Bloomsday 2015

Tomorrow (16 June 2015) is #Bloomsday. Frankly, we haven’t planned for it very well, but do stop by The Civil Life and pay your respects to one of the great products of modernism. Read a little or listen a little. We hope to have some sort of amplification. I’ll start reading chapter one shortly after 4.

Here’s what that looked like last year.

Bloomsday 2014 at Civil Life – Ulysses Episode 1: "Telemachus" from Patrick Hurley on Vimeo.

Great Advice from a Great Writer

I got a late start. I don’t know why, exactly. I always wanted to be a writer, yet I didn’t really write much, besides pointless academic papers. Then I wrote a couple of bad novels and several bad stories and some pretty mediocre poetry. That’s what writers write, right? Meanwhile, I was teaching college students composition, and in the texts we used, there were lots of great essays. Of course there were classics from Montaigne to Orwell, but also new writers who focused on the essay rather than fiction. I finally realized what I really wanted to write was the essay.

But as much as I try to focus on my work, it’s easy to get disillusioned. I’m too old to be a writer now. Look at all the time I wasted. It’s too late. Vague excuses. It’s nice to read some very blunt words that remind us to quit whining and keep writing:

Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

You need to do the same, dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy talented tortured rising star glowbug. That you’re so bound up about writing tells me that writing is what you’re here to do. And when people are here to do that they almost always tell us something we need to hear. I want to know what you have inside you. I want to see the contours of your second beating heart.

So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.

This was Cheryl Strayed’s excellent advice to Elissa Bassist, who was struggling with writing as a young woman.

I need to keep this in mind. I can’t write like a young man and I don’t need to write like an old man, I just need to write like a motherfucker.

Waiting Room

The narrow waiting room contains 30 chairs upholstered in navy fabric with a disturbing sheen. The color scheme of the place is predominately beige and royal blue. One wall contains a Lucite rack of outdated magazines. Further down is a generic “Keurig” type coffee maker, and I’m pleased to see that there are six varieties of coffee. Half a dozen men, all clad in flannel, wait to see the workmen’s compensation doctor. Injuries aside, they’re a pretty happy looking lot—they’re not at work after all. Those callused hands are taking a rest, wrapped around a cup of premium joe or tapping fingers idly on the armrest.

The television is the focal point. There is a program featuring the “21 Sexiest Beach Bars.” They are counting down, traveling around the world, spending a few minutes at each idyllic locale. The formula is the same at each: treacly sweet, but potent cocktails and beautiful bodies. The eyes of my fellow proles gleam rapaciously. The camera keeps tracking retreating female backsides while the voiceover touts the specific features of each destination. The workers look longingly at those tan buttocks and follow each subtle movement as those round brown orbs move independently … you can see their eyes track back and forth spasmodically, desperate not to miss any fleshy detail. And then the drinks. Mouths water over big fruity cocktails and schooners of ice-cold beer.

Ah, to be lounging on a beach, taking it all in, cold drink in convalescing hand. A well-deserved rest it would be. The camera continues its weird cropping, featuring a sequence of torso shots. A new form of locomotion propels a new creature composed of breasts bellies, thighs, and buttocks, each part firm and smooth, perfect as if turned out by the same precision machine.

The countdown reaches number one and it’s a club in South Beach. Florida! Finally something within reach. But these men won’t be going to Miami. When that vacation finally rolls around, if they can afford it, they’ll go to the panhandle, some place like Destin. There will be no sultry Brazilians or Italians or Spaniards, no Chileñas bonitas or New York girls, down for a weekend of partying. Under the waiving confederate flag will be haggard white wives, voices raspy from generic cigarettes. The men’s huge bellies will be neon white. There will be a cooler of light beer. A worker who blissfully has no work to do for a few days will scratch his lobster red belly and fart. He’ll scan the beach, looking for a beautiful, exotic woman. He’ll remember that television show he once saw in a waiting room on a cold damp December day in Saint Louis, with a bloody rag tied around his hand. His brow will furrow as he tries to square this experience with that recollection. He’ll take another swig of beer.

