Straw Hat

I went to the Goodwill to look for a hat to wear in this scene I am in. The call sheet said “straw hat” and I can’t say any more because I signed an NDA.  I have something at the country house, a big dark brown wide-brimmed rough weave hat I wear when I cut grass sometimes. I bought it when I was doing a lot of gardening.  A ball cap is really not as good as a big hat when you are working outside in the sun. You are a lot cooler under a big hat.  I think anyway. I am not really a hat wearer, that is about the only time I wear one. I only have two ballcaps, both of them the same, white caps with UMSL on them, one in the city house and one in the country house. Sometimes in the winter I might wear one, otherwise my head covering is a hoodie I wear under a winter coat.

But the scene calls for a straw hat and I the call sheet came while I was in the city and am not going to spend more in gas than a new hat cost to get mine from the country. After the Goodwill I went to a Walmart. The producer was sort of confused when I told her I had been to a Walmart and they didn’t have one. There was actually one for 30 bucks, an ugly unfinished looking thing with the straw sticking willy-nilly off the brim. Clearly a hat a young man buys to drink beer in on a float trip or at an outdoor concert. The kind of thing a wife might mention in telling a story about how she met her husband, “and he was drunker than shit and wearing this stupid straw hat but I thought he was cute, and 20 years later, here we are.” I am not getting paid for being in this movie and there is no wardrobe budget, so I didn’t buy the ugly thing that I would only wear one time.

Years ago I had a super cheap straw fedora that grocery stores sell in the spring for $6. I used to wear it all the time until I caught my reflection one time and realized how stupid I looked. You put a snap-brim hat or a tuxedo on lots of Italian guys and they look like mafioso. It is crazy. I have some pictures of my grandparent’s wedding in the 1920s, a sepia thing near a hundred years old now and my PapaGrande is not intimidating, but one of his brothers standing right behind him looks like a cold vicious dago hitman. He was a great guy too, but the pictures of him in a tux are frightening. 

I will find something on the way to the shoot tomorrow. I called a couple of places, a Bucheiht’s and a Rural King. Somebody will have something.

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I bought a copy of The Postman Always Rings Twice while at the Goodwill. It was a popular book a generation ago. That is a great thing about the Goodwill book section; I come across stuff I would not have normally sought out, it takes my reading in interesting places. I just finished I Am Legend, a novella by a guy named Richard Matheson. Most of his stuff is horror/Sci-Fi sort of stuff from the 50s and 60s. I got it because Will Smith made a movie of the same name a while back. The movie was only very loosely based on the book and ended with hope, where the book was more final. I liked the book ending better. This guy Matheson wrote screenplays and for TV and he wrote the episode for Twilight Zone with a pre-Star Trek Willian Shatner that was the single most terrifying thing I saw in my single digit years. “”Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and in black and white it did give me nightmares. Very scary. 

There were quite a few classics, mostly together but I gathered some of them on a shelf for a picture. So many great books! One and two bucks apiece. I always want to buy them, but I won’t store tons of books anymore. There are always more than I am going to be able to get to and libraries make more sense for a heavy reader. The classics are all online now, and most everything else too – with a library card. I do like a physical book better, but that may have to change as time goes along.

I haven’t read The Poisonwood Bible or Under the Volcano or the Sparks book and probably won’t at this point. I have a copy of The Known World at home and plan to get to it.

Wingnuts

When Joe lifted the extractor from the bed of the truck he felt a sharp burning snick of pain in his right elbow and had to shift it to his left hand as he carried it into the corner hardware store. Inside the conservative talk radio droned and there was the familiar oil and plastic and fertilizer smell he had expected. Jim at the counter couldn’t readily place the nature of the extractor, the light stainless steel cylinder not registering as anything he knew about. He looked expectantly to Joe. Joe placed it on one of the stools that lined the customer side of the counter.

“This is a honey extractor, and when I cleaned it up after last season I took the wingnuts that hold this in place,” Joe showed him the bolts sticking through the bar across the top that held the rotating framework down against the extractor, “and put them somewhere safe. I did such a good job of keeping them safe I couldn’t find them this year.”

Jim laughed, “Put them somewhere safe. I have never heard of that happening to anyone before, I mean, I never did anything like that.” and grinned at Joe and felt the threaded end of the bolt.

“You are laughing with me Jim, not at me, right?”

