Wednesday, November 13, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 13

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.

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Trains along the track, wasteland, night and wintry wonder, a small compartment – no, a berth, barely big enough for one – chugging up the hill, going where? I wasn't sure, couldn't remember, what did it matter? We were alone – well, we and everybody else on the train. Sheathed in metal for our protection, warm and heated against the cold blast of time – headed west, always west, chasing the sun, into the past. What would we do once we got there, disembarked at Yesterland, jet-lagged – no, train-lagged – slowly unbending against the rush of time, trains spotting along the way missed goals and opportunities, episodes, words to be taken back – to change the future.

Hunting for one thing, my opportunity, what I should have done but didn't – what could I do that would change it, when would I realize it changed (would I remember), where would it take me next (someplace better, someplace worse but different), how could I correct it if this wasn't something I should've done? This train – special – not on the regular schedule – one-way only: nonsense, I can always get a return.

"Not on this train, sir," the conductor said, a smiling Fritz Reiner showing the way, slight gesture – here? no – there? "Where's the beat?" He disappeared around the bend, the train chugging up the hill. There was nothing to do but wait till we arrived at our destination – from there – there, wherever there is – we choose: I choose, we all choose. I scream, the night is dark.

There are others on the train, the place is full – crowded – the past has become a popular destination, a trip hosted by Marty Tannen, local entrepreneur with a massive capacity for flux – "every seat had been sold," he said (this could not have been cheap).

After the wasteland's night-time wonder, the train's ascent (haroo, haroo) to hills and valleys each higher than the last – plateaus of platitudes – a pleasance as I shut my ears and drifted off, high above the train, asleep, to sleep, in sleep and thunder, a transition to the second theme by way of the submediant, subito prestissimo and we were all naked.

Not all of us, not everyone on the train, just me and the woman beside me, crammed against each other, jostling in the train's wake, fin again, bumping, grinding, entering and leaving, entering again to the rhythm of the tracks, repeating its glassy minims enchanted – chanted by – whom? – by monks – kaléppa ta kálakaléppa ta kála – and then I came to my senses – sensuality spent, rolled over, asleep. In thunder.

The train descended, slowed to a halt, the journey truncated prematurely, but we were far from our destination. People laughed at us – had we forgotten to pull the blinds? I turned to look at her: who was she?

The temptation last night had been to drink myself into a stupor except I had quit drinking a few years before the heart attack and kept nothing around the house. There were few shows on television to draw my attention but I watched those, aimlessly, surrounded by cats who, curling up with me on my "comfortable chair," seemed contented enough life should have granted them such an evening. It was an evening (for me) better spent not thinking, staying warm wrapped between the white sherpa throw and the cats (the throw needed laundered, its pile flattened by use, but the cats had chewed the tag, no longer legible: how to care for it – look it up on the internet).

I had trouble staying awake, unable to focus with nothing to focus on. Perhaps I should have spent the evening reading – even Middlemarch would've been an improvement (at least my dream might have been different). "The doldrums," Madeleine used to call them, "nothing to be depressed about" my doctor said – Dr. Aelius, family physician, windbag. "The blues," twelve bars or not – "everybody gets them," my momma done told me. That's what everybody told me.

Drinking, I knew – I saw it in my friends, no one needed to tell me – was not the solution to forgetting pain (emotional, physical – psychological) it only meant that, sooner or later, I'd have two problems. There's a therapist for that. We used to drink something on a summer night: what was it? Peach schnapps and amaretto with a little orange juice, omphálos skonisménos. Other than an occasional gin and tonic, that was about as decadent as I got.

I never liked the taste of beer – not that I'd ever drunk a urine specimen before – but it bothered me seeing friends who get so "pissed" they couldn't remember what happened (or what didn't) the night before. The idea of losing control like that scared me: memory was difficult enough to hold on to.

