numb, not feeling, not seeing, not living.
So Alone, Sometimes I Feel Alone
6 A.M., New Year's Eye, and I feel a bit like I'm the only person in the world. Now that I'm on my train I see plenty of others, but coming here every intersection was deserted. Fifteen minutes of driving and only one red light. The red light was at Six Corners, where I turned south on Raynor, off my usual route, intrigued by illuminated neon in a storefront window.
Proprietor must have left it on last night, I thought to myself, but as I approached I was surprised to see the neon say "OPEN", with the interior lights on and a middle-aged barber sitting in one of the chairs, reading a newspaper. What kind of person gets a haircut at 6 A.M. is a question better left to the sociologists, but I assume the barber is simply an early riser, and figures he might as well spend his early morning in his shop, on the off-chance that he'll have a customer.
Just like my dad, who gets to the office two hours before any of his employees. Maybe the barber just likes his solitude, and the quiet peace of the early morning hours.
Voracious Readers, Beware!
Had I not discovered eBay as a means of liquidating excess reading material, this could easily have been my fate.
Man Trapped Under Books, Papers Rescued
By Associated Press
Published December 30, 2003
NEW YORK -- A man who says he sells books and magazines on the street was rescued after being trapped for two days under a mountain of reading material in his apartment.
Patrice Moore, 43, had apparently been standing up when the books, catalogs, mail and newspapers swamped him on Saturday. Firefighters and neighbors rescued Moore on Monday afternoon and he was hospitalized in stable condition Tuesday morning with leg injuries.
"I didn't think I was gonna get out," Moore told the New York Post, adding that he called for help repeatedly.
His landlord discovered him Monday after coming to the apartment to give Moore a small loan and heard a strange voice inside. The landlord pried the door open with a crowbar, found Moore trapped and alerted the fire department.
The apartment was stuffed from wall to wall and floor to ceiling with stacks of paper.
Emergency workers and neighbors dug through the debris to reach Moore, filling 50 garbage bags with paper. He was freed about a half hour later, said Fire Department spokesman Paul Iannizzotto.
Moore, a former mailroom clerk now receiving public assistance, said he collected books and magazines for more than 10 years and earned money by selling them on the street.
The incident recalled the legendary case of the Collyer brothers, who in 1947 were discovered dead in their house in Harlem after one of them became trapped under a pile of papers and the other died of starvation.
Just finished The Seven Stairs by Stuart Brent (further commentary here), and was struck by his 1988-vintage assessment of the deteriorated state of the publishing industry and the fate of the independent bookseller. I can't help but wonder what he'd think today, with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders and discount retailers all but decimating the independents. (In Brent's day, the behemoth competitor was Kroch's & Brentano's, a now-defunct chain whose former dominance now seems rather quaint.)
On a somewhat related note, I'm reminded of one of my favorite commentaries on the literary establishment, which comes--not surprisingly--from "The Simpsons." Hans Moleman is in the Springfield Airport, at a bookstore called "Just Crichton and King":
Hans: Do you have any books by Robert Ludlum? Clerk (evilly): Get out.
A Writer's Evolution
In the back of my mind, I've always wanted to be a writer, but until recently I've never done anything about it. I had written various essays and abortive fiction pieces, but never anything of "finished quality." I've come to realize there are several stages to the evolution of a writer:
1] Informal writer
3] Professional writer
4] Full-time professional writer
When I submitted my story "Discord" to Glimmer Train in September for their "Short Story Award for New Writers" contest, I considered myself to have advanced from Stage 1 to Stage 2. And the following email confirms this:
Although your story did not win this time, we thank you very much for letting us read your work—it was a pleasure. We look forward to seeing more of your stories!
Linda and Susan
Ah, my first rejection letter. How special. I guess I'm technically at Stage 2a, that of "Writer who has gone to the effort of submitting a piece for publication, and has formally been rejected."
