Lenten Surf Season

Work morning and Luke up early helping his dad load plumbing tools,
wrenches and chisels, elbows and nipples, the ladle and the lead pot
full of soft lead that looks like frozen surf.
Luke now taller than his dad.

“Give Dan a call,” Luke said. “He’s drivin’ now.
We’re headin’ inland to work,”
and he ran his rough hand meanly over Jack’s salt matted hair.
“I’m afraid my surfin’ days are near over, kid,” Luke said.

Dan lived with his grandma back in the alley
behind Roman’s, off Devil’s Path.
He was working on an old Chevy beater.
He was a cross between a surfer and a hodad.

“You turnin’ into a hodad,” Jack said,
but it was a question, and Dan laughed.
“All you think about is surfing, kid,” Dan said.
“I have to give Grandma a ride to mass.

Give me a quarter for some gas, go to mass with us,
then we’ll drive down and check out some waves.
You hear Gary got shot? Not coming home, though.
Sent him up to Japan for some R and R.”

“I love the mass,” Danny’s grandma said.
She sat in the middle of the bench seat,
smelling like toilet water and wax.
“I love the quiet, the peace.

I love the back of the church dark,
the hard polished oaken pews,
the altar lit like a halo, the smell
of the candles, the incense,

the smell of Father Dayly’s hands
when he puts the host between my lips
and sets it down softly onto my tongue.”
“I know you do, Grandma.”

“No, you don’t. You boys can’t know
nothin’ about it, how I love the sudden bells.
I love the mass so much,” Danny’s grandma said,
“I’m giving it up for Lent.”

They turned to look at the old woman,
Jack rolled his window down,
and Danny’s grandma saw the salt water in Jack’s eyes.
“But,” she said, spitting it out, and paused.

“Yes, Grandma?” Danny said.
“You go to mass without me during Lent.
You give up surfing for Lent.”
Jack could hear the waves laughing at him.

Rising from the beach and curling over the dunes,
a breeze hisses like a glass blower’s torch.
The spring swell peals across the bay,
the waves a glass cavalry menagerie.

Surfing

Notes on Experience, Story, and Voice

Joe Linker Pizza Face by Emily“The idea that everyone has a story to tell (which underlies the notion that anyone can write since all a writer needs is a story) is strictly correct,” Jenny Diski said, writing in the London Review of Books (7 Mar, 21) about Marco Roth’s memoir, “The Scientists: A Family Romance.” Well, Henry James thought so, anyway. Continued Diski, echoing James, “If you were born, you’re in there with a story.”

“Every talk has his stay,” James Joyce said. But does every story have a voice? Is the writer’s job to tell the stories of those without voices? Is the critic’s job to decide how long the voice’s stay is welcomed, if at all? Not if Joyce had anything to stay about it: “Why? It is a sot of a swigswag, systomy dystomy, which everabody you ever anywhere at all doze. Why? Such me” (FW, 597). But even if one has a story with an illuminating voice, should one talk? And once one starts talking, must one tell all? Well, maybe not all, there are time and space constraints, after all. Ah, and there’s the rub, what to tell, and what to withhold.

Memoirs, like all forms of writing, have narrators: is he, or she, reliable? What have they left out? And even if they’ve tried to put everything in, there’s the problem of point of view. Would the story tell of the same experience related from another’s point of view, someone else who was witness? A memoir doesn’t contain fictional characters, but real people, but to the reader who has never met them, they may feel and sound like characters. The characters speak, but are their words reliable? The memoirist creates a set, described, composed, like a family photo album, and adds tone, the attitude toward the experience, all drawn with words that suggest as well as denote. And there is that slippery, mercurial ball of memory we always seem to be chasing after. We might call that ball ambiguity.

