Monday, June 10, 2024

Away Home


My favorite children have always been fictional. Who doesn't love a sweet Dickensian orphan or a Harold and his purple crayon or Harriet whilst spying?! And I love babies -- on paper. Okay, I love 'em in reality too, but they can be a lot o' noise, puke, and pooh and all at once. All my favorite murderers, drunks, talking animals, battles, horse races, bars, barns, carts, and weddings are in stories and novels. I mean, barns are dirty, battles are violent... Most sober folk would agree that drunks are obviously better on the page than in person. Fictional drunks can be hilarious, even quite moving -- like Lowry's Geoffrey Firmin (remember? The chap Under the Volcano.) Real drunks? See "babies" above. Now I think about it, this is also mostly true of brave dogs, clever cats, long journeys, long conversations about the meaning of things, grifters, drifters, grotesque weightlifters, and of course heterosexual intimacies. My memory of that last would be pretty hazy now were it not for its omnipresence in the wider culture. I will admit I often skip right over most of it in novels. Doesn't bother me, you understand, just not my demographic. Likewise monster trucks and martial arts, mixed or straight up. (It occurs to me now that I've never encountered monster trucks or kickboxing in a fictional setting. I lead a retiring life, but has that happened? If not it's high time somebody wrote the Great American Kickboxing Monster Truck Novel. Get on that, surviving editors at Random Penguin House. Potentially untapped crossover market with my fellow Saltine Americans.*) 

Fiction is and has always been kind of my safe space. We didn't have that phrase or that concept when I was a kid. Safety was kind of a crap shoot back then, despite the insidious nostalgia that tells us everything used to be "safe as houses." There were lots of supposedly safe institutions like church and school that were anything but, and not just for wee me. Fiction on the other hand did not disappoint when it came to fidelity. Huck and Jim might be imperiled off the river, but I was perfectly safe when with them. All four of The Musketeers could be called upon to keep safe company with a small, near-sighted boy. Reading in a dusty out-building, my bare feet resting on a push mower, Oz was all around me. 

As an older man, I still find fiction the best possible place to encounter straight men, actual bears, Roman Emperors, naked ladies, authors who call women "ladies," -- another long list! Nowadays fiction is far and away the best place to keep all sorts of messy, demanding, potentially unpleasant and or taxing things that in reality would require more patience than I have left, or worse, timed-feedings and or special clothing, things that need seen to by a surgeon or dressed by a nurse, things that need to be put down for either a nap or for good. Fiction still lets me experience these things without me lifting a finger, as it were, or more honestly without getting my nightshirt dirty. I'm not incapable of seeing to things in reality. I can feed myself. Dress. Drive a car. The beloved elderly husband and I take care of one another. But I can't imagine being responsible for a regiment, or an escape, let alone feeding a baby or a bulldog. I can't keep so much as a houseplant alive. We've never actually owned a pet in my house (husband's asthmatic.) I am then clearly better off with just imaginary warriors, animals, and children, etc. 

Don't know that I ever wanted children for more than a minute at a time. As a gay man of a certain generation, fatherhood wasn't difficult to avoid. I've known LGBTQIA people for whom parenthood has always been a goal. Good on 'em. Not me. (Though, I have been called "Daddy" lately.) Unlike dear old Charles Lamb, I've never ruminated on the kiddies not crowding 'round my knee. 

I am content with just old books, the beloved old husband, and maybe a bit of light dusting. He's the better cook. Sunday morning though I'll make an omelet if I'm feeling ambitious or if I fuck it up, scrambled eggs. I'm not against the idea of other people. I see them all day long at the bookstore where I work. I'm not an ascetic. I don't shun human touch or avoid conversation or contact. My coworkers would attest that I am if anything, chatty. I've known an actual misanthrope or two. If I am no longer convivial much, I'm still friendly mostly. And I will look at the cat photos on your phone. I will grin at your baby. Then, if you don't mind, I'd like to get back to my book.

My personal acquaintance with other people's children has been largely satisfactory if shallow. Oddly enough, I am good at walking fussy babies. I am not actually squeamish about bodies and what comes of necessity out of them. There endeth my utility. By the time most children begin to speak in complete sentences I'm afraid we tend to bore one another. Perfectly understandable on their part. I don't really "do" anything in any sense likely to entertain or interest children. I am sedentary, conversational, uninterested in games. A willingness to pull funny faces gets one only so far with children, maybe... aged two? After that, I got nothing. I recall enough of my own childhood to remember how agonizingly dull most adults are to kids -- as not a few will prove to be forever after. The sad truth is that humans tend not to be nearly so interesting to one another as we've been led to expect. We most of us don't get a hell of a lot more fascinating over time. You weren't much fun at five, I wouldn't look for you to be suddenly festive at fifty. I was never a birthday party boy nor a playground player. I didn't really get kids when I was one. By the time I might find anything actually interesting to say to the children of my friends now those kids are taller than me and on their way out the door, at which point the only thing more mortifying than one's parents conversation would probably be awkward exchanges with the friends of same. "I remember when you were a baby!" Fascinating, Mr. Craft. Do tell. Sorry.

With the best intentions in the world I was recently asked if I might be willing to read aloud to children... and, no, no I am not. Not the first time I've been asked. I do read aloud to grown people and have done for years. Should a child (or a dog) happen to be present I will not fuss so long as they don't. All are welcome, generally. (I did once suggest to a lady with a very vocal cockatoo that she may have interpreted the phrase "open to the public" far too broadly.) Other than the bird and the occasional crazy, I've been pretty lucky when it's come to my audience for this sort of thing. I tend to attract grown ass people. I needn't worry about cursing, and they needn't worry I'll read anything I wouldn't read to my own elderly mother. Please keep in mind that that little lady, at ninety-two, still has a mouth on her. I actually have tried reading to children before. I've done a story time or two. Not a success. The kids were not impressed. And they unfortunately reminded me not a little of that cockatoo. Not enjoyable for anybody. Once, when reading a story to the small children of a friend, the littlest one, when shown the charming illustration in my collector's edition of The Rose and the Ring took the page right out. Right. Out. RIP. End of story, end of story-time. The poor mother looked stricken. She was lucky not to be, struck I mean, because I don't strike children. (No harm done, save to my Thackeray. That baby's a graduate student now. Some day though, we may meet again. I am a patient man. Hmmm... may I see that diploma for a second?)

I do remember being read to as a child, but more I remember the glorious revelation of being able to read for myself. The magic of that moment has never left me, never dimmed. The standard of pedagogy in my hometown was never remarkable. My first teachers, and many of their successors right through to high school, were -- how to put this? Very nice ladies. Nearly all of them came from what used to be called "teacher colleges." Most taught from lesson-plans older than the building we were in. Modern science, contemporary letters, history, many subjects might have benefited from a more worldly employment pool or diversity of background. Not to be. I believe diversity then in my home town came down to United Methodist or one or the other of two Presbyterian. I guess the gym teachers might have been Baptists? (There is a private college right there in my home town, by the way. Again, Presbyterian. It is still a religious institution better known for its quaint horror of mixed dormitories than for its lofty academic standards or the diversity of its staff or student body. Elementary education, business administration, and theology majors abound.) In this one task though my early teachers served me well. I was ready to read. They helped and encouraged me. They put good books into my hands. True, I never mastered spelling, and grammar came to me late and still limps under the weight of me, but reading? A gift. I remember the triumph of "sounding out" an unfamiliar word -- something that I understand is not strictly done anymore -- and reading aloud, making the printed words back into sounds. I remember learning how a sentence and then a paragraph worked. It was all as magical and mechanical as Newton's universe. Reading put the whole world and all the stars right under my imperfect eyes and gave me a power I'd never known. I could travel, fly, kill, forgive, talk, laugh, love and be loved at will. Later still I could, in Whitman's weird phrase, "snuff the sidle of evening" with other, actual readers like me, talk about something other than just our day, our bills, our sorrows. Reading was also how I found my tribe and came to know community. I survived because I learned to read.