Actually, this doesn't bother me that much. Looking back, I realize "Discord" had quite a few flaws, and I certainly didn't expect to win the first contest I ever entered. Fortunately, I didn't just sit around waiting for the contest results, and instead kept writing. I'm much happier with my later efforts, the stories "Mahalia" and "Mighty Casey", and the novel-in-progess Eden. I've finished my first revision on "Mahalia", and Julie agrees that it's a big improvement over the earlier story. Now it just needs a bit more polishing, and then I need to figure out where to submit it.
The Big Lug
After all, a blog isn't really a blog without a self-indulgent cat photo. This is Spike, the second of three in our feline collection.
The Nothing Man
I just finished reading Jim Thompson's The Nothing Man, and I was quite pleased. Somewhat surprisingly so. This was one Thompson novel I had never heard of, having only come across it in a three-novel compilation that I picked up for three dollars in a used bookstore in Boston. And about halfway through, it was starting to seem like the protagonist's murders were rather gratuitous, not unlike those which soured me on Thompson's revered The Killer Inside Me.
But then the ending hits, and suddenly the book is not what it had seemed. Clifton Brown is indeed a nothing man, not really existing as his own self but instead living through manipulating and tormenting others. He thinks he's winning the game, but as it turns out he's been losing all along. And the local sheriff will see to it that he continues to do so, denying him the grand exit he desires. Excellent indeed.
"Best Gift Ever"
The Night Yields
The view is subtly beautiful, although little can be seen. All is indigo, charcoal and black, trees barely seen as they cower in silent shadow and scattered porchlights illuminating little beyond a few square feet of gray earth. In the distance, the overhead lights of the highway form an endless outstretched necklace of amber. The neighborhoods stay hidden in the weak early light.
The reverie begins to dissolve upon reaching the twin thoroughfares of Western Avenue and Western Boulevard, two streets which run just a few yards from each other, the tines of a tuning fork: ramrod straight, perfectly parallel, gleaming with reflected light and vibrating with a steady tone. The two streets, which travel together for over two miles coming out of Gage Park and Garfield Boulevard to the south, dissolve into one just north of here, for while two streets are an affordable luxury on land, two bridges over the Sanitary Canal would be an expensive redundancy.
Practical considerations begin to take shape here, just as the sky begins to lighten into gray, revealing more details of the surrounding area. Thoughts of the workday ahead mix readily with the sight of construction lots and rows of tidy homes.
My eyeglasses were an annoyance. Though it was painful to try seeing without them, they made it impossible to get a clear view through the viewfinder of my Mamiya. Every time I needed to compose a shot, I had to shove my glasses up onto my forehead to get them out of the way, returning them to their normal position as soon as the photo was taken.
This slowed me down quite a bit, and I felt I needed to hurry. Though I would have preferred to casually stroll the neighborhood, self-consciousness made me move rapidly through the streets, looking all around for subjects, composing and photographing quickly and moving on. For I felt that I really didn't belong here. The denizens of the neighborhood, who eyed me and my camera warily, were clearly not of my kind. While I felt no ill will toward them, I can't say they felt the same about me. The area contained nothing which was conventionally considered photogenic, so the presence of my camera and my obvious curiousity undoubtedly made them uneasy. And I lacked the charisma necessary to put them at ease.
So while the streets had no shortage of fascinating potential subjects, human and otherwise, my abbreviated stay resulted in photographs which were less than satisfying, and failed to capture the neighborhood's vital essence.
Interesting thoughts on mentoring from Stuart Brent in The Seven Stairs:
He will not forsake you when the going is rough, but in his relations he holds to a fine line between friendship and duty--and holds you to this line also. I had already experienced the danger of the kind of benefactor who tends to take over your life for you but with Jack Pritzker there is never this danger. He prefers that you make it on your own. If you are beset by circumstances which you cannot control, he is there; but if you are merely waiting for something to happen, you can expect nothing but the criticism you deserve.