What had I thought I'd do when I retired? Madeleine and I had talked of traveling but that wasn't going to be a weekly thing – off to New York City for a weekend to catch a concert and see a show, drive to Wisconsin to see our son (that was before he'd moved to California), fly off to Paris or Rome, not places I wanted to see (though London and Florence would've suited me fine). And of course we'd planned on having each other: she wasn't supposed to die, not then, not yet. So much for growing old together.

And of course, I hadn't planned on inheriting a house in Maine, either, whether or not it was convenient. I couldn't stay in my house with all those memories facing me every day, where Madeleine and I lived, not that I wanted to leave them behind. Instead, I brought them with me, even though she'd never seen this place.

Had I even told her about the place beyond brief mentions of those distant childhood visits? We had talked about spending a summer in New England after we'd retire; a visit to Uncle Junior at the Old Homestead, however, was not high on the bucket list of things we had to do. I didn't even know if Junior'd still be alive – "close to 100, if he was."

But no doubt I'd drive her up the road to see Mount Agamemnon with its great view of the coast along Langley – on a clear day, you could see Boston (which, according to Sarah Palin, was enough to make me an expert) – and check to see if the old house were still there, who lived in it, if any of the neighbors might remember my grandfather.

But we also talked of vacations in Florida – I disliked the South, generally, or the Idea of the South, but one can ignore all that among the other Union Ex-Patriots filling the hotels and lining the beaches there. A cruise was not something I looked forward to, either, hitting Caribbean ports one after another, with that much time stuck on a boat – unless of course we were going to England: that destination, then, would be more enticing, worth the endurance.

But going to London by ship – whatever my first question would be, when we reached the hotel – seemed as logical as taking California by train. Neither of us particularly felt keen on California (ironic, now that Stephen calls it home) but then neither of us had been terribly keen on spending more than a week or two in Maine. If that.

And Paris might not be so bad except for all the years Madeleine studied the language, she could barely remember enough idioms and irregular verbs to make more than a laughing-stock of herself upon arrival – un risée, a light breeze among the locals.

Would I be able to find Gloriani's Garden and sit on Bilham's Bench to reflect upon my life and what I have accomplished? Mieux trois heures trop tôt d'une minute trop tard.

At first, it seemed like a godsend, getting the call from the community college in Langley. During that first summer I'd moved here, I was going stir-crazy toward the end of August with nothing to do.

"We'd heard you'd recently moved here," the voice said, moving ever upwards interrogatively in the trendy fashion, "that you'd taught at Selwyn-Morgan University?"

I explained I had but thought better of going too much into the particulars at first: my curiosity got the better of me. How did they hear? Who had told them? What did it matter?

It turned out the college offered a pair of classes and she was wondering if I'd be interested in teaching them – they both met twice a week – Tuesdays and Thursdays – music classes for students majoring in non-music. The one was primarily for business students and the other was a more general introduction to the arts with a focus on music. The adjunct position had opened rather suddenly when their previous instructor moved out of the area a month before the semester was to begin, leaving them little time to organize a reasonable search. Would I be interested in stopping by for lunch to discuss it?

There was no reason not to "stop by to discuss it" as long as it didn't bother her I had no printed resume prepared to offer her on short notice. But as interviews went, it would probably put less pressure on me because I wasn't the one needing a job in the next week. I met her at the entrance to the Student Center and we had a rather low-form lunch in the college's snack bar, the usual burgers and fries.

The students passing by seemed curious and I expected some would be called up to be introduced, to impress me with what students were like here at Langley Community College. But I met no one else, student or faculty. The place looked quite devoid of anyone over thirty.

I needed to submit an official written resume – I could e-mail it when I got home – and then she would submit her report to the Dean along with it. They were, she said, considering a few others for the position – not that I believed it for a minute: she would never make it far in administration, a terrible liar – but would let me know very soon.

There was not much to discuss over lunch, after she ran her presentation about the college (lacking only the power-point illustrations) and I had given her a verbal capsule of my professional life. She expressed some curiosity about how I ended up moving to Maine and amused that I thought it might take some time to get used to – longer, for them to get used to me.