From childhood then books became my Gods. Is this really so strange, this apotheosizing of the one thing that took me out of and over my largely rural and not altogether happy childhood? What else was there for me to worship? God proved to be both not and a thorough shit. Religion was something that happened, like weather, and no more meaningful most of the time than that. Of sports I knew and know nothing. Those boys looked hot both ways in their short shorts, but even if they let you touch them they were no less likely to punch you. Best not. Music happened on the radio and little enough of that reached where we were. I did not control the TV dial after four PM. Books. Other people? Other boys? I had friends but saw little of most of them after school. Very long bike rides between houses in the country. By the time I came to fall in love I already knew it might not go well and was unlikely to be reciprocated until I could get away. Until then, books were my away.

And now books, my books, are home. Books are what I do for a living and where I go when work is done. And now in a very, very small way, books have been my children. I've made about eight of them to date; drawings and clerihews and essays. I may yet do another. I've no more expectation of their ultimate survival than a barn cat surveying her litter. Maybe? Good luck. The point of them remains much the same as the point of this: hope to amuse my friends and occasionally confound and refute our enemies. Not so very lofty. Certainly nothing like the expectations of an actual parent, or an actual writer. Should I be discovered after death and reprinted, well I won't be here, will I? Where's the fun in that?! 

The idea that we must all of us find a way to extend something of ourselves out into posterity, that we deserve no less is just fucked up. Why? Why should I? Why would anyone want or need that? Wrong reason I believe to have a baby or write a book. Talk to me. Write to me. Play with me. Books and babies, happy to hold either. Now take this precious widdle woojie woojums back, sweetheart, so Daddy can get back to his novel. (Send me the picture.)

*Got in trouble on social media for calling my fellow rednecks "crackers" which is evidently and hilariously an ethnic slur in the age of Triumphant Trumpferism.

Monday, May 13, 2024

In Defense of Yummy Cheese


"Nobody cares about your CHEESE!"

This is a direct quote from someone at the West Seattle Farmers' Market many years ago. I feel pretty confident in suggesting that the woman who shouted this at the harmless looking cheesemonger was not well. I don't know that. I'm not a doctor, but that was definitely my impression at the time. She crazy, poor soul. Now maybe she was a vegan and an anti-dairy activist of some kind? That's possible. If so, she really didn't follow up with any sort of supporting arguments, or try to persuade any of us not to buy cheese. She just shouted at the cheese-person and then moved on. It was quite startling. Nobody moved for a good few seconds. It got weirdly quiet for a public space. Then the elderly lady next to me rather saved the moment by smiling sweetly at the cheesemonger and loudly announcing, "Well I think your cheese looks just yummy!" Bright as a pin. Made everybody feel better. 

I haven't thought about that exchange in ages. At the time I was a little obsessed with the whole scene because... I mean. Of all the things about which to lose one's shit in a public place, right? Cheese. Global Warming? Politics? Transubstantiation? Nope. Cheese. And for a very long time after it happened I could not help but tell -- at least in my head -- anyone who looked at all disappointed or hurt by some arbitrary or unexpected criticism that I thought their cheese looked yummy! I even said this out-loud more then once. Then I had to explain my non sequitur and tell the whole story from the beginning, which frankly took most of the fun out of just saying it, at least for for me. Telling the whole story did at least keep most people from looking at me the way pretty much everyone in the farmers' market looked at the cheese-hater.

But that's not entirely fair, calling her that. We can't know her struggle, right? Besides, for me the point of the story was always the other lady, the grandmotherly dear who didn't want that nice fellow to feel bad about his cheese. But I did talk about this at some length with the beloved husband at the time (he was not present for the event) and really what made the initiating outburst so interesting to both of us was the shouter's choice of verb, no? I mean she did not in fact say, I hate your CHEESE!" or just "I hate CHEESE!" or "CHEESE is murder!" -- that last admittedly making no sense I know, but I do remember a long anti-dairy monologue from a vegan on the TV once, explaining to I think a group of young Amish people that milk was "pus" and that dairy-farming was "slavery." Thought-provoking, hilarious and sick-making. Werk, ill-informed but well-intentioned and fervent vegan chick! Anyway what the cheesemonger's antagonist did say was that nobody cares. NO-body. Harsh. Clearly untrue, but more hurtful in a way, isn't it? 

Whatever we do, let alone do for a living, we all of us I think want someone to care. Maybe not care so much as to shout, or pass judgement either yeah or nay, but enough to make us feel seen. "Look a bookseller! With recommendations!" Thank you. Besides, cheese-making ain't easy, I'm guessing. (Like repairing an internal combustion engine, or assisting at the birth of people and or farm animals -- I will never know. Take as given. Thank you for your service.) My own job can't be anywhere near so difficult, mostly. It is retail, so not always easy, but at least it ain't cheese. Nonetheless, I know I like it when people tell me I'm good at my job. Look at me making display tables out of nothing but a pun -- "Rome Wasn't Read In a Day," bam! Add a decorated chalkboard, and some books, and Bob's your uncle. I fucking love it when people buy books I've recommended, or come to my Book Club, or tell me at the cash-register just how cute I look in my new Carhartts. (I've exploring aging-fat-man-fashion. I was not however raised to receive praise easily. Scotch-Irish peasants. Compliments are of the devil. I blush shyly when told I'm "cute," even now when "cute" is now pretty much my only manageable look other than "Are you alright, sir? or "Let me fasten that for you." Childish how much it means to be admired for having trimmed my beard and remembering to wear a hat when it rains and pants when I go out-of-doors. Really though, We all cute now and then, aren't we? Even Quasimodo got to wear bells. Always nice to hear, cute. And honestly, part of me still thinks I deserve a parade every time I scrub the bathtub end to end or poach an egg, let alone do something I've never done before like type the word "cheesemonger" successfully ((one word not two)) without troubling to check first. Heaven forbid you should say so to my face though, 'cause I will kick imaginary rocks and stop making eye-contact. Shucks, Ma'am, twern't nothin'.)

There is an ever-expanding chorus of voices in the cultural sphere whose primary mission would seem to be democratizing beauty and achievement. You get a compliment! And you get a compliment! And YOU get a compliment!  The idea would seem to be that everybody, and I do mean everybody, gets a taste -- if not taste. Cool. I don't watch a lot of daytime TV anymore or those light morning talk shows, so my experience of all this positivity comes mostly from rainbow-colored quotes posted online. These are usually by my recently divorced or widowed friends of a certain age. and or people in support of the Trans community. Got it. Get it. Say love. Say LOVE! And then there's a new season of Queer Eye on Netflix and I cannot resist bingeing and crying and just bathing in the constant, relentless, love-bombing that would seem to be the entire point of that show. 

The whole gusto-for-good-enough can get exhausting, do admit. In real life I should think Jonathan Van Ness* can be a wee bit overwhelming when expressing his bottomless joy about gorgeous toothpastes and gorgeous spatulas and gorgeous high-kicks, etc., etc. And yet, sitting in my nightshirt eating chocolate covered raisins for breakfast -- because they were sitting right there -- there is nothing I love more than Jonathan Van Ness being entirely too much with a carefully selected and thoroughly vetted and anything but random or surprised stranger. Love it. Like you do because television.

On the flip, I know that right now there are all sorts of reactionaries sitting in their vintage Toby Keith  tour shirts, just soaked in angry tears. (Rest in Jingo, Toby. Way to monetize national tragedy! What could actually be more American?) Other than the passing of that white man and his big, square teeth, why are all the Yahoos upset now? It's 'cause we have all gone soft, that's why. Liberals being kind to everybody; foreigners, and black girls, and strangers and such, just like godless communists and that. Poor, unfortunate souls. I mean MAGA snowflakes are still clutching their pearls about "participation trophies" from the 90s, M&M candies wearing flats, etc.  And now presumably they are lamenting the failure of rigorous standards in wet-T-shirt and or pie-eating contests or whatever it is those people do on a Saturday night in Idaho. Fox "News" analysts (!) and joyless little internet pixies like Ben Shapiro just live to harsh other people's high. It's their job, actually, defending the status quotidian against any and all extensions of sympathy beyond the end of grandpa's angry, dripping, red nose. A dirty job, but seemingly somebody's always small-minded enough and available to do it. Call 'em The Hell in a Handbasket Club. And what would these disciples of gloomy, silly ol' Oswald Spengler do with themselves if everybody chilled?! Thought must be terrifying if your only life-skill is umbrage. 

