Stories, and Essays, and Prose (Oh My)

30 Days of writing prose, day 30.

I made it.

{Whew.}

I’ve written both stories and essays during this last 4 weeks and 2 days. I go to the gym many mornings, and while I’m there, ideas for poems start lining up in my head, but I’ve had to push them aside.

Not, now. Be patient. I’m going to need all of you pretty soon.

My favorite essayist, in terms of the amount of time I spent reading his essays, was the famed science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov. In his essays, he wrote mostly on actual scientific subjects, but he also wrote on a wide variety of other topics, and I always found him engaging, informative, and entertaining. He also made writing essays look easy.

It is not easy, for the record.

In the world of short stories, I’m not sure who my favorite practitioner has been; it may very well be Sherwood Anderson, since both the Winesburg, Ohio collection and the short stories in Death In The Woods and Other Stories are among the most memorable ones I ever read. I don’t know that people read Sherwood Anderson much anymore, but he was brilliant, in my view.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was another author whose short stories I really liked; I can’t figure out if people really read him these days (other than Gatsby) or just make up quotes and attribute them to him. “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”, “The Ice Palace”, and “The Diamond as Big As The Ritz” being the most memorable of his stories to me, but several others also standing out in my memory.

My life being what it is, reading time is hard to come by. In recent years, except for reading books written by fellow bloggers*, I am much more likely to use Audiobooks. But I have bought some books of essays and short stories there, so I am continuing to explore new (to me) authors, albeit slowly.

I have thought, now that I am going back to poetry, about doing some spoken word poetry, but I despise the sound of my own voice.

Truly. Despise.

But, starting tomorrow, it’s back to poetry for me.

Thank heaven.


* Like this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one

Listen

Listen.

Hear the ocean breathing.

Sync your own breathing up to it.

This is what it is to be alive. What comes, goes; what comes into being, passes away. Life is ebb, then flow, then ebb again.

All life. Yours and mine, and everyone else’s.

Time is the ocean we all live in, and time, too, breathes. It’s only our constant scurrying and clamor that keeps us from hearing it. Like crowds on the beach on a summer day, focused on suntan lotion and bodies in swimsuits, we miss out on what we could be hearing, or seeing.

But when you get the chance…

Listen.

Hear time’s breathing, and sync your own breathing up to it, because this is what it is to be alive. There’s ebb, there’s flow, and the quiet person has access to a wisdom that the noisy person never has.

So, listen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snow Hollow

Mid-December of that year, he decided to go to the cabin anyway.

For much of that year, after his wife Angie’s death in late January, he had done virtually nothing. He was surrounded by memories of her at every turn, and that was where he wanted and needed to be.

She had been sick for a long time, “so it wasn’t really unexpected,” people thought. But somehow, he had still never expected it.

He had stopped going the places they used to go. No more pizza on Thursday nights, nor barbecue on Saturday afternoons. People at church started to wonder if he might have died, too.

And many nights, he wished he had.

But, he decided, on a whim one day, to go ahead and use the cabin booking they had made the prior year. And now, here he was, making the long drive up to Snow Hollow.

He traveled silently in the car (she had always been the one to choose the music) looking around at the mountain scenery, and thinking how much she would have loved seeing it like this. He still caught himself, from time-to-time, thinking she was there, out of the corner of his eye, only to turn expectantly towards what turned out to be an empty passenger seat.

The parking area was down the hill a ways from the cabin, and he pulled up right around sunset. He could smell wood-smoke from neighboring chimneys as he stepped into the bracing air, his one piece of luggage in hand. He trudged up the hill, scraped the key into the lock, turned the handle, and stepped into the well-remembered ancient smell of the place.

Flipping on the lights, he saw the familiar large room (the only other room was a bathroom) that was a combination of a kitchen, dining, living, and bed room. The fireplace had dry wood placed in it for his use, and he wasted no time starting a fire and lighting a couple of the kerosene lamps.

As he looked around the cabin more closely, he noticed that there had been some repair work done on one of the built-in shelves, the upper two-thirds of which were now made of a newer looking wood. He’d never really looked at any of the books on those shelves (other than to note the titles), and he absentmindedly pulled one down from the top called Lost Worlds.

It was a old Time/Life book about ancient civilizations. It appeared to have taken water damage at some point, as several of the pages were stuck together. Still, the photographs were incredible. He sat down by one of the lamps to look at it more closely.

Turning to a chapter on the Babylonian civilization, he found an envelope that had apparently been used as a bookmark at some point. Turning it over, he saw that it was postmarked from 1968.

The original letter appeared to still be in it. He pulled it out and read it.

Saigon, December 23rd, 1968

My dearest Diana —

I always do imagine it snowing back home. It seems as hot here right now as it was in the summer. I am counting the days now (143!) until I should be headed back home to see you. I think about you all the time, here, and I miss you more than any words could ever express.

