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All My Days are Saturdays
By Sam Pickering
University of Missouri PressCopyright © 2014 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
"How full of enjoyment is the search after wild things," Henry Van Dyke wrote in Fisherman's Luck, "wild birds, wild flowers, wild honey, wild berries." Life is repetitious. New roads quickly become old ruts. Spring follows spring, and the wild becomes leashed and familiar. Every June a kingbird nests on the island in the middle of the beaver marsh, and in the Fenton River a Louisiana water thrush bobbles across a gravelly collarbone beside a slow neck of water. On the shoulder of the dirt road running between pumping stations, slender spires of white sweet clover taper upward next to clumps of ox-eyed daisies, the season's rose windows, their stained-glass petals wheeling around bright yellow roundels. Amid the green shining at the quick overflow from the beaver marsh, forget-me-nots sparkle like charm bracelets. Above them common whitetails jerk back and forth in quick tics, while spangled skimmers bask on the tips of grasses, the thoraxes and abdomens of the males dark blue, almost purple, the white and black stigmas on the wings elegant eye catchers, magic lanterns celebrating simplicity. In the broken dry sand beside the path crossing the beaver meadow, rough fruited cinquefoil and Deptford pinks bloom in pink and yellow bouquets. Beyond them grape tendrils sprawl like a curtain over gray dogwood.
I haven't seen a swarm of wild bees since I was a boy, but I know that during the summer and fall I will pick baskets of berries, mostly blue-and blackberries but also strawberries, raspberries, wild raisin, and, if the flowering is good, berries from shadbush. The berries will be wild like the flowers and birds of spring, but because I have plucked them year after year, my enjoyment will be mild, and I'll feel tame. In "Ode to the West Wind," Shelley's narrator said that a "heavy weight of hours" had weighed him down, histrionically declaring that he fell "upon the thorns of life" and bled. Hours, years, decades have rested lightly on my shoulders, and, as for thorns, whenever they ripped me, I simply slapped on a Band-Aid and went on my way. Nevertheless this spring I've longed for something different, if not wild. I realize that my life is good. I know the sight of a water thrush hopping in and out of sunlight, the white line across its brow almost a rainbow, should thrill me. I know that letting a black racer wrap my forearm until it relaxes, then flows across my chest from arm to arm like water, should lift me, in Shelley's words, like a cloud.
Alas, no matter my present longings, I have never been wild. If G. K. Chesterton was right, schooling may be the source of my calm of mind and passionless deed. In elementary and high school, assignments were short, and tests were easy and easily forgotten. Teachers left students free to roam books and places, and I spent hours exploring imaginative hinterlands over the hills and far away. Imagination was "the most essential educational product," Chesterton stated. It kept a person peaceful and happy, making daily existence so fulfilling that one was able "to live a quiet and humdrum life." "The way to make people contented is to make them creative, not to make them barren," he continued, explaining, for example, that the person who made up tales did not depend upon the newspaper for stories and life. As a boy I did not have to leave my room and armchair to sail endless seas of fanciful and satisfying swashbuckling.
In Pagan Papers Kenneth Grahame wrote, "'Tis a sad but sober fact" that most men "lead flat and virtuous lives, departing annually with their family to some flat and virtuous place, there to disport themselves in a manner that is decent, orderly, wholly uninteresting, vacant of every buxom stimulus."
"To such as these," Grahame continued lightly, "a suggestion, in all friendliness: why not try crime?" Grahame did not prescribe a particular branch of crime. "Everyone," he wrote, "must himself seek out and find the path his nature best fits him to follow; but the general charm of the prospect must be evident to all." Into the collapsed veins of a dull life, crime would infuse new pleasures, among others, the freshness and novelty of secrecy and the artistic satisfaction of planning and "doing an act of self-expression as well as it can possibly be done." Crime would furnish "just that gentle stimulus, that peaceful sense of change so necessary to the tired worker." When I'm tired, I fall asleep. Not even in dreams have I purloined so much as a pack of Life Savers, and the maidens that once rollicked into my sleep breasty as sunflowers always faded away by morning, wilted and virginal. Despite the occasional hankering for a stimulus, I have never strayed from the safe topiary of paths hedged by virtue and order. Moreover I don't have any secrets, although Vicki once said, "You're certainly not Lord Byron, cloaking yourself in wolfish thoughts and discovering rapture on the lonely shore. A touch of secrecy might perk you up and make you more romantic." And as for the larcenous, the only criminal behaviors I've mulled have been flat—the straight, narrow, and soporific plots of detective stories.