Pritzker's approach is almost identical to that of one of the two main characters of my novel, a successful pioneer farmer who befriends a worthy but drifting younger man, and subtly works to help him establish himself. Brent's quotation is an inspiration to me--I'll definitely keep this idea in mind while I'm doing the first of many rewrites.
Yesterday I finished the first draft of my first novel attempt, Eden. Most of it was written during this year's and last year's NaNoWriMo, with a few thousand words added this month. Now I'm starting to realize that writing a 240-page rough draft consisting in longhand is actually the easy part. Next come the tedious (transcribing it into a word processing program) and the challenging (more research, backfilling, fact-checking, proof-reading and who knows how many revisions) parts before I get anywhere near to completing a finished novel.
I've never tackled a writing project that even approaches this magnitude. I suppose I'll break the draft down into manageable sections, and refine-and-polish one section at a time to make the task seem a bit less impossible. Otherwise, if I tried to tackle it beginning-to-end, I could see myself getting bogged down and giving up rather quickly. I simply have to fight through that temptation, and remind myself that this is a labor of love (or should be) that could easily take several years to finish. Especially since I won't be quitting my full-time job or abandoning my family in pursuit of this far-flung dream.
Wish me luck.
The New Malloy
His rounded shoulders and thick neck filled the upper portions of his wool peacoat. He seemed to carry his frame risen up, as if about to pounce, as if compensating for his smallish stature. He was a tightly wound ball of muscle and tension, with a cigarette clenched in his left fist which he raised to his lips to inhale from far too frequently for his own good. His obvious tension was no doubt due, in part, to the nicotine, along with the possibility of other undisclosed substances.
Where he was heading was far from clear, but he was going there briskly and aggressively, crossing against the Dont Walk light, weaving like a halfback seeking daylight. His pants were dark navy and plain, suggesting manual labor, and his shoes were black hightops, the workboots of the new milennium. In an earlier era he might have been heading to the docks, a childhood friend of Terry Malloy, his outfit today lacking only a grappling hook to perfect the image. But he was downtown, home to only white collars, its workingmen generally limited to busboys serving the office brigade and ironworkers tossing up another tower to house their papermoving crusades.
The Manchurian Candidate
But is a remake of the great film really necessary, especially one starring Denzel Washington? I mean, what's next? "On the Waterfront 2004", starring Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston?
Steve Chapman wrote an interesting column (registration required; sorry...) in yesterday's Chicago Tribune about Konrad Adenauer, Germany's chancellor from 1949 to 1963. Adenauer, who is seemingly forgotten today, was recently named in a recent poll of Germans as the greatest person their country has ever produced, topping such better-known luminaries as Einstein, Martin Luther, Beethoven and Karl Marx. A few key excerpts:
Criticized for allowing former Nazis to occupy high offices, he took the view that only the unrepentant should be shunned. He cultivated friendship with the new state of Israel and embraced West Germany's obligation to pay restitution to Jews for Hitler's crimes. When the Arab League threatened to sever trade, he replied, "There are higher things to think about than business deals."
...He thought his country could function only in humble partnership with its neighbors.
...Adenauer was responsible more than anyone else for the successful creation of a free and democratic state where Nazism once reigned. He also did everything he could to make sure Germany would never again pose a threat to the peace of Europe and the world.
With his aversion to nationalism, Adenauer was once accused of being "a good European but a bad German." From a "bad German" came a good Germany.
