Monday, November 04, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 4

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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There are few leaves left on the trees around the house, now. This morning, it was bitter cold with a low in the mid-20s after a few days of teasing warmth. Perhaps ten days ago, a group of gingko trees downhill from the yard had lost their leaves overnight, the ground covered with a deep layer of butter-yellow. Now, all that's left were a few hearty oaks and some beeches. Usually, it makes me sad, watching this happen. I hardly need to brood on mortality when I'm trying to write.

The phone rang, not for the first time today, but I had just settled down in my study to try thrashing out a new composition which was more reluctant than usual to take form. Over the past few years, I have composed less and less and it becomes more difficult to get a piece started, even more of a challenge to keep it going and nearly impossible to get past the half-way point before it dies a slow death.

I tell friends I am not composing, have lost interest in it which is not the same thing: it seems more embarrassing to say I'm composing (or thinking about composing) almost all the time – it's just I never finish anything. It sounds less depressing to say I'm no longer composing.

There had already been some phone calls this morning, a few wrong numbers or telemarketers – hang-ups mostly – plus the last ditch effort of a local politician trying to get out the vote for tomorrow's election. Even though my answering machine is in the kitchen and my study upstairs at the other end of the house, hearing my message going out is disruption enough even for a hang-up.

I think of turning it down so that I can't hear it, then apologize later if I actually do get a message that a friend had called. "Sorry, I must've just stepped out of the house then" becomes a less realistic excuse as the weather gets colder.

I'd already spent an hour staring at a sheet of paper, noodling a few bits at the piano with nothing happening, so when the phone rang, the temptation was to ignore it, promising myself I'd call her back when I no longer felt like working, once the thought that something was finally beginning to take shape might yield some results.

But what had been slow to get started usually came to an abrupt end anyway, so there's really no point in trying to start it up again. It would be different if I decided to take a break, go out for a walk, or just sit and stare out a window. That's usually productive, like meditation: clears the mind so other thoughts are freed up. A conversation, no matter how enjoyable, is like clutter that blocks the flow.

People don't seem to understand this, how the creative mind works – at least how mine does. I cannot, like a pianist practicing a new piece, just pick up where I'd left off. Plus it's always hard to tell if there's a problem with her. Her tone is always anxious.

I know I'd feel awful if I just ignored her and there was a problem. She's a friend, after all. I always answer her calls with "Sybil, hi – what's the matter?"

Something is always the matter with Sybil but it's more likely something I can't help her with. Even when I first met her, she was in full crisis mode over something – I've forgotten what, now – as usual more in need of advice than anything I could do to help. It might be easier if she were stranded somewhere and needed a lift or something was broken that I could fix.

Invariably, I either spend my time listening like I'm her therapist (one time when I asked her how that made her feel, she didn't find it amusing) or trying to give her advice that most people would have thought was obvious.

The problem with giving advice to friends is if they don't want to hear it, they will ignore you and think less of you for it, or agree that's just what they need to do, confirmation of their own thoughts, but then you know full well they're not going to follow through with it.

In Sybil's case, most of these dilemmas in her life stem from the relationships she has or would like to have. It is never anything easy like trying to find a good plumber.

There are friends in the past with whom I could talk shop or who understood my interests. There were also friends – like Sybil – who have no idea what it is I do (if I know, myself, half the time) and with whom I had little in common.

Most of what people like to talk about is what interests them which are not, generally, at least these days outside the academic community, things I find deeply compelling.

There is something to be said for small talk – you can't always be discussing the major philosophical topics of our lives – but it's called "small" for a reason.

Talking about classical music or Russian literature won't hold the interests of those who'd rather discuss the weekend's football games or the latest movies.

When I was young, my conversation was usually idealistic, idea-based, either seeking to impress my older colleagues or learn something from them, what they thought about issues or how they handled themselves, life-lessons I could apply, things that were not taught in school nor one would imagine observing (at this point) in ones parents. I don't think Sybil had ever had this opportunity.

She'd always been moving from one job to another, a series of full-time "temporary" positions that last a year or two before she gets bored or fired and needs to move on, sometimes to a new town. The only consistency in her friends was their constant change.

Later, I found my conversations with friends had turned more practical, especially as I moved outside my circle of immediate colleagues. We talked about problems at work, dealing with abrasive personalities, feeling hampered by the system, whichever system seemed to be controlling us.

Sybil thrived in a world of conspiracies where everyone was out to do unto others before the others did unto them. She and her friends were always the victim, never the problem.

We talk about what we experienced and what has changed over the years. Now that I'm retired, there is little I experience worth talking about to a friend who is younger and still working.

Sybil, dealing with a new job where she's already found herself on the outside, talks of little else.

I sigh, already resigning myself to being unable to help her and in the process put an end to my work for the day. I must make an effort not to sound resentful but yet I want her to know that she interrupted me. There are some people who could call me and I think would never be an interruption but whenever she calls, it is always an intrusion.

If I asked a friend for advice what I should do about someone like this, they would ask me (if not "how does that make you feel?"), "why not just tell her not to call you? Set boundaries. Do you need this friendship?"

Picking up the phone, interrupting the anxiety of her incoming message, vaguely worded but emotionally voiced, I find myself saying "Hi, Sybil – what's the problem today?"

She doesn't get it.

"Oh, I'm glad you're home," she says, her anxiety immediately dissipating. It's as if my presence has immediately calmed her.

Though I've yet to succumb to a modern cell phone, at least my "land-line" is cordless and I can walk around the house while we talk. If nothing else, she is a good form of exercise.

"You wouldn't believe what that bitch was saying about me behind my back, yesterday."

("Yes," I thought, "and how are you? Did you have a good weekend? No?")

It is the end of the work-day for me, now, my creativity shot. There's no point trying to write any more, so I put the papers away and turn out the light.

Listening to her complaint, I walk into my living room and pace back and forth in front of the windows, looking at the sun reflecting against the bare branches of trees that, two weeks ago, had been brilliant with golds and reds.

A cat sleeps on the couch, looking contented, and I realize I'm envious.

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

Dick Strawser

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