It’s hot and it’s humid and he’s painfully sun-burnt and there’s sand in his trunks and these kids won’t stop screaming and running and kicking sand in his beer. What the hell? Might as well go back to the motel and see what’s on the tube.

The 2014 RFT Holiday Spirits Event, or The Fantastic Exploits of Dr. R

The RFT Holiday Spirits event was a fun evening. There was free booze. There was music. My feature on cocktails had just come out and copies of that were available. The editor loved my piece. Friends and colleagues were milling about. But I think my favorite thing was seeing my friend and some-time colleague Dr. R in action. Asked if he was a VIP (which indeed he is), he responded unhesitatingly with an emphatic “yes,” with the instinctual ease of a natural aristocrat. He was promptly presented with an orange tote bag filled with various premiums. That was early in the evening.

Every time I spotted him, he had yet another tote bag. Eventually each arm was festooned with dozens of festive orange tote bags and Dr. R was furtively snatching things and stuffing them into his tote bags. Pre-bottled cocktails, pamphlets, crumpled napkins, bus schedules, unattended partial bottles of bourbon, commemorative glasses, hats and scarves, cell phones, keys, a/v patch cords, a saxophone, anything that wasn’t securely bolted down found a spot in one of his capacious tote bags, the number of which somehow kept growing.

And then he was gone, disappeared into the night like the King of the Beggars, laden with treasure and fortified against the cold damp night. Well done, my friend. I’m studying your technique. Next time, you may have a little competition.

Some Thoughts on Hotel Lobbies

It’s a subtle assault on the senses. I’m trying to read an article about the Chinese education system (a dubious amalgamation of anti-individualistic Confucian gibberish that destroys creativity, according to the author), but I’m having a little trouble concentrating.

The smell of mediocre coffee is competing with a waffle burning in the background. An announcer on the television behind me is outlining the details of some complicated football play while Don Henley struggles over the question of whether to use the slang term “shades” or the proprietary Wayfarers.

I’ve pushed away the detritus of my roasted potatoes and oatmeal, but that unholy combination (the only items outside of fruit that looked vaguely vegan) has left an unpleasant taste in my mouth that no amount of “robust blend” can wash away.

I want to maintain access to caffeine but need to return to the room. I can no longer bear this robbery of my concentration. It makes me think of Schopenhauer’s essay “On Noise.” Yes, no one thinks anymore, so no one notices all these subtle distractions. Alas.

The photo shown above is of a coffee house in Kansas City, Missouri, where you can get a not-mediocre cup of coffee.

Missing Letters

I think I understand why G. Perec penned a text with nary an ‘e.’ My fancy typewriter has a kaput key. It’s hard when circumstances deprive a writer in this way. Frequently used letters, when taken away, limit language and make sentences seem awkward. Recall the Perec text, wherein characters all puff cigars since cigarettes have ‘e’s in them. I must fix this key, quickly.

Memoir Experiment Part Ten—Progress

I should never have agreed to attempt to teach an online class. During my freshman year in college, for some reason completely obscure to me now, I enrolled in a computer programming class. I think the language was some hopelessly forgotten piece of computer history, like Cobol or Fortran. I had to drop the class because I was unable to power the machine up, or whatever the phrase is, without the help of the cheerleader sitting next to me. For all I know, she may have gone on to become a brilliant computer programmer. I did not. I repeated this folly in my junior year, now required to take a class in Pascal. This, too, is hopelessly outdated. I did survive, perhaps because the language was named for a figure from the humanities, rather than sounding like a radioactive element or Soviet locomotive. Regardless, I barely scraped by.

