Stephen’s Way: An American Reads Proust

I like to read and I’m not put usually off by difficult books. I have read War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, much of Faulkner, most of Joyce. But there are a few books that I have never been able to finish, and so far as I can tell they have nothing in common.

The first is Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstader. It came out a few years after I graduated and was a combination of two things that for me (and possibly only for me) are inseparably linked: philosophy and comedy. I have never been able to read the entire book, mostly because at least once each page I have to stop and think, and once my brain is so activated it seldom circles back to the beginning point. I was lucky if I remembered to mark my place.

The second book is The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. I started this one based on the recommendation of Joseph Campbell, who ranked Mann with James Joyce as the great mytho-centric writers of the Twentieth century. With Mann, you have some choices. I picked The Magic Mountain because Death in Venice was too short, Buddenbrooks (reputedly his masterpiece) too long, so The Magic Mountain seemed just right. Plus it had magic in the title, though as I discovered there were no elves or wizards, at least not as far as I got. I was enjoying The Magic Mountain despite its fantasy-barren nature, but life intervened, the book was packed away, and to date it has not been found. Though I did get one nice poem out it. Still I hope to find my copy one day and begin again.

The third book is  Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, the initial volume in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which is sometimes poetically translated as Remembrance of Things Past and oddly translated as In Search of Lost Time, which sounds like a story about someone who couldn't find their watch. Proust was a contemporary of both Joyce and Mann. Proust and Joyce met once in a famous encounter where each complained about his health and excused himself (true writerish behavior).

I had a copy of Remembrance of Things Past that somehow resurfaced, which I took as a sign that I should try again. Previously I had made it to the scene with the tea and madeleine, and then gave up, possibly because it made me hungry, though more likely because I felt I had done my duty. The translation I had was the original English translation by C. K. Scott Moncrief, which was regarded as the standard. But after a few pages of this, I decided to switch to a later translation by Lydia Davis. I don’t know which is more Proustean, but Ms. Davis work was slightly livelier and I stuck with it.

In theory I could read it in French. I took eight years of French and can speak but not really pronounce several words at least. I suspect the book is better in the original, and I have the same suspicion about Mann in German and Dante in Italian and Homer in Greek. But for now, and likely forever, I will have to rely on the wonderful work of translators, who so remarkably devote years of their lives to other people’s words.

At this reporting, I am 150 pages into Swann’s Way and I am pretty sure that other than tea and madeleines nothing has happened. But I must say it is not happening marvelously and I can’t wait to see what doesn’t happen next.

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Lotsa Stuff

Friendship, heat, walking and writing, music and movies share residence in my head this week, along with nocturnal dreams, holidays, Supreme Court rulings, politics, marijuana laws and family. I don't know what will find release here. Walking four to six miles in 100 + F degree heat hasn't been bad but I'm prepared and determined, and it's a choice, not a chore. That last leg of thinking is most critical. I'm focused on writing to the coffee shop. It's down hill and earlier in the day. It's rarely been hotter than ninety then so I don't think of the heat or the walk.

Returning is up a long steady hill. Temperatures are usually 97 or more. Yesterday was 103. At least we're coping better than Europe at this stage. This heatwave's global breadth and depths staggers me.

I've written but I still think about writing as I walk home, continuing to write, plot and revise in my head. Then music enters. I sing songs. James Taylor, Fire and Rain. Santana with Rob Thomas, Smooth: "Man, it's a hot one. Like seven inches from the midday sun." Mungo Jerry, "In the summertime, when the weather is hot, you can reach right up and touch the sky." Lovin' Spoonful, "Hot time, summer in the city, back of my neck getting dirty and gritty." It's therapeutic to sing these songs aloud, as though my shower's privacy protects me, as I walk. "Let it rain," became the song of the day as the humidity and heat plotted to stew me in my sweat and hunkered clouds glowered through charcoal shades. "Let the rain fall down on me." A few drops sprinkled me but most cruised past our neighborhood without dropping in. Still, it killed the hot wave for a day. That night, we enjoyed a low in the lower 60s. 

I thought of friends many times while walking. One couple was in Tuscany, celebrating her progress against lung cancer. Another couple walked the Camino de Santiago. She suggested it to him as a means to grow close again after 45 years of marriage and raising their children. A second couple also walked the Camino, doing it more to get away, they claimed. Their mother lives in a local nursing home and their home is used as a hotel as siblings, nieces, nephews, sons and daughters and grandchildren come to visit their mom. They don't mind being the host but decided they required an energy change. Walking the Camino was the solution! We watched 'The Walk', starring Martin Sheen, the other night. Made in 2010, directed by Emilio Estevez, it's about a father grieving for his son after his son dies on the Camino, and walking it in his son's honor. 

Another friend has sold his house. He and his wife are entering Phase IV, he says, downsizing from the current 3,000 square feet to 1600, from a quarter acre to .16, a three car garage to two, from progressive Ashland to conservative Medford. He's a beer buddy, though, a BOB - Brains on Beer - and vows he will continue as part of our group. He also read one of my novels for me, giving me feedback, enjoying, he said, the privilege of reading a novel and discussing it with the author. He is a gracious person.

