Saturday, November 30, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 30

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: this is its final chapter. You can read the previous chapter, here.

= = = = = = =

Though I knew he was in the area visiting family, Ferdinand's call was still a surprise when it came in Friday afternoon, asking if he could stop by. I figured Stephen wouldn't mind the distraction of a handsome young man – at least one who could hold a conversation beyond just talking about modern music – and the change in tone would undoubtedly be beneficial for both of us. A serious conversation stretching over the morning had led us nowhere but to more tenuous ground. If nothing else, I would be happy to find out more about Ferdinand, what he's gotten into after he left the university and I'd moved into the southlands.

A few, rarely detailed letters and barely more informative phone calls aside, I hadn't seen Ferdinand for years and I figured he would be much less dramatic than having Sybil stop by, depending on the baggage he might bring with him. Even if he stayed only a few hours, it would be a few less hours Stephen and I would need to dance around those issues still standing between us and could, with any luck, wear away at the barriers.

Stephen realized, only because I practically battered him over the head with it, he was at that stage I had been when Evan sounded the sirens' call of Paris – or at least of nouvelle aventure, wherever it might have taken me. Without family responsibilities, now, he was a younger me contemplating terra subdeorsa incognita, researching the possibilities of discovery, for whatever reasons then I decided instead to stay in port. He, I neglected to point out, had no port to stay in.

The opportunity for discovery was the option, here, not that it had to be a different country, just a different place beyond the boundary of his traditional comfort zone. It was the incognita part he had the chance to explore, to contemplate, at least to consider, the actual journey aside.

Was it a question of finding the same job in another company? Is that really what he wanted to do? He had walked into it, half-unexpectedly, in the first place, a chance to practice taking interviews, an opportunity to not get the job but not be disappointed because it seemed so unlikely. And yet they offered it to him. Should he have said "no"? Should he have decided to leave after a few years because as a temporary gig it had run its course? But it became easy and he felt comfortable there, not to mention he got to do a lot of traveling in the process.

But the traveling became repetitive, the work predictable, the excitement about the job eventually flat-lining. His own lack of enthusiasm may have done more to lose him his job than he thought, complicated by a boss who thought it better to find someone new to burn up rather than recycle an old success. Did he really like what he was doing? That was the question. No?

Perhaps it should have happened sooner, years earlier. Thank God it hadn't happened twenty years later. Fate was kinder than it might have been, then; one could always look at it that way. And given the economy, there were worse things that could have happened, if you could ignore the fact whatever happened to you was always worse than the merely theoretical.

"If you could pick a job – any job, something out of the blue – what could you see yourself doing?" Speaking, of course, of the purely hypothetical, I asked him. "What would you want to be doing, if you had the chance?"

He was silent a long time but pensive if not exactly resistant to expressing himself. "Is this going to be one of those 'fireman/Indian chief' exercises?" he was probably thinking. By this time, we had moved into the den, watching the shadows journeying slowly across the yard.

"I don't know," he said after several minutes. "That may be part of the problem. I'm so used to doing what I've been doing, I'm not aware of anything I'd rather do."

It wasn't of course just his job that affected him: he had lost his relationship, too, and whether or not he'd want his old job back (as if, through some oversight, a mistake had been made), one of the things I suspect he hoped to find in his frequent e-mail checking, old habits aside, was an apology from Leo that might signal some reconciliation.

For myself, I chose to tackle one issue at a time. Whether Leo was off on a new journey of his own was for the moment immaterial. It felt logical to me for Stephen to find a job (or better, a career) and then, after relocating himself, seek out a new partner to share it with.

I nearly jumped out of my seat when the doorbell rang, an unwanted flashback to Sybil's frequently unannounced arrivals or the appearance of Monday's doddering proselytes. Stephen, for his part, was more surprised at my reaction than the interruption of the bell – a welcome eruption in an otherwise too quiescent day. Dringadring. But I was already up and went to answer it.

"It's that student of yours, isn't it? Former student, Ferdinand, is it? You said he might stop by." You could understand the unstated 'what's the fuss?' behind his tone. Dringadring Dring.

"I'll be right back – he's just stopping to say hello."

Why was I nervous? Having Sybil join us – what were the odds of keeping that from happening once she'd showed up beside our table? – had proven uncomfortable, as if Stephen was swept away by the sheer force of her juggernauts.

I haven't seen Stephen in a few years and it's been years since I've seen Ferdinand who had done so much for me, back then. Of course they would both show up for a visit at the same time. Rains, pours. I shrugged my shoulders and heaved open the door.

Ferdinand had hardly changed. He swept past me, hoisting up some plastic grocery bags full of containers and without saying hello, sailed in with the familiarity of old times only briefly interrupted.

"I brought along some leftovers. Hope you don't mind – after you said you'd be eating at a restaurant yesterday, and my sister had made way too much food for the six of us!" He looked expectantly for me to lead him into the kitchen.

This is apparently how young people – or, like Sybil, how people who wanted to appear young – acted today. Whoosh, bang, zap! No need for small talk – "How are you? I haven't seen you in ages: you're looking good!" That sort of thing.

I led the way into the kitchen and Ferdinand dutifully placed the bags on the countertop.

"How are you," I asked, "it's been ages – you're looking good," I added, helping move some cups that were in the way.

He ignored these comments artfully. To consider it rude would have been to ignore the fact he had brought us lunch.

"Here's some homemade stuffing made with black walnuts and dates" – he held up one plastic container – "and some red potato salad with chives and sour cream (very decadent) and" – flourishing a tall cylindrical container – "some cranberry relish that's actually made with horseradish and onions – I don't know how it works, but it's fabulous – and here's a plate with slices of white and dark meat – no gravy, I remember you didn't like gravy (not good for the heart, anyway) – and some steamed vegetables, mostly cauliflower with turmeric and broccoli with shiitake mushrooms. Oh, shit!" He looked about as if he'd left a bag in the car. "I forgot the hummus!"

"I hadn't been aware the pilgrims offered Squanto any hummus: are you sure you've got the right Indians, here?"

Stephen appeared in the doorway with his coffee cup.

"Stephen, hello – Proteus said you'd be here: good to see you again."

"Wait, you two had met before?"

It sounded like news to me and Stephen, who started looking through the containers with the curiosity of a child, said "Yes, Dad, you'd spent a lot of the time unconscious when I was here after your heart attack."

"Well, or sleeping," Ferdinand said. "We just sat there and talked for hours."

Neither of them had ever mentioned this before.

"I hope you don't mind my bringing all this stuff. Sis practically forced it on me, you know. Greeks bearing gifts and all that."

"But you're not Greek and you're supposed to be afraid of Greeks bearing gifts," I said.

"Oh, right. Do you have any crackers? I need to get some hummus."

I knew what hummus was but had never tried it. If he forgot to bring it, why does he need to go get some?

"The only thing I have are some oyster crackers and saltines, I'm afraid."

Ferdinand looked at me as if I'd just come up with the most completely wrong answer imaginable.

"I'm guessing that probably won't do, will it?"

Ferdinand took a quick look in the refrigerator as if he'd always lived here, mentioned a few things he didn't find and announced there was this "really cool little store" down in Cape Edmund where he knew he could get a few things.

Before I could say it wasn't really necessary, Stephen invited himself to go along and before I was even aware of it, they were gone.

Not long after I watched Ferdinand's car glide out the driveway, the phone rang.

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," Sybil said without bothering to say hello. "Does that mean it's also true the more things stay the same, they're really changing? I never understood that."

"Hello, Sybil," I said, adamantly sticking to the old rituals. Perhaps forced into it, I felt more strongly the need to resist changing certain things. "Are you referring to a bargain you thought you got while shopping yesterday?"

She laughed. "No, silly. Just, you know, stuff in general? If things are constantly changing, how do they also stay the same?"

"You probably didn't call to banter away the morning discussing the finer points of philosophy, even of cliches. What's prompted this?"

This was a loaded question aimed directly at my brain.

"All I can remember is it's originally French and sounds like something Voltaire might have said but I think it's later than that. Or maybe an old proverb."

"Oh, French, well," she said. I could see the dismissive wave of a free hand. "I never could understand French."

We discussed the finer points of chaos and how, given events in her life, chaos (at least in her relationships) seemed to be a bit of the norm. For all the men in her life, the faces on the surface may change but the underlying current has a familiar consistency about it: she couldn't deny that.

As for how to break the change, as if her life really needed "shaking up," as she put it, the idea of meeting someone she could settle into a more long-term relationship with would be something new.

"Startling, in fact," she added, "not to mention welcome."

Then she asked me what would "change" my life, at this point?

"My life," I explained to her, "is one of unmitigated sameness, it seems – habit, routine, frustration at not being able to compose any more." Depressing, I felt like adding but didn't want to rain on her own parade.

"Sounds like you could use some 'shaking up,' too."

Fortunately she couldn't see the involuntary frown that passed across my face, wondering what exactly she might have had in mind.

Initially, she had been the one not interested in moving our friendship any further along and it wasn't much later before I discovered she had been right. A matter of convenience, seeking company, was different than finding what we might consider love.

It had happened so effortlessly with Madeleine, I figured it could happen again. But perhaps that very ease got in the way. Not that there weren't other warning signs when it came to Sybil.

Friends, yes, I could see that – but sharing our lives together on a daily basis, not very likely. The chaos that was not just in her relationships was more than enough turmoil for my daily life, one constant I did not need. Perhaps this would change over time but somehow I didn't think it possible.

Finding myself exhausted after a few hours in her presence, imagine what it would be at the end of a full day of it? And she clearly had no comprehension of what I needed in order to work, a stability that Madeleine not only understood but nurtured.