This place has been harder than I was expecting, and I thought it would be hard. But we all pull together, us guys, and we’ll pull each other through, I know it. Having you to think about makes everything better, so much better.

I think I know what I want to do with my regular life, now! I want to teach. You’re probably laughing reading that, given how impatient you know me to be. But I’ve changed, I think, here. Teaching about animals and about agriculture sounds like heaven to me now.

The last picture you sent is probably my favorite one yet. I can’t send you an updated one of me as I have a bandage on my head right now from a minor thing that happened the other day. It’s no big deal, but it’s made me self-conscious about pictures. I’m sure you understand. It’s nothing to worry about.

Well, I have to keep this short as we’re kind of busy. Give my love to everyone there. I love you, more than anything in the world, and I always will.

– Artie

The letter had every sign of having had large teardrops on it. Or maybe, he thought, it was part of the water damage the book had taken. He wasn’t sure.

Looking back at the envelope (which did not appear water damaged), he saw “Sgt. Arthur Jacobsen” written in the top left hand part of the envelope.

Two years prior was the last time he had been in Snow Hollow; at that time, there was neither wireless nor cellular available. However, he had noticed upon pulling up that he still seemed to have phone service, so he started searching the name “Arthur Jacobsen” There were a pretty good number of them, but none of them were definitively this one.

Next he tried (having guessed that they were married) “Diana Jacobsen”, but he got pretty much the same types of results: lots of people by that name, including many he could rule out, but no “one”. Trying both Arthur and Diana Jacobsen did no better.

He tried then lists of people whose names are on the Vietnam wall, but no one by that name had died in Vietnam, either, which he was relieved to know. So he placed the envelope back in the book, and placed the book back on the shelf.

The next few days passed without incident. He decided one night to go into the village and pick up a few things (like batteries). The old owner of the village’s one store saw him and offered condolences. He had never really gotten used to the ritual of explaining to people about his wife’s death, so he was always glad when he met someone who had already heard.

“How long have you lived here?” he asked the store owner.

“Since I was a kid, in the 1940’s.”

“Did you ever know anybody named Arthur Jacobsen?”

“Artie Jacobsen? Yeah, of course. His family used to own the cabin you’re staying in.”

“Was he ever married to someone named Diana?”

“Married? No. That was a sad story. She died while he was in Vietnam. Sudden illness. They were engaged at the time.”

“Does he still live here?”

“No, he moved years ago, I’m not sure where. Why are you curious about Artie?”

“I found a letter in the cabin he had written to her while he was in Vietnam. I just thought whoever wrote it might want to have it.”

“I’ll ask around, see if anyone else knows where he moved to.”

“Thanks.”

Back at the cabin, he perused the letter again. It might have been one of the last things she read from him before she died. Or, she might have already passed by the time it got there. If she had sent him a picture he liked, she was probably well at the time. But the storekeeper said it was sudden.

Artie had loved Diana the same way he had loved his Angie, and she had loved him. but they never had a wedding, or a honeymoon, or any of it. All the great memories he had, they never got a chance to make, and Diana had probably spent the last year of her life in mortal terror of a message being delivered that Artie had died in combat.

And then she got sick and died, and he didn’t even know it had happened until some time after.

When the week was up, and he still hadn’t heard from the shopkeeper (who he knew had his cellphone number) he decided that the letter had been left in the book for some reason, and that he was better off just leaving it there. He never looked again for Artie Jacobsen, but he left Snow Hollow feeling a lot less alone.


Way south and east of Snow Hollow, in a sunny town in South Carolina, a sixty-eight year old man sat, surrounded for the holidays by his children and grandchildren. He smiled at all the noise, smiled at all the mess, and spoke quietly to each little face that came up to him in his red plush chair.

In the same room, on the bottom of a bookshelf, was an undamaged copy of Lost Worlds, one that also contained a letter in it:

Snow Hollow, November 2nd, 1968

My dearest Artie —

The big news here was the blizzard. We got an early blizzard this year, and, even though it’s all over with, the roof took some damage and we got some leakage here at your parent’s cabin. Your father fixed all that, but before than, some water leaked in and damaged the beautiful book you gave me for my birthday. Some of the pages are now stuck together, including the photographs of Egypt that I loved so much. But most of it is intact, and I’m grateful the damage wasn’t more. If you ever wanted to get me a replacement copy, I wouldn’t object to getting the same gift twice!

People ask me about the wedding every day. I say it will be this coming summer, but that we won’t work out all the details until you’re back. However, I do have a dress picked out. I hope you’ll like it. It made your mom cry at the dress shop, and then I started crying. We two were a mess. I love your mom and dad by the way, they’ve been so sweet to me while I’m staying here.