The End Is (still) Nigh, is it? Interestingly though that for the Yahoos the world isn't ending just because -- SIN! -- just like Grandma used to bake. Oh no. And it's certainly not because we've set the air on fire and decided we won't be needing the Eastern seaboard after all. No. Should we maybe consider an EV or give up that lush, croquet-lawn in front of our trailers? No siree Bob. You know what we should be a'doing? We need to address the terrifying good times being had at drag queen story hours and just shut that shit done. Also? We need to convince people that they did not enjoy the feminist subversion of traditional Spartan family values that is that goldarn Barbie movie. Don't you get it, sheeple?! Because the real threat is all this inclusivity and cheerfulness and diversity, not media nonsense like climate extinction. Only Gawd can make a forest fire. No. Everything's ruined now because somebody at peewee football told Timmy he did a good job and now the whole structure of Judeo Christian civilization is collapsing under the leveling horror of people who think that cheese looks just yummy. Signs and portents and omens, oh my, and always pointing to those of goodwill ruining the children with hugs and kisses when them kids clearly just need a sound beatin'... and Jesus.

I'm not sure why this is always an either/or, are you? Is the choice really between hateful cussedness and endless gorgeous spatulas? What about the occasional non-comital smile? 

One does try to be at the very least polite, mostly. I confess though, as a definition liberal Democrat I am so very tired. Not to whine, but decency is kind of exhausting nowadays, isn't it? So much heavy lifting and we're all getting on a bit, us. Right side of history is the goal, but sometimes I will admit I am willing to settle for not actively plotting murder. Maybe I'm not on the side of all the exploited bovine workers for example -- 'cause I do love the butter -- but otherwise trying to be a good person.  

I am almost always on the side of the yummy, me. UP the yummy! Down the yuck. I very much endorse the new old saw, don't yuck other people's yum -- the Golden Rule by way of the TikTok generation. Surprised to find a popular binary in this day and age, but generally true, this one. That said (classic old man rhetorical device) must we always and only say love? When they go low -- and what other direction do they have now? -- must we always and only go high? Am I to never be even a little mean? Never caustic? Come on. Old gay man. Kinda my cultural heritage.

We old gays like to imagine ourselves to be Auntie Mame; eccentric, supportive, endlessly optimistic, good in a turban, and maybe just the wee bit sarcastic. But sometimes, let's face it, we're just Paul Lynne on a lunch-bender. Mean. Some times we're just -- I'm just -- mean. The urge to loose a bit of harmless persiflage and mockery now and again is overwhelming. And sometimes I want to stick the blade in up to the hilt. There is just so much mean, stupid in the world, such a lot of ugly, and I'm not only talking about that braying ass, Marjorie Taylor Greene who just called for a judge to be "disrobed" for sentencing Trump. Come on! Not the sharpest tool nor a gorgeous spatula. You know that's true.

'Nother example. Public figure. In addition to being a font of anti-Semitic horrors and politically dangerous blather generally, Kanye West is now as fat as the late, great Victor Buono. He wears black pantyhose tied over his head and ponchos from the old Army & Navy Store. Now as you surely know,  he's (Ye's!) a designer! That's right, he's a fashion designer and yet he dresses like a hobo who squats in a Bunraku theater. Also? He treats his present wife like a dog he bought from Michael Vick. Not funny, but how not to notice when she's nekkid on a leash?! Bughouse. Seriously, certifiably bughouse and a dangerous, bloviating swine. Does saying so mean I don't support people dealing with mental health issues? Does this make me mean? Unkind? Can one really body-shame a fat man with a woman on a leash?

I'm going out on a limb here and proposing that no one not dependent on his income need ever be nice to Kanye Pest again.

Now have I just cancelled him? Is that how that works? Have I ruined him for the folks reading this who also happen to love his hit single whatever that may be from his bestselling album possibly of the same name? Does not knowing or caring make me bad or just racist? How bad is it? Is it bad enough that they are going to offer me a job doing cultural commentary for  Newsmax and or a column the Wall Street Journal online?

Again, either or, is it? Heroes and villains?

It's a little true that aesthetically I do find myself on the side of reaction more than is entirely comfortable. For a man who sincerely believes churches shouldn't be taxed but padlocked, I do love old school Gospel. I have a lot of Dead White Men in my library. A lot. And I don't think all books are equally good or worth reading. I don't believe that anything is art so long as someone names it so. I never did find Danny DeVito and Tony Danza equally attractive. I like a glazed doughnut.

I remain resolute in my conviction that some shit is objectively ugly, dumb, puerile, and or pointless.

On a more personal level, do I really need to accept the gospel of relentless, sunny, equality in all? Should I really just go along with the silliness that says I am just as sexy as Brad Pitt? And I need to accept this why? In order to love myself? (We're the same age, you know, the two Brads.) Do I really need to love myself, come to that? Is that really a thing? So there's a lot of scientific literature is there proving that not loving oneself sufficiently or in all things is directly linked to, I don't know, developing testicular cancer, or failing to write an opera, or not becoming the world's next drag superstar? When did emotional neutrality become unacceptable? Is humility really just playing the along with our oppressors? Can I be just okay with most of me? Am I not allowed even to be mean to me? Have you met me? It's not all roses.

To review: too old to be entirely positive, don't see the world that way nor see the purpose in trying to, just trying not to be a dick, mostly, except to, you know, Marjorie Taylor Cretin and Yeah, No, formerly known as Kim K.'s third ex-husband.

I hope to be nicer to my friends.

I'd like to think that if I actually knew a philatelist well enough to call said philatelist friend, that I would also be kind enough to murmur encouragement occasionally over an album or two of rare Jakarta flying buttress inverted eagles, or whatever that description was of stamps. I'd also hope to be brave enough to admit my nearly total disinterest in stamps as both an art form and a hobby. You be you though. And if this is you, can we still be friends? Put it another way. I fucking hate camping. Do I have to go camping with you? Another? No, I don't like single, double, or multiple malt anything. It takes like wood-lice. Is that okay, that I don't care for your thing you like? Because, honest, you can tell me you don't care for the musical stylings of the late Bobby Short. I will not disown you. Does that make you a philistine? Of course it does, honey, but I won't make you listen to him in the car. Have I mentioned that I fall asleep at the ballet any time that boy in tights is offstage? Must we all agree with one another about everything in order to support one another? Is that how that works now? Friendship? Life?

I'm not trying to be mean. Really not. I feel perfectly comfortable loving you and hating table tennis, and pork-rinds, and Seinfield, and hiking-boots, and beer, and yes, sportsball.

Don't care about the team sports. Any of the team sports. Any of the teams. Any of the sports. Never did. Never will. Not sorry. Why does it matter why, but okay, here we go.

I suppose I could muster an argument against plantation ownership and misogynist domestic abusers and gladiatorial violence and the agonizing boredom of the bits between the bits when they run... oh who cares? You want a cogent argument against football? Go find that. I don't disagree you understand, but my dislike is not so cerebral as all that. I think it's boring AF and I never liked it.

Origin story? 

I don't know or care. Somebody tossed a ball to the little guy in the thick glasses? Was it his dad? Spoiler! He missed it. The kid dropped the ball. He always dropped the ball. Every ball. Stupid ball. Or maybe it was when grown men scared the shit out of little me when they bellowed and stomped around Grandma's living room like angry bulls because somebody did or did not do something good or bad or something on the Sunday TV show that kept me from watching The Wide World of Disney. Who knows or cares? Never took to it, the football. Don't much care for coffee either. Shocking, ain't I?

But is it? Shocking, I mean. Really? When exactly did it become so unusual let alone unacceptable for the bookish, unathletic gay guy -- meaning me -- to hate the jocks and cheerleaders and all their works, deeds, doin's, and their ugly, stupid clothes, and their tailgate parties, and their boisterous ballyhoo and self-important chitchat about statistics and play-offs and at-bats and goals and yardage and yuck, tuck, yuck? They hated me, those sporty fuckers. Did I secretly want to fuck the football players in high school? And did I occasionally? Are we not allowed to say that anymore? That my only interest in the jocks (and at least one coach) was specifically sexual? Why wouldn't it have been?! They wore tight pants and damn they was pretty, some of 'em, and they undressed in front of me sometimes and they had spectacular asses, some of 'em, and boy howdy, they were all assholes, even the ones who didn't slam me into lockers or run me off the road in their TransAm when I was on my bike. Even the ones I blew. All of the. All assholes. Again, not shocking.