Is what's lacking – and what is likely to remain lacking – the word known to all men? The word that touches us, the lonely us – wasn't it a precondition for artistic creativity? (Was it Shakespeare who said that? Probably, Shakespeare said almost everything – except "the more things change...")

And what of that, I wondered: did my creativity (my ability to create) die with Madeleine or was it more with the loss of her love? No, there were problems with my composing before that. A new meaning to a "dying art."Ars paralitica.

"Well," she said after a pause, weighing her words, "I've applied for this job in Boston. A friend of mine told me about it – she said I'd be perfect for it though it's a little out of my line."

"But it's good to change things up, move outside your comfort level," (there it was, again) "if you can take the risk." She also had no responsibilities, no family here.

"That's a big 'if,' coming from you." She laughed.

She told me a little about the company – it would be a "lower mid-level management" position – but I think mostly she liked the idea of moving back to a big city where she could be around more people.

"I was going to take a couple days off, go down to Boston, check it out," she said, leaving it curiously open-ended.

I wished her well but said that I had guests just pulling in the drive and had to go.

"But keep me posted – let me know what you think, when you get back."

Lunch was prepared and quickly dispatched, the three of us sitting around the table, Stephen, Ferdinand and I, on this cold, clear, not-yet-winter afternoon. It had been a while, I thought, since I'd had guests here and it was pleasant just to hear this conversation, their easy laughter. Relaxed, I basked in the warmth of food too good for my system, these days, but pleasurable for a change, a different modality of senses to enjoy. I observed before being drawn back into the banter and told Ferdinand old stories of Stephen as a boy (this time, he laughs rather than acts annoyed, embarrassed), how once he told us the story of Alice through the Lurking Glass, how we shall come rejoicing, singing in the trees. A seachange this, after skating on the peripheries: we're enjoying ourselves immensely, thanks.

Ferdinand, not quite settled into a career yet, is looking for a job – New York, perhaps – no marketable skills, he says, just a degree in music, a masters (che sanno): a composer (che sente) – how does one make a living with that? He does not blame me nor does he look at his studies as a waste – an experience, yes, the learning of a skill – yes, and the emptying out of a tide's worth of talent, flowing out, flowing in, five fathoms, there. Claritas – quidditas. But practical?

Putting away the dishes and clearing out the sink, Ferdinand and Stephen packed up the left-overs of the left-overs into their various containers and slid them into the refrigerator. A simple act of domesticity, long unfamiliar in this house, this camaraderie of souls: how is it said – "The soul is always searching for itself and takes pleasure in finding itself mirrored in the world." I'm not sure where I read that, perhaps Plato's Symposium or maybe not.

It was Ferdinand who suggested we go out to see a movie before dinner, a late-afternoon show at the Langley mega-plex. Not one for movies, I declined but mostly to give them a chance to be by themselves. My half-hearted excuse of back trouble made Stephen smile. They decided to go see The Book Thief, too serious a film for me for a holiday's entertainment, but thought-provoking, an intelligent choice (I approved, quietly).

An hour passed and the phone rang again, startling me out of some new, unexpected reverie – piano music in the back of my awareness, nothing recognizable, perhaps something of my own beginning to percolate.

"I've finished it," Henry said with considerable enthusiasm, interrupting my congratulations to confess it wasn't actually complete, but he'd passed his 50,000-word goal on this, the last day of the challenge.

"That's excellent! When do you think the novel will actually be done?"

"Oh, I don't know if it will ever be done. I think I just wanted to prove to myself I could do it – you know, the 50,000-word thing."

"But it seems a shame to put all that time into it and then not do anything with it. I couldn't imagine writing 50,000 words in a month!"

However, I also understand the desire to never 'finish' something, either. There is a different kind of creative thrill to go back over something, polish a bit here, change a little something there. For some, there's an endless joy in the planning, the preparation, the contemplation of the finished product. But there is, for some of us, no need to produce a finished product. We do not work on an hourly wage, judged for our efficiency, tallying up successes and failures.

I promise Henry we will go out for a celebratory dinner as soon as he feels it is time – another week, perhaps, to put "The End" on the final page, not to mention the endless editing, an entirely different blood-letting exercise (save that for latter: rest now, recuperate first). He promises he will call me, then.

"Fifty thousand words!" The idea staggers me but he did it, whatever the quality of that eventual product will be. That's not the point. He's done something he hadn't thought possible and by applying discipline, he's managed to accomplish a goal – some new adventure in his life. Finishing the novel would be another goal and like Achilles and the Tortoise, it may still prove elusive, receding into the horizon.

My birthday is next month – hard to believe that tomorrow will be December, already – and as I prepare to say good-bye to the Old Year, I will already be beginning a new year (new era) in my life, one nacheinander after another. But this is always a curious time of overlap for me and I have been glad, at this stage, to be so long past the concern about gifts and festivities. No one has mentioned it, the inevitable if uncomfortable acknowledgment of age – 65, if that's so hard to imagine (it is, thinking back on it, viewing it from the past). I do not look forward to its celebration but yet I would be disappointed to find it forgotten, overlooked. I do that with others, often enough: I would deserve the same.

It is time to pin this down, to grapple with the inner chameleon, karma or not, and face the age-old challenge if I am to start anew – a new composition, a new age, the acceptance of becoming old (preferring it to the alternative), not enough to say "I will do this thing" but do it. Yes, easier said, I know, as if I haven't told myself this before. The chameleon sheds its skin, is resurrected, new and shiny. It makes me laugh, this image: in the past, I have thought too much of the skin, of the painful process, this sloughing away of the past. Pentimento.

That October visit when I was a child and spent the day in the Eckleses' yard, that visit when Grandmother Hemon died, I remember when my father said it was time to let the box turtle return to the forest. His leg had healed and he would find someplace there to spend the winter – perhaps he would come back in the spring.

"I'm sure Homer will let us know if he sees him again." The old man promised me he would. They took a photograph of me, petting the turtle held out to me, a photograph I remember but have not yet found again. (Perhaps it lies hidden in some book, somewhere.)

"He'll be happier there – it's his home, you know," Dad said. "Everyone's happier in his own home."

I barely understood the fact he was losing his mother, day by day, fading away to disease. I wondered why the turtle at least couldn't stay here longer if Grandma was going to be going away, when the ship came in for her, leaving her home behind.

The turtle shuffled off through the leaves as I watched, his stump of a leg hardly slowing him down. I'm sure he did not turn to look back, to say good-bye, but I imagine it still as I waved to him.

We grow up – "growing" older, eventually old, slipping like the summer months into the gradual decay toward winter, discovering new things about us unnoticed before. The soul, still present, is not without its contaminating matter accumulated over the intervening years, hylomorphs of our existence – letters become words become sentences and soon a novel is almost complete; notes become chords become a progression of sounds that move from beginning to end and a symphony is almost complete, a span of time filled in by sounds my soul brings into being. One experience becomes another and a life is formed, is almost complete. Is that how it works? It sounds so simple.

I sit in my chair with my coffee and my cats, a forgotten book falling from my grasp. I watch the clouds come in from the east – the sign of a storm: snow, maybe – still. Home. Stay a moment.

Creation here from nothing, the past (historic, personal – the same), pentimento of the future – visible, audible, ineluctably forging the cloud as others see it, hear it, over the living and the dead.

Old man, old creator, stand me now in good stead evermore. The ship comes in, homeward, silent, a way, a lone, and yes, I will say – yes –

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Harrisburg PA
Friday, November 1st, 2013 to
Monday, December 9th, 2013

You can eventually read more about the novel, An Ineluctable Modality, here.

Dick Strawser

Friday, November 29, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 29

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

= = = = = = =

I haven't thought about Evan Kegans in years but for some reason his unmistakeable face drifted through my dream just before I woke up an hour before dawn. Whatever context there may have been evaporated with the first awareness of my surroundings, different from my dream's and in no way connected, the suspension of belief. Rather than try to figure out what the dream was or even what it meant, I considered why him, why now, as I slowly padded down to the kitchen, aware that Stephen was sleeping in the other room and I didn't want to wake him.

The kitchen was cold and it took forever to get the coffee going but there it was, still, the memory of a face, a shadow in some remote corner of my mind. Evan Kegans. I thought of those stories I'd read where distant friends reached out as they died and wondered. He was a year older than me but I had no way of getting in touch with him.

Firing up the internet (which also seemed sluggish in the cold), I found few hits on his name, nothing current, most of them probably not even him, certainly no listing of a phone or address. He had gone to Paris – that was the plan – one of those composerly exiles though too late to study with Boulanger like generations had before him.

It had been a bold move, I thought, giving up a good faculty position to live the life of a free-lance starving musician in the City of Light. Bohemian, indeed! Did it pay off? Since I'd never heard of him afterward, no, I guess it didn't, in that sense.

I felt too uncomfortable applying for his old job when he left and so ended up at Selwyn-Morgan instead. Already married with two small children, it wasn't like I could do the same thing, running away to Paris (that's what it felt like). Besides, I would have preferred London: at least there, I had a shot at understanding the language.

But at the time, Evan could pull it off, if anyone could. His big dream, he said over a bit of whiskey at the Corless, our last visit to New York together – going off to Paris and absorbing everything he could, sponge-like. I remember he soaked up his whiskey well enough.

But what chance, I asked, trying to sound both naïve and realistic, did an American otherwise unknown – and already thirty – have in a land where musical nationalism was very strong?

