Sunday, July 25, 2010

Lies and metaphors

Here’s an interesting passage from Colm Toibin’s review of Wendy Moffat’s new biography of E.M.Forster in this morning’s New York Times Book Review:
... novels should not be honest. They are a pack of lies that are also a set of metaphors; because the lies and metaphors are chosen and offered shape and structure, they may indeed represent the self, or the play between the unconscious mind and the conscious will, but they are not forms of self-expression, or true confession.
 I learned in high school a worthless but not ridiculous definition of a novel: a long work of fiction. Toibin’s assertion is a nice, concise go at answering the obvious question: what is (or isn’t) fiction?. I had terrific English teachers at school, but I would have killed for an atmosphere that would have allowed “...they are a pack of lies” to enter the discussion.


This review was paired with one by David Leavitt of Selina Hastings’ new bio of Somerset Maugham, and in reading them I learned something that amazed me: Forster was five years the younger. If asked, I would have said Forester was at least a decade older. But he was essentially finished as a novelist with A Passage to India in 1924, while Maugham carried on long after.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The forest and the trees

A few weeks ago, I saw this article in The Guardian, and I’ve been reading about the potential ban on some of the British blogs I follow. It reminded me of something, and I dug around on the back of my office shelves to find this:

When I left local politics over a decade ago, the local reporter asked me what my greatest achievement had been. “World peace” didn’t seem to fit, and I had to tell her there wasn’t one accomplishment I could honestly point to and say, “There. That’s mine, and the town’s much better for it” (I didn’t tell her what I’d really come to believe after 25 years or so, which was that while I’d been more than willing to perform what I’d thought of as my public duty, the town would have looked essentially the same if a random resident had been pulled in off her tractor to sit in the chairs I’d occupied.)

But reading about the utterly wrongheaded proposed Scottish camping ban reminded me that there was this one thing. I attended a Selectmen’s meeting one evening to learn that our town’s insurance carrier and attorneys had told us that to avoid lawsuits we had to close down the small crag in our park to technical climbing. I made a loud noise, and after some discussion my two colleagues agreed to announce a temporary ban for the express purpose of seeing if we could work things out.

I took a good look at state law, made sure our parks met the tests set by the legislature to avoid liability (basically, post appropriate signs asserting climbers’ personal responsibility, and make no Town effort to protect or improve safety—no fences at the top of the rocks, for example). I jawboned a little with the contiguous land owners, individual climbers, and climbing groups, we put up little informational kiosks (with emphasis on the positives and just a few “no’s,” and we worked with our insurers and lawyers to make sure all the i’s were dotted and all the t’s were crossed.

It wasn’t all that hard, actually: Gather facts, understand the problem, talk to those with some stake in the outcome, keep everybody in the loop, broker an agreement, and take the smallest necessary action that would serve the general good. I was given this plaque by an organization that was, I think, as surprised that I’d cared to make the effort as they were delighted we’d succeeded.

So there. That’s mine.

I’m still working on world peace.

(And rooting for those working to see that wild camping remains unrestricted at Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, where I’m standing, soaking wet and very happy, in this photo.)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Thanks, Mac

Last week, the dreaded “Kernel Panic” box started popping up on my desktop computer. A few days later, as I knew it would, everything stopped working, and it was time—past time—for a trip to the Genius Bar and, probably, a new hard drive. Uncharacteristically, I had saved the box (and the styrofoam fittings!) the 2006, 24-inch iMac had come in, so I packed everything off, and made my way to the Apple Store about 45 minutes away.

My particular genius ran some diagnostics and confirmed my diagnosis, so I paid my $332 and left the computer. Told I’d be able to retrieve it in 5-7 days, I headed off for northern New England and forgot about it.

Wednesday, on a back road in Vermont, I got a surprising call. It was an Apple rep. Repairs were backing up, she said, parts were not coming through in good time, she couldn’t give me a reasonable date for completion of the job ... and would I accept a new computer instead?

No dummy I, even under this sort of avaricious pressure, and knowing Apple no longer made 24-inch iMacs, I asked which computer they were going to give me. A 27-incher, I was told.

No dummy I, especially under this sort of avaricious pressure, permission was granted.

Yesterday, I wandered into the store at about 10:15, and wandered out 10 minutes later under the considerable weight of a brand new 27-inch, 3.06 GHz, 1 TB iMac with one of those tiny wireless keyboards (not bad, really, and I’m sold on wireless, but I may go back to my full-featured one) and a Magic Mouse (terrific).

A little effortless Time Machine magic, and I was up and running by early afternoon.

Nary a glitch in the whole process. Wonder Bread used to build strong bodies 12 ways. I’m amazed and gratified in at least that many.

Merci beaucoup, Pomme.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Busy B

Some pix I wanted to load yesterday but didn't have access to:

B at Henry's. Fork in straw? Check. Yellow sugar packets covered up? Check. Blue sugar packets a-counting? Check. Now, where's the sticky jam?