I'm allowed to not like football, or baseball, or soccer, or hockey, or that thing with the Cuban hockey-sticks -- Hi Lili, Hi Lo, was it?  I'm allowed, right? You get to like all that bullshit if you like all that bullshit, and I get to say it's bullshit, right?

Not that I would, probably, most of the time.

I ask because I only started thinking about the farmers' market controversialist because of the Super Bowl that was on the television recently. You happen to catch that? I don't really run with a sports crowd, though of course I number sports fans among my family and friends. But come on now, is there really a way in America to not know when this annual football hootenanny happens? I mean I don't remember that it's happening until it's mentioned on the regular (non-sports) news, and I don't know who's playing until someone tells me (the Chiefs are from Kansas City and their name is apparently indeed from an earlier and less enlightened era.) Me and the beloved husband, we watched that cute Travis Kelsey host Saturday Night Live and we guessed he played sports. He's adorable. We like his chubby brother too, and I like his girlfriend even if my husband is not a fan. (He was totes a Doja Cat for Album of the Year guy when we watched the Grammys so no love for the T-Swiffer.) Need I say that we did not watch the big game? That we've never watched the game, big or otherwise? That's right, we do not care. If we really want to see the half-time show, we used to maybe tape it. Now? We have computers that will show us that nice Usher fellow with his shirt off (and be honest, if you remember him at all do you really remember him with his shirt on?)

And while I'm at it, I never liked that movie Rudy, or Field of Dreams, or Hoosiers. Seabiscuit would have been better without, you know, the horseracing. (Just miniaturized Tobey McGuire fighting bulimia nervosa during the Great Depression? I would watch that movie.)

So does it really hurt your feelings when I call the lot -- foot, base, basket, tether, volley, hand, soft -- "sportsball"? I mean the first time I heard that I thought it was funny. Sportsball?! You kidding me? Encapsulates both my ignorance and my indifference in one light-hearted, early-aughts, meme-whatsit-word. And now it's mean. I've been told. Twice. I hate sports. That's a given. I never say so to anyone who loves it. Say "sportsball" and I'm hateful. 

I would never say that nobody cares, as clearly millions of good, kind, clever, intelligent people do. Stephan Jay Gould and the poet Donald Hall both wrote about baseball. Whatshisname of blessed memory did that whole, big, impossible novel with all the tennis. I suppose there is somewhere someone prepared to intellectually defend even golf, though I would not want to meet any such a one ever, ever, ever, please Gawd no. I'll be honest, I immediately thought less of Updike when he did his a golf book. Even Samuel Jackson got less cool when he picked up a Niblick. (Nobody can say that word and be cool.) Conceding then that smart and good and cool people do not share my disdain and or dislike of the whole kicky, swatty, runny, catchy, swingy things, does it really hurt anyone that I might suggest time would be better spent squashing stinkbugs with one's thumb? Come on. You saying you felt great about the whole Super Bowl thing until I offhandedly called it "sportsball" and now you feel bad and don't like me anymore because that word is lame and now I'm a condescending prick for dismissing Sunday Night Lights? 

It's like I called Jesus a twat. In church. On a Sunday. On Easter Sunday. 

So I guess I don't really care about your cheese if your cheese is stuff I don't care about, but I think it would be silly to suggest that nobody cares about your cheese. That's just dumb. Obviously millions of Americans care about this cheese. And I learned just this morning that on the very same day the rest of the world was following that other, more popular football because of something called the Africa Cup of Nations which this year, according to NPR, was a barn-burner and featured a player from the winning Ivory Coast team named Sebastien Haller who came back after having had testicular cancer to score the winning kick! Very Real Sports with Bryant Gumble, very Ted Lasso. (Miss both those shows.)

 *Update: according to recent reporting, Jonathan Van Ness is actually something of a cunt.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

First Off

Right off, the most memorable opening line in a novel? I would say "top of my head" but honestly I looked up a list. Familiar though, yes?

"It is a truth universally acknowledged..."

"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else... "

"It was the best of times..."

"Call me Ishmael."

"Happy Families are all alike..."

"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan..."

I've put them roughly in order by date from 1813 to 1922, that also roughly being THE great century of the novel. Great novels before and since, obviously. Still, another "truth universally acknowledged" (all but) would be that most would probably pick something from that period to put on a list of the best books -- evah. Well, most of the people I like would anyway. Bringing the memorable first lines forward as far as "I am an invisible man." or even this, from Waiting (1999) by Ha Jin, "Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu." -- and how can you not want to go on reading?! Isn't that the point?

My favorite opening line? 

"'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass." That is of course from The Towers of Trebizond, by dear Rose Macaulay.*

I've another:

"I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as 'Claudius the Idiot', or 'That Claudius', or 'Claudius the Stammerer', or 'Clau-Clau-Claudius', or at best as 'Poor Uncle Claudius', am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change when, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the 'golden predicament' from which I have never since become disentangled."

That is a masterpiece, that sentence. Funny right off. That first joke still lands. Good. It is also quite strange of itself, that sentence as it is made of unlikely and unequal parts -- might almost be said shuffle and limp -- and yet it is as artfully assembled as a Debussy Cello Sonata. For a sentence made as late as 1934, the length and structure is more Latin than modern, and it even ends with a "dis" on a verb. (Though we learn not long after that this is meant to have been written in Greek, this "autobiography.") So this first sentence not only tells us a great deal and suggests even more of our narrator's appearance and character, it actually does this in what is actually a pretty brief space. No easy trick. Harder in it's way than some universal declaration about love, or life. There's the hero's name, just like the sailor and or the little Irish fella, but with more information and interest, so more like the offer of the camel then. And just to return briefly to the original point, how can you not want to go on reading once you've met dear ol' Clau-Clau-Claudius?

I honestly don't know how many times I have read Robert Graves' I, Claudius: from the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, and Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina. So many times. That puts it on my very short list of books I've read -- shall we say -- more than twice? Three times? 

Here's that list for curiosity's sake, this time it is right off the top of my greying bald head, and again in something like chronological order:

The OZ books of L. Frank Baum, all of which I borrowed from an older neighbor and read and reread time without number. My special favorites being Ozma of Oz, The Lost Princess of Oz, and probably Tik-Tok of Oz, with my favorite character probably being Scraps, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, but realistically, they were nearly all of them the very dearest friends of my early and sometimes lonely childhood.

Interview With a Vampire, by Anne Rice, the original mass market paperback of which I read and reread literally to tatters because it was, well, gay vampires, right? That sort of thing was much harder to come by in Western Pennsylvania in 1977. I decided when the lady died in 2021 to never open another book by her so long as I live. I read her right up to the precipice of her deeply weird re-conversion to Catholicism or whatever the fuck that was, and I've been sore tempted down the years to reread her vampires and or her witches, but  -- no. Of all my youthful enthusiasms, Anne Rice and "wine-coolers" are the two I think best left as fond memories of an earlier time and self.

Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield I've read more than any other Dickens and I've read and reread a lot o' Dickens. I could read either right this minute and enjoy the experience this time just as much as the last. All but the definition of a favorite I should think.

The Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell, and The Essays of Montaigne. I group these together as they together constitute the nearest I've come in my adult life to serious study. I've read multiple translations of the latter, and all the supplemental and subsidiary biographies, studies, letters, essays, and poems of the former. Along with the Letters of Edward Fitzgerald and those of William Cowper, I could I think subsist in a cell with just these and Dickens. I should be unhappy, but I could do it.

The Essays of Elia, et al, including the letters, of Charles Lamb.

Probably without saying? Shakespeare and the 16th Century poets, plus Auden, Shelley, "This-that-and-the-other..."

And Claudius. Why?

When a TikTok meme revealed last year that men supposedly think about the Roman Empire every damned day, I simply could not understand it. Was this a serious thing? What on earth was the sample size? Who were these men?!

Now, other than my sexual orientation, to use that increasingly quaint phrase, I do look to be very much the demo for this obsession, to wit: old, white, middle-class (if only by marriage,) presumably literate, and not a complete yahoo. (The only empire the Trumpers generally dream of is probably either a vague notion of Kingdom Come, generalized white nostalgia, and or some sort of victory parade in that Call of Duty game. The oldest ones -- and they are mostly older than dirt -- may still remember gladiator pictures fondly I suppose.) When this whole Rome obsession was first announced in the mainstream media, I confess I did pursue it across the internet to every article that wasn't behind a paywall. A friend even gave me access to something in the (shiver) Wall Street Journal -- the paper of record for all the Americans most responsible for golf and other fiscal and environmental chicanery. I figured if anyone would have a handle on what seemed likely to be dickishness, it would be the WSJ.