Absorb, yes, then come back to New York, yes – but who was being naïve to think he could be, like Chopin or Meyerbeer or even Stravinsky, a foreigner at the Paris forefront?

His argument had been simple. It was during the 1970s when academe was the perfect haven for a composer – how else could one make a living? But in the '80s, that was beginning to change: it was a simple law of something-or-other as conservatories turned out more composers than there were positions where they could teach. Soon, the idea of moving upward from one school to another would be more difficult – and everybody wanted to be closer to the Northeast, didn't they?

Perhaps it was supply-and-demand or a finite container unable to accommodate infinite material (would it overflow or explode?). If he couldn't make it outside these ivy-covered minds, what was the sense of walling himself up inside?

It was not an invitation to join him – we were competitive enough to realize that would never work – but a challenge to go and do likewise, whether I chose New York or London or Buenos Aires.

He had gotten his paperwork together, arranged for a place to stay through a friend of a cousin, an artist, brushed up on his graduate-level French and disappeared into a jet.

In a few years, the occasional card or letter had trickled to a stop. Things were going well, then not so well. He was working in the Paris office of an American publisher. He had stopped composing.

He worked occasionally as a music critic for an English-language newspaper. He'd met someone. They were very happy. I never heard back from my last letter. That was maybe twenty years ago.

It's not that he failed – I couldn't look at it that way – but that he found another way to be happy since teaching in a good college didn't work for him.

Would I have done any better – or different? Might I have become the successful composer I had dreamed of being when he couldn't?

Lord, suspend Thou my unbelief.

"Did you sleep well?" Stephen shuffled into the kitchen looking the worse for wear on a cold not-yet-winter morning. He had draped a heavy blanket around himself, letting it trail behind in protest to the inhuman chilliness of the house.

"You look like you've been miles away," he said, pouring himself some much-needed coffee.

"Paris, actually," I said, still staring out the window. "An old friend – from half my life ago," but then broke it off, not sure where to go from there. Stephen was now the age we – Evan and I – had been then.

When I'd gotten back from New York the day Evan left, it had not been a pleasant evening. Stephen, a baby then, was giving his mother a hard time and she took it out on me for being away the whole day. I had forgotten to bring back a souvenir for Millie, so she pouted all through dinner.

I thought of all the music I could have written not for lack of inspiration but for lack of the peace and quiet to write it in. Domesticity was a compromise I had been unprepared for, as if teaching hadn't demanded enough of me. Evan, recently divorced – which may have had as much to do with his leaving the country as his dream – could make his move unburdened.

If I said I would give up teaching and announced we were going to Paris because of some childhood dream, I would have pronounced myself silly if not insane. Stupid, unrealistic. But I also thought myself, that night at least, cowardly. Teaching was important to me but composing was what I wanted to do.

Wouldn't following on the courage of Evan's coattails have been what I needed to realize my dream? Instead, I stayed in Academia and still gave up composing: what was the difference if Evan had ultimately done the same, regardless?

Did Evan think he had made a mistake? Was that why he stopped writing to me – or had something happened? Did he think I had made the right decision – for me, at least – to stay behind (regardless)? It's not that I thought whether he'd succeeded (though if he were happy, isn't that good enough? – what was the point of fame if you weren't happy?) or even failed (not knowing what had or hadn't happened to him).

By the time I felt glad to have landed a better-paying position at Selwyn-Morgan, still within reasonable driving of distance of New York City, I had largely forgotten Evan and the risk he took. He was now that friend who'd gone to Paris as other friends began leaving Academia behind for whatever reasons: New York, Los Angeles – one even went to Abilene, Texas (why, I had no idea).

What had Madeleine given up to become a wife and mother? What dream of hers had been traded on the exchange? A painter who figured she would work on a canvas in the spare room while the children slept or, later, were at school, she might have envied Evan his courage.

As it was, she had stopped painting long before the children were school aged except to do a little sketching now and then. She always smiled when somebody would see these and say, "Wow, you should become an artist."

Stephen picked at one of the breakfast pastries from the cupboard and cautiously tested the coffee. He showed only mild interest in what I'd been saying, then assuming I would go no further, went to check his e-mail on the computer. What was going through his mind was equally hard to figure out, so I chose not to press him on anything. Perhaps the caution was mutual. Though in the past he had been quick to accuse me of general disinterest, he was quite good at withdrawing into a private world of his own that invited no curiosity.

We stared out the windows, watching the sky lighten gradually over the back yard. There were still some dramatic clouds just above the trees but otherwise it looked like a sunny day ahead. Somehow that made me feel better, like a host who, through no effort of his own, had scored bonus points with a guest during a less than successful visit.

In many ways, we were more similar than we might have been willing to consider. Most of the time, when he was growing up, I often wondered where Stephen "got that" as if a personality trait was an item one picked off the shelf going through a grocery store, taking this one from me, that one from Madeleine, this one – isn't that the way my father used to say something?

"If you want, we can go down to the village and grab some breakfast," I suggested.

"No, that's okay. Do you have some eggs? Fried eggs and toast is fine for me, nothing fancy." He didn't look over at me as he spoke. "What do you normally do for meals? I know Mom was always the cook in the family."

We'd been through this his last visit. Leo was the "chef" in their relationship (yet his mother was just a cook): how did I ever get along on my own? How would he get along, now, having to learn how to cook – perhaps even look after himself on his own?

I started to explain about Evan Kegans and how we almost went to Paris or maybe London, someplace that wasn't where he'd grown up, certainly not in beautiful downtown Pembrick on the edge of the campus of Selwyn-Morgan. This surprised him and he worked hard to disguise his obvious disappointment.

"If Evan had gotten this bug up his ass a couple of years earlier, we might have done that – it would have been more of a possibility, then – before you were born."

"You mean, I could've grown up in Paris?"

"Well, given the risk, it might not have been as easy as it sounds. If it hadn't worked out, living as a poor hippy ex-pat in a garret might not have been the same. Then, too, we might have tried not to have a second child if we couldn't afford it, you see." I paused. Yes, it's possible he might have been different as a result of that risk; it hadn't occurred to me before but, yes, it's also possible he might not exist at all.

"So you mean, I kept you from going to Paris...?" His tone expressed the realization that perhaps that was the reason we had not always gotten along: I resented him.

"No, but admittedly having a newborn son would have been one of many deciding factors. What I had here was predictable – safe. I couldn't see throwing it away on a whim." (Do not, I told myself, use the expression "the devil you know versus the devil you don't.")

"You mean, like 'the devil you know...'?"

Yes, we were more alike than we bargained for, both capable of wounding the other.

"I could have stayed at Cheatham College and you thought I was miserable before? Or I could've left Selwyn-Morgan after a few years and struck out in another path. But there are responsibilities one has..."

"Duties," he responded flatly, interrupting me, his coffee cup suspended before his lips.

"Yes, it was not just me, what I wanted to do. Perhaps that was why I spent so much time holed up in my study composing, trying to make something of what I always wanted to be when I grew up – still do, for that matter. Not because I wanted fame and fortune which wouldn't have hurt, but because fame and fortune might have gotten us out of Selwyn-Morgan and into a better... I don't know, situation?" I shrugged my shoulders. This may be the first time I admitted to my son that my career hadn't been a success – but it didn't seem to sink in.

"I liked teaching – I just didn't like what teaching had become, ultimately." Then I told him something else I'd probably never told him: when was the last time I remembered this, myself?

"When I was still in grad school and hadn't even started looking for a job, yet, one of the women who lived in my building said she was thinking about moving to Australia. There were lots of colleges there and they were looking for all kinds of teachers. It was still, even in the 1970s, a bit of a new frontier especially for artists from the American Northeast looking for someplace to go that wasn't California. The only reason I didn't consider it seriously was because I couldn't imagine myself in California, much less some place like the Great Unwashed Outback, even if I could find something in Sydney or maybe Victoria."

He laughed.

"The point is, had I made the decision to do that – and I looked at books in the library about colleges there, read up on the lifestyle, even talked to a recruiter Helen had introduced me to – had I gone to the University of New South Wales, I would never have met your mother and you would never have been born – at least as you are, whether or not that's a good thing..."

Again, he laughed.

"And your friend Helen – did she go to the University of New South Wales?"

"Ironically, no. She got a job in Iowa through a professor of hers, a very enviable position for a person just off the doctoral mill, and she married an ancient history professor – well, a professor of ancient history though he was older than her. The last I heard was she was still there – he died a few years ago, I think – she might have retired already but she had no children to play 'what if...?' with, you see."

"Hmm." He sipped his coffee (perhaps it was too cold now; I offered to heat it up). "It's really cold this morning, isn't it? Is it always like this, here?"

"No – sometimes it's summer. Officially, it was colder a few days ago, but tomorrow is supposedly the next 'coldest day of the season so far.' We haven't had any snow, yet, if that's what you're worried about."

He laughed.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

Thursday, November 28, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 28

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

= = = = = = =

"Of course you can stay here," I told him, "as long as you want – till you get yourself straightened out," I added, thinking if I left the invitation open-ended, he would feel I'm setting a trap, expecting he'll move in with me and stay. It hadn't occurred to me his soured expression had more to do with my choice of the words "straightened out."

I didn't want to remind him he'd already told me his place in San Patroclus was likely to be foreclosed on, since he wouldn't be able to keep up with the mortgage after losing his job and without someone sharing the expenses with him (how did he and Leo manage the realities of their relationship?). But I knew it was more likely he'd get another job in the area there, hopefully within commuting distance but these days, one could never tell. I just wanted him to know he had an option to fall back on, here (not that he'd like spending his winter in Maine, I'm sure).