Slab climbing on the lake shore.

A swinging traverse at the playground.

Climbing in.

(Does this remind you of Kayo, the Moon Mullins kid who used to sleep in a dresser drawer? If it does, you’re probably an American pushing 60 at least.)

And patting the Blue Cow (“Boo Moo”) before dinner downtown.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Walkin’ and hangin’

I’m just home from nearly a week in New Hampshire and Vermont—as Robert Frost asserted, “the two best states in the Union.” (Maine may have a gripe, but Frost was essentially correct.)

Last Friday, I staggered up North Hancock (4,420 ft.) and South Hancock (4,319 ft.), two of my remaining 17 New Hampshire 4000-footers. There are 48 in all, and I topped my first one in 1966, so summiting them all hasn’t exactly been a major focus of my life. But increasing age has turned it into a minor compulsion, and I hope to crawl up at least four more—maybe as many as eight—this year.

The walk up the Hancocks is a loop, and it’s a lot like many walks in the Whites: woodsy, rocky, and steep.

It was a hot and terribly humid day, neither of the two summits is above tree-line, and the views from outcrops were poor because of haze. But the famous Arrow Slide off North Hancock was visible both heading up

and coming down,

and near the summit of South Hancock, I did catch sight of Carrigain Pond, far down in the bowl between my ridge and Mount Carrigain. It’s a tiny speck on maps, and trail-less. I bushwhacked to it perhaps 15 years ago, hanging onto the belts of three profoundly experienced and well-known White Mountain personages as we slithered through thickets and made an unscheduled trip over the densely wooded summit of The Captain, a small and infrequently visited peak. It was one of my best days in the mountains.

One of the paths leading into the climb is the Cedar Brook Trail, notorious in our family for its multiple brook crossings, one of which was the location of H’s shoe-toss shoe-loss a few years back. This summer has been so dry that I easily rock-hopped across all of them and couldn’t even recognize the one that claimed the boot. On the way out, though, the worm turned, the heavens opened, and an impressive thunder storm brought down enough rain to turn the trails themselves into brooks. The last hour of my walk out was essentially a wade.

I was up north to help support H during a two-day obstetric emergency training session at the Fletcher Allen Medical Center at the University of Vermont in Burlington. The job was to take care of sweet B during the day. What a bummer.

Burlington is a famously cool little city. It’s right on Lake Champlain, and you can see the Adirondacks in New York across the lake. It’s a youthful city, with the University of Vermont and a few other colleges in the area, and it’s progressive and smart. Bike paths, the terrific Echo Lake Aquarium and Science Center, and all sorts of other attractive features, including lots of good pubs and clubs, restaurants, and caf├ęs. A terrific town that’s often rated by one publication or another as one of the best places to live in the U.S. (It’s certainly near the top of my list.) We took an almost-four-mile run one morning from our hotel, near the hospital, to the lake and back. Mighty fine

At a week shy of two, the B has become amazingly verbal, deploying four-word sentences and commenting endlessly on the world around her and her own situation—and her own desires (“Me do!”). One morning she was a delighted—and, I must say, delightful—customer of Henry’s Diner, a famous local spot that is clearly not unused to the needs of the very young. B especially enjoyed opening her little jam pack and counting sugar packets (she skips from five to eight these days, so the total was a little inflated). She also loved the special little cup-with-straw her juice came in. At one point, we cracked each other up playing stickily with a tiny Leggo humanoid (she calls it “Person”) and the jelly she was supposed to be eating on her muffin. Is there anything better than the delighted laughter of a small child? (Easy answer: No.)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Mr. Roly-poly staggers along

This little tweak turned out to be a serious enough ding to send me to the sidelines for much of the past month, so I’m fat and grumpy. Over the last week, though, I’ve been out a few times for slow shuffles that felt okay. I’ve had some help from a trainer who’s stretched, kneaded, and tugged at me, seemingly to some effect, and we’ll see.

We’ve got lots of local fitness runners out there every morning. Several women, especially, never miss a day. Some of them go quite long, and most of them look terrifically thin and fit. They’re clearly not training for competition. They go slow, they go easy, and as a result, they go without that swinging rhythm that has always given me so much pleasure. But they never miss a day.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

The question is: can an old crock whose wheels are clearly no longer holding up face reality, or is he doomed to chase performances he can no longer realistically aspire to?

Doomed to chase is clearly the stupid answer, but for this fat, grumpy, creaky old guy, it’s still the honest one. Just let me train one good season.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

I’m off to join the old ballplayers

I had that chance to chat with a few old teammates over the weekend, and even our old coach. We exchanged ancient yarns, of course, some of which approached the truth. Nobody, however, remembered my stunning heat of 1964. Only one even remembered the specific meet in question, where he suffered a disastrous equipment malfunction in the pole vault, but he recalled no desperate temperature. He also described my two-mile as a nail-biting, lead-changing affair. Until last week, I would have described it as nerve-wracking but undramatic. Now? I obviously have only the most tenuous grip on what I thought was my past. Clear, embedded, virtually tactile memories seem to have been false. Maybe I really was involved the race of the century, slicing through balmy zephyrs to overcome the team tactics of the evil Coventry boys. But nobody forgets youthful glories, and I’d surely remember that.