“Yeah sure, with you, probably a five sixteenth” still laughing as he went to the bank of trays with the hundred different nuts and bolts and washers alongside the counter. He quickly located and opened a tray and fished out two wingnuts. “Here, try these.”

Joe threaded one on the bolt but it caught before it screwed the bar tight to the extractor.

“No, they have to tighten down so this doesn’t move at all.”

“Must be metric then, I don’t think I have any metric wingnuts.”

“How about just regular nuts? I would just have to use a wrench to tighten them down, it ain’t but once a year.” Joe handed the wingnuts back to Jim.

“Yeah, that will be 8 millimeters, you want some washers with that too?”

“Sure, that would probably be a good idea.” Jim went back to the trays and soon found the nuts and handed them to Joe. Joe put the washers on the bolts, threaded the nuts onto them and they screwed easily all the way down. He tightened them as well as he could by hand and checked to see that the framework rotated easily. 

“What do I owe you?”

Behind the counter Jim scanned something and tapped a few keys at his register. 

“Can you afford eighty six cents?”

“I think so and I won’t even tell anyone else you laughed at me,” said Joe as he handed Jim a dollar. “Hold onto the change till the next time, would you?”

“Sure, and when you get your honey, I might be interested in some.”

“I’ll tell the wife, she handles the business side of things,” Joe said, “see you next time.” He picked up the extractor and headed to the door. Outside the air was clear and Joe laughed again as he put the extractor back in the bed of the truck.

Jack’s Way

Jack moved the bishop with the ring finger and pinkie of his left hand. They weren’t using a clock so the extra time to pick up and place the pieces was of no matter, but the inefficiency irked Joe. He said nothing. It was enough to keep Jack focused on the game, to insert another idea would add complication. Jack planted the bishop on the D6 square awkwardly transferring control to his right index finger to hold it in place as he considered the move. This irked Joe as well, he had told Jack repeatedly they were in learning mode and not playing mode and touch move was not in effect.

“Jack, are you sure you want to put that bishop on D6? You are not going to be able to move that D7 pawn and that light-squared bishop is going to take forever to get out. Are you sure you want to do that?”

Jack considered and his long lean face dropped even lower between his thin shoulders, “Well, if I don’t put the bishop there, if you move that pawn up I won’t be able to defend it later.”

“Not up, chess language.”

“Uh, D2 to D4.”

“Good, or push the D pawn, and yes, I will probably play D4, but is the bishop the best way to defend that?”

Jack considered. Joe waited and then Jack’s head tilted a little and his eyes glided right and Joe knew his attention had gone that way as well.

“Chess, Jack,” Jack’s gaze came back to the board and Joe could almost see him slowly puzzle the position from the beginning. 

“Well, this might not be the best move but I can’t see another way so I am going to make it.”

Joe relented and pushed the D pawn. He would crush Jack here and in the post game analysis they would go over the move and he would explain the trapped bishop. Jack would not forget, but might have to repeat the same mistake several times before he did not make it again. It was his way.

Living in the Moment

I have an 21st century epistolary relationship with my friend Tommy. We text. I met him during the Searching for Bobby Fischer chess resurgence in the 90s. Chess in America needs  a spark, there are always going to be hardcore players, those whose mental capabilities run towards puzzles and games and the like, but trends in American chess have a lot to do with popular culture. I learned to play when Fischer challenged for the World Title in the 70s and came back to chess when the book and movie came out. Online chess and this pandemic and now The Queen’s Gambit have created another chess surge. Lots of kids are beginning their chess journey. Tommy and I played at the Crestwood Chess Club, (now gone) when he was eight and I was in my thirties. He was quite a good chess player for his age. After a couple months at the club I was not too much of a challenge for him. If he had been a brat, losing to him would have stung, but he really was a great kid. I left chess after four or five years and went back to drinking beer and chasing women and he went on to High School and he passed out of my life for a time.

Many years later the internet has allowed us to reconnect. We text all the time but have yet to get together though we are both in the St Louis area. Our subject matter has mostly to do with literature and writing and grand philosophical discussions about the meaning of life. We haven’t got everything completely figured out yet. He is married with children and teaches at a local university. I think our relationship very important, the sharing of ideas means a lot to me. He was a terrific kid and has become a good man. I like him a great deal.