The phone call from the Dean came in about a half-hour after I sent my e-resume – clearly, I must have left all their other candidates in the dust – and a few minutes after that, she called me again, this time to discuss ordering the textbooks I would need.

But I would need time to consider which ones I would like to use, since they didn't have any required text or syllabus on file. Since I had not taught a course like this – for "non-majors" – I said I needed to look at some possibilities.

It was nice, if nothing else, to have a purpose again.

One thing we had not discussed was "pay," which, inquiring about these days, seemed to be bad form. Being retired, I doubted it really mattered how much – or more accurately, how little – I'd be making, glad at least I didn't need to cobble together several such positions in the area to make a living.

As it was, the pay was pitiful and I regarded, what was left when I considered how much preparation time was not included in figuring out an hourly wage, I might as well have been working in an office as a data-entry clerk with only a high school diploma and still complained about it.

These days, schools like this can't afford to hire actual faculty so they have a few "core" professors and farm out the basic work to what they call "adjuncts." As a class of "part-time" faculty, they have no benefits and no pay-bargaining rights and, being non-tenured, can easily be replaced.

I was looking at it more as something to do though before mid-terms arrived, the practical side of me began questioning the outlay of time compared to income.

At the end of the first year, they decided to drop the second, more general course not because it was unpopular but because, they argued, they didn't have the money to maintain it, an argument that made little sense to me considering the enrollment for the course versus my salary.

They had fewer concerns about the business class which I had designed more as a course in creativity and applying what I called "arts-like thinking" to entrepreneurship. The enrollment had gone up from four to fifteen for the second year.

And so it went. Then, about a week before the new academic year would begin, I got an e-mail from the Dean – a different one, replacing the one who'd hired me five years ago – that my services would no longer be required since they've decided to cancel my class.

I found out later, through a former colleague of Henry Jordan's still teaching there, that apparently I had ruffled up too many feathers on the full-time faculty with my ideas and they felt threatened by students who perhaps were thinking a little too creatively.

Sitting back with a chuckle, I thought this put a different spin on the phrase, "it's a small world."

Most "normal" people often don't know what to do with people who are "not like themselves." This would go for those who are blind or deaf, or are in some other, visual way physically "handicapped" in ways they can "plainly see" what makes them "different," peppering their speech with deferential and hopefully non-offensive quotation marks. But people who do not appear "obviously different" are of some concern to the normal person: it could be almost any number of details that might alert them to this differentness, setting off a whole series of alarms that require them to retreat behind a façade of interest unfortunately interrupted by the sudden need to be somewhere else to do something that doesn't really need to be done.

It is part of the daily interactiveness of our society, meeting people in the street and nodding to them in some amorphous way whether you know them or not, hoping not to engage them further if you could avoid it. There was a time – when I was young (that far back) – strangers would stop and talk, perhaps helping someone out who was lost or in need of advice about what brand to buy at the store, but now the news has taught us to avoid strangers: you never know who they are.

I confess to this habituated response myself – the tacit nod as one hurries by, head down deep in thought, the facile excuse of some slight urgency requiring me nowhere in particular but here – most often when I am dealing with the chronically boring, those whose conversation lies thoroughly within arm's reach of the mundane and rarely branching beyond the smallness of allotted topics deemed safe for public consumption. For someone who's retired, with little to occupy his time, I was always looking at my watch and apologizing for having to hurry to get something – never specified – done.

It is one of the ways I manage to avoid most people: it seems rude just to ignore them, but I'm not sure a half-apologetic excuse works well with people who consider me blunt and a bit, well... abnormal. I once thought living in a city would allow me a certain anonymity but there were too many people that needed avoiding; the village life, where everyone knew somehow everyone else's business, was hardly anonymous but at least there were fewer people to avoid.

While it may not be classified as an official illness, people who are creative can often be a problem for the "normal" person either in casual social contact or, more especially, in the workplace. What they see as laziness is a mind hard at work behind a façade of inactivity, allowing the brain its freedom to engage itself beyond reality. It may not require the physical stamina of an athlete or a gym rat who works out four times a week, but a creative person can sit and concentrate on being creative for hours at a time when the "normal" person would be fidgeting and bored for even a slight duration of enforced inactivity – a staff meeting, say.