We stayed up till well past midnight (only 9pm by his California-primed body clock though he had managed to mitigate any jet lag by spending a day in New York before flying up to Boston). He gave me more of the details about his being laid off but less about the break-up with Leo (it was, apparently, a break-up, not a separation).

Perhaps he felt uncomfortable talking about such things with his father. The photo of his mother as a child did not make it any easier for him, sitting there beside us in the den. The wine (which he brought with him: what would I know about good wine?) and the fireplace may have bridged the comfort gap but only just.

He found it surprising that I had adjusted to the house in Maine – not the isolation, which he knew, as I got older, I preferred. Though he was inclined to keep to himself, the logical, analytical one, he still needed the presence of others if only for their quiet support: he was not one to enjoy being by himself.

Millie would have been the "wild and crazy" one, had she lived, the opposite of Stephen. I sat there wondering what impact she might have had on him as they grew up, balancing him, helping him find something more to the center. Listening to my son, watching him as he talked, I never missed my wife and daughter more, not to be there to help him – us.

He used that word again, this time in a more light-hearted manner, how I preferred to live my life "hermitically sealed," away from everything beyond the unavoidable necessity of teaching my classes or composing my (not only to him) unintelligible music.

Admittedly, I had trouble relating to children, even my own, though I thought I had been there for them when they were growing up – apparently, not enough.

Rather than try to cook something at home which on a scale of holiday feasts would only be laughable, I decided we would go to the Balbec Inn overlooking the cliffs on Cape Edmund. It was one of the better restaurants in the area, a little more expensive than my usual haunts, but this was, after all, an occasion. Early in the afternoon, the clouds hung dramatically over the bay, not exactly dark after yesterday's dreary rain, not exactly muscular, the preface to an on-coming storm.

Stephen, not surprisingly, barely noticed the view: he lived within sight of the Pacific and one ocean was so much like another. It was no more than a backdrop for a building he considered "quaint." History and its appreciation never aroused his enthusiasm before but had I taken him to something more functional, he might have found it "squalid." At least here, the food might pass muster.

"Yes, I like truffles," he responded as we cautiously tested the menu. While I thought it obvious to order the turkey (the choice was between chestnut stuffing and one with truffles), he was more inclined to try the salmon florentine. Having ordered, I discovered the need to visit the men's room and left him alone with his drink.

There were a few other people in the restaurant I recognized, none of whom I actually knew. Most of them looked like tourists staying at the hotel, older couples who no longer had families to deal with on this family holiday. Not far from our table sat a grandmother speaking quietly in French with her pale young grandson who peered out at the sea with wide, all-encompassing eyes.

As I worked my way back to our table, I noticed a woman standing there speaking to Stephen. She had just taken her coat off and draped it across a chair at the table next to ours.

Even from the back, I could recognize her: of course, it would be her. How could it not be?

"Sybil, what a surprise," I said, trying to sound cheerful. She was alone, it seemed, or maybe she was waiting for her date to show up. The waiter had placed her at a table for four.

"Proteus? What are you doing here?" Not only did she seem genuinely surprised, she was visibly confused. Perhaps she had hoped to avoid me as I, though for most likely different reasons, had hoped to avoid her.

"Happy Thanksgiving, I guess," I added, pulling my chair out before sitting down. "I take it you've met?"

"You two know each other?" I wasn't sure she was relieved or disappointed.

"You could say that. Stephen, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine, Sybil Icarus. Sybil, this is my son, Stephen. Are you waiting for someone?"

"No, actually – no, I'm not," she said with some embarrassment. Dining alone on Thanksgiving Day was not something one cared to confess. Whether she was here to dine among strangers who wouldn't know her or here to, perhaps, meet one of them and start another relationship, I couldn't tell.

And frankly, couldn't care about though it was amusing she may have been trying to pick up my son.

"So, then," I said, indicating an empty chair across from me, "why not join us? We've just ordered."

Stephen very gallantly stood up and pulled the chair out for her as she draped her coat around its arms. From over her shoulder I could see he glanced at me with an expression somewhere between a smile and mild disapproval. Never very good at reading faces with only a flash of a glance, knowing Stephen, I would take it more as "disapproval."

"You didn't say your son was coming out for the holiday," she said as our waiter handed her the menu. I chose not to point out that, actually, I had but she too busy not listening at the time.

The small talk was amusingly strained. Without much effort, she proceeded to tell us about driving in to Portsmouth in yesterday's miserable rain looking for bargains only to find a hat she bought then, arriving home, discovering she didn't like it after all and would now have to drive all the way back to return it. Clearly, there was no justice in the world.

For my part, there was little to talk about: frustration over a new piece of music that refused to gel made rather boring commentary. Since they'd both met him, I mentioned that Henry Jordan was writing a novel, but since I could tell them nothing about it, their interest died quickly.

In the course of dinner – she thought the truffle filling too dry – Sybil had apparently more wine than was wise. As she became more talkative, her conversation, however, did not improve.

"So you've met some of your dad's friends? You must know Dr. Aelius, then...?"

"No, sorry," Stephen said, shaking his head quizzically.

"No doubt you know Madeline LeMare, I imagine?"

"No, I'm afraid not," he said, sipping his drink cautiously.

A tall thin man with thick coke-bottle glasses who'd been standing over at the bar stumbled past us on his way out the door, muttering something unintelligible about gas, it sounded like.

"Then surely you've met Joyce Diotimopoulos...?"

"No, doesn't ring a bell..."

Sybil was right: the truffle filling was too dry.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 27

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

= = = = = = =

It had been over two weeks since I last visited Dorothea who had made up her mind to marry the unlikely Mr. Casaubon, despite her sister's low opinion of him, not quite fifty pages into the book. I could see why Henry James might have thought Middlemarch such a great novel at the time he was writing Portrait of a Lady, a man in his late-thirties who would never marry anyone to experience a good or a bad marriage. But if Verdi's Otello had eclipsed Rossini's once famous setting, had James' Lady supplanted Eliot's in the eyes of posterity?

What impact had Mary Ann Evans' own personal life had on her characters, a woman hiding behind a man's name, now, in her early-fifties, living with a man not her husband? Was it that different a Victorian mind-set from a woman's perspective, a decade before Isabel Archer arrived on the literary scene, standing in that doorway? The novel had hardly started when Dorothea's ill-advised marriage had become fact, and the question wouldn't be nearly as dramatic as the one left hanging at the end of James' tale.

On a miserably dreary morning, it struck me as a miserably dreary prospect to be visiting her again so once more, regrettably, I laid it aside. The morning had not struck me as a good one for concentration, chaining myself beside the piano – the new piece will not come, that is all: put it aside and see how it fares in a certain amount of time (days, weeks) or set it aside, still-borne, with the rest. Instead, I pottered into the den and looked out into the drizzle.

Even aided by feeling a hot mug of coffee in my hands (my favorite ceramic mug which Madeleine had given me when we first started seeing each other so many years ago), its heat coursing its way slowly into my body, losing myself in a book would be the only viable option for my time today. The cats, it seemed, were ready, and didn't care what I'd read.

Should I read aloud to them? It seemed more comforting to me than them, but I liked to think they found their human's voice a sign of attention they appreciated, rampant anthropomorphosizing aside. I had picked up the Eliot, thumbed my way absent-mindedly through to find my bookmark – an old expired coupon: two years (had it been that long since I started reading it?) – read a few lines, not sure who Mrs. Cadwallader was and lost my interest paging back to reread the opening of the chapter. It did not seem an appropriate story for cats, today, as Fleance prepared to curl up on my lap even before I'd settled myself in the chair.

Despite the plan of putting books away on a regular basis to keep the piles at bay, I had amassed quite a stack here – two, actually, not particularly organized. It had been an aimless month, dipping my toe in various pools but never actually going for a swim in any of them. This and that – I needed something to focus on.

As a composer, I was not one to listen to a lot of music while I was working on a new piece aside from some old classics and favorites that wouldn't likely rub off and lead anyone to accuse me of imitating them. Did Henry, while he's working on his novel, immerse himself in a good book when he wasn't working in the evenings? Unless he worked straight through the day, I don't know, since he never talks about it: usually, I could only spend so many hours composing – by mid-afternoon, my brain was pretty well shot.

Perhaps, once his month of writing wildly would be over – Sunday, only four more days – we will sit and compare notes, what it's like for him to be a writer (or at least try his hand at it) as it is for me to be a composer. I dreaded being asked to read his novel, though: what would I say if it's bad; what would he think if I thought it was good?

Most of this past month or so, I have been reading other people's journals – May Sarton's Solitude and a collection from Thoreau – things I can dip into here and there without making a commitment. There was a delightful collection called The Year of the Moon Goose someone had given me, picked up a couple months ago from a self-publishing author named T. W. Burger traveling through Maine (he lives in Gettysburg – was his home close to where my Union Ancestor nearly died?). For a few days, I had walked through Georges Perec's Life, the story of a building's inhabitants, if one wants to reduce it to that, but I quickly lost interest in it.

Otherwise, I'd been reading "music books," as Stephen called them, like distinguishing snow from "lake-effect snow" – somehow they weren't real books. A biography of Clara Schumann had caught my interest (I was about half-way through) but that was about it.

There, underneath a collection of conversations with composer Thomas Adès, was Umberto Eco's Prague Cemetery which I'd only cracked open once or twice before putting it aside for later, then forgetting all about it. I'd also forgotten it was a library book and saw it was now a week overdue. "No sense renewing it at this point." I'm not even sure why I'd taken it out to begin with: it had taken years to gird up my courage to get past the opening of Foucault's Pendulum (eventually, I was either hot or cold about it) and this might prove more of the challenging same.