Lately we have been trying to pin down the meaning of life and have been stuck a bit on the ideas about truth and morality. I would be a nihilist except for biology. He may or may not believe in a “god” or ordering force in the universe but he would like to have a truth to fall back on. He does not like the idea of an empty abyss of nothing. Neither do I, but what can you do? I think our species will one day pass away, and our earth swallowed by our exploding sun and for all intents and purposes it will be as if we never existed. While we are here though, we are human, a specific thing, and part of a complex social group, a framework. Biology trumps nihilism. We have a purpose within a framework. If the framework has no purpose that is of no matter. We have meaning within the framework. My thinking anyway.

I have been reading James Suzman’s book Affluence without Abundance about Hunter Gatherer culture in Namibia, searching for an example of what a human in a pre-history more natural state might have thought about this life. I just started the book and he has not addressed that idea completely yet, it may not really be the focus of the work. Already though, Suzman has impressed me with the idea that the HG culture is about living in the present, not so much goal oriented but do enough as needed and go with the flow. Kinda like Baloo the Bear. Seems plausible that such a life would be enjoyable.

Lots of time in the firehouse was like living in the moment. The days were not about what had to be produced or accomplished, but rather whatever emergency came up. Sometimes it was just hanging out with a bunch of guys.  In the early part of my career that was enough, later it was not, but I am a product of a goal oriented society, it may be I am unable to live in the moment. It was fun for a time, like living in a movie. I am glad for the memories, even if they are not all good. Towards the end though, it was like being locked up, the moments burdensome.

Now in retirement my wife tells me I don’t have to do much of anything I don’t want to. However both Tommy and I feel a pull to something more, something larger than the day to day requirements. We talk about it. It helps me to have him around. He has children so he does not have the same kind of options that I do. Despite all his responsibilities he is able to read and write as much as I do. His is an impressive intellect and his ability with languages is amazing. I am going to try to weave some of the philosophy we discuss into my writing. He was the one that taught me the Tennyson quote from Ulysses that resonates so strongly lately; 

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.”

The “strove with Gods” I understand as a certain accomplishment, sort of Tennyson speaking to the purpose of his writing. Tommy can give a lot of great quotes like this, he knows stuff. Discussing things with him helps me describe what I am thinking. Even to be able to describe these things is important, work of noble note is not achieved by simply living moment to moment. I guess I have rejected the Hunter Gatherer philosophy.

More Book Stuff

I like to stop at the Goodwills around St Louis. I breeze the clothing aisle looking for sharp creases on higher end cotton button down shirts and then go through the books looking for anything at all. I skip the pots and pans. I have a full collection of stainless steel Revere Ware™ at my city and country houses purchased over the years at three to five bucks a pot. Standardized sizes. I will probably not need anymore kitchen stuff for the rest of my life. That is interesting to me.

Books though, that is another thing. I have about three feet of books on a shelf here in the city. I get rid of any more than that. I might have half a dozen signed books – things acquaintances have written and autographed copies and so on, but I no longer store books I don’t think I will read again. I complain about my memory failing, but I can read a book and 20 years later when I pick it up I can still recall big chunks of it. Not always, but often enough that re-reading books needs a longer break in years than I might have left in my life, so hanging on to a literal ton of the musty smelling things is not happening. You can find an amazing amount of public domain stuff online as well, though I prefer an actual paper and ink book in a larger format than a small paperback. Still, with two library systems close, I can find anything I want. The Goodwill books are like a buck so what the heck. Sometimes the finds take my reading in a direction I might not have gone. That is good I think. 

I have come across some real finds over the years. Classics I see on a regular basis. To my sensibility they are sadly pristine in condition, most seem never to have been read. Recently I found copies of Madame Bovary and Oh Pioneers. I had read neither and I found them both delightful, the stories rich but simple and the characters well described and strong. Both copies were near perfect. I read them and sent the Bovary to a friend and dropped the Pioneers in my library book drop. I don’t know what they do with those books, they may catalog them and put them on the shelves or they may sell them later in one of those big sales. I hope someone gets use of them, most classics that I get around to reading are very much worth the trouble. 

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I just finished News of the World. I liked it fine. It was a simple quest story set just after the American Civil war about a german child stolen by the Indians and raised in their culture that has to be returned to her blood relatives. A very short book, it was written in a sparse sort of way but had some good characters. I will probably rent the movie this weekend. It is on to The Razor’s Edge, by Maugham. I read a Murakami recently and he mentioned it so I thought I might try it, the reviews are excellent. I read Of Human Bondage as a teen for the obvious prurient reasons, but recall nothing verbatim. I would bet if I took up a copy I would recall much, that is how I am wired.