We've been on a sick watch of sorts, checking on other friends and relatives. One friend's 23 year old son was hospitalized with pancreatitis. His medical team finally announced they were hopeful of his recovery after a terse seven days. Meanwhile, my wife's mother, suffering Parkinson's, experienced a major fall. She ended up unable to move and was hospitalized for three days. Now she's in a nursing home. The drama sowed new fields of irritation, aggravation and frustration into their family dynamics as decisions were made and challenged, communications failed, and narcissism rose, all worsened by being across the country from the activity. My wife thought about and rejected flying home, part of the family dynamics. Her sister's husband continues recovering from his brain cancer stem cell treatment but now has chemo brain, while her son copes with PTSD from his battle days in Afghanistan, and the other sister endures cystic fibrosis. My own family is doing oddly well, free of life threatening ailments and apparently free of feuds and acrimony. I hope the peace lasts.

Of course, I remembered. I'm always remembering and re-visiting the past, not in grief but in reflection, sometimes in longing, a few times in celebration. And there are dreams at night that startle me into laughter, surprise me with insights or mystify me with incoherency. 

The cats are another facet of concern and adventure, along with the cougars, bears and raccoons sightings. Tucker continues suffering from stomatitis gingivitis. Depo Medrol gives him some short term relief but I've gone through this with a few cats. The relief is temporary and Depo's side effects can kill him. I don't want him living in agony. I've reluctantly decided to follow the vet's advice to have most of his teeth removed. With that decision made, I'll need to address the particulars for executing the decision. I wouldn't do it if I didn't think it best, and I've thought on it many hours as I comfort and feed him. I haven't told my wife yet. Small steps, you know?

Although I only have two cats, I'm feeding five. Besides the ever jubilant and healthy Quinn, I'm feeding Meep, the orange Scheckter doppelganger who made his first appearance a few years ago. He's a young, friendly cat. We're sure he belongs to someone. He disappears for a day or two but he enjoys our yard's environs, often appearing when I'm working in the yard or in the garage with the side door open. Yes, he's a sweetie. More recent and surprising are two other cats who have chosen our place for their place. One, Pepper, belongs to my neighbor but she elects to visit with me, sleep on my porch, and ask me for food. I'm startled, as she ignores her human when he calls her and when he comes home. When I come home, she races to greet me. It's peculiar. Likewise, a large but friendly black cat has found a home in our back yard and runs to greet me whenever I open a window or come to the door. He's lost almost all of his tail so I call him stubby. Like Pepper and Meep, he's polite and friendly. 

We also went blueberry and cherry picking. Picked seven pounds of blueberries, eight pounds of cherries. Then pitted the cherries and froze pints and pints of both. More blueberry picking is planned for the morning of the 4th.

Home remodeling also permeates my thoughts. My wife and I have looked at buying another home but we're not finding anything that calls, 'Live here!' It's more of a 'what-if we move' exercise, pushed mostly by features of our home that bother us, and by us, we're using the royal form, and I mean, what bothers her, my wife. I walked around with her, asking questions and taking notes. Now I've moved into the planning phase, collecting names of contractors, preparing to schedule appointments and meet with them to discuss plans and costs. Most problematic is the master bath remodeling. It has only a 3 by 4 foot walk shower, no bath. She wants a bath in there. So I've been measuring, examining and thinking. Now I've conceptualized what is possible and need to talk with experts to test my ideas' feasibility. While I'm doing that with the house laundry room, hall and bathroom, I'm designing a layout for the backyard to create another patio space. 

Then there is work...helping my wife with her social justice activities...dinner with friends...retirement planning...reading - finished Station 11, Oryx and Crake, and The Invention of Wings this past week. Now reading Americanah. Just realized I'm reading many female authors right now, but they're damn good writers. I just go where the reading takes me.

And I'm writing, every day I'm writing, revising, editing, writing like crazy in a comfortable zone. I laughed and laughed while watching Orange is the New Black the other day as Crazy Eyes became an author. Pestered by the other women for information about plot points, characters and motivations in her novel, she replies, I'm only an instrument of the Muse. Those of us who write pretty well understand. I don't know if the rest get it.

Time to write like crazy, at least one more time. Then I'll walk home. It's 98 right now, will hit 100 in an hour. Have I mentioned that it's hot outside?

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The Perils of Reading

Reading is dangerous but it’s part of Michael W.’s itemized processes. Did a lot of reading today, first the news, tracking disasters, riots and developments in Texas, Nepal, Baltimore, and the SCOTUS.  Reading at work took over as I surfed emails, blogs and wikis. All of that reading twisted into writing. I wrote a personal essay, If I Were A Black Man, about Baltimore and the police killings and escalating violence. Wrote another post for myself about my company. We’re transforming ourselves, see? We’re developing speed and agility. Part of the transformation is in the personal rating system by which our annual performance is judged. The objectives for the new year are usually done and in by the end of January, maybe Feb or March. They’ve been extended this year as a new system is rolled out – but the new system isn’t ready so the new headings must be placed in the old system, causing much groin scratching. See how that’s fast and agile?