Wouldn’t I?

Friday, July 9, 2010


I’ve been obsessed for a little over a year with the marriage of images, sound, and text that becomes possible when books migrate from paper to digital files. I don’t mean the occasional film clip or movie-like background music, but something more integrated and organic to the work, something that’s part of the way it’s created.

I’ve been thinking of this primarily within the framework of fiction. But here is a video from a non-fiction piece in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, which isn’t doing quite what I’m fixated on, but does illustrate how scrumptious even a digital sidebar can be.

Grab a bat.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

“Showing familiar things from an alien viewpoint.”

There was a really interesting review in the New York Times a day or two ago of John Carey’s new biography of William Golding. Reading Lord of the Flies when I was 14 or so really knocked the pins out from under me. I was still a small-town boy, unsophisticated and parochial to a degree that would be hard to duplicate today, and this book forced me—bullied me, really—to think about circumstance, and about culture, habit, and fear, their presence and absence, and their effects on what we generally call morality. Heavy. And I was utterly unprepared, intellectually and morally, for this particular wrestling match. (The fact that I read Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God at about the same time didn’t help: God or no God, you’re screwed.)

The review calls Golding “a laureate of humiliation,” asserts that he was “in touch with his darkest impulses, especially his own sublimated bent toward cruelty,” and quotes him saying, “I have always understood the Nazis, because I am of that sort by nature.” In the circumstances, I suppose it was appropriate that Golding scared the hell out of me.

On the other hand, the review’s title is “Talent for Writing, and Falling Into Things,” it describes Golding as something of a lovable bumbler, and reviewer Dwight Garner says that Carey “portrays Golding, a man of constant sorrow, in a warm, fondly comic light.”

All I can say, before my circuits short out, is, This I gotta read.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hot memories. Not memories?

It just hit 100°F here. (About 38°C.) Definitely lie-down-in-the-shade-and-don’t-move hot. It made me think, as extreme Connecticut heat always does, of a Saturday in June of 1964, when my high school track team was competing in a State Championship meet. It was stunning in the sun, and I spent the entire meet lolling under a line of big maples along one side of the track, waiting for the two-mile, which was always the last non-relay of these events. I wore a floppy tennis hat for shade on sunny days, and when it was finally time for me to compete, my coach dunked it in our water bucket and plopped it back on my head so I’d stay cool out there on the griddle. The hottest race I’ve ever run.

Here’s the problem. I’ve been boring people with this story every really brutal day for 45 years, and it’s apparently not true. Today I looked up our historic temperatures on Saturdays (and eventually all the other days) in June, 1964. Not one even begins to approach 100°.  Just in case, I checked late May. Nope.

So what’s going on? I can see my teammates competing, and hear us all complaining about the heat. I can feel the relative coolness under the trees. I can feel that soaking, dripping hat being slapped onto my head. I can hear my coach, at the end of lap three, shouting for me to stop sitting and go. This is neither a dream nor a willful untruth. Could it simply be a grand unconscious exaggeration? Such a creepy thought.

But I know a number of people who sometimes interview old ballplayers about their careers. And my friends all tell me the same thing: these guys always get it wrong. It was Cleveland, not Detroit. It was 1947, not 1949. It was a double, not a triple. The pitcher was Joe Jones, not Bob Smith. Sometimes these old players had been dining out for years on the strength of their stories, and had embellished a bit. Sometimes they just got confused or forgot. But they always got it wrong. Well, I only wish I were an old big leaguer, but maybe I’ve joined at least part of that club.

As it turns out, I’ll be seeing some of my old teammates this weekend—most for the first time since the ’60s—and I’ll ask them. If they remember killer heat, we’re all nuts. If not, I’ll go hang out with the old ballplayers.

In the meantime, I’m telling you, and you can take it to the bank. Out there today? It’s really hot!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A gerundive weekend

We were together in Concord last weekend, and poor sweet B was a bit under the weather, both teething and suffering through a chest cold. So we had a bit more Miss Crankypants than usual. But she was mostly still her sunny self.

She’s really into gerunds right now: "Sleeping,” “Holding” (which actually comes out, “Hoding”), “Running,” and so on. One of her big ones is “Hiding.” But she hasn’t quite figured out how hide-and-seek works.  I think she’s supposed to be Seeking here.

Another one, of course, is “Eating.” Which is usually closely followed by someone going straight to “Washing.”

She’s also become something of an auteur du photographie, wandering around Shooting with whatever digital camera is handiest. Here is her recent study, “Summer Wine”...

... not to be confused with “Whining,” which we actually heard a lot less of than we might have expected under the circumstances. Regardless, of course, B remains ... Supercool.