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See and Remember It: Maxwell and Buechner

March 24, 2013

Frederick Buechner, my latest literary obsession, deems William Maxwell one of America’s great underrated novelists. I’m less than smitten by Maxwell, if largely because reading him shows just why The New Yorker’s fiction section has been so dull so long: Maxwell imposed his aesthetic of workman-like gentle revelation on the magazine from 1936 until 1975 and surely well beyond.

But one can see what charmed Buechner. Compare this, from Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf, to that seagull passage from Buechner that I posted earlier:

“The great, universal problem is how to be always on a journey and yet see what you would see if it were only possible for you to stay home: a black cat in a garden, moving through iris blades behind a lilac bush. How to keep sufficiently detached and quiet inside so that when the cat in one spring reaches the top of the garden wall, turns down again, and disappears, you will see and remember it, and not be absorbed at that moment in the dryness of your hands.”


Nostalgia, Archives

February 24, 2013

Though I shed drafts and shred journals, though I delete missives unsent (when I have the foresight and willpower), though I resolutely keep so much from my own mind (when I do not have the foresight and willpower), there exists a lengthy and detailed record of my life and conversations, of even those lost or discarded parts and possibilities that no longer seem ever to have been my own, and it is more complete than what my conscious mind holds and perhaps even my unconscious.

I dreamed last night of forgetting and remembering a casual friend’s (imaginary) secret. She’d had a baby, years back within the dream, and I’d somehow missed this bit of information. Who had been taking care of the child those nights we met in bars? Where was the kid when I’d been to her apartment? Who was the father? Gradually it all started to seem familiar; perhaps I had known about the baby. . . no, wouldn’t I have a clearer memory of this?

Either she didn’t care enough (about me? or the child?) to tell me, or I didn’t care enough to keep track of it.

I was desperate to know which. Piecing together misremembered events has been a theme of my dreams lately; figuring out who cares less or more and why and what that means is an eternal daylight theme.

In the dream I typed my friend’s name and the word “baby” into Gmail’s search field, and began to scour the resultant messages to see if there’d been a formal or informal birth announcement.

At least once a week in waking life I search Gmail to confirm the details of my days. Sometimes it’s a neutral, factual matter: what day I submitted that 30-day-net invoice and when I can expect a check, or what year I adopted that cat and how old that makes him now. More often it’s social: what time I’m due for dinner with A, what it was that B had said about such-and-such, when it was that C and I were last in touch, just how long I’ve known D.

When I woke up I did the same thing. The dream itself didn’t seem to hold any important message from deep within my psyche—this isn’t a close friend, there’s nothing complicated between us, and, while she’s reached the age where childbearing becomes something of an urgent decision, I could think of a dozen single women this describes (but it’s not an issue with which I grapple). I expected or wished for some significance here, hating to see a dream go to waste; I half-hoped that searching Gmail would present some forgotten email that my unconscious recognized that I needed to read.

But was too much to read through (apparently I use the word “baby” too much, as almost none of these messages referred to actual infants): scores of email threads, some of them holding a dozen emails, and chat records, some of them up to a thousand lines long. Individually nothing seemed relevant to the dream but there were ample reminders of such things as how very often X and I once talked, that Y and I continually discuss making plans but rarely do so, that so-distant Z had years ago invited me to a party that I suddenly find myself regretting skipping.

Do we care, and why?


February 9, 2013

“Or you are walking along an empty beach toward the end of the day, and there is a gray wind blowing, and a seagull with a mussel shell in its beak flaps up and up and then lets the shell drop to the rocks below, and there is something so wild and brave and beautiful about it that you have to write a poem or paint it into a picture or sing it into a song; or if you are no good at any of these, you have to live out at least the rest of the day in a way that is somehow true to the little scrap of wonder that you have seen.” – Frederick Buechner, “The Calling of Voices” (Secrets in the Dark

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, that is nature writing. And it’s from a sermon by a Presbyterian minister. 


December 1, 2012

“He had a restless, fatal streak in his character, a capacity for pure sudden flashes of rage against the hopelessness of his life. The Germans call it Wut.” – Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin


November 18, 2012

New York’s profile of the endlessly fascinated and fascinating Dr. Oliver Sacks—the solitary, painfully shy neurologist and amateur long-distance swimmer who once stalked Thom Gunn, counted Auden as a friend, ingested copious amounts of drugs, rode a Harley and set weight-lifting records—has reminded me to revisit his books.

Sacks’ stories of the neurologically damaged, of people suddenly unable to read or to speak, illuminates what a strange miracle language is, how unlikely it must be that our minds and bodies are wired in such a way that we’re able to communicate nuanced feelings and construct complex thoughts through a system of sounds, and how much more remarkable it is that we can transcribe this all in symbols and make perfect, flowing sense of marks on a page—except when we can’t. Injury or illness or age can throw a piece of the brain out of whack and steal these wondrous abilities, leaving an individual incapable of recognizing letters at all, or able to identify each letter but not to string them into words or sentences or sense.