Disappointing. Everyone seemed to agree that thinking about the Roman Empire was not good, mostly in the same way that thinking about porn every day might not be a great thing unless presumably one were in the business of, and nobody nowadays was really in the business of the Roman Empire. Other than a few popular historians like Adrian Goldsworthy and Mary Beard, and perhaps an historical mystery writer or two, nobody really makes a life any more from the shards and ruins of the Roman Empire. So, what then? Nostalgia for patriarchy? Check. Fantasies of socially acceptable, even ritualized violence? You betcha. All but overt sexual license to exploit the powerless? Sure. I would argue that there is also the same barely acknowledged homoeroticism of men digging thickly muscled dudes in tight leather gear and loose and revealing drapery that informs everything from Marvel comics to pro wrestling. How's your head (lock)? No complaints.

Let me just state unequivocally that I personally do not think about the Roman Empire every day, nor every other day. Neither do I think all that often about Napoleon, Attila, The Zhou Dynasty, or President Garfield. I can't say this has never happened and might not again, by I am by no means defined by any of it. (There are things I never think of like woodworking, table-tennis, lawn-care, industrial trucking, young adult anything including Zendaya, and gluten.) Yes, I did in fact take Latin in high school, but only because the teacher was older than God and it was a comparatively easier grade than French or Spanish. And yes, I have read more Roman history than say, Chinese, but this is a symptom I should guess of my general Anglophilia 'cause those old imperialists just loved imagining themselves as Horatius at the Bridge rather than what their ancestors and mine probably were, which was filthy Saxons grubbing peat and oats to keep from freezing to death over our cold porridge and mead. Also? Any gay boy who grew up anywhere near Summer Bible Camp has spent a disproportionate, even impious amount of time admiring those natty Roman governors of Judea etc. in the picture Bibles. Pontius Pilate's sense of style frankly put all those humble shepherds and silly high-priests in silly high hats to shame. (The villains often have the better dress sense, have you noticed?)

I was prepared to deny the whole fatuous business but then, as a lark, I put up a big display at the bookstore where I work. I titled the thing, "Rome Wasn't Read in a Day." Got a cute chalkboard sign made. Put up a selection of books by and about and thought little more about it. That was September of last year. Here we are months later and I have not been able to take that table down. Other, even better displays have come and gone, Rome endures. Why? Because I sell something off that damned thing every damned day. Seriously. Think about that. Not true of the new nonfiction table. Not true of the Mother's Day table I have up. Rome. Every day. Just like TikTok tried to tell me. That is nuts, right?

Ita sit.**

I've sold every Roman historian but Gibbon, oddly enough. Sold Ovid and Horace and Caesar and Cicero. Sold fiction off that table too. Sold Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor mysteries, but also John Williams' Augustus, and Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, and even dear old, utterly forgotten Colleen McCullough's First Man in Rome. I loved all of those by the way, each in their own way and in their own time, though none so much as Claudius. 

And guess, other than Gibbon, what I hadn't sold off that Rome display?

That's right. Inexplicable. One of the best and most uniformly fun historical novels ever, one of the best novels of the 20th Century by more than one critical matrix and on more than one list of same, adapted into one of my favorite tv shows ever and the one most requested when the they asked the American public to pick one Masterpiece Theatre to rerun, and I could not sell Robert Graves' novel for amare nor pecunia. Why? I begin to think it may be for the same reason so many of these stiffs like dreaming about the Glory that was Rome. I may be overthinking this, but nearly everything about Graves (and Gibbon, come to that) is a pretty harsh burn on all that endears the Roman Empire to the fellas. Whatever good came from the Empire was no more obvious to most the people who actually had no choice but to live through it than it is to me, and not everyone benefited equally. That seems obvious, but remember, most of the men thinking about Rome are not thinking about being a Gaul, or a woman, or frankly, Claudius! Was it fun to be a Caesar? Sure. Heliogabalus probably had a blast. His dinner guests maybe not so much. Get the picture? Actually sitting through a Triumph sounds deadly dull to me, but I bet a lot of guys imagine their enemies paraded in chains before them and so on. Graves and Gibbon, admitting that the old Romans had their moments, actually spend most of their books talking about what useless, miserable, spineless, cucks and dirty, rotten bastards actually sat on Caesar's seat. 

Let me propose then that I, Claudius has, among its many virtues, the potential to correct at least some of the nostalgia that tempts these boys to dream of wearing caligae and swinging their short sharp gladius in front of perfectly indifferent, cautiously alarmed strangers in remotest Bithynia. 

 So now, goddamn it, it's my next selection for Brad's Big fat Book Club. We are going to read the fictional adventures of a Julio Claudian emperor, but not any of the ones those guys think are so cool. I'm betting we are going to like it for exactly the reasons they wouldn't. I'll do what I can to see that we do. Using the full titles should help, particularly the second book's which is wicked and delightful and suggests something of the irreverence with which the novelist treats that old whore that was ROME!

*If you don't know her, Rose Macaulay (1881 - 1958) was is in fact a direct descendent of the family of historians as well as being a treasure in her own right. She wrote a number of delightful and thoughtful novels, including Told by an Idiot (1923) as well as a wide variety of poetry and prose, including a brilliant nonfiction book on ruins, and much travel. Her letters to her priest/friend are worth reading even if one does not share their faith.

**"So be it" in Latin.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Poets Gonna Poet


Listening to the jazz station as I drove to work and the great Allen Toussaint masterfully toodle noodle doodle through what started life as Ellington and Strayhorn's Day Dream. Next was Jon Cleary's Frenchmen Street Blues (live) and then some slip-sliding something by a quintet I forget and I was reminded of a recent online conversation about poetry.

I can say that I know a number of poets the way I can say I know a lot of writers generally now. I have a few friends of long standing who are writers, including at least one excellent poet. I am personally acquainted with a much wider circle of professional writers I've gotten to know because I am a bookseller. More recently, social media has expanded this list exponentially. I am tickled to death to say I know these people. In my experience, writers, and poets in particular are unsurprisingly interesting and amusing company -- so long as they are not talking about money, or the failure of the publishers to adequately promote their work, or their craft.

Writers writing about writing -- not about other writers, mind, but the act itself -- constitutes a punishingly narrow branch of belle lettres upon which only the most delicate sensibilities may attractively perch. E. M. Forster comes first to mind. More recently for me Zadie Smith and Marilynne Robinson. As I understand it, there have been some famous or once famous folk  who have written excellent practical guides to prose writing, like the late John Gardner or the still sweetly grinding Stephen King. Never read 'em, only sold 'em. I'm a big reader. I write a little. Writing about writing generally makes as much sense to me as dancing about dance. You want to do better? Read more. You want to earn a living? Take a class, marry a publisher, teach.

Meanwhile, unless they travel or cook, poets usually talk poetry, usually to other poets. I don't like comparing anything I admire to religion which I resolutely do not, but poets talk poetry the way white Buddhists talk about meditation: over pizza and beer, or spaghetti and wine, or on a long car ride, or at the bus stop, in groups, online, presumably to their pets. Poets talk about writing poetry the way the Council of Trent discussed transubstantiation, the way church ladies parse verses from Deuteronomy at Thursday Bible Study, like sister-wives scheduling husbandly visitation.  Poets, at least with other poets, talk a lot o' shop.

I never really appreciated this until Facebook. Before that my poet friends, knowing the prosaic limits of my mind, spared me much. They answered my simple questions, recommended poems and poets, indulged my weird taste for obscure minor Romantics, and kept the technical talk for their writing groups and their working journals. (Like songwriters -- not the same thing -- poets are great scrap-quilters: never saw a square of paper that mightn't be used for a draft. Notes hoarded like good cotton prints and bits of velvet, poets.) I admire poets because it, poetry, always has new poem somewhere underway. Novelists in my experience require corkboards and cabins and quiet. Poets need a pencil and if they are lucky, a tree. Fascinating people, poets. Now, thanks to social media, I get to watch in something like real time as a great variety of working poets talk amongst themselves. This can be quite interesting. It can also remind me just how much I do not care about assonance. 