"How many books should a man write?" William McFee asked in the preface to Harbours of Memory. I, he continued, answering his own question, "believe he should write one for each of his friends, one for his mother, one for his wife, and if he be one of those extravagantly emotional beings who provide so much amusement for their friends nowadays, one for his mistress as well." I have written twenty-six books. I have dedicated several to Vicki, our children, her parents and my parents; one to the University of Connecticut and the English Department; another to the English Department at the University of Western Australia; one to Storrs and Mansfield; one to Nashville, Tennessee; another to my friend Raymond; and the last one to my running buddies Tim, Harry, and David, but I have never dedicated a book to a mistress. I have never had a mistress. I have led such a sweet suet pudding sort of life that I did not dedicate a dozen or so of my books to anyone or any place. I have run out of places and people. Maybe in the future, if some doctor pulls me out of Death Valley, I'll dedicate a book to him. On the other hand resurrection isn't permanent, and many people who've had dandelion roots jerked out of their gullets spend their later days wishing for earth baths and numbing ablutions of cold mud.
Occasionally in graduate school I bounded through a door shouting, "Let the wild rumpus start." I took the statement from Maurice Sendak's children's book Where the Wild Things Are, the reading of which did not make me long for the untamed but instead provoked a smile, the sound of the word rumpus tickling and homey, not exotic. In These Restless Heads James Branch Cabell described expansive artistic doings: "I would so far honor the conventions that until the man is thirty-five or thereabouts I would bar him from no sort of loose living nor fornication nor crime, remarking only that he will find it more profitable as a rule, to combine the last named with an avoidance of the penitentiary." After thirty-five, Cabell continued, a writer "has not enough spare time for broad-minded and artistic conduct."
Woe is me; I must have been born thirty-six years old and gray browed, artistically speaking. While acquaintances sowed wild oats, I sowed, and am still sowing, cornpone. Recently I learned that Margella Snowbird, the third cousin of Turlow Gutheridge, a country character that has sauntered my pages and mind for two decades, lasted only a semester in college. Margella attended Motlow State in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Margella failed English grammar. She confused lie and lay so badly, and indeed so often, that she was pregnant when she returned home in December. In May she gave birth to a girl. Her parents, however, rallied around her. So that Margella wouldn't regret dropping out of school before graduating, they suggested she name the child Dee Ploma.
"God," the old saw states, "loves a cheerful sinner." I sure hope that cheerful saints fare as well in his estimation. I am so tame I have never received a parking ticket. Last week I dreamed I was seventeen and was touring colleges accompanied by Mother. Unlike Sendak's Max, I did not travel to the adventuresome land of the Wild Things. Instead I visited a familiar landscape. Five colleges had accepted me: Princeton, the University of North Carolina, Acadia and Dalhousie in Nova Scotia, and across the Bay of Fundy the University of New Brunswick. I longed to attend a Canadian university but knew that I'd enroll at Princeton. In the dream Vicki was Mother, and although fifty-five years had slipped from me, freshening life, Vicki remained her present age, fifty-nine and sensibly conservative. In the dream she advised, "A person cannot turn Princeton down," a remark I made to my son Francis fifteen years ago.
I have no debts. I am as fiscally prudent as the oft-married widow who purchased a large tombstone for the grave of her first husband. When subsequent husbands died, she did not buy individual markers for them. Instead she saved money by having their names engraved beneath that of her first husband, the number of husbands eventually stretching into a stanza of ottava rima. I have never read scandalous books or stories and for entertainment jot down cautionary tales. After a heedless young thing hymned that her new sweetheart was divine and that time spent in his presence was heavenly, a woman more experienced in terrestrial matters tried to temper the girl's enthusiasm, warning, "Take care that he doesn't abandon you in the milky way." I read poetry not so my mind will roll in a fine unpredictable frenzy but to lull thought to sleep. Sometimes the poetry is musical and descriptive, for example, Swinburne's "When the hounds of spring are on winter's traces, / The mother of months in meadow or plain / Fills the shadows and windy places / With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain." Other times the poetry is thinner than skim milk and blue with somnolent melancholy, "Has anyone seen our darling? / He has strayed from our fold away; / He went out with the sweet June roses, / One beautiful summer day." Often the iambics hiccup into giggles. "'Tis sweet to see a bumblebee, / When e'er you go a-fishing. / But if you sit right down on him, / He will change your disposition."
My paragraphs rarely startle readers. Nonetheless I know many peculiar things, such as the location of the Retreat for the Religious Insane in Alabama and why turtles rarely reveal secrets. I'm an expert in finding opossums. In the wild opossums live in hollow trees, entering and departing through cracks in trunks and limbs. Because an opossum family usually inhales and exhales in unison, the openings expand and contract like the human lung, revealing a marsupial presence. Chicken rustling is epidemic in Tennessee, and last summer in Tracy City I talked to a farmer who believed chickens should be registered like dogs and have tags stapled to their wattles. A Sewanee classmate founded Collis Browne's Genuine Forged Autographs—"Blue Ribbon and Certified"—and made enough money to purchase a Smoothie King franchise in Daytona Beach, Florida. Two years ago at Christmas an old flame sent me a field mouse that she'd discovered living in a turnip in her garden. The present was surprising but not a surprise. For decades she'd been devoted to Cucurbitae. When her children were infants, she grew mammoth pumpkins. Once the pumpkins ripened, she sawed them in half and carved them into cradles, "endless rocking cradles," she wrote me, quoting her favorite poet, Walt Whitman.
