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In the New York Times I read a memorial notice placed there by the publishers of Robert Ferro, a novelist and my friend who has died of AIDS. Our age has become a time of plague. In October my editor and friend William Whitehead died of AIDS. In June I wrote some paragraphs to be read at the memorial service of an acquaintance, Michael Grumley, a writer and the lover of Bob Ferro, afflicted by the same inexorable disease. On that occasion, I quoted from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain: 'The only religious way to think of death is as part and parcel of life.' Now I find that lofty sentiment unacceptable. It may be the 'religious way,' but like so much in religion, it is fanciful and delusive. Death denies life, erases it violently, leaving only the barest memory of the dead, and that often unrelated to the living truth.
In my too-easy, prose-slinging way, I went on to quote an old American Indian saying: 'There is no death. Only a change of worlds.' That strikes me now as presumptuous and dubious if one is in doubt about the existence of the next world, as I am today. I believe now in the void, into which Bill Whitehead and Michael Grumley and Robert Ferro descended. Yes, and John Ricksecker fifty years ago. I stand on its edge, suffering the usual guilt of the survivor. My advanced age is a mortal insult to their premature deaths.
The good die first,
And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust
Burn to the socket.
Today my heart is dry, and it burns for the good Bill and Michael and Robert who have died first. And John, whom I remember more clearly than any other member of the class of 1939. Perhaps I was wrong to think that only the barest memory survives death.
I note how much less I now read, how much slower, how much better. My old boast—and it was foolishly true—was that I read a book a day, since the age of about six. That is more than twenty-five thousand books in my lifetime, a doubtful accomplishment, since many of them I have entirely forgotten and others I remember imperfectly. Did they leave some imperceptible trace on the edges of my cerebrum, to form the detritus that provides me with what I call, arrogantly, 'ideas'? Or did they simply fill up the time I was afraid to spend alone, as though I might sink into nothingness, the adolescent void, if I were without a book?
It is hard work to read more slowly. Interest propels me, curiosity spurs me on, and the idiot desire to finish and get on to the next book. But when I slow down, I interlard the writers' words with my own. I think about what they are saying, I consider their methods, I hesitate before their choices, I dillydally in their views instead of racing through their styles and subject matter. Reading in the new way now, I learn. Before, I seemed to be instructing the book with my superior opinions.
I write more slowly, having learned from my laggard reading to relish pauses and interstices. An adaptation of Schumacher's aphorism: Slow is better. Fewer is beautiful.
Today's mail brings requests from two young writers, both students in workshops of some years ago. Will I write blurbs for their forthcoming novels? My first impulse is to say: 'No, you Young Turk. Why should you be publishing a first novel at twenty-five or -seven or -nine or whatever presumptuous and cavalier age you are?' I feel an ignoble rush of envy, having started so late myself: fifty-three, when one rightly expects an ebbing of the tide, a diminution of creative energies.
But I say yes, I will read the galleys and see if I can honestly write blurbs. Guilt supplants envy. I know I will feel pleasure at reading a good book by students I knew as apprentice writers and even an ignoble desire to be part of the success that might come, with luck, to them. I want to help if I can, I realize, as I stack the galleys on the pile of manuscripts to be read first. A hand up is worthier than one's own fist grasping a higher rung of the ladder.
A catalogue arrives in the same mail. COMFORTABLY YOURS it is titled. I read it with dismay. I must be on a mailing list of persons old enough to be looking for specially constructed toilet seats, bars and chairs for the shower, bedding equipment that raises the legs, lowers the back, vibrates against elderly bones. YOURS, it says, for my comfort. I shake with resentment and then store the catalogue away safely, for the approaching time when, inevitably, I will need help rising from the toilet.
Where are my keys? I look in many places, some unlikely. Then I try my newly devised approach to losing things. I sit down and march myself through the morning, step by step, recreating my progress from taking in the Times at six (and having to unlock doors), to breakfast, dressing. At one moment I am in trouble, uncertain whether I have reviewed every step I took three hours ago. Aha. I go back again and stop at hanging up my bathrobe, with pockets ... where the keys may well be, since I wore it to get the paper. There they are. They are found, I am found, in possession of my possessions, not because I looked everywhere, but because I thought about it. A double triumph over aging's forgetfulness.
What can I anticipate in this day? Nothing. I'd be surprised if anything of interest happens. Therein lies the difference between youth, which is everlastingly expectant, and old age, which has almost given up on expectation.