And writing in the March 18 New Yorker, Adam Gopnik says, “Thanks to the Internet…anyone can write” (21). The assumption is that not everyone should. All these amateur bloggers serve up knuckle balls to the professional writer, though the proliferation of adult amateur softball leagues doesn’t seem to hamper the work of pro baseball players. How many family garages or basements sport bands? That they don’t all reach Nirvana doesn’t invalidate their experience, as much as it might hurt our hearing. Why is the amateur spirit more tolerated, if not enjoyed, in music, arts and crafts, gardening, cooking, and sports (golf, anyone?) than in writing?

Henry James, in his essay “On the Art of Fiction” (1894), talks about experience, and answers a question about whether or not one individual’s experience might be more valid and valuable than another’s when it comes to writing about that experience. James is speaking of fiction, Diski of memoir. But memoir might be the most flagrant of fictions, since it attempts to disguise its narration as truth. But what makes any experience worth writing and reading? For James, the more cloistered a life’s experience the more opportunity for close reading of that experience. The only requirement is that one pay attention: “The young lady living in a village has only to be a damsel upon whom nothing is lost to make it quite unfair (as it seems to me) to declare to her that she shall have nothing to say about the military…The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it – this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, ‘Write from experience, and experience only,’ I should feel that this was a rather tantalising monition if I were not careful immediately to add, ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!’”

Maybe everyone has a story, but not everyone has a voice, but through certain kinds of experience one might discover one’s voice, the expression of which might be realized in writing. But the expression of one’s story might also be realized in music, nursing, or plumbing. Maybe the writer’s job is to tell the stories of those without voices. But a more instructive way of thinking about experience, story, and voice might be to say that the writer’s job is to reveal voice where story is found in any one individual’s experience (not necessarily the writer’s), so that a reader might enjoy a kind of reading epiphany, realizing it’s the significance of their own experience being reflected. The reader hears her or his own voice. One need not be a writer, or a reader, to experience one’s own voice. But first we must find our voice, and where will we find it amidst all the wrack and ruin, the dry brine, the commercialism and the consumerism and the garbage sloughing like wax dripping from our ears, and deep in our ears a muffled sound like gigantic iron church bells echoing? But if indeed that’s our experience, how should it be voiced, or should we keep it silent?

We might read something and question the author’s authority, the authority of his or her voice. But the author of the writing should not be confused with the speaker of a narrative. Even if the writer who tells us the “I” of her poems is indeed her own voice, and that is the reason she writes, to describe her world, her reality, using her own voice, we still might think in terms of author and narrator, not necessarily the same. How does the writer decide what to put in and what to leave out of her poems about her reality? That decision making is the process of narration. Because as authors of our own narratives, our own stories, we still create characters, even if we call those characters ourselves, as in the memoir. This is why I said above that the memoir is perhaps the most flagrant of fictions.

Maybe no one has a voice, and we are all voiceless. We might all have stories, but we are all helpless, writers and non-writers alike, to voice those stories. This is why we keep writing, why there is no end to storytelling, amateur as well as professional. Earlier this year, a couple of houses on our block replaced their sewer lines to the street. I watched the workers and the job progress. I had done this kind of work with my father, years ago, and I marveled now as I did then at the simplicity of the technology, which has not changed much over the years. “Just remember, shit runs downhill,” my Dad said, handing me the shovel to dig a sewer pipe ditch. “That it do,” he said, concluding his short story, the voice of experience slowly dripping off as he walked away to more complicated, but no more important, matters on the job.

Related Post: Correcting, Grading, and Commenting: Right, Wrong, and Indifferent

Plumbing & Writing: A Review of the Literature (at the Toads)

Sky Plumbing

Plumbing in the Sky

One of these days, I’ll craft a post equal to one of my Dad’s plumbing jobs. Meantime, here are a few past posts that mention the improbable connection between writing and plumbing:

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life

E. B. White and the Plumber

The Elite and the Effete: From Access to Egress

A Portrait of the Plumber as a Poor Speller; or, Wrong Word

A Plumber’s Noir

A Plumber’s Noir

I was up late last night, twittering through “The Late Show,” the best way to watch Letterman, and awoke past the dawn to discover a delightful missive, a kind of plumbing noir note, left inside the TP wheelbarrow, placed atop the closed loo. The empty wheelbarrow was a first clue to the mishap that must have unfolded in the wee morning hours. The note, pictured above, elegantly written, including exclamation points fore-and-aft a cap rigged Danger, follows, in its entirety:

! DANGER !