The Bush Adminstration could learn a lot from Adenauer's example, were it not so convinced of its self-righteous goodness that it shuns all criticism and inward reflection. To whit:
+ His decision to allow Nazis to occupy high offices, as long as they were repentant for their past ties, is in direct contrast to Bush's banning of all Baath party members from Iraq government jobs. Surely more than a few of these bureaucrats were Baathists in name only, and joined the party more out of expedience than political belief. The fate of the Kurds and Shiites under Saddam's regime clearly showed it was best to stay on the dictator's good side, even if that meant as little as officially joining a political party. If this also meant gainful government employment, the decision to join the party was even easier. With the U.S. taking over control of Iraq, the best way to win the loyalty of Baathists would have been to keep them in their jobs, always reminding them what a favor the U.S. was bestowing, rather than summarily firing them. This would have also maintained some continuity of government services, which would have averted much of the chaos which ensued and greatly eased the transition to Iraqi self-governance. Adenauer clearly understood this fact.
+ "There are higher things to think about than business deals." What an astounding statement, and an idea which would undoubtedly bewilder the Bush Administration, whose invasion of Iraq is looking more and more like it was motivated by the prospect of reconstruction work for military- and civil engineering-contractors like Halliburton and Bechtel.
+ "A good European but a bad German." Adenauer looked beyond myopic self-interest in striving to better the world as a whole, defying nationalistic concerns. The Bush Crusade, on the other hand, thinks only of increasing the might of the already predominant U.S. The rich striving to be richer, even if it requires stomping on the poor.
G. Gordon Liddy
In Talking to Myself, Studs Terkel presents the transcript of a fascinating conversation he had with two longtime Chicago hoodlums, Doc Graham and Kid Pharoah, in which he sought their professional take on the Watergate break-in. They thought it was a botched job, one which was inadvisedly entrusted to amateurs, and both considered G. Gordon Liddy to be the only honorable man involved, given that he went to prison rather than testify against Nixon.
Liddy was the guest speaker at a weekend retreat held by my MBA program at the University of Illinois, ten years ago. Liddy said he considered going to prison to be merely part of his job of protecting the president, no matter the cost. In effect, he was Christ, dying for Tricky's sins. (Actually, the Christ inference is purely my own; Liddy actually equated himself to being the good soldier, taking a bullet for his commanding officer.) What struck me most about Liddy's talk is that, when asked if he felt sorry for what he had done (managing the illegal break-in, refusing to testify, going to prison), he responded in the negative, saying instead that he only felt sorry for getting caught.
That's what struck me the most back then. Ten years later, what strikes me most is that Liddy was ever asked to address us in the first place. Here was a convicted criminal, a defiantly unscrupulous man, speaking to a freshly-scrubbed batch of tomorrow's business leaders, and being treated with reverence, as a man of honor. It really makes me wonder what my MBA program's administration could possibly have been thinking when it was decided that a man like Liddy was an appropriate choice as a speaker and guest.
Is it really any wonder than Enron, Worldcom and the Wall Street scandals occurred? While I know that the MBA classes of '93 had little significant impact on any of those messes, the choice of Liddy as an honored guest is quite symbolic of the values being imparted to business students, today and in the past.
"Did he expect me drive, all the way in? From Hinsdale, in all that traffic?"
He gestures extravagantly to his companion with a westward sweep of his arm, his fingertips brushing my sleeve as I walk past, too focused on his narrative to realize either his affront or any need to apologize.
Further along a man walks in the other direction, as he does every day, wearing a pricey weekend-woodsman coat, jeans and hikers. His beard is long, full and going gray, his piercing eyes staring out through wire-rimmed glasses. The first impression is of a Methodist minister, a thoughtful ascetic mentally composing the week's sermon, were it not obvious that he is just another commuter on the way to his office. Perhaps, instead, the director of a hard-pressed non-profit organization, trying to contemplate where the next round of funding will be found.
From a distance, the great multipaned window wall which rises above the southwest exit doors of the Civic Opera House appears to be shattered. But with a few more steps the cracks seem to move, and I realize the cracks are actually the thin, bare limbs of a pathetic little tree which stands directly across the street from the building.