My friend Sybil suggests she stop while she is out to get a videocassette for the evening, perhaps the film of Isak Dinesen's Out Of Africa. She loves to go to movies, while I have not really enjoyed them since Greta Garbo, George Arliss, and Paul Muni retired. I dislike the trouble one must go to get to them: the drive, the parking, the line at the box office, the search for a seat (or two together), the two-hour strain to see over or to the side of a tall man with an Afro haircut or a lady with a bubble coiffure, the smell of popcorn, the sound of ice in Cokes, the audible conversations behind my seat, the too-loud sound system.
So I say okay, let's see a movie at home tonight, recognizing the truth of her reminder that all the things I dislike are obviated by our possession of a VCR. I drink coffee and wonder why I still feel unsatisfied by the prospect. I know why: I prefer books. If we watch Out Of Africa, the actress with all the quirks peculiar to her style of acting (Meryl Streep with her mouth-twisting) will replace young Baroness Karen Blixen in my mind, in the way that snapshots of places one has visited obtrude upon one's memory of the place. I resent being saddled with my vision of Gregory Peck as Ahab, Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet. I want back my own Moby-Dick, my own experience of Pride and Prejudice. But I fear they are gone, and the film version-a stronger, more lasting impression than words make?—is what I am left with.
The movie planned for last night was not on the shelf. We watched instead a foolish 'action' movie, a clone of every other one ever made. Every violent or terrifying movie we see hardens me, so the next one requires more blood and terror. Last night I was saved from the substitution for a book that I feared, only to be left with a new mental clutter I must scuttle somehow.
Writing of this dislike encourages me to list, while I sit at my desk waiting for something more useful to arrive on the page, other things I now actively dislike.
Photography. The whole impoverishing act of 'taking' pictures of family, friends, events, places. Like the actor who replaces the character, the photograph replaces what might otherwise have lingered in memory. For some persons, I believe, scenes go directly from the lens to the film without ever entering their minds.
Perhaps the picture helps one to remember the places one has visited, but ultimately one remembers the picture of the place, not the place itself.
Most new books. They are marred by ugly type made still uglier by sloppy offset printing. Characterless acidic paper. Cheap bindings, three-quarters paper over boards, narrow, unstable cloth binding strips that crease permanently at the spine, fade, do not hold the stamping. Tasteless dust jackets, sleazy, shiny, intended to catch the eye but which instead repel mine.
It may be the fifty thousand books a year printed in unsightly housing, a Niagara of paperbound books, not so much published as produced, that make me recall the books I loved when I was young, with lovely, gold-stamped pictorial cloth covers. Now I find pleasure in fine-press books, handmade, issued in small printings that I can only rarely afford. But when I can: what satisfaction they provide for my senses.
Once, I wanted every book I heard about. Now, I desire very few that are sent to me. Too much is being published too quickly, too much that is shoddy, in the end of too little value.
Change of seasons. I don't understand how this distaste developed. Once my joy was in seasonal variety, the great moment when leaves began to change, the first snow, the early shift from frozen ground to moist melting, the first day the sun colored my skin. Now, I hate the end of spring for fear of the destructive summer heat, and the end of fall because I have no liking for the cold and treacherous ice. Is it change I resist? Or evidences of the passage of time? Or the threats some seasons pose: falling, burning, freezing?
People. When I was young I liked everyone I met. Newness obscured their faults and true selves. I was too dense to see beneath the interesting surface. Over the years, I learned. Now, I like very few people I meet, almost none, suspecting their exteriors and disliking what I surmise, perhaps wrongly, about their interiors.
Speed. I moved fast on a flat, empty plain when I was younger, noticing little of what I was scudding through, remembering less. Now that I have grown stiff and shaky on my pins (as the expression goes), I move slowly, uphill in an arduous climb or thickly through impenetrable woods. I notice everything I pass through with such effort, remember more of the terrain. I am jealous of the effort and the time it takes, true, and resent the old speed I have lost, because my slower pace gives my age away.
My loathing for speed extends to fast cars, planes, rapid talkers, swift up and down escalators, athletes, the computer's cursor, the publisher of instant books, the producer of 'new and improved' products seemingly days after the original was marketed.
I am surprised to see that it is easier to list what I dislike than to conjure up the things I still admire. While there is still time, I will have to work at a more positive vision.
I need new batteries for my hearing aids. They are tiny things, little curls the size of infant snails. Last year I was made to face my loss of hearing, which had clearly begun to annoy Sybil, my dear friend and housemate of many years, and others to whom I turned an almost deaf ear—indeed, ears. But the compelling force to acquire two disturbing, overmagnifying instruments was my realization that the music I heard so clearly in my head (and could remember well although I could not sing it) was not what I was actually hearing, hard as I tried to listen more intently to records and tapes, the radio and television.