I know you don’t know what you want to do with your life when you’re back, and I’m really sorry if I’ve ever put pressure on you about that. I’m so proud of you, the man you are, then I go an undo all that by making unreasonable demands. Please forgive me.

Your dad took the enclosed photograph the other week while we were down in the village. When it came back from the developers, your mom immediately thought you would really like it. It was a good hair day.

Don’t spend one moment worrying about anything here, just make it home safe. And always know I love, love, love you as much as any girl every loved a boy, and that I will be proud one day to take your name.

All my love,

Diana

 

 

Three and A Half A Strawberries Should Do It

I recently was adding up the number of things I know about food, arriving eventually at the figure “zero”. I am, therefore, a stranger in a strange land when it comes to why cooks do the things they do.

For instance, garnishes mystify me. Why parsley is ever on a plate is beyond my ability to comprehend. I’m also not sure why the chef at the B&B that served us the breakfast pictured above ever ended his internal monologue with, “… and, three and a half a strawberries should do it. Perfect.”

I don’t get it.

I mean, If like I strawberries at all, I want a whole number of them. Using fractional strawberries is just baffling.

Now, SOME of you (and you know who you are) are thinking, “I’ve seen photos of you, Owen. One thing you obviously know about food is WHERE CONSUMABLE FORMS OF IT ARE LOCATED. So, that’s more than zero things.”

That would be fair. I do eat. However, more than one person has told me in real life that I seem to frequently prefer “bad” to “good” food, indicating some sort of negative knowledge on my part. For instance, I might prefer a prepackaged, preservative-laden apple turnover to a freshly baked one. Or the local brand factory-produced potato chips to store-cooked ones that are made onsite.

I am assured, therefore, that while I obviously miss very few meals (and seem to have a few extra ones thrown in there) that my knowledge of the difference in good and bad when it comes to cooking is so faulty as to count against me.

(Notice that I am not even talking about the health-conducive properties of food here, which I also know nothing about, but which the Beautiful One knows a great deal about, as she attempts to steer me around things like apple turnovers and potato chips.)

One of my best and oldest friends has spent his whole life in the food business, as a waiter, chef, manager, general manager, and even restaurant owner, starting all of that in his mid-teens. He loves feeding people, loves the artistry of it. I have enjoyed meals that he has prepared or overseen for 40 years, but I haven’t really learned anything about it.

But I’m glad that there are people, like him, who do know about it. Everything good in this world is kept alive by those who love it enough to learn everything about it they can. Whether it is cooking or music, carpentry or sign painting, the world is a better place for people who DO care.

And who understand that extra half of a strawberry.

 

 

 

 

 

Complimentary Medicine

I read in a book that words of affirmation are a way of showing love. So now I walk around all day aggressively shouting, “OK, SURE, RIGHT!”

People don’t seem to find it all that affectionate.

I think “words of affirmation” are what used to be called compliments. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with compliments. It reminds me of a cheer my old high school cheerleading squad used to do:

WHAT DO YOU WANT?
COMPLIMENTS!
BUT WHO DOESN’T WANT ‘EM?
INTROVERTS!

In the dating world, boys will often attempt to impress girls using either compliments or flattery. Compliments and flattery are similar, as they involve employing the exact same words to convey the exact same praise — only with flattery, the person who said the words didn’t actually mean them, which turns out to be problematic.

In short, compliments are good, flattery is bad, and good luck, girls (or boys), in telling them apart.

I remember when I first tried using a carefully prepared compliment as part of the dating ritual. It was homecoming dance my senior year in high school.

Me (standing at door while beautiful girl in elegant gown comes into view): I… wow. I totally forgot what I had prepared to say.

Her: Now, that’s a compliment.

Sometimes, incompetence works in your favor.

I briefly dated a professional actress while I was in college. She liked compliments, particularly (in defiance of stereotype) giving them. This was an interesting type of role reversal, as I was the one trying to figure out if she really liked me or was just feeding me lines…

… then I suddenly remembered I was shallow and was fine with it either way.

I did eventually get over being shallow. Mostly.

Compliments are often things people wish they’d heard from one or more of their parents. My parents were from the generation that didn’t believe in using compliments. They believed in stockpiling them, you know, in case of nuclear war. There’s a whole collection of unspoken, unused compliments in a cellar somewhere in Florida, I’m pretty sure.

I’m always interested in what people choose to compliment others on. Like, I’ll see kids playing, and four people will tell one of the little girls how pretty she is, and I’ll be thinking, “have you seen how fast her reflexes are? She should be in MMA…”

And so I’ll say so.

Much to her parents horror.