Today's virtual poetry chinwag was a somewhat familiar lament for those halcyon days never to return when folks, common folk, non-poet folk, knew Dickinson, Whitman, and Frost. It started with a a page of poet Charles Simic's 1989 book of poems and prose poems, The World Doesn't End. (He's wonderful, by the way. Read him.) Simic was talking -- natch --to poets and addresses them with typical sweetness and humor as "... you whose fame will never reach beyond your closest family," etc. Ouch. He of course includes himself in this, despite having the Frost Medal, the Wallace Stevens Award, and so on. (Yeah, I hadn't heard of those either.) What followed the page of Simic was an interesting Facebook thread, a kind of resigned, collective sigh for the lost kingdom of the Celebrated Poet, as opposed to the "celebrity poet" (see Jewel, Amber Tamblyn, dear dead Leonard Nimoy,) or the bestselling poets (very much lower case) like the late Mary Oliver and Maya Angelou, or the still workin' Billy Collins, on whom some snobbish poets and academic critics still like to shit. Could there be such a thing as the Celebrated Poet now?

To be honest, I don't much remember all the particulars on that thread which I can't find now. I'd hazard it was a lot like so much of my own online howling and gnashing of choppers over this dark, supposedly post-print age. "We do not DESERVE nice things!" To be fair though, I'm pretty sure the poets were all considerably more thoughtful and their arguments more nuanced than that. It's kinda their jam, nuance (and misusing verbs in ways that are meant to be either pretty or provocative or both. I recently put a book right back on the shelf, a very attractive new hardcover, a novel in verse, after reading the first stanza wherein the narrator described "drinking" her lady fair's hair. Ick, dear. Just, ick.)

This morning, for whatever reason I rather impertinently decided to offer a thought -- a thing I've found it far better to never do generally when the professionals are talking well over my head as they so often do.  Maybe today, heading to a short shift at the bookstore, I just felt an urge to kick shins. Cheeky bugger. Ain't I cute?! To my certain knowledge, not a soul noticed. At least no one responded. Evidently my attempt at provocation was less a burn and more of a fart in church. Oh well. (Still, I'm old now and can't really afford a fight, even just a virtual, verbal altercation, as I am both brittle and apt to cry. Best kind of trouble-making then, when the trouble you make goes right by. No consequences. Win.)

What I wrote was this: 

"You can't write music nobody can dance to and then wonder why nobody listens to jazz anymore."

And we are back to my morning commute! I actually love jazz. (Yeah, I'm that guy.) I'm not perhaps the most adventurous soul -- I'd still rather listen to Coleman Hawkins than John Coltrane -- but I've been listening long enough to know that I can enjoy most of the mix if I try. And I am willing to try nearly anything for the length of the average song on the radio. I have my prejudices and irrational antipathies, like any old man. For example, Hazel Scott and Ray Charles were the only people to ever play the Hammond Organ who didn't make me want to go roller skating or change the channel. Also? Betty Carter may have been a genius but she was a trial to listen to sometimes. On the other hand, Samara Joy is perfectly named. Opinions. Tastes. Mine.

In other words, straight forward fogey, me -- if you missed it. Doesn't mean I am immune to experimentation and or the modern. Mark Rothko made me cry once, in a good way. I've watched Nixon in China straight through twice. (Aren't I brave?!) I am willing to allow for a level of confusion and or discomfort in poetry I would rarely tolerate in prose not written by Samuel Beckett. Again, there are limits:

I do not see the purpose of John Ashbery. Pound's Cantos are junk drawers of disconnected cables and travel brochures. Coleridge was high way too often for his or our own good. Ginsberg was a noisy prick. Jorie Graham often reads like a translation I never asked for of a better poet I'll never read in the original. Hart Crane loved a salad. William Carlos Williams often writes like a general practitioner and Wallace Stevens is always an insurance salesman in Hartford, CT. And so on.

On safer ground: this anonymous dude, Atticus? Rupi Kaur? That's just embarrassing.

So is my ignored contribution to the poet's conversation true? Obviously I think so. The jazz I listen to is much like most of the contemporary poetry I read; I don't expect my nephew to like it or give a good goddamn. Shakti's reunion album in 2023 was a banger! I first read the Dickman brothers' poetry because they were saucy little twinks. Now they are very middle-aged and I still enjoy them, though it doesn't feel quite so nimble now. I cannot imagine that anybody involved in any of this is aiming to perform at the next Presidential Inauguration, or launch a stadium tour, or gain a big TikTok following. 

The very idea of the Celebrated Poet is probably silly isn't it? Am I wrong? Dickinson lived in a locked closet and sent notes down to the dining room. In his day, Whitman was arguably at least as famous for picking up cabdrivers as for being the great gray poet. How old was Walt before he was recognized on the street, despite putting his own picture right there in the book? I could argue that Frost wasn't as famous as Carl Sandburg and Sandburg was more famous for rutabagas and Lincoln than for his serious poetry. Unless one was Homer (and Homer probably wasn't Homer according to a lot of folks,) being a famous poet was nearly always pretty small beer. Even Byron was read by how many people? And he was pretty. Pretty helped. And rhyme. Rhyme helped. When Ovid was supposedly famous, don't know if you'll know this but they didn't have movie stars, or television, or YouTube or, believe it or not, even phones! (!)  

Who was the last poet to earn a living just writing poetry who wasn't just Rod McKuen and even he had to write really shitty pop songs too just to make the rent on his rent boys and beach house.

And jazz after Swing died? Who was the last great Jazz star? Miles Davis? We all know what happened there, don't we? He bought an amp and then everything just went on without making any kind of sense ever again and it was never quite the same, was it?

What exactly is wrong with not being Taylor Swift? I mean, I like Taylor Swift and wish her nothing but more billions, honestly. Diana Krall wasn't booking those stadiums anyway, honey. Do you think Diana cries every night in Elvis Costello's arms? I do not. 

Poetry seems to be one of the last places where really smart people can write really smart things and then be read by really smart people without worrying too terribly much that all the really not smart people, the actively, proudly, violently stupid people will try to burn them for it. That's a positive isn't it? 

As someone who remains, as they say, slightly butt-hurt that even fewer than I anticipated could be made to give a tinker's dam about my last self-published book of Christmas essays and very short stories, I completely understand when any artist is disappointed by the extent of their audience. I get it. As a bookseller, I've spent a good part of my working life trying to get people to read great, even good, even just better books. Uphill struggle, son. 

Nothing wrong with being better than most people will ever know. Wish we could make people not eat American cheese product instead of cheddar, but the world is brimming with tastelessness and fools. 

Also hard stuff is too hard sometimes and even smart people may not want to try to keep time to your nonsense nor read your "found" poem, nor buy your collage, nor watch your short film about gravel (nor buy another copy of Plates: A Christmas Concatenation, evidently, despite me not being nothing but charming in my simplicity.)

I read poetry because it isn't prose. I don't expect most of the people I will ever meet to know the difference. ("Where's your nonfiction section?") I don't say I'm fine with that, but without even looking too hard there are worse things about most of us, aren't there? Every poet I've ever met had a day job. James Merrill's dad was Merrill Lynch, which kept Jimmy in teacups and cocktails all his too short life. When they published those big, uniform hardcovers of all of James Merrill a few years ago, I sold two sets to people other than me and thought myself something of a retail all star. Don't know if I could do that now, or that they would be published. 

Sometimes the world is the size of this chair, ain't it? Not always an altogether bad thing, mostly. (A poet would say that better, at least the ones not busy drinking their girlfriend's hair.)

Friday, February 2, 2024

No Matter From the Heart

“Woe, destruction, ruin, and decay; the worst is death and death will have his day.” 
-- William Shakespeare, Richard II, Act III, Scene 2

Books die. Damned, damaged, abandoned, ruined, waterlogged, molded, abused, burnt. They go out of print, go unread, unremembered. Some survive. Most don't. Most don't deserve to survive anyway. Just think of the forests of antiquated manuals, promotional tie-ins, faded popular fiction, junk porn, Reader's Digest Condensed, Disney dreck. Requiesce in pace, forgotten bestsellers et al. Few published books survive a season let alone a generation and frankly even fewer should. Most books, like all authors, like all of us, like all things -- spoiler alert -- die. "Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die." (Okay, maybe not Charo. Charo will never die. Besides being a great classical guitarist and perfect wig-stand, she's changed the year of her birth more often than her lip color, so I'm pretty sure she's actually H. Rider Haggard's She. Day that woman finally grinds out her very last "cuchi cuchi" -- watch out! The stars will go out one by one.) 