I might take a reading break though and write more. I have read 65 books of my 75 pledged in the Goodreads challenge for 2021. Actually, this year’s challenge has been quite a bit more enjoyable than last year’s. I have treated the reading as a bit of an apprenticeship as there can be no better writing teacher, I think, than good books. I will try to focus on writing now.

I had a rant of another 1000 words here that was just crap. But hey, recognizing the crap is an important part of the process. I edited it out.

Fates and Furies

“The more life you had, the more the base expanded, so that the wounds and treasons that were nearly imperceptible when they happened stretched like tiny dots on a balloon slowly blown up. A speck on the slender child grows into a gross deformity in the adult, inescapable, ragged at the edges.”*

Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff

You know, I enjoyed Groff’s book quite a bit. I thought it one of the best I have read all year. That is saying something as I have read quite a bit this year and tried to read important work as well. The writing was outstanding, her language is rich and there are pauses and breaks in the sentence structure that I found to be refreshing. There was more french than I needed but it wasn’t annoying or anything.

My friend Tommy said she had been accused of being pretentious. I thought her not pretentious, but simply she was so immersed in the arts and classics it flowed out of her like water from a faucet, that she wasn’t putting on airs. I told Tommy, “the common folk might find her pretentious, I do not.”

Tommy said “well you can’t please the masses, but it was caviar to the general.” I was like, “uh, sure.” Later when I looked it up I laughed. 

It is on to either The Razor’s Edge or News of the World. The first was referenced in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and the second suggested by a professor I stay in contact with 2 years graduated from college now. 

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* I liked this quote, it was well written and the description made you picture it in your mind. Clearly from the hand of a skilled writer. I disagree with the quote though. I think that injuries to a “slender child” can be permanent. I don’t think they have to completely devastate the adult. Lots of folk come from rough circumstances and see things that they should not see, but don’t always become some absurdity as they grow up. Some do of course, but the life of any human has dots and specks. 

Frazier and Plato

““I cannot decide whether it is an illness or a sin, the need to write things down and fix the flowing world in one rigid form. Bear believed writing dulled the spirit, stilled some holy breath. Smothered it. Words, when they’ve been captured and imprisoned on paper, become a barrier against the world, one best left unerected. Everything that happens is fluid, changeable. After they’ve passed, events are only as your memory makes them, and they shift shapes over time. Writing a thing down fixes it in place as surely as a rattlesnake skin stripped from the meat and stretched and tacked to a barn wall. Every bit as stationary, and every bit as false to the original thing. Flat and still and harmless. Bear recognized that all writing memorializes a momentary line of thought as if it were final.”


This is from “Thirteen Moons” the book Frazier wrote after “Cold Mountain.” I read it years ago soon after I read “Cold Mountain” and thought it poor. Now I am not so sure.

 
I have always thought that once on paper the meaning of something written comes from the reader, that the creator has done his part and the recipient gives it meaning. I have noticed even if a writer has some skill, that a reader has a limited ability to reconstitute what the writer was saying, at least not wholly as the writer meant, and brings to the understanding his own experience. We see as through a glass darkly. But the meaning of something written is there, somewhere in-between, and that is what a written thing is.

Plato wrote of writing,

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows. 


Frazier was certainly aware of Plato’s thoughts on writing. The two paragraphs go a little ways along the same path. After Frazier offers his character’s critique of writing he says in the next paragraph, “But I was always word-smitten.”

I think written words add to human existence, help us to stand on the shoulders of those that came before and pass forward emotion and experience. I agree completely with neither Plato or the character of Bear from Frazier’s work. I find no fault with the craft of the writer. Writing simply presents ideas that are defined by the reader.

Old Elementary School

I had occasion to visit an Elementary School in St Louis for admin purposes. It is old and empty right now, the limestone balusters outside weathered and failing. But bright and clean inside as if the building hoped to teach given the opportunity. I saw only two people when I was there, a security guard and the woman I had business with. I asked how the school year was going during this pandemic and regretted doing so. She was bothered by the question, grief tinged with a little anger. She was clearly stretched emotionally. It is a strange time.

There were not schools as these in the town where I grew up, great grand things built to a giant scale with marvelous carved stone decoration. When I first came to St Louis schools like these were what I always imagined a New York PS was like, or a school in Boston or Philadelphia. Old America with roots to another time. They were certainly not like the single story flat-roofed school built in 1957 that I attended. First viewed I recall thinking what an education could have been had there in one of those buildings. Funny to think I was susceptible to the idea of “Halls of Learning” making a difference and not the school system. I am not sure if I do now. Maybe the grandeur of a place of learning can inspire. It is certainly something to consider.