When I was young I made sure I heard everything, listened in on every conversation, as though widening my sphere of sound would permit me entry into the larger world. 'I have heard that ...' was a customary start to my sentences, and 'Have you heard that ...?' another. I relied heavily on what I heard in order to fill my conversation and the page.
Losing a good part of my hearing reduced my avidity. Now, I am grateful for hearing less, being left alone with my own silences, away from the raucous world of unnecessary talk, loud machines, the shrill chatter of cicadas in our American elm tree, the unending peeps of baby sparrows who nest under the air conditioner outside the bedroom window, the terrified nightmare screams of the neighbor's child through our wall at three o'clock in the morning.
I acquired hearing aids for use in public places—speeches in large auditoriums, classes, workshops, restaurants, theaters, concerts, other such places. But I find I wear them less and less, preferring not to listen to the conclusions of most speeches, the sounds of dishes at a distant waiter's station, and the confidences exchanged at a nearby table. At some plays it is a comfortable kind of literary criticism to turn the little buttons off so I hear less of the inane dialogue being exchanged by unbelievable characters in a dull and unconvincing situation.
Today is what we used to call, in my youth, the Glorious Fourth. Sybil and I celebrate by reading on the deck in the bright sun, and then straightening up the perpetually untidy garden bed at the front of the house. City gardens are full of dog defecation, candy wrappers, greasy McDonald's sacks, tree droppings.
We pack a supper, join my daughter, who has worked earlier in the day to earn overtime at her newspaper, and walk to the Capitol grounds. Hundreds of couples and families are there before us, but we make a space for ourselves by spreading a blanket, and prepare to listen to the National Symphony play patriotic music, sounds I never do hear because the system is not properly placed to bring them to us. No matter. It is Tony Bennett singing, I am told. When it is time for Placido Domingo, snob that I am, I put in my hearing aids. But still the confusion and talk around us overcome my effort to hear the tenor.
Behind us, young picnickers who can hear as little as I begin to sing 'God Bless America.' Delighted with the sounds of their own voices, they sing the same song again and again and again. They stand up and sway, substituting their loud, tuneless voices for the symphony and the famed tenor, feeling both justified, I suppose, and patriotic.
Then there is a fine, reverberating, garish display of fireworks, weaving upward, spiraling down, and splashing out against the navy-blue Washington sky and the white monument. As she watches wide-eyed and admiring, Sybil tells me that when she dies she wishes her ashes to be placed in one of these bright, showy explosives. Her friends and relatives are to be invited to the display and instructed to stand, their heads tilted back to watch her ashes ascend. When a thousand sparks in roseate form light up the sky, and the consequent oohs and aahs rise all over the Mall, she thinks perhaps she will hear them and feel satisfied with her death.
Tired today. My neck is sore from looking up, my spirit weary from the public displays of loving one's country, not with action but with sentimental songs and flags stuck into the grass before someone's cooler filled with beer.
This morning, working on a novella about my life in Far Rockaway before I was six, I am amazed by the unbidden arrival to my pen of a game we used to play with acorns in the ample plots of soil beneath the elms on Larch Street. Sudden as lightning I remember the street, the tree, the game. How can this be? I am no longer the child I was, born with a perfect photographic memory, who floated through school on its strength with little or no reliance on reason or thought, or the adult who was graduated from college Phi Beta Kappa without having resorted very often to the connective tissue of logic.
Did it come to me from my mother? I believe so. She was able to replay every bridge hand of the afternoon from memory at the dinner table. After fifty, my seemingly infallible gift began to fail. It took longer to retrieve what once had come instantly to mind or tongue or pen. Now, my memory is much diminished, like a hard disk that suddenly fails to deliver what has been stored there.
I operate with a floppy intelligence, such as it is. The connections I make are hard-won, sudden flashes from the past, lucky effluvia from the ripe, aging compost heap that is my mind. So I remember that street, sun-filled and broad, its curious name (as far as I know there were no larch trees in Far Rockaway), and the game my sister and I contrived out of the hulls and slippery green bodies of acorns.
I feel grateful for the arrival of small pieces of information, now that the lifelong storage system of my personal computer is often down.
Excerpted from Coming Into the End Zone by Doris Grumbach. Copyright © 1991 Doris Grumbach. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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