In November of 2001, back when I was a mere bookseller at the local bookstore, I was shelving in the U’s when I came across John Updike. It was a name I knew I knew, though I didn’t know why. I was 17, too naïve to know his prominence in the writing world; nevertheless, a sign directly above his books indicated that he would be reading in town the following week, and so, I decided to attend.
The night of the reading, I listened intently as that old man with his shock of white hair read from Licks of Love, a book I’ve yet to read myself (much preferring the memory of Updike reading it to me). By reading’s end—even though I was floored by his talent—when I finally met the man face-to-face, all the 17-year-old me could muster were the regrettable words: “What was it like to be on The Simpsons?”
As our hands clasped, it had suddenly occurred to me how I knew John Updike. He’d voiced himself in a recent episode, and as an avid watcher (and not yet an avid reader, regrettably), this had served as my introduction to the man.
Long story short: Updike paused, mulled it over, and then remembered that yes, he had, in fact, been on The Simpsons, and that it was fine.
A little context, Friend. I am no longer 17. In fact, I’m writing to you from the dining room table at 5:49a.m. on my 30th birthday. M.’s already one day past her due date, which means there’s at least some chance—if I’m lucky—I’ll be sharing my birthday cake for the rest of my life.
Given these circumstances, I doubt it’ll surprise you to learn that when delving into Updike’s memoir Self-Consciousness earlier this week, I read it mostly for what might be gleaned from his attempts to balance family life alongside writing.
Like this gem, describing his early years of fatherhood/writing:
“In summer, though, what fullness of life, it seemed, to put in a few hours at the typewriter and then race downstairs…and leap into a station wagon or convertible containing my wife and a quartet of children, all of them plump and brown in their bathing suits!”
It sounded like a good strategy to me: work followed by play.
But what I’ve already learned—and likely what Updike learned—is that it’s far easier to break one’s work schedule than one’s play schedule, especially when the rest of your gang is honking the horn of the station wagon to hustle you out the door. And how can anyone in good conscious say no when loved ones try to liberate? How can one say, “Sorry perfect summer day (which I’ll never get again), and sorry family (which I'll also never get again), but I must further confine myself to a chair so that I can write feverishly and then delete most of what I write.”
What kind of madness is that, Friend, and who would ever forgive such a trespass?
Of course, Updike enumerates other perceived trespasses as well. In particular, he describes a revealing scene several years later—after his marriage had soured—when he learned that the dander from the family cats was the cause of his breathing problems.
Updike writes that his wife “…saw, with me, that it was impossible to drown or give away Willy and Pansy, and that it was possible, at last that I go.”
And so, John Updike left, beginning the irreversible splintering of his family.
This is the outcome I’m trying to avoid, Friend, the one where the cats get priority.
Given the choice, I’d much prefer leaping from the keys and hurling myself headlong into a waiting car en route to the beach. Would much prefer sand toys to ampersands, oceans to writing about oceans.
When I feel pressure to write (and I often do), it’s always the result of the writer-in-me persuading the other-me than I’m writing for the family, that it's theirs, too. And I admit, dear Friend, that’s a lie I sometimes swallow.
But then I remind myself: What good’s the writing without the subject? And what good are the words (even if they are good words) if written at such a high cost?
In the final lines of Updike’s essay featuring the station wagon and the drive to the beach, the author mentions that he now lives (well, did live, may he rest in peace) within walking distance of a beach, and yet despite his proximity, he ventured there but three times a summer.
He concludes: “Life suddenly seems too short to waste time lying in the sun.”
As I sit at this dining room table at 6:29a.m., I'm just beginning to see flecks of sunlight dappling the trees.
It's my cue to quit this letter.
I struggle to find the words to write to you about Lia Purpura’s essay collection, Rough Likeness. Probably, this is due to Purpura’s own finely tuned ear, which renders sentences with such clarity that any attempt by me to write of her writing seems only to add dissonance to her tune.
And so, I suppose, let the pot-and-pan clamber begin.
First, a summary of the collection: the collection defies summary. I swear to you, Friend, I am not being coy; I simply can’t boil Purpura’s work down into simple subjects.
I am not alone.
Even the back cover copy shies away from pinning down subjects, relying instead on a surplus of adjectives and verbs rather than the usual nouns. I can’t help but think these parts of speech clue us into what her essays are really “about”: not people, places, or things so much, but the experience of thinking deeply about all of them.
Yes, Purpura is a thinker, and thus, her essays require thought. At times, I admit, I feel as if she’s trying to buck me through the tangential. She herself acknowledges her long-range leaps (“stay with me here”), though it's the challenge of staying with her that makes the reading experience a joy.
When I read Purpura’s work, I find myself reading not only for the essay’s subject, but for the essay’s experiment as well. They are like two trapeze artists who always meet mid-air—tangling with such elegance that it’s all but impossible for me to see where one ends and the other begins.