I could hardly imagine any reason to be going out in this weather – this wouldn't keep till after Thanksgiving? What's another few cents on the late fine? How much gas was I using just to do this one thing today? Honestly, while I'm out, I might as well stop at the store (that was a mistake: mayhem before Thanksgiving and not enough registers to handle the flow).

The young woman at the library desk pleasantly took care of my fine as I looked around. The place was not busy – a dismal Wednesday morning, the day before a holiday, people traveling, a storm coming (no, here) – but there were new arrivals to check out and, afterward, I wandered over to see what could be seen.

Not new, but newly arrived, a book about James' Portrait of a Lady caught my eye, a good and likely way to spend many days like today: winter weather would be good for such a book, a luxury to sink my eyes into.

It was then I saw them, stepping out from her office, a couple – not just two people but people sharing an intimacy – and I tried not to stare after them as they left the building without a backward glance. Perhaps lunch with an old friend or a new beau? The young woman at the desk had asked me something which I hadn't heard, so I asked her to repeat it (an old man going deaf, she thought, no doubt). Did she notice, I wondered, my looking over my shoulder at them like some lion rere regardant on some family crest?

Did I even know if she were married? Henry's implication was she was not, but did he know, with any certainty (reasonably doubtful)? Or that she had someone else in her life?

"Is there anything else," the young woman politely repeated, "I can do for you today, sir?"

"No – no, thank you." "Sir," I thought, as if I didn't already feel like the old man of the sea. (But what does it matter to you, my girl, and what does it matter to me?)

After all, I'd seen Joyce only those few times, stopping by the library: not like I had any hopes, did I? I followed them out the door.

Its inevitability was likely, given the plane of the possible, as it had happened introvertibly before and now, proven, extrovertibly visible. If I didn't see it, it wasn't real by reason of reasonable doubt – isn't that what Mr. Lipsitt said? like the tree falling in the woods – but seen, now, there were corporeal commiserations to be dealt with, this new modality. The hypothesis had become hypostasis: who would understand that better than the imaginary invalid, no? You have to admit, love is sweet – love, they say, has a sweetness about it – but short-lived, this one. Off they trudged, the red Egyptians, toward the black pit, deep as the wine-dark sea.

He wore a scarf, dull red, wrapped around him loosely, not yet ready for the cold (and such a mild day, too, it was), cultivating the slight scruff of beard now fashionable, just growing in (always growing in, it looked, always in need of a shave). It must take work to look that casual. And she? E chi mi può dar vita, ahi, che m'ancide., more or less. She wore a brown-wool shawl, her hair trailing on behind.

They had disappeared into a car, dashing through the rain, laughing. Off to lunch somewhere, no doubt (probably not a diner). More than just an admirer, I suspect, maybe met recently; or an old friend – not an ex. They weren't holding hands but seemed closer than "just friends" (of course, I'm reading too much into this). There are, I keep telling myself, plenty of fish in that wine-dark sea.

Instead of sitting at home, thinking about saying something to her – how difficult can it be, walking up to someone and saying "Hello"? – I should have gone into the library and... well, sitting there waiting for her to walk across my path, like a trap-door spider? I felt like a stalker. No, it would have to be nonchalant and while I was signing out a book, something one would normally do in a library. (Chalant just didn't work, for me, a bad delivery on a pick-up line: "come here often?")

Ideally, I would run into her somewhere – at the grocery store, if I knew where she shopped, at a restaurant somewhere, if I went out with any frequency – and just say "Hi, I've seen you at the library" and take it from there. An easy conversation, welcoming her to the community, one slightly less recent transplant to another. But it never happened, mostly because I never let it happen: it didn't seem like me.

"Me" was a shy procrastinator who hoped, if she was – no, were – interested in me, she'd come up to me. Small wonder I had so few friends since I moved here. The story of my life, really: remember me (click here) but ah, forget my fate. Good night, my ragtime gal. Easycome, easygo. (Jesus wept!)

When I got home – for some reason, it took longer than usual – there was a message on the machine from Stephen: he was on his way and would arrive sometime this evening, renting a car in Boston. He'll call when he gets in because he'll need directions, of course – remembering how to get here, out on the mountain, would be unexpected, given the one time he'd been here before, a few years ago, and his never being very good with directions.

Considering it will be dark around 4:00, I'll offer to meet him at some obvious spot in the village, maybe where we could grab a bite to eat. He'll never find his way out here at night on his own: miss one turn and suddenly he'll be driving off the top of Mt. Agamemnon.

Picking up some books from that pile in the den, I noticed Middlemarch had been knocked off the table, lying nearly inaccessible against the wall. Which one of the cats could I thank for this one? With some difficulty, I managed to pick it up, its binding nearly broken, and then saw something fall out of it – my bookmark, no doubt. "Damn," I thought, "now I'll have to start over again."

Not my bookmark, no – a photograph (an unlikely bookmark) – and requiring more contortions to retrieve it. If I hadn't seen it, it might have stayed hidden there for years. An old photograph, at that, glossy, black-and-white with a fairly wide yellowish-white border and serrated edges.

I examined it under the light. It was clearly Madeleine as a girl but I don't remember having seen it before. She must be ten or so, sitting there on a grassy bank, probably in a park judging from that pond in the background, otherwise anonymous. She's holding hands with a boy, I'm guessing the same age – her first boyfriend? I laughed. It's summer but they're well-dressed, probably on Sunday – back from church, perhaps.

Are they neighbors, school chums – cousins who haven't seen each other since last summer? I have no idea who he is, barely any idea who she is but her smile is unmistakeable. She looked very happy, then, a nice way to remember her. How many years has it been since I last saw that smile?

I will leave this out so Stephen can see it. There's an unused frame in a desk drawer that's just the right size. Sitting down to resume reading the book, it occurred to me this book had been Madeleine's copy, her name written on the title page with the severe seriousness of a college student – "Brookwood Dorm 124-B" underneath.

We had been carrying this book around with us ever since we married and I never knew this photo was in here: when would I have found it, I wondered, reading through Eliot's heavily detailed story? Did she know she'd left it in here? Did it reflect some aspect of the story, reminding her of a past, perhaps unrequited love? And why, then, as a college student...?

I wish I could ask her about it – who the boy was, what the occasion was, what had ever happened to him (to them), why she stuffed it away in here, probably her junior year, I'm guessing? But I asked her anyway, not expecting an answer.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 26

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

= = = = = = =

Henry called me last night to see how I was doing and to keep me informed that he is "on track" with his novel, though he would still not tell me anything about it nor how far along he was. I could imagine, pulling into the final stretches and still short of the goal, just rambling along trying to fill in as many words as I could. It would depend on the type of novel it is, the style and viewpoint, I guess. For a realistic novel, there might suddenly be more description as Proust would spend, what – forty pages describing Albertine's hat? (Or did it just seem like it...)

To me, there is nothing more boring that wading through pages of description about a setting or what a character looks like or what she's wearing. What's the point of knowing every detail of a room if the only thing they do there is sit down to tea? It might be helpful to a set-designer but chances are, turning it into a movie, they'll change it all anyway (they usually do).

It would be difficult to write a novel of ideas – like Musil's The Man Without Qualities which I'm still trying to read – and you find you've run out of ideas. The idea of writing a stream-of-consciousness novel, then, might be the most tempting, I suppose. It wouldn't matter what your characters do, only what they think – if there's no structure to hang it on, no critic can accuse you of being a poor story teller if you've no story to tell, ignoring the logical sequence of a beginning and an end with something well-ordered happening in between.

It surprised me, years after I'd gotten through the first 250 pages of Finnegans Wake to discover someone writing about the novel's "plot"! I hadn't even noticed, as much fun as it was to read it – that is, if you'd read it out loud with enough of a brogue to make music out of its seeming nonsense. Leaves and trees, overlooking the forest.

But the whole point of writing isn't just slathering words onto the page like so much plaster with a trowel. I would imagine it takes not only a certain concentration to focus on what you're doing, wouldn't it also involve keeping everything in sight – story, character, setting and how they evolve? Even if it's part of the background (like a painting, for instance) it still needs to throw the foreground into relief, to augment it in some way.

And more than a certain perseverance, too, to find the right word – hitting the right note, so to speak – or not being afraid to cut out whole paragraphs of stuff that perhaps aren't good enough, having the courage to know it's for the best (or at least the better).

There's a certain amount of fun in the unexpected, writing about a woman saddened by the recent death of her old aunt, then having her mind suddenly focus on a day spent at the circus. There's shock value in that even if at first thought it seems jarringly surreal, so unexpected it creates a dissonance.

But I suppose it's also part of the human condition: at times of great seriousness, we are often reminded of the frivolous. Perhaps, as a child, our character had been taken to the circus by that very aunt, a happy day that, forgotten till now, reminds her how much her aunt meant to her.

Doesn't it work the same way in music? It is not, compared to what some people think, stringing out one note after another. I write down a pitch, give it some context with other pitches to form a chord, some sonority which, once I figure out how these chords move from one to the next, create some sense of harmony. Harmony, after all, is not just "pleasing sounds." It is the process by which chords move in a particular hierarchy, almost feudal in its way, which gives, say, Beethoven's music its tension. This hierarchy may change from generation to generation, but underneath, the concept is still very similar.

There is a span across which this music is stretched, leading us to if not an inevitable conclusion hopefully an expected one. We call these "forms," whether it's a minuet or a symphony, and whenever a composer approached one of these, he poured his music into the mold of some preconceived form much as any craftsman might. What one does with those forms, how they're filled, now, that's another matter, isn't it?