In Chapel Hill the governor of North Carolina once introduced me to the financial mainstay of the Society for the Relief of the Depraved, and I've met a doctor feverish under the influence of champagne who said that, because dead people were never sick, all diseases should be classified as afflictions of the liver. Although the doctor was on the staff of a university hospital in Texas, his diagnoses were suspect. Certainly I wouldn't let him treat any female in my family as he spent half an hour discussing a patient who was having difficulty becoming pregnant. "Her Eustachian tubes are blocked," he said. "The therapist associated with my practice prescribed a regimen of yawning exercises, but after two months of rigorous, deep in- and exhalation, the woman did not achieve gravidity. Even a pint of warm garlic oil failed to open her tubes, and I am afraid her only hope is a myringotomy."
Unfortunately I live in the domesticated East, and I scrupulously prune the odd and the unexpected from my books. Consequently readers don't break into laughter or bell-ringing song after reading one of my essays—as I did last month while reading Clyde Edgerton's Where Trouble Sleeps. To restore calm of mind after finishing the book, I dosed myself with a double-dog portion of Wade Williams's Wonderful Worm Powder. In one section of the book Edgerton described the private doings of Kenny Rollins, a six-year-old boy. Kenny stood in a bathroom and, holding his penis, repeatedly opened and closed "the little hole" at the end with his thumbs, all the while chatting amiably. "Hello there, Kenny," Kenny said, speaking for his penis. "My name is Mr. Knob-knob. I'm a lumberjack." "Hello, Mr. Knob-knob. How do you feel today?" Kenny replied. "I feel just fine," Mr. Knob-knob answered, adding that he was looking for trees to cut down. "I know where some trees are," Kenny said. "Why don't you come with me?" "Okay, Kenny," Mr. Knob-knob replied, "I believe I will."
Although rarely recorded, chats with Mr. Knob-knob are a staple of the lavatory conversations of young boys. Indeed at the beginning of the twentieth century two successive holders of the Wadsworth Norton Chair of History at Harvard claimed that such talk greatly influenced American development. In contradistinction to historians who believe Thomas Edison invented the telephone while doodling around in Canada, the Harvard professors stated that the idea actually took shape while Edison was talking to his Mr. Knob-knob in the basement bathroom of his house in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Few penile conversations have sowed the seeds of comparable social and industrial fruits, however. In fact a goodly number have led to disaster. According to a prominent student of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee ordered George Pickett to charge General Meade's position on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg only after Lee held a long and heated discussion with Mr. Knob-knob. The conversation was "conducted in private and as a result no one can ever ascertain the course of action advocated by Mr. Knob-knob." In any case Mr. Knob-knob rarely takes part in present-day academic discourse. "I'd like to introduce him," my friend Josh said recently, "when a presumptuous stranger approaches me and says, 'Tell me about yourself. Why are you here and what are your tricks?'" Of course in the Northeast the appearance of Mr. Knob-knob at a public gathering would lead to jail. In the South a long and delightful conversation would result, ending with the parties exchanging recipes for tomato aspic and describing methods of layering beaten biscuits.
Josh says that few things are as boring as an exciting life. Still, I wish my prose were bacterial enough to raise welts of wild smiles. "Life is no laughing matter, we are told, which is true; and, what is still more dismal to contemplate, books are no laughing matters, either," Agnes Repplier lamented in Points of View. But now and then some gay rebel, she continued, changing perspective and mood, "ruffles the quiet waters of our souls" by hinting that the "age of lectures is at fault; and that it has produced nothing which can vie as literature with the products of the ages of wine and song." Sadly, before writing, many scribblers bolt a serving of pious pills, washing them down their maws with unexceptional bottled water. "We live in the future," Josiah Holland wrote, encephalitic with the ordinary. "Even the happiness of the present is made up mostly of that delightful discontent which the hope of better things inspires. We live all our invalid lives by the side of our Bethesda, watching the uneasy quicksand upon its bottom, in its silvery eruptions, and listening to the murmuring gurgle of the retiring streamlet, yet waiting evermore for the angel to come and stir the waters that we may be blest." Such a testimonial makes one almost agree with Samuel Butler's pronouncement in his Note-Books that "the function of vice" is "to keep virtue within reasonable bounds."
Excerpted from All My Days are Saturdays by Sam Pickering. Copyright © 2014 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
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Table of ContentsContents Introduction 1. Wild 2. A Little Forgetful 3. Proof 4. Chat 5. Butterfly Dreams 6. All My Days Are Saturdays 7. Unnecessaries 8. False Stop 9. Not My Will 10. Undead 11. September 30 12. The Idles of May 13. Variations on a Theme during Fall Afterword