A hazy recollection survives. One programming assignment involved figuring out how to count various zoo animals and perhaps categorizing them by type and color. I struggled mightily to get my scraps of code to line up. And lo! The program seemed to work. But as usual, I was too bored with the whole pointless project to adequately test it and I completely left out the lines that accounted for zebras or antelopes or ibexes. I had managed a B in spite of myself, but the exercise was another piece of mental evidence I had amassed against computers. Wasn’t this zoo nonsense just a needless layer of complexity? Why didn’t the zookeeper simply go out with a pad of paper and a pen and count the confounded creatures, taking note of their varieties and colors?

And why doesn’t the teacher teach instead of staring dumbly at a panel of dancing electrons, trying to figure out the difference between a folder and a module and wondering why the fools in administration insist on one instead of the other?

Genetically, I am a combination of my mother and father. My father, in his eighties, struggles to understand various facets of computers out of a sense of duty. My mother detests computers and has nothing to do with them. When forced to confront them, she breaks down in tearful rage. As do I. I seem to have inherited only her luddite strands of DNA governing my reaction to these infernal machines. More often than not, I want to fling computers under the wheels of onrushing buses.

I remember fondly a recent visit to England’s Hook Norton Brewery, which has undergone very little change since its beginnings in 1849. A charming old curmudgeon gave us a very thorough tour of the facility, designed so perfectly over 150 years ago that little change has been necessary, but to meet outside developments, like an increase in air traffic and its effect on the ambient atmosphere (until just about ten years ago, they had employed a metal coolship wherein the newly fermented ale was cooled by the breeze). Whenever our guide detailed some painful change dictated by external forces, he punctuated his sentence by saying “That’s progress for you” (with a delightful long O). Indeed.

Hook Norton Coolship

A great many truisms deal with change and its inability to be halted. And much change is very good, like improving the lives of human beings and expanding their rights and protections. But some changes have proven ill. The changes to higher education in the past decades have been disastrous, especially those affecting the humanities. The businessmen and the technocrats are now running the schools; high-paid administrative positions blossom, while faculty members are “rightsized.” We have finally reached the point at which higher education as it stands is beyond saving. It’s probably no longer worth saving. But university instructors used to be more than computer operators earning minimum wage and they used to teach something worth learning. Those days are now firmly rooted in history. That’s progress for you.

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Memoir Experiment Part Nine—Libraries

I walked out of the baking sun into the cool stone shadow of what was formerly the only entrance to Pius Library at Saint Louis University, now relegated to a back entrance, the whole place having undergone extensive renovation since my days as a graduate student. I had been there since these renovations, a year or so back, after teaching an evening class. On that occasion, I enjoyed the new grand-looking entrance. But the old entrance was appropriate to this visit. The fall term was set to begin soon, and that particular end-of-summer feeling was in the air, though it was still quite hot and humid.

The library was cool and quiet and filled with that lovely bookish scent. I wandered the stacks looking for three titles. I had them written in a little notebook just as I did in the old days. Of course now you can have the call numbers texted to your phone, but I much prefer my little notebook filled with cryptic notes and ciphers, entered in a crazy-man gothic scrawl.

There were very few people about as the term was not to begin officially until the following week, and this sparsely populated vista became even more appealing as a result.

I love libraries.

It was on the third floor, heading into the stacks that I actually felt a little giddy. There’s nothing like an academic library. Public libraries have shifted more and more resources to computers, electronic media, and various technological gimcrackery, often displacing books in the process. Academic libraries have not been immune to these changes, but their collections of physical books continue to be their main draw. Libraries are still ranked by the number of volumes they hold.

I spent a great deal of time in that library while I was a graduate student. One semester I had a class that met there. We were supposed to meet in a classroom. We were also supposed to meet for three hours, but Professor Clarence H. Miller said that it was uncivilized to hold class for that long. So we met for about an hour. He preferred the rare book room for our meetings, surrounding himself with incunabula and existing, like some impossibly rare orchid, within very strict atmospheric conditions. He must have greatly preferred the specially controlled temperature and humidity necessary to protect the books in this quiet library within a library. Like most scholars, he preferred the company of books to people. We sat around a large conference table in comfortable office chairs that could roll and twist and pivot. One day he reclined too far and somehow got one of his armrests trapped beneath the conference table. He flailed about helplessly for a moment and then hollered “Oh, what the devil!” I loved this. I loved hearing this phrase one ever only encounters in stiff Victorian dialogue, along with ejaculations like “My word!” But it was quite right and quite natural coming from him.