Without them, without the direction afforded by these logical, discernible structures, very often listeners (like those looking at paintings which seem to hold no meaning for them) have nothing to hang on to, too well attuned to the old forms, the long sonatas of the dead.

Another thing people don't often understand in an artist: the idea that one can be adventuresome, even "original" at the same time one can be conservative and make use of traditional concepts. Whether its Hegelian or not, a certain dialectic helps move the Old Forms forward and perhaps gives new sounds some greater meaning, something more to respond to emotionally as well as intellectually.

It is in this quest – how to absorb the past into something different if not new, something that might sound like me – that I have spent hours, weeks, years of my time trying (hoping) to find. While I can sit for hours staring at a blank page, this search for discovery is often too much like work and without immediate results, it can prove frustrating and fruitless – meaningless.

It is the loss of meaning that terrifies me, not just being evaluated by those who judge my success on some industrial, outcome-based priorities. It is the fear of stagnation that most often stops me in my tracks. If talent is indeed His gift, God must love irony.

So my "creative spirit" finds itself at a loss, a hobbled Prospero, unable to come out and play. Yes, it's true (I guess) that part of why we artists play is to gain some form of recognition (if not exactly fame) or a reward (if not a living). But the audience must be convinced and if it fails to respond, what is the point of playing? Have we, creator and audience, forgotten the freedom to play?

Once we forget we also play for ourselves, not just the audience, we lose the thread. The audience will not pick it up if it's not convinced we're worthy. But is it pandering to appeal to the popular? Is pandering, as some of my colleagues feel, so bad?

Oportet me pergere, non possum pergo, pergam.

As concepts go, "genius" is so overrated. Musil's man without qualities muses on "a racehorse of genius" since everything now can be a genius just as any child with a flash of talent automatically becomes a prodigy (who should live so long to attain a prodigious talent). Public acclaim can be an ominous sign: a Pulitzer Prize becomes a curse.

But if I'm going to be cursed with Stage 4 Writer's Block, could it please come as the result of a Pulitzer Prize? Even if my creative spirit, the genius of my own place, the house snake I forgot to feed, should some day return, it would be welcome as a prodigal spirit.

I am envious of the self-assured Alpha Personalities, the Juggernauts before whom everyone quails. I am even envious of the moderately-assured who can go about being an artist and know enough to promote themselves in the business to gain themselves publications, performances, commissions.

It turns out I am one of many poor souls, struggling in the inner darkness, trying to express himself – find himself – doubtful of talent, dubious of the life-choices he has made. Even my Plan B had failed, absorbing the necessary energy never fully allotted to Plan A. What if...?

We work on the plane of the possible, often with no more reward than we love what we do. (Would you do what you do professionally without getting paid just because you love what you do? No, I didn't think so.) It isn't the plane of the practical for (God knows) nothing an artist does could ever be accused of being practical. 

Sometimes, I'm not even sure it's the plane of the feasible. Beyond it, we stretch the boundaries of what exists, our imagination. This is how Art transforms itself from generation to generation. It is what we can see, closing our eyes, seeing the not-yet-visible, matter only imagined, nothing worth stubbing your toe over, not yet, but who knows, until one tries.

The future is what we dream: we dream what we cannot see and ask "why not?" But dreams are easily spoiled by the limitations of little minds, with stones hurled by catapults from the trés bouché. We are artists, after all: it's not like we're scientists or lawyers.

But staring into the darkness, dreams get lost, taught by the faculty of oblivion: that's not how we do things. You must learn the rules and then you will know how to break them – or better, understand how to bend them to your own will. Nothing, not even the Church, stays the same forever.

With God-given, otherwise inexplicable talent, we call on God for inspiration not in faith, necessarily, but often as reflex, ritual by rote, seeking the epiphany du jour. It is our conditioning: we do not, all the same, need to emulate Ivan Karamazov's quandries (o cara matzoh, dies queruli).

I see things that are not immediately distinct from my environment but could become part of that environment, if I look long and hard enough.

O ineluctable modality, I must see – I cannot see – I will see...

It snowed this morning – not the first snow of the season, nor is it the first real snow, not yet. As a child, a dusting of snow was a disappointment; today, a relief. It surprises me, this far into November, not to have several inches of snow on the ground. But then, in other places I have lived, we might see nothing at all until almost, or even after Christmas.

In upstate New York where "lake-effect snow" is not considered "real" snow despite still needing to be shoveled, invariably we had a blizzard the week of Thanksgiving, sometimes followed by a day of rain or maybe unseasonably mild sunshine, after which it would all freeze solid.

But it is mild this morning, here, compared to yesterday's chill, and that means most of this, for what it's worth, will be gone soon. I look out across my porch, recalling the snowy owl from the other day. Perhaps he's there, only I can't see him.

The light in my house is no longer that summery lush green-tinged watery air filtered through the leaves of the different maples and beeches around me. In autumn, it takes on a bit of Italian clarity, reflecting off the brilliantly colored leaves, at least for a short space of time, a week if I'm lucky, two at best. Rain will ruin this, high winds and bitter cold, but while it lasts, I enjoy what I can, for now. I've learned that much.

A surprise when I opened my e-mail today, a message from the past. Ferdinand, the student who helped me after my heart attack, has written a short note. We had lost touch not long after I moved to Maine and he went off to graduate school (I forget where, I'm embarrassed to say: Florida?).

He's found my blog – didn't say he's reading it, though – and decided he would e-mail me as a letter, even if he could find my address, might not reach me in time.

It turns out he'd be coming up for Thanksgiving, flying in from (yes)  Naples, Florida, to visit family newly relocated to Portland not too far away, and wanted to know if he could stop by: "it's been years." More, I suspect, for him than for me, but still long enough it would be good to see him again. Still no word from Stephen, though, about his plans.

The house feels snug and I wrap myself in hope and fond memories as I watch the birds coming to the feeder. The hum of the furnace can be irritating at times (much quieter now than before), but today it is a comfort and for that I am thankful.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

Monday, November 25, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 25

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

= = = = = = =

Already making plans for the days after Thanksgiving, pending Stephen's still vaguely open-ended visit for the holiday, the plan this chilly morning could easily be to stay in bed. If it were not for putting the birdseed out, I would probably not bother crawling out from under the covers until closer to noon.

One of the few things Stephen and I have in common is a mutual dislike of cold weather, one reason he chose California and another reason he couldn't understand why I would actually move into Old Uncle Junior's house in the woods of Maine. The fact it was in the very southern part of Maine and only a few miles from the warmer coastline made no difference to him. As far as he was concerned, I was out in the wilderness with only moose for neighbors.

This may explain why, over the last six years, I have only seen him once before and even then, in late summer, he didn't stay long. I was his only family here and the visit would be strained for lack of variety.

Besides, I had to admit, since he was now in his thirties, he was at that stage where a parent was an afterthought and his immediate family were his friends, his and Leo's extended family by definition of social interaction. I was on the opposite side of the country at the opposite end of his world.

He and Leo had, on occasion, kindly extended me an invitation to visit them during the winter which I seriously considered, at least one particularly bleak and chilling year not long after moving to Langley, but for some reason I reconsidered and decided I should not intrude on them.

Leo told me his mother would be visiting them as well that year and at least if I were bored by their company, I would have a charming widow (she was, I believe he said, still in her fifties) for company.

I chuckled to think perhaps they were setting us up for a romantic ambush. Life in California being so much a situation comedy, I could only imagine the denouement.

Of course, that was the last year they invited me, outright. In a card sent after returning from his truncated visit a few years ago, Stephen added (and I could hear Leo's gentle voice behind him, in this one), "You know you're always welcome to come visit." He would never say "stay," because I think the last thing either of them would want was to have either of their parents moving in with them.

And at least at this point there was no need for that, as long as I was still healthy enough on my own. The winters may be cold here and idiotically perfect in southern California, but it would take more than climate change to get me to move there.

What would happen when it came to that? By "that" I mean when I was no longer capable of living on my own. There was concern in Stephen's voice whenever he'd ask how I was, afraid news of some fall or a slip in my mental acuity would mean, "oh God, Dad's going to have to move in with us."

I realized the concern was mostly on his part, the changes it would wreak on his life and less on my own. I probably shouldn't be so black-and-white about it, since there were many details, shades of gray, to consider where Occam's Razor could come in handy; but basically, yes, I think that was it.

There had been, over the years, several TV shows where this was the premise: featuring the gallantly struggling sandwich generation contending with the antics of their children growing up and their parents growing old (again, the idea of growing when it should be decaying into age).

I chose not to watch any of them. Aside from being Generation X's revenge on the Baby Boomers, I did not find this at all appealing entertainment and I dreaded other people drawing their conclusions from watching it.

Students will tell you the story of a novel they've supposedly read but will instead tell you about the movie they'd seen that was based on it (who has time to read novels, today?). History is like that, too: Old Man Occam has pared away the details leaving only the headlines. You would think he had invented Twitter.

It irritated me that people who didn't know me and had no idea who my son was – or that I even had a son – would evaluate my life by a short-sighted send-up starving for ratings.

Looking at the calendar, I see it is November 25th, three days before Thanksgiving with a month to go before Christmas Day. Why this sense of dread, merely from a calendar? Perhaps, "growing" older and living alone, the sense of the holidays has gone full circle from what it had been to now at the full circle of my age. A child looking forward to tables loaded with food (even if surrounded by old and notoriously cantankerous relatives) and to piles of gaily-wrapped presents under the tree was different from the old man at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Memories can be pleasant escapes, most of them – witness the popularity of such nostalgic (if not maudlin) films as It's a Wonderful Life or the story of Ralphie and his BB gun – quickly becoming traps, a way to waste a good part of the day, if you're not careful. But then, I have the TV set or the computer for that.