Cicero insisted that the memory of a life well-spent is eternal. Oh? Okay. Maybe. Nice thought. Though eternity seems an unrealistic expectation for anything, Earth for example, or humanity certainly, let alone the good name of dear Aunt Gladys. Also -- remembered by whom? Should such a thing as remote posterity still even be a possibility hereafter, ours would seem just as likely to remember Ted Bundy as Fred Rogers. Philosophers can get a bit wishful with the absolutes. In particular I don't know that Cicero is to be trusted on this subject. A bit smug, Cicero, bless 'im. He was always sending billet-doux to posterity-- pretty successfully, as it turned out -- confident we'd want to know his every thought on nearly everything, including death. Not wrong as it turns out but a bit overbearing at the best of times. Personally I've never gotten over learning that the great stoic was in fact a fat gambler who repeatedly married for money. No Cato he. Very much a do-as-I say-not-as-I-do-kind of guy. Stoics and stiffs of all sorts in my experience tend that way. The person who publicly disapproves of your second doughnut privately huffs nitrous while watching Punishing Step Mom porn. Trust. (One of the closeted gay boys I was boning in high school was from a relentlessly and very publicly pious family. I will never forget the afternoon when a bunch of us skipped school and he decided to show us the drawer his parents kept their kink in. SO many toys. SO much porn, just as Father God intended.) But unlike even the life very well lived indeed and more like good furniture, good books are built to last more than a day and mostly do. Not all. Some are lost -- see Homer's Margites, or damaged -- see Sapho's output all but entirely lost, or just stripped for parts like all those ancients now known only for quotes. Think also of the poets remembered now for the one anthologized example of their work, or even a line because you know only God can make a tree. Or so at least we thought before DNA and 3D printers. The fact is that there is plenty of stuff we admire now simply because, against all odds, nobody broke it. So, in addition to being the final repository of humanity's highest hopes, greatest achievements, and most enduring monuments, posterity turns out to be a bit of a junk-shop.

Don't know that I'm the person to weigh in on what should or should not survive of the great western canon.  In my lifetime I've seen any number of immortals shunted from the Pantheon, mostly for cause and or limitations of space. Can't argue with the need for a more representative selection, and there have been a number of "new" candidates for whom I've cheered most heartily. I've also witnessed some pretty rum characters put forward as worthy of recycling for reasons not altogether persuasive, at least to me, but then I'm not on the committee -- any committee. I have however been on committees just often enough to know it is not work for which I am much suited anyway. Not that anyone's asking anymore.  Turns out that the obscure-old-white-gay-guy is pretty well represented already in cultural matters across the board (see also: church music, community theater, library art-shows, local orchestras, western swing dancing, etc.)

Actually, I think we are living in something of a golden age of the reissued book. Publishers like NYRB and the Library of America, -- created within my memory -- have led something of a revolution in the rescue and reprinting of often neglected classics. The opportunities to read great books from less familiar names, periods, and places has never been so great. This has been one of the primary reading pleasures of my recent life, and a lesson to me as well; never assume there are no more great books yet to be read, no more great names among the dead of whom I have yet to hear. Happens all the time. Honest.

Translation is another deep subject for another day and dive, but it too seems to be booming, thanks largely to smaller presses like Archipelago Books, Pushkin Press, etc. One wonders if translators are any likelier to eat any better than they used to. One do hope so. They are certainly doing  hard and admirable work. I never thought someone new would take on the whole of Chateaubriand's Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, but some good soul named Alex Andriesse is doing just that. And the great Russia scholar and historian Douglas Smith is likewise engaged with the whole massy weight of Konstantin Paustovsky's autobiography and we are all better for it, friends.

I'm curious to know more of the process of selection and resuscitation. How is it that I could sell books for a living for thirty+ years and never have heard of, let alone read Benito Perez Galdos until just a few years ago? Makes me a little ashamed of my narrow provincialism, frankly. More though it makes me glad to be reading now. So how did new translations of "the Spanish Dickens" happen in just the last decade? Who financed that? Who decided to publish Tristana in English again? And why that novel? I should very much like to know.

Back in the bad old days of hierarchical criticism, before the French so kindly taught us that road-signs, matchbooks, and symphonies were all just "texts," I had a snobbish taste for what were then called "minor" writers; important enough to see reprints, but never so important as to sit with the Gods on the syllabi. These tended to smaller oeuvres, shorter or unfashionable forms like personal essays or poetic dramas. My minor masters were all about aesthetic fuss; style over subject, le mot just more than all the words until we run out. Think Leigh Hunt and Max Beerbohm and Harold Acton and Siegfried Sassoon. Nowadays my minors are mostly ghosted -- as in gone --the boys anyway. Some of the ladies have had a better afterlife, say Ivy Compton Burnett or the English lady novelist with the movie star's name, Elizabeth Taylor. My idea of a good minor time may not be yours, but there are plenty such still to be had on the shelf at the bookstore, from Fleur Jaeggy to Robert Walser, just to mention the Swiss.

All this thriving and surviving can not hide the fact though that in America at least books are in danger yet again. The shrieking harpies of Moms for Liberty, Citizens Defending Freedom, and other far Right misnomers and intentional antonyms are padlocking public libraries and burning PTAs to the ground as I write. Same mob as always, same lies, same agenda to "save the children" from the queers and the commies and the colored. Now the yahoos are chasing drag queens out of story-times and silencing women and the differently gendered, and yes, of course these same self-righteous primitives are banning books.  Always just a day or so away from burning books, and then people, this crew.* 

The other threat is of course the ironic triumph of thumb-typing. If everything one might say in a TikTok caption is just as important as every and anything ever written, then it is harder and harder to justify Shakespeare. 

And the Bard, he is very much on my mind:

Sonnet 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest. 
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by. 
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Milton, an old friend and coworker, long retired from the bookstore, died recently. Presumably named for that other English poet, Milton was nonetheless a Shakespeare man, through and through. Read Shakespeare. Studied Shakespeare. Worshiped Shakespeare. Wrote about and thought about and talked about and quoted Shakespeare.

Sad story. When it came time for Milton to retire from the Receiving and Tagging Department where he'd worked for ages, he decided to have a bit of a splash out and give a public reading from the critical Shakespeare manuscript he'd been working at for decades. If you knew Milton at all you were at least a nodding acquaintance with his great unfinished book. It was part of his person and always on him in one form or another; usually in his tote as part of the unsorted shock of newspapers, random clippings, free magazines, old books, whatnot and jetsam that he lugged everywhere. (I was privileged to read a very brief bit of something to do with Iago once. Well beyond my critical faculties.)  Milton was not a bold person, in the time I knew him he never struck me as the type to stand up and address a room. Nonetheless he decided before he left the bookstore for good that he would give a lecture on Shakespeare.

The Events people put Milton's Shakespeare lecture on the schedule and promoted the lecture on the website and such, the way they do. I was closing the evening of Milton's event, but still planned to attend at least part of his presentation. Come the day, two people had called in sick and the phones were busy. Events were upstairs in those days and Milton came down twice to check in with me. Nervous as anything, he was. When the event was scheduled to start I was on the phone without a hope of getting free anytime soon. When I finally managed to end the call it was a good fifteen minutes after he was meant to start. Milton came back to the desk. No one came. I told him I still wanted to hear what he'd planned to read but he decided to just go home. He did.

Saw Milton at the bookstore no more than a week or so ago. He looked fairly hale and hearty for his age -- at which I can only guess. I'd seen him in the bookstore regularly since he'd retired, though it did take awhile for him to drop back in after the night of the reading that never was. Always had his bag with him full of papers and notes and this, that, and the other and presumably at least part of his unpublished, unheard Shakespeare book. We still talked about the book occasionally. He still worked at it. Usually we spoke of other things.