As always, we met for less than one hour that night. CHM always wanted to hurry home for a beer. I did too.

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Memoir Experiment Part Eight—The Unplugged Shakespearian

I’m going to teach an online course for the first time this semester. I have certain misgivings. More than that, I wonder if I can even master the bare necessities required to operate the electronic application through which I will be “delivering my content.” It is obscene that we have to debase ourselves by adopting the language of business to discuss what we’re doing, but online education, it seems to me, is the product of business people, not educators.

I’m slow to learn these new technologies; like some savage from a remote jungle presented with some maddeningly complex and advanced device, I stare at it dumbly as my heart fills with rage. But then as my mind wanders from the task at hand, as it always does, I remember the early days of my Ph.D. program. A graduate student named Sean started when I did. He was a renaissance scholar, focusing on Shakespeare. He brought his books and a few necessities down south with him from his native Michigan. He had an old typewriter he used for his papers. This was in the late nineties. I believe he wrote his texts out longhand first, in a most elegant cursive, though I might be romanticizing after the fact. His expression was melancholy, and while he loved the study of literature that engaged all his energies, he saw that the outward trappings of the field were inexorably changing, necessitating the use of the very technologies that had driven him to literature and the supreme humanism of the renaissance. There was email, for example. He didn’t use it. Student and faculty messages went unread. Announcements were unheeded. He was told his email account was already set up, he merely had to check it. But with a Bartleby-esque stubbornness, he preferred not to. Indeed, this was a good deal stronger than preference. There were also grumblings about his antiquated carbons and necessarily mono-spaced typefaces. Harmless eccentricity quickly seems pathological when one faces some minor inconvenience. The writing, alas, was on the wall. Sean knew his days were numbered. He told me one day he was leaving, returning to Michigan. He loved Shakespeare more than anything, but he had discovered that society would not allow him to be a Shakespeare scholar on his own terms. He simply would not use a computer; this would rob him of his very humanity. And so he was gone, abandoning his official studies.

I don’t know what happened to him. I like to think he ended up in a rough cabin on the Upper Peninsula. There he sits in my mind’s eye with long unkempt beard and a look of preternatural determination, rereading Timon of Athens for the 100th time, or going over some favorite passage from E.M. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture. He cooks beans in an iron pan over a wood fire, and drinks bourbon when he can get it. He mends his simple clothing and subsists on some old fellowship money he squirreled away. He writes his papers and types them up. He has over 500 dead stock Smith-Corona typewriter ribbons. He cannot send his papers to be published, as the journals only take electronic documents. He has no students. But he will not change, no he will not. I respect him immensely.

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Memoir Experiment Part Seven—Baseball