"I see," I'd say, peering at the screen, wishing I could wield an ocular razor to pare away the clutter. Log-in. Check. Password: check the box "Remember me" (but, ah, forget my fate). Lost to the rhythm of the Great Tick-Tock.

Was memory – at least what we chose to remember – an interior form of the visible, not what's presently before us but the past made, in some fashion, partially if dimly perceivable, best seen with the eyes closed? There were sounds or smells, tastes or the mention of a name, some intangible silent spark that could, out of nowhere, create a reflection of reality – what. (How?)

There were times some wave from the past was so strongly felt, I thought I would turn around to see the old birdcage Grandma Hemon had kept in the little parlor, and hear the parakeet chattering away with what in its mind passed for speaking.

Do we slip through the slightest of tears in the fabric of time, arrive unknowingly in some parallel world? Sometimes, it is as quickly gone as it arrived.

A whiff of something on a passing breeze may be all that remains, the persistence of the human heart, a molten clock.

But can it be visible, the past – ineluctably speaking – if it has no color? It doesn't matter, knocking up against it (does it?), kicking at phantoms. There is reality (left-brain) and there is fantasy (right-brain) but how many shades of gray, these phantoms, in between? The future, I'll wager, is not visible. To see the future, you keep your ears open.

To bring something into life, born of your soul, your mind or body, the mid-wife telling you to push: we do not remember the moment of our birth. I played no part in mine, so far as I know. It is not the beginning but a continuation of the process still spinning ever outward, changing, and I emerge in its constant repetition, the production and reproduction of the past, awake, alive, apart.

Whatever the modality, this major phase of our experience modifies as we go from youth, perhaps maturity, till then at some mysterious summit of our lives, unaware, we grow into old age and decay – morbidity, the gravitas (having trod through Flounders' Field), till our ship arrives, Blue Peter, and we sink longingly into the fabric of time and space.

I cannot see what you see but it is only because of that I can see at all and erase the boundaries of the mind, releasing the guiding spirit of the place (my soul) to become the genius of my self, maestro di color che sente.

Dates on the calendar are closer than they appear. Christmas will be here before we know it – then gone. I remember Thanksgiving as a time we were thankful for what we had, not looking forward to what we'll find, a month later, under the tree. Not just the anacrusis to the celebration of capitalism, the upbeat to Black Friday. I am thankful for this house, however it finally came to me. Dad had called it "The Wild Goose" as if the house had had a name, one of those romantic, homey names like "Pine Acres" or "Distant Runes," which, come to think of it, at one time it might have had. It was difficult to imagine Uncle Junior or Grandpa Hemon giving their simple home such an airy, estate-like name.

But after the Civil War, who knows what was in the hearts of those who built a life here. It was not meant to be a working farm beyond the usual run of chickens, a few horses, and a patch of land for vegetables, long overgrown over in the southeast corner where a small barn once stood. It must have been a peaceful refuge after the horrors of war, a place where one could ignore if not forget the past while looking out toward the infinite sea. Does one need to see it to know it's there?

Changing to a life in Maine meant (for me) getting rid of many things from my past, the stuff and baggage of a life, though I was hardly down-sizing, taking on the ownership of the family homestead. The house was half-again as large as the house Madeleine and I shared in Pembrick, even with its smaller and deceptively concentrated rooms.

But Uncle Junior had left behind a lot of "deferred maintenance" and much of the furniture that hadn't been thrown out was not worth the keeping of it except the old dining table. What furniture I brought with me barely suited the house: it took a while and more money than I cared to spend to balance my life with the house's.

The house, of course, it not the same as it once was, either, for all the care I took in finding things that matched its style and essence. This is not the same house that Great-Grandfather Logos built for his family, but then Great-Grandfather Logos was not the same man who had enlisted as a Union soldier only a few years earlier.

Family gathering for dinners in generations past might recognize the dinner table but little else – not to mention the modern appliances in the kitchen or the phone or television set. Aside from the old photographs, I wonder if they would even know where they were?

And yet the house has endured far longer than any of its occupants. I figure it is now 143 years old. What is that in house years?

In reality, I am less than half its age: why does that make me feel older?

The new calendars are now ready to go, placed within easy reach for the end of the year. I must remember to check what needs to be placed on them, once the New Year begins – not that my calendar has been busy recently. Do I have a dinner night set aside with Henry that first week or so?

Speaking of Henry, I wonder how his novel is going? We're into the last week of the month and his goal is fast approaching: how many words does he have left to go, another end-of-the-year count-down as we approach zero?

With Thanksgiving drawing nearer, Time begins to speed up: so many shopping days left till Christmas. I remember as a child seeing this in bold type on the front page of every newspaper, the long slow countdown to that magic morning.

Now, if Black Friday hadn't been enough to whip excitement into frenzy, we've had "Black Friday Sales" for the past two weeks. What has become of us?

Last year was the Year of the Mayans, when someone (sometime) had calculated the otherwise indecipherable Maya calendar would come to a stop and there would be "no more time." The end of the world: destruction in apocalyptic tetrameter. Boom! (Or whimper?)

But it didn't happen. There wasn't even a blip in the weather to signify at least an attempt on the universe's part to show the power of the last page of a human-made calendar.

On New Years Eve, the countdown of days turns to minutes and finally, to seconds as the world holds its collective (if time-zone appropriate) breath. The speeding of time followed by the suspension of time.

What would happen if Zeno were right?

It is the eternal second, the last moment of the old year turned Limbo, when I heard two voices coming slowly closer. Old men, by the sound of it – coming here? Unannounced visitors are always a concern, especially in this day and age of strangers. I steal into the dining room to get a glimpse of them, hoping they do not see me through the diaphanous sheers of my curtains, motion detected (someone is home, they might think). Yes, I see them, an old car left in the drive as they shuffle forward, old men indeed, bundled against the cold, the coldest day of the season so far.

Wrapped in heavy coats and bundled with scarves, gray hair protrudes in all directions from beneath hats pulled low over scalps, ears nearly but not quite hidden. Too well dressed for Vladimir and Estragon. I've seen them in the village, though, and pull back quietly into my shadows to avoid detection. Why would they come to see me? It is mid-morning on a Monday: would they know I am home? They look a bit old for burglars, unless otherwise disguised. Seeking donations for the homeless? Fund-raising for the library? Contributions for a church food bank?

"A rash of break-ins, lately, in the suburbs outside Langley," I could hear the news report, "where witnesses say two burglars disguised as old men have been seen approaching a house and, once determining no one is home, find an unlocked door or window to gain entrance. Items reported missing were computers, tablets and cell phones though in some cases money, jewelry left lying about." I waited, wondered.

They shuffled toward the porch and once at the door, continued talking, discussing something. "It was last year, I think," said the taller one. "I believe you're right," the shorter one said back, fumbling in his pocket. "But we can't be sure."

And then a long moment of silence, the limbo of the final second before the awaited zero: nothing. They had stopped talking, the clock was ticking loudly. I held my breath. If I went back to the kitchen to get my phone, how long would it take before the police would arrive?

No knock, no door bell. If they had wanted to surprise me, they would not have been talking. My car is by the side of the house, parked quite obviously in the open by the fence. Someone would be – might be – home.

The screen door open slowly, something else earlier generations would not have recognized a century ago. Would they try the inside door? Had I left it unlocked?

Should I make a noise to let them know someone is in fact home? Would that scare them off? But then they might expect me to answer the door if they rang the bell. I waited. Were they waiting, figuring out what they would say, warming up their spiel? Salesmen? A bit long in the tooth to be selling magazines door-to-door. A pair of them – two for safety if not just company.

So, no, probably not the Publishers Clearing House prize team here to award me a million dollars a month for life. But enough to overpower an old man alone in his remote house where the neighbors would be unlikely to hear him scream.

I heard the scrape of paper. Then the door was quietly shut. A click. Another pause but still no knock, no doorbell ringing. Through the gauzy sheers, I saw them turn and heard them resume their conversation.

I could only catch a few words, once the wind kicked up again. "Thanksgiving" was one, "visit" another. The shorter one took the lead as they headed back toward the driveway.

I waited till their car disappeared beyond the trees before I opened the door. A small slip of paper, half a standard sheet, folded neatly – a pamphlet. "Can the dead really live again?" Religion salesmen, gathering up souls before year's end.

On the back, I saw a small-font mention of their brand – Jehovah's Witnesses. A web-site, a QR code, modern technology meets the Rapture.

We are of course all going to die, whether it's for Adam's sin or our own or because the human body can only live so long.

But rather than focus on the destruction of the non-believers, it tells me there will be another resurrection. Good to know.

I drop the tract in the wastebasket on way back to the kitchen: another cup of coffee, perhaps, before I go out, steeling myself for the cold air. I need to stop at the store for cat food (and better now than wait till the day before Thanksgiving and the chaos of the great procrastinators). And while I'm out, why not stop in at the library, though the main reason would be to see if Joyce is in – and what if she is?

What if the Rapture comes before I speak to her? On the other hand, why do anything if it's all going to be taken care of by our own personal resurrection? We will all be taken up – no, only the saved: who will be left behind? No child.

Stephen has been left behind, my child – Leo has left him, apparently, and his company had abandoned him long ago. There's a storm expected to cross the nation, snarling travel plans across the country, according to the news: he is unsure when he might arrive in Boston. If so, he'll rent a car and drive up.