NOT FLUSHING

VERY WELL,

? ?

Plumbers are not usually prescriptivists, recognizing options. I called in Long and Shorty. Shorty did the trick.

The note, marvelously ambiguous, understated in its use of only two question marks, where a more excitable writer might have been inclined to exaggerate with three or more, though not if they were in a hurry, now sits on my desk, offering no apology to William Carlos Williams:

…so much depends upon, this is just to say, notes, fore-and-aft

There is much danger inherent in plumbing and poetry, fully suggested by the writer of the pink bordered note.

Poems referenced in this post: “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This is Just to Say,” both by W. C. Williams.

Related Posts: E. B. White and the plumberThe Postman Always Rings Twice, the Plumber Rarely More Than Once

The Postman Always Rings Twice, the Plumber Rarely More Than Once

I read a book this week, “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” There is no postman, but plenty of rings. The title page of my copy is stamped “WITHDRAWN,” and below that, “CIRCULATION STORAGE,” and above the publisher info., “SIERRA MADRE PUBLIC LIBRARY.” When a library “withdraws” a book, perhaps some helpful librarian might add a note of explanation as to why the book is being withdrawn. My copy, a casual gift from an old, steady friend, is still in decent condition, 187 pages of hardback, hard read, not to be confused with hard to read, but hard in the deadpan noir sense, where none of the characters are likeable, not even the so-called good guys, and all are static characters – no one changes from beginning to end.

I also repaired a toilet this week, having to drive to the hardware store only twice, which is par for home repairs in my neck of the woods. To drive to the hardware store only once in the process of a repair job like fixing a toilet is a hole in one. A real plumber rarely requires more than one trip to fix a toilet. A real plumber is a master of the hole in one repair job.

A cat plays a prominent role in the “Postman” book, illustrating the randomness with which animal nature creeps about, often spoiling plans with ironic gifts from the cosmos, like Flannery O’Connor’s grace (the cat in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” comes to mind, too, reading “Postman”). The lead prosecutor in the “Postman” case, Sackett, calls the anti-hero, Frank Chambers, a “mad dog.” Frank Chambers is an interesting name, a formal place of serious purpose. There is also rank in the chambers, and, in the tradition of the Naturalist writers, one cannot change the rank into which one is born. There’s only one murder, but two attempts, perhaps the twice ringing of the title. I found no evidence that a cat played a role in the toilet failure business mentioned above, but I wouldn’t have been surprised. Meanwhile, I was also thinking ahead to Flannery’s “Good Man” anti-hero character’s name, “The Misfit.” The Misfit would be a good name for a cat.

“Postman,” by James M. Cain, was originally published in 1934. My copy is a tenth printing, October 1945. Edmund Wilson thought that perhaps it was the hard times that seemed to call for some hard writing. But some are born into hard settings, others into easy chairs, and the postman seems to ring indiscriminately, without regard for regal versus rough. And he can find you on Route 66 just as easy as out on Highway 61. My copy has library markings on the inside back cover. There are two sets of 5 vertical lines crossed diagonally left down to right in the upper left corner. Under that, vertically down the inside back cover, 82 with 4 hash marks, then 82 with 1 hash mark, and so on: 84, 4 hash marks; 85, 2 hash marks; 89, 1 hash mark; 90, 1 hash mark; 91, 2 hash marks; 92, 2 hash marks; 93, 3 hash marks; 94, 1 hash mark; 95, 1 hash mark; then, a new column: 98, 2 hash marks; 99, 1 hash mark; 02, 1 hash mark; 03, 1 hash mark; 04, 3 hash marks. I’ve added, below the 04, 12, and 1 hash mark. If someone else reads it, I’ll add a second hash mark under 12. Maybe I’ll start my own library of library discards, “The Used, Used Library.” We find ourselves in hard times for libraries.