Descending the ramp from the station, amongst hundreds of marching figures, a coat is seen with the menacing trademark of Iron Fist, which immediately calls to mind the more benevolent lyric of Billy Bragg:
I kept the faith and I kept voting
Not for the iron fist, but for the helping hand
For theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man
Hildegard and Jan
They were together for over fifty years, living partly for themselves but mostly for each other. When her tireless efforts finally succeeded in freeing him from the Communist prison--abandoning the dream of Czech freedom in exchange for his own--they vowed they would never be apart. A new, long life in America, living the dream and living it well.
The collision was horrific, head-on. Ambulances arrived almost immediately, and she noticed through blurred vision that the paramedics were working much less urgently on him than they were on her. She realized she could not hear his voice, nor were the paramedics talking to him. She longed to hear him, fully expecting to hear his words of comfort which had reassured her so many times before, albeit under much less dire circumstances.
As she drifted in and out of consciousness, the ambulance took her away, speeding down the highway towards the nearest trauma center. When coherent, she wondered where he was, only to slip back into senselessness. She was again alert, though only modestly so, when the ambulance arrived at the hospital after a long twenty miles. Her injuries were severe, though not necessarily life-threatening. Her youngest son soon arrived at the emergency room, the police having reached him minutes after the accident. He signed the forms necessary for her treatment, but more importantly he had to deliver the news.
Her husband had died, instantly.
She listened with remarkable calm, and after a long thoughtful pause she forced a few quiet words, painfully, from her damaged chest.
"It's alright," she whispered, already slipping away. "I can go now."
They would never live apart, just as they had always said.
The river, which in pioneer days was a marshy trickle on the table-flat prairie, now flows through a canyon, whose walls now draw all attention away from the river itself. The towering buildings and concreted riverbanks rise precipitously above the water's surface, housing the office workers and transporting pedestrians all of whom are too preoccupied to give the river any notice. The river which, after all, is the reason this great city rose on this formerly desolate stretch of lakefront in the first place.
Once the hub of the city's perpetual bustle, heavy barge traffic going to and fro from the wharves which once lined the banks, taking in all manner of goods to be merchanted on the chaos of South Water Street, the river now flows quietly. The rare barge comes through, loaded with gravel or scrap metal from either the north or south branches, its pushboat providing an inkling of the long-lost allure of river life. But more common are the pleasure boats bound for the more affordable inland marinas, and the tourist-laden excursion liners offering rote, superficial lectures to listeners who are mostly there to enjoy the sun. The river, once so incomparably vital, is now just another part of the scenery, and a minor one compared to the soaring towers which remain forever in its debt.
A recent discovery that I'm thoroughly enjoying is Ramsin Canon's writings on Gaper's Block. His most recent effort, Overtime: Born in Chicago, Creaking Towards Death, is particularly excellent. Highly recommended.
Final Tally: 31,136 Words
Once again, NaNoWriMo was a great experience. While I fell far short of both the ideal goal of 50,000 words and my more realistic goal of 36,000 words, the important thing is that I was able to fight through my inherent inertia and now have something that resembles a completed draft of my first novel. My substandard word count is something I anticipated going in, and is due to several factors: a) I wrote only in longhand; b) other than an early-rising session on Thanksgiving morning, I did no writing at home (after all, I do have a family life to consider, particularly a three-year-old daughter who craves her daddy's attention when he gets home from work); and c) I did most of my writing on my Metra train, whose cramped seating and bumpy ride aren't terribly conducive to productive writing sessions.
The discipline of writing diligently every day (subtly enforced by NaNoWriMo) had some interesting facets. At first, it was intoxicating, narcotic-like. I couldn't even think of sitting on my train and not writing (in fact, on several occasions I kept writing long after my stop, and almost got stuck on the train), and felt very frustrated if I was unable, due to workload at the office, to slip out to a coffeehouse in the afternoon for a quick session. But later on, the euphoria wore off and it began to feel like more of a grind; I had to force myself to churn out pages, thinking only of the increasingly elusive magic number of 36,000. But late in the month, when I found myself 10,000 words shy and knowing I wouldn't get much writing done over the holiday weekend, my productivity picked up quite a bit and the writing went much more smoothly. It helped that I revised my goal downward to 30,000 words for a more reasonable target, which I barely cleared on the last train ride of the month. The 1,000 words I generated on Thanksgiving morning was pure gravy, if you'll pardon the seasonal pun.