I’ve never really cared for any sports. I could never sustain enough interest to follow them. I did play on some teams as a child. I can’t recall if my parents encouraged me to, or if I simply signed up because of vague cultural expectations. I played baseball one year on the Khoury League. I guess I was probably ten or eleven years old. I remember that we had handsome uniforms. Our sponsor was the Roland Machine Company. I liked wearing the uniform. And I liked that we all got a can of soda and a candy bar after each game. As far as I can recall, we lost every game. We were given some self-esteem boosting trophy, nonetheless. I hated these games and prayed for rain each Saturday during the baseball season. I just wanted to flop on the couch and watch TV. The family room was the coolest room in the house during summer and no one else would be up yet and it would be just me and the television spending some quality time together. But instead I would be out on the diamond pretending I cared about the outcome of the pointless game, really just craving a can of grape soda and the end of the stupid, interminable season. Practice was even worse, with coaches barking out orders and trying to make us into men. That was never one of my goals. I have always tried to limit my participation in athletics as much as possible. I remember once playing soccer and one of my teammates cried because the coach, his own father, took him out of the game toward the end so some one else could play. I laughed to myself. I was an avid bench warmer no matter what the sport. Let me sit on the bench with a book, or just daydream. I was always good at that. One day during baseball practice, the coach was teaching us to catch pop-flies in the outfield, tossing the ball up and batting it right out to us where we could make an easy catch without even moving. He and everyone else must have been hollering at me, desperately trying to bring me back to earth from my reveries, but the only thing that accomplished that was a baseball to the left eye socket. When he ascertained that I was conscious and not concussed, he yelled at me. I could tell he was sorry, but also angry since it was my own fault. Practice ended early that night. I watched television out of one eye and sipped soda through a straw as I sat ignominiously wearing a round steak eye patch, like some carnivorous pirate. I wonder if tofu works the same way? After that season, I never played baseball again. I did eat a few more steaks. And I played other sports on other teams. I finally realized it was fine to refuse, to refuse all of it, and just go ahead and lose myself in the daydream.

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Memoir Experiment Part Six—Hotrod T-Shirt

As I think about this project and sink solipsistically back into it, I grow Proustian in my self-absorption. I am developing a fetishistic attachment to memory—real memory, not the ersatz memories, television-episode like, that we generate from seeing still and film images of our pasts. These are not memory but a replacement for it.

It’s hard for me to recall something as simple as the clothing I wore. There are many pictures from every age. I remember these images—sailor suit, matching brown tweed cap, coat, and short pants, or the red and blue plaid Toughskins daringly paired with an orange Chicago Bears T-shirt. I remember all these costumes from photographs, not from reality. That last outfit was worn on my seventh birthday. I was sick. I received my first bicycle. But I don’t really remember getting sick or first seeing that candy-apple red metallic cruiser with its black banana seat. I heard those stories when I was shown that photograph of myself, looking wan and disconnected, aloof from my surroundings and encircled by an aura of illness. I don’t remember how I felt, and I don’t remember those articles of clothing, just that photograph.

There are the items of clothing that still exist at my parents house, like the maroon wool jacket with gold leather sleeves, bearing the badge of the Washington Redskins. It is quite small. It resides in the closet near a larger jacket of purple nylon with the Minnesota Vikings logo. Why so much athletic apparel? The adults in my family must have wanted to present me with the trappings of manliness, the camaraderie of “watching the game,” the longing for flesh foods, the desire to be fruitful and multiply. Oh, what a miserable failure I’ve been!

I did at least have a modest interest in cars. There is but a single article of clothing from my childhood that I remember more or less clearly. It no longer exists and was not, I believe, ever captured on film. It was a white T-shirt, not reversible, but with an image on front and back. It could be worn with either image facing the front Each image was a Ratfink-like cartoon of a hotrod. I think one was a purple ’55 Chevy. The other is less clear … a green car … a Ford from the ’30s? I must have favored that ’55, or perhaps the color purple, for that is the one that faced forward most of the time. I refuse to try to find those images on Google, though I suspect they are out there. I don’t want to replace my memory with something more precise and so very much less precious.

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Another Successful Bloomsday (2014) at The Civil Life

Hello, lovelies! On 16 Jun 2014 we had another fun and successful Bloomsday at The Civil Life with plenty of #RestorativePints and five readings. We recorded video and audio of four of the five readings, and have made it available to you, our esteemed readers — OK, well, it’s technically available to everyone — on a Bloomsday Vimeo Channel

You can also view the Bloomsday videos right here on Hurley House. Here ya go!