I complimented my nephew recently on how good he was at making everyone feel welcome, right after about fifteen people had complimented him on losing weight. His wife complimented me on what a good job I did making sure kids didn’t get too close to the pool.

Now, THAT’s my kind of compliment. I am basically a sheepdog.

Me, keeping toddlers from falling in a pool.

Compliments are fine when used in moderation, but if you experience dizziness or lack of vision after receiving one, see a doctor immediately.  As you can see above, I frequently have lack of vision, but that’s because of the hair in my eyes.

Oh, and by the way, you are by far my favorite reader. And I’m not just saying that.

 

 

 

 

Pretty Much Impossible

It’s pretty much impossible not to love her.


Ok, sure, she comes behind me and opens blinds I’ve been closing. “There’s still light,” she says.

“That’s starlight.”

“Well. Even so.”

“Dear, that’s — kinda crazy.”

“I am a creature of the light.”

“Ok, then, just… close ‘em before you come to bed.”

“How ‘bout I close YOU before I come to bed.”

“I’m not… I don’t even know what that means…”


“Hey, I’m wearing your glasses. Do I look like you?”

“I don’t know. I can’t see.”

“You know, I read on Thought Catalog that men stop really seeing their wives after six years.”

“Only when their wives steal their glasses. And I didn’t know you read Thought Catalog.”

“Well, I am female. Here, get a picture of me, I look exactly like you…”


“Where in Greece exactly is Pelloponesia?”

“Southwestern, I believe.”

“So, from what I gather, Sparta murdered their infants, and Athens molested their male children. But at least those boys could be philosophical about it.”


What are you watching?”

“It’s a Japanese remake of ‘Gone With The Wind’, I believe.”

“A Japanese remake … wait, what?”

“I mean, I think. I don’t actually have the subtitles on, so I’m not sure.”

“How long have you been watching?”

“Oh, about two hours. There’s a girl who bought a dress. And she keeps dreaming about her grandfather, who used to bring her flowers when she was little. And something about a chess board, and some koi.”

“How is that in any way like ‘Gone With The Wind’?”

“Because I slept through half of that, too.”


It’s pretty much impossible not to love her.

So I do.

Everything… and Nothing

It was only three weeks, but he was absolutely in love. Love, however, doesn’t always flow both ways.

It had been a late April day when he was stopped after class by one of his professors and told he was needed as an emergency replacement to accompany a flutist at her upcoming senior recital. Her regular accompanist had broken a wrist. So, he showed up at practice room 141 at 5:00 that evening.

He recognized her as a girl who had been in his Advanced Music Theory class the year before, but who never spoke in class. They shook hands, and she said, “Hi. I’m Sarah.”

He introduced himself as well.

“I don’t know if they told you, but, you’re the third replacement accompanist I’ve auditioned in the last three days. The others didn’t really work out.”

I see, he said.

“Well, let’s get to it. Let’s try this,” she said, handing him sheet music. “This is what I’ll be opening with.”

The music was unfamiliar to him, it was a Sonatine by Walter Gieseking, who he knew as a great pianist of yesteryear, but who he didn’t realize had also been a composer. He looked through it, page by page, then turned back to the first page.

How fast? Or do you like to count in? he asked.

“Just watch me and follow,” she said, which was singularly unhelpful.

She picked up her flute and caught his eye, then nodded her head, and they started.


It’s hard to explain conservatory life to people who’ve never experienced it. You have young artists, burning with the desire to express their individuality, but doing so within the heavily constrained world of classical music, where individuality can be a matter of extreme subtlety. Envy is endemic, competition is fierce, and snark is served up with ever meal.

One way of standing out is to write your own music; unless you are Prokofiev, this is extremely hard to pull off. Another way is to perform little known repertoire, which helps you stand out. This was her way.

To him, their practice sessions were magical; they built cities out of music together. He loved the music first, but gradually realized that he loved her. She was completely devoted to her craft. She expressed herself through it. And he saw her, truly saw and heard her.

But to her, he was just some guy, a guy who would either accompany her perfectly or screw up her senior recital. She didn’t really see him — at all. Not once.

When the performance came, it was just like practice had been. They were one person when it came to performing, and he felt it. And the audience felt it. It was electric.

And, to him, it was even more.

But something can be everything, and the next moment, be nothing. She checked off the box of a successful senior recital, acknowledged the applause, performed the ritual of acknowledging her accompanist, smiled in the moment, then left the stage.

And just like that, she was gone, and she never gave him three seconds thought again.

He gathered up his sheet music as the house lights came up and to the sounds of the audience milling about. It was an oddly empty feeling.

That love can be unrequited is well known; that it is almost always unrequited is less known. That the person loved never even knows it happens all around us, everyday. There’s a fair chance it has happened to you, and you never noticed.

For one person’s everything is another person’s nothing.