While I could say far more about her swoops in structure and subject, I can’t keep myself from writing love letters to the language itself. The way she handles words like baby birds—every last one cradled and stroked before inserted into its perfect place.
But it’s not easy--not even for her.
In “Augury,” Purpura dedicates several pages to unwinding the image of a bird snagged in a tangle of fishing line. Her unwinding takes time, and as she revises her language again and again, she leaves everything on the page so that we readers might know her struggle. “Then into the bower rained a bird,” she writes. “Dropped a bird. Now swings a bird. Hangs a bird.” The bird, now dead, no longer moves, though Purpura’s attempt to describe it keeps the image in motion. By reevaluating her language, she breathes life into a dead thing, helping us see the bird not for what it was, but for what it still is to her.
I'm clambering again, and in an attempt to find focus, perhaps I’ll linger on “There Are Things Awry Here,” an essay in which Purpura tries to understand her visit to Tuscaloosa, Alabama—a visit I remember well. I was a grad student then, and though I (dumbly) didn’t enroll in her class, I served as a loyal loiterer during the week she spent in our town. As a result, I know the people she writes about in her essay. And I know the place. But I also know her confusion with the place, a land, as she notes, “Where stories won’t take…”
Simply put, Tuscaloosa--like Purpura's collection--defies simple summary. And Purpura’s right in drawing attention to the complexities of the landscape. Yet rather than becoming stonewalled by the setting, she simply tried another tact.
“When the land would not speak and my characters failed, when the land was muffled and my characters stock, this piece was born,” she writes.
When I read the aforementioned lines, my mind immediately goes to a Charles D’Ambrosio quotation: “The problem with an essay can eventually become its subject.”
Yes, Friend. This is it exactly.
Every time I try to write an essay that matters to me, the essay puts up its fists. This battle wages on for some time. After awhile, I begin imagining us as two weary boxers bumbling about in the ring--starry-eyed, unhinged, and desperate to hold our ground. But after enough rounds, sometimes I surprise the essay by surprising myself and doing what Purpura did—ditching the battle plan and going off script, allowing the essay to lead.
Pacifist that I am, I'm sure it doesn't surprise you to learn that I prefer my essays as dance partners rather than boxing opponents. But in truth, I'm not sure either metaphor aptly describes the relationship between essay and writer. After all, to an essay, the writer is neither a partner or an opponent--just the person on the other end of the high wire, reaching out in the hopes that someone might reach back.
Okay, enough with my clambering.
Take care Friend, and write soon.
I woke up at dawn this morning to assemble the lawn furniture; after a long winter, I was desperate to let summer begin. But as I learned, 6:00 a.m. is not the ideal time for much of anything, certainly not turning bolts and screws into place. That lawn furniture resisted my advances, played dumb as I tried to fit washer M into socket C. (Don’t even get me started with wing nut L.) The point is, it wasn’t easy, but it was necessary. It was time to make winter leave.
And in my effort to welcome the new season, I knew I had to have that lawn furniture in place. Knew I had to sit upon it, too, when cracking the cover of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, the book I’ve faithfully returned to at the start of every summer since the end of my seventh grade year.
What can I tell you, Friend, but that the reading experience was wondrous—as it always is—and over much too fast. No matter how hard I tried to savor every page, I found myself gulping the words, exhibiting less-than a little restraint as I closed the book, breathless, three hours later.
It was that quick, just like summer—there a moment and then gone. The book had started so promising, and then, like always, vanished. I sat on the lawn furniture—dumbfounded by the book’s speed—and realized that the furniture I’d assembled just that morning probably wouldn’t last long, either.
All that hard work for nothing, I thought, for something that won’t last more than a season or two.
It is this exact sense of ephemeralness that Dandelion Wine explores. When Leo Auffmann tries to invent his happiness machine, he learns, much to his horror, that the problem with inventing a happiness machine is that at some point, the user must re-enter the world, return to—as his wife puts it—“the dirty dishes and the beds not made.”
She continues: “While you’re in that thing, sure, a sunset lasts forever,” but “[w]ho wants a sunset to last?”
I like to think of life as an accumulation of sunsets, which of course, it is. But I also like to think that running parallel to these individual days is the longer narrative, one consisting of a single morning, a single noon, and a single sunset before the final night.
Perhaps the reason I re-read this book year after year is because it reminds me of my own place along this journey. When I first read it, I was Douglas Spaulding. Then, as the years progressed, I grew into his father. One day—God willing—I will be Douglas’s grandfather, too.
Interspersed throughout the book are the efforts by the Spaulding brothers—Douglas and Tom—to document their summer in full. With the help of a nickel tablet and a Ticonderoga pencil, they record every dandelion, every firecracker, every cicada and ice cream cone. But despite all their data collecting, summer still comes to its close, leaving them with nothing but their memories and a pencil-filled book.
They could not keep their sunset, despite their best attempt.
Which is not to say it was their only attempt.