Memoir Experiment Part Five

My friend Todd and I used to spend a great deal of time trolling used bookstores, looking for bargains. I remember distinctly one particular shop we visited, though I cannot recall its name. It was on Highland Avenue and is no longer there. I recall I was looking for cheap copies of books I needed for some graduate classes I was taking. I always brought my soiled thrift shop editions to class, where fellow students gripping pristine copies would look on derisively. They weren’t shy about addressing their fears that my different pagination would throw a wrench into our class discussions. But I used to have a remarkable knack for visual memory and could picture a quote in its quadrant (upper left) and location in the book (about a third of the way through, for example), so I found the quotes we would discuss readily enough. They, on the other hand, had a profound difficulty surmounting their lack of wit and talent. My problem was poverty. I was smoking generic cigarettes and drinking rotgut. What’s a poor scholar to do? Buy his texts at eccentric little bookstores, that’s what.

Todd and I pushed our way into the chaos of this crowded little shop and were met immediately with a waft of cumin and frying meat. “Howdy Boys.” The owner was a barrel shaped old man with a military haircut the color of iron and a twinkle in his eye. He had a stove behind the checkout counter, and there he was cooking up tacos. This, he told us was his daily meal. He had dedicated himself to these tacos and feeding his hard round belly. There was little else to do but read, for he had few visitors to his spicy scented lair. Most of the books were genre trash, with a good many romance novels. But there was one shelf labeled “Classic Literature.” I combed these shelves and, lo! I actually found a few of the titles I needed for two different courses. I know I found Updike’s Rabbit, Run! and Conrad’s Victory. I then scanned some shelves of miscellanea and found a fat paperback edition of the Kinsey report on female sexual behavior. It fit in well with the smell segment of my library dedicated to prurience. I must have it in a crate somewhere, but cannot lay hands on it. The last I saw it, my friend Brian was studying it intently at my old apartment on Magnolia (fifteen years ago?). When I took my selections up to the counter, the old man stopped munching on his taco and wiped his hands on his trousers. He handled each soiled tattered paperback with a kind of reverence usually reserved for some kind of religious apparatus. He picked the final book up and shifted its distance away from his face to account for his age-befogged corneas. He looked at the Kinsey report and then at my friend and me. He looked back and forth again then set the book gently down. “Boys, let me tell you, no matter how hard you try, you ain’t never gonna understand that puss!” What was the correct response? A noncommittal ”I dare say”? or a jaunty “Oh I say, you old trout, it’s not as complicated as all that!” If memory serves we smiled nervously, then he let out a guffaw.

I like to think he had come to some quiet and final understanding of the inscrutable puss. He had dedicated his declining years to eating tacos. No amount of reading and study would equal that. He has probably moved on from this life, but if he lives on, I wish him the solid teeth and strong jaws to keep at his life’s work.

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“Whereas other modernists feared the hydra-headed mob, Joyce used interior monologue to show how lovable, complex and affirmative was the mind of the ordinary citizen.” (Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us*, page 11)

Yes, reading Ulysses* will make you a better person. And this “forbiddingly difficult” modernist novel is actually a deeply democratic work of art. Reading it aloud is a celebration of its hugely musical language. And bearing witness to the minutiae of a single day magically enlarges our sense of humanity. This is why we still read Ulysses almost 100 years after it was written, why we read it aloud, celebrate it, and in so doing, celebrate life.

Join us June 16th, 2014 from six to nine pm at the Civil Life Brewing Company as we read excerpts from Ulysses. Read a section or just listen. Raise a #RestorativePint and offer thanks to James Joyce for what he gave and continues to give to us.

Download a PDF of the Bloomsday 2014 at Civil Life Poster to share or print.

Join the Bloomsday 2014 at Civil Life event on Facebook

Memoir Experiment Part Four

It must have been a Saturday—my father was off work. We drove out to one of the big car lots on Dirksen Parkway. I don’t recall if we were shopping for a car, though I suppose we must have been. A country music station was putting on an event whereby one took a sledgehammer and laid into a “gas guzzler.” Can you imagine? A country station? This would have been 1980, so some vestiges of the seventies remained in place, like tree-hugging communists running country music stations. Promoting violence against the heavy steel bodies of good American V-8 automobiles, instead of driving monster trucks equipped with vulcanized rubber testicles, swinging grimly from trailer hitches. But gasoline prices had risen above one dollar a gallon, so desperate measures were in order, even if they were mere rhetorical gestures. Regardless, a certain ten-year-old with a penchant for destruction very much wanted to take part in this activity, even if he didn’t know or care much about country music.