 

Writing is a calming yet energizing routine, letting me vent and release emotions, frustrations and some thinking. It’s also a good routine. Routines are helpful coping mechanisms. Everything must be handled in moderation, of course, remember to stay moderate.

Eating lunch, I resumed reading Cloud Atlas. I enjoyed it a little too much, putting off my own writing just to, gasp, read for leisure. The cats approved, Tucker resting his big black and white form on the desk by the computer beside me while Quinn curled his black paws under to nap on my lap. The cats enjoy reading’s stillness. But my personal writer didn’t, goading me to close the book at last, move the cat off my lap and head into the sunshine. I grabbed Cloud Atlas and thrust it into my computer bag,  just in case….

Reading always stimulates thinking which stimulates writing so the Writer was ready when I carried my Mexican mocha (four shots, per usual, thanks) back to a table, sat down and powered up the system. The largest problem for the Writer is that as his book enters its winding down phase, when all the arcs and tales come together in one big playful mess, other Writers within take up their causes to get back to them. Speaking most loudly is The Bookmarker’s writer. He notes the ms was being written in parallel with Everything in Black and White until Feb. It should be easy, he enthuses, to resume. After all, he argues, I was happy with the story and the novel’s progress until EiB&W’s writer convinced me that I needed to enter a monogamous relationship with a novel.

Of course, other Writers rebut The Bookmarker’s writer by noting, hey, excuse me, I was also being written, and I have an exciting new concept to explore over here, come on, give us a look, luv.

 

We’ll see what reaches the top of the to-write list. Meanwhile, I’m here now, with coffee at hand. Time to write like crazy, at least one more time.

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The Holiday Season

The holiday season is ending in our parcel of the world. Normal activities are resuming. School. Work. Weather watch. Football playoffs. The Oscars.

 

The weather is today’s topic. The first weather below 30 is being predicted, along with the chance of an inch of snow on the valley floor. Snow has been coming and going to the surrounding mountains at last.

With this backdrop, my wife and I have been trying to catch up on movies, attending the opening day of “Into the Woods.” Long. Lush. Complicated. Interesting. Musical. Clever. Long. Our comparisons with the OSF play put the movie into the pale. ‘Our’ version was better, although the second act seemed even darker than the movie’s second act.

After that, “The Imitation Game” opened. I told college students we were going to see it. They hadn’t heard of it. Weren’t familiar with Benedict Cumberbatch. Didn’t know Alan Turing. Oh, well, the gulf widens. I’m not overly familiar with Sam Smith and his top selling album and have actively avoided the Beieber. Still, I have some concept of them. 

I enjoyed “The Imitation Game.” I’m a Cumberbatch fan (but I don’t call myself a Cumberbitch – too old fashioned, I suppose) so that helped. People who noted it had the period details associated with Masterpiece Theater aren’t wrong but I don’t consider that a bad thing. Better that than this slowly expanding trend of making a period piece backed with a rock score with characters speaking hip American or British slang. It was interesting the first few times. Now it’s slovenly imitation. But imitation is a typical trend. If slow motion is good, more slow motion is better. 3D. Explosions, chases and double crosses, if some is good, more is better.

Discussing the season as we awaited the movie’s start yesterday, my wife and I addressed the holidays. Christmas has faded from our holiday interest. New Year’s wasn’t never big on our celebration list. Nor are Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. No, Solstice has become our holiday. A slow transition to celebrating Solstice over Christmas began sometime ago for us. Christmas and its commercial overtures does little to titillate our interest. We’re also sufficiently economically comfortable with buying ourselves what we need/want when it’s needed/wanted, without the requirement of an excuse to give ourselves gifts. We also resist the urges to buy/give foisted on us by unending commercials and advertisements. That just dirties treasured memories of the season when we were young and enjoyed it.

“Wild” hovers on our list of movies to see. Ashland was featured in the movie and Witherspoon came up for a special premiere and cocktail party. We weren’t invited. Today we’re going to see “The Theory of Everything,” which is being consistently favorably reviewed. I want to see “Birdman” and “Selma”. My wife’s friends told her Michael Keaton’s film confused them so she’d been put off from seeing it. She’s less interesting in “Selma” because it seems depressing.

It’s also reading season. She’s whipped through books. Now she’s reading "An Unnecessary Woman" although she’s disappointed to learn that a man wrote it. She picked up "The Orphan Train" today and read “The Martian” in a day and she’s urging me to read it. Not the best writing, she notes, but an engrossing story. I, though, am plodding through my leisure reading, alternating between the fascinating “The Orphan Master’s Son” and the less approachable and denser, “Genuis”. My book pile is growing as people read things and urge them on me.  “In Watermelon Sugar” and “The Hard Road to True North” have been added to that pile.

Meanwhile, as always, it’s the season to write like crazy, a wonderful, intoxicating season without end. Time to get on with it one more time.

 

Characters are waiting. Time to write like crazy.

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