When a mutual friend announced on social media that Milton had died, I was shocked. When I returned to work I mentioned his death to some of his surviving coworkers, to his old boss, to the company's CEO. Asked if anyone knew any next of kin. Records were checked. None on record. Nobody knew. Someone recalled that Milton had had a brother? Didn't know the man's name or frankly if he was still alive. Hadn't Milton owned a house? With Tenants? Nobody knew who they might be now. No one knew who to offer our condolences. It happens. Death doesn't always leave us convenient means to mark the passing even of people we knew, and in the end how well did I know this old man? Don't know that I knew him any better than the people with whom he worked every day for years.  Would not presume to say that he intended that I should, but he did like a quick confidence, did my friend Milton.

I hadn't know Milton that long before I learned, I believe all in the same brief conversation, that Milton was gay, that another, very quiet elderly man who worked in the Fiction Department had been his lover for some time in the seventies, and that the great love of Milton's middle age -- a different fellow altogether, not at the bookstore -- had died years before in the Plague. Milton was quick to confess, at least with me, presumably because I was obviously gay in a way he'd never really been at work, but he tended to be a bit sketchy about the details. I pressed him occasionally to expand on his autobiography, but he never seemed terribly comfortable sharing anything he couldn't frame as an anecdote. He liked a bit of shock as well. He would tell me something he thought fairly scandalous, and then grin through his bushy moustache in a way that suggested one had been shown something secret and frankly naughty, and then he would laugh -- too deep a laugh to be described as a giggle, but in that range emotionally. I was asked more than once by Milton if indeed he wasn't rather a dirty old man? I was always quick to agree and to suggest that he was soiling the innocence of my otherwise untroubled mind, and then I would giggle with him. That was very much our routine. We both enjoyed it enormously.

A number of people at work with whom I shared Milton's passing mentioned his many eccentricities and traits, thrift being chiefly notable among the the latter. More than one person mentioned Milton's lunch. This usually consisted of whatever canned goods were on sale at the Bartell's Drugstore up the street, and I do mean anything: cold canned beans, yes, but also cold canned pasta, green beans, and at least once a can of cherry pie-filling. Saw that with my own eyes. Milton also brought back even less likely cans from his visits home to his natal place in Virginia. I won't say canned possum, but only because I never personally saw these things, but I am reliably informed that some of that shit was particularly disquieting. His lunches were mentioned pretty consistently by everyone who remembered him. One friend told me that that phrase, "Milton's Lunch," had actually become a family catchphrase for anything rather unsavory being served.

Another indication of the strength with which he held onto a nickel was his aforementioned collecting of any and all printed matter so long as it was free. He was a great one for coupon books, free newspapers (remember those?) free magazines, Xeroxes  -- if free. He liked free. Milton amassed the written word as birds feather nests; he took what he found, kept what he chose, clipped and bent all those words to some secret purpose, and mixed in many words of his own. I was never in his home. No idea what that looked like so I won't indulge in speculation beyond saying I assume his living spaces looked very much like his canvas and plastic travelling bags. I'd bet good money. 

He did share one secret with me that I've kept until now. I've debated divulging this information even here, not because I think it either shameful or wrong but simply because I don't know to whom he might otherwise have confided this part of his life and again they may know more than I. Still, I offer what I know in anticipation of someone else actually coming forward with what I would hope to be some tangible part of the record. 

Milton spoke regularly about both the Oregon and the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festivals. Not sure how many performances he actually attended, presumably "for lack of purse," but he knew all the personnel past and present and followed seasons closely, particularly the Canadians. He loved Canada for a number of reasons, Shakespeare being just the most obvious. In fact he went North just as often as he could. Many of his best stories had their origin there.

 I think he was probably retired before Milton told me specifically that he was an amateur photographer. I'd no idea. He seemed almost entirely a man of words, "Words, words,  mere words, no matter from the heart; th' effect doth operate another way." (Cymbeline.) This does not preclude an interest, even a preoccupation with images. Quite the contrary in my experience. All means of making beauty and making it to linger, no? Well, Milton it seems had very specific beauties in mind, and these he found mostly in Canada, first in the classifieds and later online. The reason other than Shakespeare or poutine for his many trips across the Northern border was to visit his beauties.

I understood his hesitation even if I didn't share it. He was of a generation born before decriminalization, before Stonewall and Gay Liberation and Marriage Equality and all the other advances that have allowed us to live less in fear and more in our own skins. Milton's life was a very quiet one to begin with, and what he himself called his "private life" would remain largely that until the end. I do not believe he was at all bothered that other people should know that he was gay, I just think his life was such that the subject tended not to come up most of the time, with most people. Worth remembering that he brought it up to me. I was glad of the connection to his life and experience and I firmly believe he was glad of a knowing audience.

And so, his pictures. On the face of it there isn't anything very novel or inspiring about Milton's pictures. He hired good looking young men, hustlers, and had them pose in various stages of dress and undress. He took pictures in parks and amusement arcades and in hotel rooms. He took what I would estimate to be many hundreds, perhaps thousands of photographs across a number of decades. When he finally showed me a few pages of this from an album, I was struck by how much of what I saw was surprisingly candid, even casual. There were plenty of obviously posed shots, but there were half again as many of men drinking, smoking, laughing, sitting on a motel chair, or a bed, or a park swing, a bench, on the grass. Some of the pictures had a quality of Nan Goldin's work about them, nothing like the aesthetic sophistication of her work but that same sense of close observation of an intimate but not necessarily erotic or dramatic moment. The most striking thing, other than the repetition of subjects over time, was the sense of familiarity. It actually felt as if the photographer knew these men.

From what Milton told me, he did, some of them anyway. And that was the most interesting aspect of Milton's hobby, of his secret. He was genuinely curious about these young men and their lives, often spending whole days with them, doing tourist things, visiting local landmarks (free,) having not very expensive meals together, talking. No idea how much if anything of what they told him about themselves was true. Sex work does not necessarily thrive on veracity. Milton's curiosity though seemed to me, and evidently to a number of them, quite genuine. He developed relationships with a number of these men, relationships that may or may not have involved physical intimacy other than that mediated by the camera. When we last talked about this part of Milton's life he lamented that he could not manage to maintain contact with a number of his Northern friends, first during a long illness of his and then during the pandemic. He was quick to express concern about how they were doing. He was not, it is worth noting upset that he hadn't had the chance to see and photograph them again. 

"We've become friends," was the phrase Milton said often and with the greatest satisfaction. I believe he meant it. He came to understand something of addiction, and homelessness, and mental health issues none of which he might have understood had he not made friends with his subjects. That he both objectified and shared history with a number of these men was less a contradiction that a cliche I suppose. Don't doubt it happens all the time. An acquaintance who did sex work in San Francisco years ago once told me how much he genuinely came to care about the men he saw as his "regulars." Makes sense. Fundamentally Milton was kind, offered kindness and had it back, not always but often. 

Only once did he show signs of having had a violent encounter. I asked him how it had happened and he told me.  It was unusual. Understandably it had frightened him badly and left him deeply depressed. Touchingly, some time later he told me one of his friends from Canada had made a point of getting in touch after he heard what had happened and made a point of telling Milton it would be okay and that he hoped to see him again.

I decided to tell this part of Milton's story because like his book of essays on Shakespeare, I fear this part of Milton's life will now be lost. It mattered very much to him, whether he told anyone else about it or not. It mattered because he mattered, his life did, does. I've no idea if any of Milton's pictures survive. No idea if his book ever became a book or even enough of a book as to be recognizably a book. Maybe it is still somewhere in his house, in a trunk full of notes, like Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet. Perhaps there is someone as I write organizing Milton's effects, sorting through his papers, arranging his photos, preserving his past. Maybe not. It is entirely possible that we have seen the last of my old friend Milton and all his works and deeds, his art, his mind, his hobbies, his lovers, his friends. 

And that would be a shame and a loss. 

Some of the books that die were never really born and no one to mourn them save their authors and sometimes no one left to mourn their authors either. "I'll note you in my book of memory" then. I'll note the loss of all I knew and all I did not, all he never let me read, all he never showed me or told me or confided in me. I can still hope he had kept those confidences elsewhere. 

Whatever else, he is not unremembered. 

"Remember thee!
Aye, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe."

*Hardest lesson of my adult life: evil, ignorant fuckers seemingly never sleep let alone die and their fascist fuckery abides. Fight the Right -- 'cause Lord knows they are still trying to erase us.