I was quickly deemed too small to handle the sledgehammer, but, sensing my disappointment, a car salesman and the radio station representative conferred. The kindly salesman disappeared and then returned with an old fashioned hand-held claw hammer, and I commenced to pound merrily upon the car. Despite my best intentions, the body of that low MPG boat took my spirited assault in stride. In short, that rusted hulk bore not the slightest scars from my repeated hammer blows. The salesman and radio announcer egged me on, and my father watched suspiciously, wondering, no doubt, why he had allowed this situation to develop. My conspirators invited me inside the car, where my diminutive weapon might be more effective against the delicate innards of the hated vehicle. Ironically, I went immediately for the car stereo, or I suppose mono radio, sending splinters of plastic everywhere. I was smashing the very fingers that fed me, but I didn’t care … I was finally witnessing sweet destruction, I was bringing it about myself. Take that, WMAY.

As a reward, my sister and I were given vouchers good for one country record album each from The Platter downtown. This was not terribly exciting. It was just one year from when I received a tape recorder and my first cassette: Devo, New Traditionalists. My youthful sensibilities were already being pulled toward post-punk, the Talking Heads being one of the first things I remember hearing from my older sister’s stereo.

We stopped at The Platter on the way home. Given our extremely limited knowledge of country music, we selected albums we recognized from film. Eileen picked Eddie Rabbit, perhaps feeling that a crossover album would be less embarrassing than straight country. I chose Dolly Parton, the soundtrack from 9 to 5. I wonder if I still have it?

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Memoir Experiment Part Three

Dipping into a small salt-water pool on the roof of a hotel in Los Angeles, I experience two profound and simultaneous revelations: 1. I love salt-water swimming pools and their uterine feel of buoyancy and security; 2. I am very suspicious of hairless men. My chest is matted with gray hair and I’m thrashing awkwardly about, like an arthritic bear. I have the feeling I’m the only who merely “had breakfast” … everyone else assimilated an optimum blend of amino acids.

There is something deeply aesthetically satisfying about a nice hotel pool, pyramids of fluffy towels erected everywhere, a blinding white in the sun. The pool water seeming to be a blue so specific to pools, one hunts for the right color adjective—azure, cyan, sapphire, or cerulean—in vain. The whole experience is ontologically connected to color. White. Blue. The subtle, shifting flesh tone as one watches the skin darken, carcinomically. I push off and glide toward the other side.

My father taught me to swim. My mother, on the other hand, retains a life-long fear of water. I can picture her wrapped in a life jacket, face frozen in a rictus of terror as we all raced across Lake Tahoe in a motorboat. We weren’t afraid, my sisters, my father, and I. Dad took us swimming all the time. “Swimming,” not just “to the pool,” or better still the beach. I must have grown to resent the fact that the pool, which I was inclined to associate with fun, became a place of discipline and duty. My father had me count my laps and work towards some lofty-sounding goal … half mile, mile, long distances back and forth going nowhere. He taught me to swim the American crawl, a vigorous, patriotic stroke. But he didn’t generally use this stroke. He had developed a unique version of the breaststroke. Now I am as old as he was when he taught me to swim and I find myself swimming that same languid breaststroke, head always above water, slow and purposeful. I don’t count my strokes and I rarely swim more than two or three laps. I don’t go to the pool to swim. I sunbathe and read and drink and people watch (not the same as merely watching people). I like how it feels as the sun and warm breeze dry the beads of water from my skin, and it grows very warm, so I dip once again into the pool, order another drink, and feel the water and the sun and remember.

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