Girding the front door there were two statues, one with a book and another with the demeanor of a dullard. I imagined teachers in times past requiring the children to make a decision which type of student they would be. I laughed. That little lecture would have worked on the child I was.

Grapes of Wrath again.

I started reading The Grapes of Wrath again. I like to reach a level of forgetfulness about the book before I re-read it but I wanted to look closely at the POV Steinbeck used. I guess you would have to call it 3rd person omniscient, but he never completely lives in the characters’ heads, rather letting their actions and words relate their feelings.

“The driver, getting slowly into the truck, considered the parts of this answer. If he refused now, not only was he not a good guy, but he was forced to carry a sticker, was not allowed to have company. If he took in the hitch-hiker he was automatically a good guy and also he was not one whom any rich bastard could kick around. He knew he was being trapped, but he couldn’t see a way out.”

That is about as deep as he gets in a character’s head and he doesn’t do it often. It is powerful the way he tells the story, lets the reader make most of the decisions. 

The alternating chapters, describing a situation, the failure of the land, the people being driven off etc, and then relating how the Joads fit into it all, it is just so well done. He sets up the situations and places the characters into the situation. I just can’t recall it being done so well, so smoothly.

Another thing I like is how the parts with the characters are filled with little stories, little asides. 

“An’ Ma ain’t nobody you can push aroun’ neither. I seen her beat the hell out of a tin peddler with a live chicken one time ’cause he give her a argument. She had the chicken in one han’, an’ the ax in the other, about to cut its head off. She aimed to go for that peddler with the ax, but she forgot which hand was which, an’ she takes after him with the chicken. Couldn’ even eat that chicken when she got done. They wasn’t nothing but a pair a legs in her han’. Grampa throwed his hip outa joint laughin’.”

So much richer than “You couldn’t push Ma around.”

This guy Steinbeck is a hell of a writer. He was my favorite before I was my own man, he had a part in making me.

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Jim Casey quotes;

Casy chuckled. “Fella can get so he misses the noise of a saw mill.”

“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say.'”

I haven’t gotten to the eulogy for Grandpa yet. It is still one of my favorite pieces of literature.

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Good job Ruth, we will miss you.

Choosing Books

I took the Goodreads Reading Challenge and set my goal as 100 books this year. I may or not reach my goal but it has been a very interesting thing to do. I am up to 70 books so far. The collection is mostly fiction with some classics, some popular contemporary stuff, some kid’s books, one graphic novel, and some real crap as well. I don’t care for mysteries or romance or thrillers so much. Most of the stuff I like is categorized as literature, whatever that is supposed to mean. I write reviews with no details whatsoever and make ratings on how I feet about the book. I don’t pretend to know how to describe why one book is better than another. I do know a well written book when I read it though. I also like a believable story. As it turns out, there are many good books out there, but at times they are very hard to come by. (I don’t care as much for writers who might have used the word “paradoxically” in that last sentence, it is a style thing.)

I tried to read more living authors this year. I send them emails sometimes with questions and comments. I get responses too, and am always grateful. I owe a letter to Chrisry Lefteri for “The Beekeeper of Aleppo,” and Chris Cleave for “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven.” I sent Kim Edwards a nice email about “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” but have heard nothing back. I should write something to Glendy Vanderah for “Where the Forest Meets the Stars.” It is not the greatest book but it has some good moments and I hope she writes more.

Something odd has happened though. As a youth and a younger man, if I liked a book by an author I would have run out to the local used bookstore and bought copies of other books by the same author. At this point in my life I don’t do that. I can’t explain why. I think the only authors I have repeated this year are Vonnegut and Gaiman, though Gaiman doesn’t count because the book he co-authored with Pratchett is nothing like his individual work. Also some of the classics I have re-read have changed significantly with the passage of time. Or rather, as the words on the page are the same, I feel differently about the books as I have changed since I first read them. It is as if the books are a mirror that shows me how my mind and sensibilities have aged.

I might not finish this 100 book challenge. I haven’t enjoyed everything I have read and at times felt needing to read was a burden. Next year I think I will do another challenge and pare it back to 50. That would be one a week and if the books were of sufficient quality that would make opportunities to really enjoy a good book again. Choosing books becomes important.