I don’t know if Cain was ever at the Sierra Madre library, but maybe he was. And if he was, I wonder if he checked out and read Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” which came to mind as I was reading “Postman,” later in the book. Dreiser’s book, published in 1925, also tells of lives and plans of deception all gone awry thanks to chance occurrences but that result nevertheless in crime and punishment. Dreiser, though, filled his book with background and foreshadowing, motivations and cross-purposes, not to mention long sentences. Cain’s book is terse, devoid of metaphor. But what links “Postman” to “Tragedy” is the notion of Naturalistic purpose, helpless humans trying to create some sense of reason in a reasonless and unreasonable world, and of the influence of chance in ruining the seeming reasonableness of planning for something, for anything. Camus’s “The Stranger” also comes to mind, particularly given the parallel scenes with a priest at the end of both “Stranger” and “Postman.”

If “Postman” is good, it’s because it accomplishes its purpose. Whether or not that purpose is good is another matter.

I discovered the problem with the toilet had to do with the overflow tube, which was higher than the critical level mark on the filler valve. Thus when the float stuck, the water spilled out the handle hole before it reached the overflow tube. The toilet never even had a chance to run. I replaced the filler valve and flapper, and took a hacksaw blade and cut the overflow tube down to 1″ below the CL line on the filler valve, which, I discovered, is code. The toilet had been out of compliance. Then I had to make the second trip back to the hardware store, to buy a new handle, which is what broke to begin with – there were two problems at once – but I had so focused on the sticking float problem that I had forgotten about the broken handle. This is how noir plots are constructed.

E. B. White and the plumber

By the NoseIn December of 1930, E. B. White wrote a piece for the New Yorker about the garbageman. “They have the town by the tail and they know it,” White concluded, after a brief study of the can collector’s habits. We like to watch the trashman too, the descendants of White’s subjects, wrestling now with new regulations, recycling, knowledge of toxic waste, but still masters of noise and dust, their barking trucks heard for blocks, avalanches of glass announcing last call for trash. But while today’s garbageman may still have the city by the tail, surely it’s the plumber has it by the nose.

 

My father was a plumber, and asked us to join him in the trade; shucks, I wanted to continue school. But I worked with him summers and accompanied him on enough evening calls to achieve a kind of apprentice status. A neighbor would knock, a friend would call, a parishioner, a friend of a friend – a brief diagnosis on the phone and I was told which tools to grab from the garage and we were off, a doctor making a house call. Dad almost never accepted money for these evening jobs. He would accept a beer, sit, and talk.

 

No job was too awful, foul, or hard. With his bare hands he swept away monstrous crawl space spiders, reached into cold plugged up toilet bowls, chiseled oakum into cast iron joints – which I sometimes got to pour the molten lead into with the long handled ladle from the boiling pot. Our antagonists were usually stripped threads, worn washers, busted pipes, and all manner of backened slop. Dad did not relish repair work; by day he was a new construction plumber, working with new parts, not used. What he did relish was the opportunity to get out of the house and talk to people. He was the James Joyce of the plumbing trade. He could talk to anyone, for he had them, and he knew it, by the nose.

 

Time passing and enter George, the veteran plumber we now call when wet to the knees and elbows but I still can’t fix it. We called George recently to help us with a pipe cracked during the big freeze and snows. After the job we sat with George in the living room; he did most of the talking, and we listened. Before the pipe broke, I had been reading E. B. White, but after George left, I let E. B. sit, and I paused to think of my father, the plumber, and my decision to continue school.