These basic, universal abilities aren’t so basic or universal after all, but contingent on specific and revocable brain functioning. What, then, are the limits that our brains and bodies impose on us as a species? Our senses of touch and taste and smell aren’t the culture-building and transmitting forces that sight and hearing have been. Certainly our pets rely on scent for communication more than we do. Are there alien civilizations based on taste? With a few neurological changes would we invent whole symphonies of touch?

There are people who can’t recognize faces or emotions or color or common objects. What else are all of us missing? What wonders do the peculiarities of our neurology leave us unable to apprehend or even imagine?    

A Sea Change?

November 1, 2012

I was convinced that this summer would prove the start of a new era in Americans’ understanding of climate change, that the widespread droughts and heat waves were going to serve as tangible examples more convincing to some than models and arguments, that personal fear and discomfort would shake loose the last of skepticism. It’s bad science to value a handful of events over real research, but at least it would make the problem incontrovertibly clear.

But this autumn is revealing a hole in that prediction. I hadn’t counted on the possibility that we could agree on the problem, but that some of us might refuse to talk about its causes: Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo have acknowledged that there’s been a major and long-term switch in how our weather behaves, but they’ve refused to speak of why this is happening. So we’ll prepare our transportation and utility systems for this new reality, and that’s that. We’ll heal the symptoms, and not trouble ourselves about the disease. Why confront our reliance on fossil fuels when engineering might ameliorate its effects? Which is to say, why disrupt a petroleum economy when we can keep that plus make more money in the new industry of responding to the damages the petroleum economy inflicts?

Or maybe I’m making too much of a few politicians’ silences. On the cover of (Bloomberg) Businessweek: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”

Saint David

September 23, 2012

At its most joyous, criticism grows from the desire to share what one has loved with one’s real or imagined loves. This can be generous: Eat this, that you might share the rewards that I have found! And it can be selfish: Drink this, that you might understand what is in my head and in my heart!

It’s the latter impulse that leaves me wanting to write about C. Carr’s new biography of David Wojnarowicz, Fire in the Belly. But when I sit down to try to explain what this book and that artist’s life have meant to me, rather than letting forth a rush of sentences I see a blackboard of biographical algebra.

Born in 1954, David Wojnarowicz is old enough to be my father and just a few years younger than my parents. They seem to be of entirely different worlds, and yet he should have been more their peer than mine.

He died in 1992, a month after I graduated from high school, around the time I was hopping a train from Saint Paul to Chicago in a clumsy attempt to shatter my world for a bigger one. He was 37; I have outlived him.

I first visited the remnants of his East Village in 1997. That was just 5 years after his death and—strangely!—15 years ago.

The New York I moved to was closer to Wojnarowicz’s era of urban decay and art explosion and height-of-the-plague than it is to today. My past is nearly as distant as his.

And yet.

The past is never dead. It’s not even past. And change is not always as solid as it looks. It was a relief to see Carr’s and Wojnarowicz’s portrait of the 80s confirm that things really were as bad as they seemed, and it was not just all in my head. I was a child and did not have words for the hatred and oppression that I could feel; this story of an adult gay man, a teenage hustler, a person with AIDS, an NEA casualty, a culture war soldier, this lifestory gives form to the nameless fears I felt back then.

Things have changed. AIDS (for those with the right access to the western world’s healthcare) is no longer the horrifying death sentence that disappeared a generation of my gay fathers, killing David Wojnarowicz and Arthur Russell and Marlon Riggs and Robert Mapplethorpe and so many more. Gays and lesbians aren’t the mythical creatures that in the 80s I wasn’t quite convinced actually existed; we deliver the news and decent straights even take gay marriage as their cause.

And yet.

When I watch political coverage and sometimes when I walk through the streets of New York and certainly of more far-flung locales I breathe in waves of hatred and ignorance and I know that these changes are not so secure.

So it is a grave comfort to read Carr’s book and to see how one artist transformed the hatred around him and the rage within him into offerings of beauty. It is a grave comfort to see how one man’s chaotic life yet held work, very good work.

I think of him as Saint David, though in some ways he’s not much of a role model. Carr’s massive book is based on an astounding amount of research, including interviews with, it seems,  just about everyone in the artist’s life. It paints Wojnarowicz as moody, defensive, prone to lashing out at everyone. The book details rift after rift with his most intimate friends. His three major loves were a man who lived an ocean away; a mentor who was a lover and became a friend; and, in his longest and perhaps most supportive and adult relationship, a man he never lived with and many of his friends didn’t even know about. He’d even told that loving last partner that he was third in his priorities—behind his dying ex-lover, and behind his work.

Work came first.