It is our ability to shut out the world for great stretches of time, unaware how much time has passed us by, to ignore if not avoid what "normal" people hold dear that makes them see us as different. Of course, conversely in most cases, those of us who are creative usually view the "normal" person as someone afflicted with a particular lack of richness.

This is especially challenging in the workplace, where dominance is given to the Alpha Male of either gender – only in the corner office could a strong-willed woman possess brass balls – and people with creative tendencies are usually lumped into categories with underachievers and people who are not team players. Success in business belongs to those who do, not those who think; and people who think are rarely given credit for their ideas because they are not the ones who implement them.

Without intangible support, the creative person is at the mercy of the "normal" person who doesn't realize that without creative ideas, they – like history – are doomed to repeat the same old concepts unaware of those in-born flaws which – like incest – eventually turn imitation into decay.

If I can sit at my desk for hours each morning, concentrating on whatever composition I am currently working on, how is that considered any less valuable than the "normal" person who sits at a computer entering reams of miniscule data key-stroke by key-stroke, someone who is evaluated by the number of key-strokes performed within a certain amount of time?

Perhaps I might get up and pace around to get the blood flowing to the brain, but the results of that creativity seem, to the "normal" person, to come from nowhere, a mystery – God's Gift. It is only when, at the end of the day, I have nothing to show for it do I question my own validity.

But that is applying the standards of the Protestant Work Ethic to the ethereal realm of the Creative Mind, the assumption that, if an artist has not created a masterpiece by the time this project is complete, he has wasted his time and with it, the rest of society's for not having done something practical. A film's success is based on its box office; a book or a recording (at least in the old days) on the number of copies sold.

This gives us a skewed view of what art "is," conflating the popular response with the integrity of the artistic vision. But of course, no one can understand this who isn't an artist and people who lack creative insights get to determine what succeeds.

The problem, of course, is that in order for it to be verifiable – a quantity – it must "succeed" and how does one measure success? Scientifically, where specific criteria are used to evaluate the unquantifiable, the application of rules to outcome, the reduction to averages, the compromise of the dialectic.

But if we measure a person's success by the amount of money in the bank or the number of luxuries through which it is expressed, we find in the end we have forgotten the intangibles: does this person feel fulfilled? Is this person happy? And when you ask those questions, you know where all this leads...

I don't remember where I read this – some otherwise indigestible tome on the theory of history (not, unfortunately, a book on history itself) which I'd picked up at a used book sale as a kid – Spengler, perhaps, or Toynbee – but the phrase stuck with me all these years: kalépa ta kála. I don't recall if it had been attributed to some ancient philosopher, nor am I sure what it means, but the author translated it as "the beautiful is difficult."

After sitting at my desk within reach of my piano, sitting there for hours floundering beneath a veil of concentration, I constantly remind myself that, if it is to be beautiful – that is, meaningful as an expression of my art – it is not going to come easily.

In a way, I am reminded of the biblical story of Job, however, when I am desperately kalepping my kala: beset by a plague of misfortune, Job prayed that God would teach him patience. But to do that, God plagued him with more misfortune in order to sharpen his sense of patience, thereby actually increasing the ill-fated circumstances that undermined Job's faith.

If I constantly remind myself "the beautiful is difficult," it will always be difficult. But the more difficult it becomes, shouldn't it be all the more beautiful? Like Achilles racing the tortoise, he never quite catches up to him because, one more step, one more second, beauty – like perfection – becomes unattainable.

Certainly, the converse is true: we see it all around us in the quick-fix attitude that the best way is the shortest way. It is a cheap version of what art can be that is easy. We find it on the path of least resistance, the road most traveled.

But by comparison – because we all judge each other according to the status quo – my life is not beautiful, nor is it easy. It is, it would appear, not fulfilling and I find myself wanting.

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

Dick Strawser

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