"It's not that far," he says. No, not if you've flown in from California, I thought, glad not to have to drive in to pick him up, regardless of the weather.

There is a quick knock at the door, firm and knowing, followed by the doorbell, in case I hadn't heard the sharp rap on the wood. Not Vladimir and Estragon again, too confident. I feel dubious about going to see who it is but clearly they would know I am home – the car, after all.

And if I don't answer, whoever it is would be concerned why I'm not answering the door: a stroke perhaps? Lying dead from a heart attack on my bedroom floor?

It is not a neighbor or the police checking to see if I had seen two possible burglars in the area. It is Sybil, once again, who pushes past me with the aplomb of Attila the Hen – no Vladimir, only Estrogen – a white plastic shopping bag dangled in front of her.

"I told him to go to hell," she says, walking straight through to the kitchen. "I feel like celebrating."

She has brought take-out, in case I haven't had lunch yet – and if I had? – along with a couple of beers which she knows I don't drink (so they're all for her: pity, no sense wasting them).

I wonder for a brief flash how Henry's novel is going and think (for a fraction of that flash) how Sybil could make quite a character in a novel, if I ever choose to write one, if I could make her sympathetic.

She regales me with tales of her latest crisis as if having taken the bull by his balls she has somehow managed to extricate herself from the crutches of Fate.

I listen because I have no choice. Besides, by now I imagine Joyce will have left the library.

The cat food will have to wait.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

Sunday, November 24, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 24

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

= = = = = = =

After the phone rang (another wrong number), I continued watching the cats romping about, chasing each other, playing whatever game they must consider the equivalent of tag. There were elements of hunting involved – stalking and pouncing – and the occasional but not consistent ideas of hiding and seeking. Mimulus would run toward the unsuspecting Fleance and would then dive over him at the last minute, turning a potential crashing encounter into a game of "chicken." Next, there would be a complete and instant change of focus – an imaginary bug halfway across the ceiling; a three-way dash to the window as a bird flew close to the house.

Later, after I finished my breakfast – a couple of fried eggs "sunny-side up" for their higher protein value, Sunday's change from the usual ritual of morning oatmeal – I settled into my chair in the study to listen to some music, hoping it might jump-start some ideas. Two days past the Britten Centennial, I decided this time on one of his last works, his setting of Phaedra, so economically told and beautifully written for Janet Baker whose recording I still preferred – a tragic love-story, a sad story on the decline of a composer's health.

Taking a respite from their play, curling up beside me on the day-bed, the cats eventually resumed their games, this time with wads of scrap paper which they shuffled around like expert hockey players: was Sisyphos the goalie of the fireplace? Would Fleance let out a roar of victory if he shot the paper past him into the ashes or would Mimulus succeed in scoring a point for an interception?

Listening to Britten's music again – it had been a while, for some reason – I was glad to discover how much it still meant to me. I had never grown tired of his music like I had Copland's. Perhaps because Copland's wide-open American sound was too easily – and too frequently – imitated to have any lasting value for my style. Even after I became more interested in the avant-garde composers with their almost anarchic flexibility and new soundworld, Britten's sense of style still spoke to me where others became old-fashioned.

Electronic music was something I always hated, mostly for its impersonality, even though I liked the swirl and clatter of sounds it opened up to me. Eventually, I sought ways of approximating them with live instruments and real musicians but found the excitement short-lived. Somewhere along the line, my musical pendulum swung back to the dense textures and simultaneous layers of sound-fabrics like one might find in Bach or late-Beethoven, initially because I felt the most serious thing my music was lacking was structure and a sense of control.

So I began toying with the sensual sonorities of the flesh superimposed on an increasingly “organized” skeleton, the marriage of the right and the left brains. The strict serialism which had too long been the lingua franca of the age I grew up in had never appealed to me but utilizing aspects of it, its constant mutability, intrigued me and I tried to integrate it into the whole – something Britten showed he could do if he wanted to.

There are some things Britten composed that are as complex as anything by Bach and yet they fly by without drawing the least amount of attention to themselves – like the final minute of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. Complexity and simplicity, the combination of the intellect and the appeal to the senses. Things happen consecutively as form and time as well as simultaneously as contrasting events, both nach- and nebeneinander all rolled up into one. How could that be?

Talk about contradictions! But this is the way many artistic minds develop if not evolve, swinging back and forth from reaction to reaction, whether it's an apposite and equal re-action or simply a change in taste.

When I interviewed for the opening at Selwyn-Morgan, a position involving both theory and composition (unlike my first position at Cheatham which was limited to theory and where I was restricted by other composers on the faculty who disliked the competition), the audition process did not go well. There had been a young woman there, Professor Scylla deVore, who kept grilling me about "aesthetic philosophy," and while I didn't want to appear discourteous about it, I shrugged off what she kept harping on as my "inconsistencies."

"I don't consider myself particularly doctrinaire, one way or the other," I explained, hoping to squelch any further and unnecessary argument. "As far as I'm concerned, as a teacher, I think it's important for a student to view something from a number of different vantage-points," and so on.

But there was one thing I said – I can't even remember what it was – that particularly galled her (a pigeon in every hole) and she threw up her arms in a theatrical gesture of intense disbelief. "That's a pretty odd statement for a pragmatist!" 

The only thing I could do was laugh and say that I had inadvertently let my subscription run out to their magazine, too busy at the time reading too many others to care much.

I figured by this time I would not get the job and was not even sure I wanted it. She was, I realized, only trying to impress her older, male colleagues who were trying to mask their irritation. At this phase of the interview, she was the only woman on the panel.

During the "mock class presentation," I was playing recordings in a word/music association game, and when we came to an excerpt from Stravinsky's Agon, she blurted out with a smirk, "Mensuration canon," as if trying to catch me with a naughty-sounding entendre.

Since it had not been going well and figuring I'd already lost this war, I simply smiled at her, nodded that she was correct but, smiling, added, "ah, so that explains it" before passing on to the next observation.

Several others (including the token student on the committee) laughed out loud and others sat back, trying to hide their smiles, concerned about the lack of professionalism they'd exhibit by joining in the laughter. So I was surprised and, at first, somewhat chagrined that, a week later, they informed me I was being offered the position.

Very quickly, I wondered if accepting it had been my latest mistake, though it was gratifying, a few years later, to see Dr. deVore denied tenure and she, not long afterward, left but only after threatening a discrimination lawsuit (fortunately, by then, they had added other women to the faculty).

Not everything, I always told my students, is black or white: there are more than fifty shades of gray, I pointed out, depending on the different vantage points you might assume.

It was a shock to hear Stephen's voice on the phone, finally – it had been over two weeks since he told me he'd call as soon as he got back from a business trip, but I decided I should not point that out. I could tell from his voice that things were not right. He might even have been a little drunk which, late on a California morning, was not a good sign. I decided I should probably sit down but decided not to pry.

"How are you doing? Any closer to finalizing your travel plans?"

As soon as I said that, I suspected he might have been calling me to cancel those plans and now I've put him in an awkward spot. It wouldn't surprise me, his work making the demands on his schedule it did. Even if it took him to Boston, there was a good chance he wouldn't have time to visit.

Half the time, if I don't initiate the conversation, he felt I wasn't interested in talking, that he'd interrupted me and put me in a negative mood. When I was busy working, in those years he lived at home, I'd asked him not to interrupt me unnecessarily but this eventually became more convoluted whether I was busy working or not: for a composer (or any writer), what constitutes work? Is sitting there thinking considered “work”?

"The weather looks bad," he said without much hope for elaboration.

"Yes," I added, "we're expecting a storm here – could be snow or rain, maybe in a couple days. Not sure about Boston."

"Yes." He paused and then stopped. This conversation would be going nowhere quickly. I listened for noise in the background: where was he calling from?

Stephen always had a very analytical and logical mind, the kind who would score 90% on the left side of the brain, I figured. He always had trouble with emotional responses – knew his stuff but had trouble communicating.

"Stephen, is – is everything alright?" I knew if I started prying, he would become defensive.


We are separated by time and space, but not so separated as all that: spukhafte Fernwirkung. Jetzt einander.

Again, he paused and I thought, this time, it's best to wait.

"I was laid off last week," he said after a bit. "Friday was my last day." Ever factual, ever concise, Stephen said it as if he were seeing it through someone else's eyes.

"What happened? I'm so sorry – what..." Then I decided it would be best not to pile on too many questions.

"I suspect there had been a complaint, not that anyone told me anything. I'm sure it was political. My division was getting downsized, anyway."

"It's always political even if they blame the economy, Stephen. I'm sorry..."

"Perhaps it was merely the luck of the draw, Dad – my turn."

"Not the most logical way of approaching it," I started and then remembered Dr. deVore's attack on my pragmatism.

"It's like faith and transubstantiation, isn't it? Believe it but don't analyze it."

"Philosophy and religion were never my strong suit, Stephen – along with math." (One could add to that "parenting.")

"And there's something else I should tell you. Leo's left – gone off somewhere."

They had seemed an illogical match, those two, looking at the wayward boy the scholarly Stephen fell in love with, opposites attracted.

"Said he wanted some new adventure before he was too old to care."

When dashing young Leo took a job that required haircuts and dark suits, I figured Stephen would soon lose interest in him, but I said nothing. Here it happened, apparently, not in the way I imagined: apostasy of the hypostatic.

We walked along the shores of the possible, talking for most of the hour, skirting the pain as if it didn't matter, bread and salt withheld from the wounds.

Ultimately, Dan Occam found (and lost) his razor.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser