Monday, May 27, 2013

It's A Puzzle

Well,  so the pledge to post every day blazed out pretty quickly, didn't it?  Maybe I should amend it, to a pledge of posting at least once a quarter?  All in favor?  All opposed?  The ayes have it, by a margin of one (I cheated and help up both hands).  (I'll consider, later, whether to allow the 'extra' posts, between Jan. 1st and the appropriate April Fool's Day spluttering out, to be tallied as future entries, which will absolve me from writing anything at all for a few years, at least...)

It's not that I haven't thought of writing here -- I have, quite a lot -- but, at the risk of offending, I kind of wish no one would read any of this.  Or if anyone did, it would be someone in some remote village in the Caucasus Mountains, who couldn't understand a word of what I'm saying.

In a version of 'The Goose Girl', when the rightful princess is discovered by the old king, but then refuses to tell him her story, because she's pledged an oath of silence, the old king finds an unused, soot-blackened stove, large enough for the princess to crawl inside.   'Go in here,' he tells the frightened girl, 'where you can tell your story, without breaking your oath.  So she does, and he listens at the opening of the stovepipe, and all is then made right.  Except that Falada the Talking Horse is still dead, of course.  It seems that, even in fairy tales, you can't have everything.

And I guess this is how I'd wanted to approach my writing here -- as though it's being done in a confessional, or whispered to a yew tree, or unreeled in the dark.  But this seems impossible, so either I'm going to create another secret blog, or, when writing here, pull what I write from a different psychic space.  We'll see.

Anyway, what a long diversion from what I thought I'd write about today -- what an aside from what prompted me to get back to the keyboard, as it were  

Yesterday, driving home from New Brunswick, and coming around the corner on South Orange Avenue, by the entrance to Seton Hall, where it's impossible to see if someone's sneaking across the road against the light, I was going fast.  I love driving fast.  And, as there were no errant pedestrians in the way, it was all right.  And I didn't get caught at a red light.

Then, as I drove the three remaining blocks to the house, I realized how few current activities of mine give me this same sense of intense involvement, and an almost total-body feeling of enjoyment.  I thought I'd try to find at least three, because that seems to be an ideal number, when writing about things, and now that I think about it further, I think I do actually have three activities that meet these possibly questionable criteria.  They would be: Driving fast; Tying things in knots; Writing.

Now, the things that I really enjoy are not necessarily the things that I do the most, or that I do all the time.  Sometimes I drive at a completely leisurely pace, and I try always to be considerate of pedestrians, and to signal to other drivers when I'm about to change lanes.  So not all driving falls into the category of pleasure.  We can ask only so much of the world, it seems.

Likewise with the tying of knots.  It's an activity centered mostly around the creation of my artwork, which activity I have largely abandoned, because of the already-mentioned sever lack of space to put anything else, and because of an ineradicable sense of despair and failure and shame, at having invested irretrievable time and money and energy on something which I could plainly have known would generate so little in the way of tangible, reciprocal benefit.  I feel like a fool.  Which may be why I want to tie things in knots.  I'd love to be able, like Richard Serra, to work at the scale that would allow me to, for instance, have access to an unused super-long stretch limo, and tie it in a knot.  I may allow myself to make a couple more smaller knotted pieces -- I have one in the bathroom, that I look at several times a day, and it seems to be goading me to create for it some companions.  We'll see, as my father would say when he meant he'd be telling us no a little while later...

I'm not sure how to typify my writing these days.  While I've avoided this more public stage on which to present my thoughts and ideas, I have continued writing (usually whiny complaints), using whatever paper is at hand -- often one of those 5 1/2"x8" pads with my name across the top, in blue ink.  At first, I wondered when I would ever find the time to transcribe all these into virtual files; now, at least for the time being, I don't seem to care much where they end up.

One thing that I do all the time, and that seems more a necessity than the diversion it might appear to others, is the daily crossword puzzle in the New York Times.  It's a very rare day when that's not pretty much the first thing I do (aside from getting coffee, etc); often, if I'm shopping, and see the NY Post available, I'll buy it, and do the puzzles there too -- in spite of never having completed even one of the London Times versions.  I still try.

I think this is a non-life-threatening compulsion, linked with a grave fear -- the dwindling of my intellectual abilities, and my need to reinforce for myself, every day, that I'm at least smart enough to do the puzzle in the Times.  It may take me all day -- and the Saturday puzzles often do -- but I get them done.  I may wince at the pun-laden clues; I may rage inwardly at the puzzle's stupid or arcane theme (a recent one centered on... the names of the Swiss Alps?  Why not the names of the distinct parts of a Bessemer converter?), but I do the puzzle.

I even try to do the puzzle the 'right way'.  Which, finally, leads me to what prompted me to start writing today, in the first place.

It being Memorial Day, after all.

So, I've always used ballpoint pen when doing newpaper puzzles -- not out of vanity, but because I enjoy the feel of the ballpoint pen sliding across the paper -- either the coarser stuff of the daily arts section, or the smooth, clay-coated Sunday magazine section.  And I used to tear through the puzzle as quickly as I could -- but always according to some questionable rules in my head.  To wit:

We can never write down the answer to a clue unless and until we know that it is correct, by checking with one or more of the crossing answers.

We never -- or only very very rarely -- insert the 'big' answers.  They are to be kept for last.  Lately, I've allowed myself some leeway in this, but possibly only because I know I'm facing a death more immanent than ever.

We never seek outside help for the puzzle -- a rule I have been flagrantly disobeying recently, given the omni-presence of my laptop, and bolstered by the wisdom of my eighth grade teacher, Mr. Howard Mayfield, who told us that the mark of intelligent people wasn't how much they knew right off the top of their head, but how quickly they could learn what they needed to know.  Hence the hasty google searches for 'migratory Australian finch', or 'Star of 1947 movie about stomach surgery'.

And, it being Memorial Day, I'll mention another rule I added to my list of puzzle commandments, and muse a bit about that rule's source.

I was doing a puzzle while sitting in the glassed-in walkway between the sanctuary and the social hall of St. John's in the Village, a little New York City Episcopal church near the old St. Vincent's Hospital.  John and I were active there for a while, and I might have been waiting for a vestry meeting, or for John to be done with choir rehearsal.

At any rate, I was doing my puzzle, and one of the more active members of the parish, a lovely and intelligent woman named Pam made the observation that the across clues were always harder to fill in, than the clues running down.  This was a shock and a jolt to me.  Did this mean that, by racing through the puzzle any which-way, following the lead of one letter to the next, that I was taking the easy way out?  That I was somehow cheating?

I guess I could have asked Pam, but it didn't occur to me, or I couldn't because she had to go to a meeting, or run off on an errand with her daughter, Pam Jr., or her son Arlander, named for his father.  The whole family used to worship together at St. John's, their little cluster forming a kind of visible anchor for the rest of us, in the small sanctuary.  The fact that Arlander Sr. was African-American seemed to give their presence even greater importance.  It was a great shock when Arlander Sr. fell ill, and almost immediately died of cancer of some sort.  It felt rude to ask too many questions.  I felt like I would be poking at a wound over which no scar material had had time to form.

I tried to teach Sunday school at St. John's, which was something of a challenge when Pam's two children, and the daughter of another parishioner, made up the complete class.  The study materials provided by the church were hopelessly naive and ridiculous: "Have one of the students put a tea towel on his head, and pretend to be Moses leading the Israelites across the parted Red Sea.  Let the other children represent the sea, and the pursuing Egyptians.'  Apart from the glib assumption that we had a cast of thousands with which to work, the bare suggestion that a savvy 10-year old New York pre-teen would wear a tea towel for any reason made my blood run cold.  I did make a large cardboard cut-out, shaped like the Sinai Peninsula, when we were going to talk about the Exodus story, and I included a paper cut-out of Manhattan, to the same scale, so we'd all have a point of reference.  (I'd always thought it stupid that it took forty years to get from point A to point B, especially being the chosen people and all)  I think we were all a little surprised at how minute Manhattan looked -- I'd had to put in into a small envelope, so I wouldn't lose it, it was so small.  I'm not sure they learned anything from me at all, except how easily an adult could be embarrassed and frustrated.  I think the kids must have known how afraid I was of them, and how much I wanted their approval.  I might as well have been a class behind them in school.

So it was a great shock when, a few years later, after John and I had moved to Rochester for graduate school, I learned that Pam Jr. had been killed in a skiing accident.  I couldn't believe it, and had to call the parish for confirmation, and while the priest unreeled, in a somewhat dispassionate and clinical voice, the tale of Pam's crashing into a tree, and being in conscious agony during the helicopter ride to the hospital, asking why this had happened to her, and then dying of her injuries.  I cried during the whole conversation, and then sent Pam Sr. a card with a note inside.  Why did I feel so torn, at the death of a little girl I was so sure had no regard for me at all?

Later, after John and I had earned our degrees, and had survived more than enough Monroe County winters, we returned to the NY area, and thought we would pick up where we left off at St. John's.  Which, of course, proved to be more or less impossible, even though there were still quite a few people still there, including Pam and her son, now rapidly bursting into a handsome manhood.  One of the more positive events that unfolded after our return -- though certainly in no way set in motion by it -- was a staged reading of Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night'.  John, who was just beginning his musical adventures with the harp, provided accompaniment for 'Come Away, Death', to a tune that, in a way I don't understand, I composed while riding the subway one day during the rehearsal period.  I was also cast as Malvolio, with Pam Sr. as Maria the saucy maid -- she even included an ad-lib 'sticking out her tongue' at me, on one of my exits, and I thought it was hilarious.  And Arlander as the love-sick Duke -- If music be the food of love, play on, he said, lounging on his 'throne' in curly-haired, long-legged, coffee-hued virility.  I think we only did the play once.  I still have the ridiculous yellow socks I bought from a vendor on Canal St., and pulled ruefully from my pocket in the final scene.

Arlander graduated from high school, and went away to college, I don't know where.  I saw him by chance on Hudson St., perhaps the day he was leaving town, and by way of a spontaneous gift, I handed him $20, and shook his hand.  From his look and reaction, I'm not sure any of it made sense to him.  I might have been thinking, myself, of the $5 my father gave me, somewhat reluctantly, in a parking lot near my apartment in State College PA, as a gift for having earned my Bachelor's Degree in 1975; strange how some things cycle through one life and then another.

And then catastrophic news came to us, impossible to credit -- Arlander had been arrested, and charged with murder.  I still reel a little, inside, just thinking of it.  Somehow, I was at church as the story was oozing out through the congregation, and Pam was there too, about to walk home to her apartment nearer the river.  I took her hand -- probably more for my comfort than for hers -- and she unpacked what little she'd been told -- a set of bad friends, the availability of drugs, a sale gone wrong, too much rage released all at once, some young lives wrecked in one way or another.  By the time we'd gotten to her door, Pam had pried her hand loose, thanked me, and assured me that she would keep everyone posted as news arose.

There was a hearing, not much later, where one of the priests of St. John's was appealing to be appointed Arlander's custodian until trial.  I was one of a group of parishioners present, to offer what support might be possible, but I don't think our sitting there in that row of dark wooden benches made any difference.  The judge listened, clearly unmoved by the lawyer's clumsy justification, and after remarking that the church didn't seem to have done too good a job, if these charges were being brought against the young man sitting before her, she denied the appeal.  Arlander may have noticed some of us, back in the courtroom; he hugged his mother, and was then escorted away.

While he was in jail, awaiting trial, some members of the parish went out to visit him.  When I asked about this process -- how much time to allow, what to expect with regard to security, and so forth, the priest gave me a dishearteningly extensive account of what was entailed.  Sad to say, and partly because of my keen discomfort with the idea of anything approaching imprisonment, I couldn't muster the courage to go, either alone, or with a group of others.

Then Arlander was tried, found guilty, and sent to prison.  Like so many women with menfolk behind bars, Pam regularly and faithfully visited him.

Later she sold her apartment, close to the Hudson River.  And not too long ago, she too succumbed to cancer.

I don't know where Arlander is now.  I suppose I could check.  I think I'm afraid to find out. 

But I think of his mother every day, as I crease the Arts Section open, flatten it out, and start the puzzle.  Medium-point black ballpoint pen going through the clues.  All the across clues first, one after the other.  Feeling as if I'm cheating, if I double-check an answer I think I know, but peeping at the clues for the vertical words.  Taking that extra bit of time, exerting that extra bit of discipline, like  a good student practicing his scales for a teacher he so wants to please.

I think Pam would smile -- or even give a good laugh -- if she knew.         

Though not a veteran, still, in memoriam...

©   2013                     Walter Zimmerman

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