Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Space Odyssey

Approaching a colleague at work a few months back, I asked whether he had any ready-to-hand impressions of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001. He and I have a playful routine of exchanging etymology and syntax questions in the morning when we are almost the only people on our floor. We trade Emily Dickinson and J.D. Salinger trivia. We reveal our adolescent literary crushes.

He paused and looked up from the book he was reading with his morning coffee.

2001: A Space Odyssey? 1968? Keir Dullea?” he asked.

While he narrated the first time he had sat in a theatre viewing the film, I recalled listening to the soundtrack album with my high school friend Ted. Coming from a home where the purchase of a phonograph record was considered an extravagance, I almost memorized the tracks of each of the records that Ted played during our visits at his house. The experience of sitting in a theatre and watching a film like 2001 could get replayed in that pre-Netflix era each time he or I lowered the needle onto the vinyl.

Amateur Super-8 filmmakers, Ted and I listened closely to the music behind the film. Something in us knew to listen just as closely to the bands by contemporary Hungarian composer György Ligeti as to those by Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss. We felt we understood what inside us was responding to Also Sprach Zarathustra and The Blue Danube Waltz. On the other hand, we had to submerge ourselves in Ligeti’s music. Or rather we had to allow Ligeti’s music to submerge us. We explored what happened inside us when we did.

In Boston’s Symphony Hall this past winter, I got to explore one more time what happens then.

In late January the BSO had brought in as guest conductor Christoph von Dohnányi, and the man who had conducted Ligeti’s double concerto for flute, oboe and orchestra at its premiere in 1972 revived that performance. It was like lowering the needle back onto the vinyl, and I was watching again, listening again, a young man in his teens before new music and new images.

I watched again and listened again when 2001 arrived in the mail in February.

I recall my favorite English teacher in high school speaking to his classes about 2001, about the film’s structure, its symbolism, its use of music and silence. My colleague this past winter admitted that even without a fresh viewing of the film, he was sure he could write a two-page essay on what Kubrick had created.

Sometimes a challenge like that just appeals to me.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Taxes are done.

They were not any more complicated or difficult than most years, but I had turned down a couple of invitations this weekend just in case.

My reward was the freedom of a Sunday morning with nothing that had to get done in the next sixteen hours.

So a weekend breakfast -- how to use that sour dough bread from two days earlier? And the fresh parsley from a Lenten Friday's tuna salad?

Easy enough.

Friday, April 8, 2011

To Act Out of Character

I could not do that, could not make even one person believe I was capable of something like that – although there are parts of days when I wonder if people have not for a long time thought I was capable of just that but then I hasten to find my conventional voice, my predictable style, my telltale pacing and tone – well, it would be like claiming I could sculpt a statue in bronze and, no, the utter frankness of three-dimensional art does not call to me to be its creator – although I love the memory of purchasing a statue when I was in grade school, plaster and chalk and gleaming blue paint, and I wanted candles in front it (though we never lit candles at home) but I would like to have a candle lit in front of words like these, I would like to watch the computer screen later blink into darkness and hide my words but have the candle's flame mark the spot where they used to be, where they used to read safely and calmly and serenely – in character or out

Not the expected read? I am deciding to include on Writing Cabin an occasional experiment with what can be said when the customary rules are not the only rules.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

By Your Own Best Lights

Sun is getting to places in my apartment that it has not been in a long time.

Or maybe I've just not been around when it comes.

Each morning I sit some time in my living room. I sip a first cup of coffee. I may open a book. More often than not my cat settles beside me.

Few mornings the past three years have started differently. As the first full year in the apartment is coming to an end, I am beginning to see things that I may not have known to look for twelve months ago.

This morning's sun painted the tops of the spines of some of Thomas Merton's journals. It brushed the bottoms of collections of Mary Oliver's poetry. "That's me, those books -- that's who I still am," I realized with relief.

The light was a message I needed. "Continue," it said, "continue to live by your own best lights."

Monday, April 4, 2011

Grandfather Clock

The grandfather clock in my apartment used to stand in the dining room of my parents’ house. It had been a purchase that my mother would have planned – like all her furniture purchases – for months and months. I used to listen to her when she returned from her Saturday appointments with the hairdresser. Before she called my father to drive to the mall and pick her up, she would stroll the stores and get her ideas.

It was her dream time, I suspect. Newly released from the dryers in the salon, she must have felt she looked her best. She got to browse the furniture sections of the various department stores, her hair fragrant and glistening with the spray that someone else’s hand had aimed.

My mother had no hesitation asking salespeople about the items she saw in the model living rooms and dining rooms. She learned her woods – nothing beat mahogany in her book – and she opened breakfront doors and side table drawers with a knowing air. There may have been an earlier, more formal time when she took the price tags and turned them over with gloved hands.

What day did she get the yearning for the grandfather clock? It was something she would only have considered in the years free of the school tuitions that long claimed a part of my father’s paychecks. Although a grandfather clock was for show, it was something that ultimately no one would look at more often than my mother did.

Its transport from New Orleans to New England with the close of my parents’ house affected the inner workings of the clock. It will take a professional to come to the apartment before I again hear the chimes I used to listen to through the nights on visits with my aging parents. One day I will make the call and arrange the repair.

I may not be just ready to live again with family sounds marking my hours.