So, where am I now? Between this year's NaNoWriMo and last year's, plus a bit of work last February, I now have over 46,000 words written for Eden. (I'm changing the title to something less hackneyed, such as Down to Earth.) My various plot lines are rapidly resolving themselves, and one climax has already quietly ensued with the demise of one main character. Now I simply need to come up with a fitting conclusion for the other main character, and I'll have a finished rough draft. I'm tackling several big themes all at once--19th Century settlement of the prairie heartland, Irish ethnic identity, the utopian movement and digging of the Illinois & Michigan Canal--which might be overly ambitious for a first novel, but somehow it's all coming together. Once the rough draft is finished, I'll be diligently reading Mark Holloway's Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America 1680-1880, Charles Boewe's Prairie Albion: An English Settlement in Pioneer Illinois, Mark McCutcheon's Everyday Life in the 1800s and Catherine Tobin's PhD dissertation The Lowly Muscular Digger: Irish Canal Workers in Nineteenth Century America as background material to both expand and improve the historical accuracy of my rough draft.
I heartily recommend NaNoWriMo to both established and aspiring writers. One really feels a sense of community in participating in this project, and the encouragement and motivation it provides to one's writing efforts are of inestimable value.
There's renewed hope for used book stores. Over the weekend, I was finally introduced to Bookzeller, a wonderful little store tucked into a basement in downtown Naperville. With the rise of the big box stores and online sellers (both of which have their virtues, I must admit), I had begun to rue the fate of the good old-fashioned, quirky used book store, which made my discovery of Bookzeller even more of an unexpected treat. It reminded me quite a bit of the Boston book stores that we prowled during our August vacation, particularly Brattle Book Shop--it even had a small outdoor section, with bargain shelves just outside the front door, at the bottom of the stairs. And I couldn't help enjoying the pun of the store's name, which invokes both "seller" and "zeller", the German word for cellar. I was delighted to walk away with a cheap copy of "The Seven Stairs" (the memoirs of legendary Chicago bookseller Stuart Brent) from an entire section of Chicago-related titles, and Julie picked up an interesting Marian Keyes collection as well. This store is definitely a keeper--this is just the first of what will undoubtedly be many visits.
The Chicago Tribune ran a laudatory article yesterday about Eliot Spitzer, the crusading New York Attorney General. In the interest of fairness, the article did mention the complaints of Spitzer's many critics, who accuse him of being "fueled by raw political ambition" and "opportunistic", "a grandstander" and "a headline grabber" who is motivated solely by his desire to become governor of New York.
Personally, I don't know how anyone could find cause to complain about the man, other than the indicted and soon-to-be-indicted members of the investment industry. What he has been able to accomplish with a meager staff of fifteen attorneys puts the heavily endowed Securities and Exchange Commission to shame. (Assuming the SEC has any shame, that is.) If fueling Spitzer's ego and political ambitions are the price to be paid for cleaning up even the tiniest portion of the Wall Street cesspool, then by all means let's pay it. At least somebody's looking out for the common man.
Much more significant than the self-serving whining of his critics are the following quotations from the article:
"He lives in a complete glass house, but the rocks bounce off. This is a guy who picks up the paper and is outraged by things. He is just this indefatigable crusader. He is Don Quixote, but the windmills are so corrupt that they do fall." --James J. Cramer, co-founder of TheStreet.com and CNBC financial commentator
"I think he is a hero. Finally, somebody who is an elected official is running on protecting the population from malfeasance and outright robbery." --Amy Domini, founder and chief executive of Domini Social Investments LLC, a New York mutual fund company