In the early pages of the book (in the early days of summer 1928), the Spaulding boys are commissioned by their grandfather to gather every dandelion in the yard, each of which will be used to press dandelion wine. The vintage is then left to ferment in the cellar, until a cold January day when at last it's released to melt the cold from their bones.
In this way, dandelion wine serves as the book’s central metaphor, one that directly links with the lesson derived from Leo Auffmann’s happiness machine: that the things we cherish most are the things we know we’ll lose.
Though I know better, each summer I, too, partake in an annual bottling of dandelion wine. Every August, I gather dandelions from the backyard, add a bit of rainwater, then screw tight the lid on a Mason jar and place it on the shelf. Today, I’ve got 20 years of summers on my bookshelf, though every last one has turned to sludge. It’s a visual reminder that I, too, cannot capture something meant to be fleeting. But it’s a reminder also that if we recognize that which we love early enough, we can love it twice as hard.
This is not to say I love my lawn furniture. It's only to say I will love the time my family will spend on it. And when the day finally arrives when I have no choice but to walk those mildewed, bird-turded cushions to the curb, I’ll smile while doing it and remember today: when I got up at dawn to give us a little more time.
P.S. As I completed this letter to you, I dropped my beloved copy of Dandelion Wine on the kitchen floor. It cracked in half, dipped beneath its own horizon line. But it sure was beautiful while it lasted.
I just spent the day with Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and let me tell you, I’m glad I don’t have to spend another. Not because the book was bad, but because it was terribly good—honest, true, and an intimate look at the Vietnam War that we somehow missed in high school history class. In fact, after finishing Herr’s book, I returned to my dusty, old textbook, cracked it for the first time in a decade, and marveled at how an entire war had been condensed into six or so pages. And none of those pages contained a single name of a single soldier: just politicians and death counts.
Herr’s book is not about politicians or death counts; it’s about the casualties of war that kept on living. It’s a pastiche of soldier life told from the occasionally high, occasionally drunk reporter who embedded himself alongside them. Yet it's Herr’s close proximity to his subjects that creates such an unrelenting read. It’s the kind of book you absorb with your mouth hanging wide, wondering how it could ever be true.
But beyond the individual anecdotes (can stories this cruel be called “anecdotes?”) lie the seeds of philosophical inquiry. We can’t help but ask the big questions when reading about soldiers who gobbled drugs to keep from asking them themselves. I can't say I blame them. What good were the “big questions,” after all, for men who were trained not to question?
Momentarily inhabiting the mindsets of the soldiers, Herr comments on these questions:
“No fair was no good,” he writes, “Why me? The saddest question in the world.”
For Herr, finding causality in the chaos was a fool’s errand. He writes: “You could make all the ritual moves, carry your lucky piece, wear your magic jungle hat, kiss your thumb knuckle smooth as stones under running water, the Inscrutable Immutable was still out there…”
Translation: their deaths were always awaiting them, regardless of who they appeased with what.
While war movies often depict the victors collecting relics from their dead, I’d never considered the motivation of the action. Yet Herr reveals it, describing the act as “a little transfer of power…”
It’s chilling, Friend, don’t you think? How easily a victim can be transformed into a talisman, something to be collected in the hopes of protecting the one who did the killing.
Most of what I know of war I’ve learned from my grandfather, who—like so many veterans—preferred not to speak of it during his lifetime. He left no war talismans behind, just an audiotape, one I’ve listened to again and again in an attempt to understand the part of him I never knew. Growing up, sometimes I’d stare at that wobbly-kneed man and wonder How was he ever a soldier? I was young, and still lacked the imagination to understand that beneath his current exterior was an earlier version, and beneath that one, another. Yet even on the tape, my grandfather seemed to spare listeners the worst of it. The way he spoke of war, you’d think it was all guarding bridges and stirring to the sound of young French girls singing the soldiers awake.
There are only a few minutes on that 60 minute reel in which he delves into the darkness, briefly touching on the time he killed the German soldier (who happened to already be dead), and the time he remained on high alert as enemy soldiers crept closer and closer throughout the night. The second story is my favorite, the one in which my grandfather—just a boy then—clutched his gun tight as a thump, thump sound startled him every half an hour or so, making sleep impossible. He remained on a hair-trigger throughout the night, only to learn at sun-up that the sounds were not coming from “enemy soldiers” but from some nearby apple trees that happened to be shedding their fruit. He called it "The War of the Apple Trees," and dedicated so much time to the tale it made me wonder if fighting apples was the most action he ever saw.
But as I later learned, he fought many battles beyond the apple trees, even earning himself a few medals in the process.
One day when he picked me up from kindergarten, I noticed a Purple Heart emblem affixed to his license plate.
“What’s it mean?” I asked him.
I wish I could remember what he said.
All I know is that he survived when others didn’t, and that it probably wasn’t fair. Why him? Why was he so lucky? And why was I so lucky as to have benefited as a result of his luck? Lucky enough to be here today, writing to you, because the universe saw fit to spare him.
Take care, Friend. Keep those talismans close.