So Much Good Reading, So Little Time

Photo montage: So Much Reading, So Little TimeOne of the keenest problems in a comfortable life, that. So much great stuff that I would love to read, and such a short life. So many beautiful pages of literary jewels and deliriously fun junk, paper and zine, novel and blog, that I would happily devour, if only there weren’t so much other Stuff to be done in the finite hours of the day.

In my case, of course, there is the additional complication of being an interminably slow reader. I will have to live to be 627 years old, at least, to read all that I’d like to read. Add to that the extra time (about half again as long) to comprehend what I read and I will have outlasted Methuselah and any number of other supernal beings. And the problem remains, on top of this literary one, that I will have a wide assortment of other highly irksome and undignified complications to overcome and survive in order to achieve such an advanced age. So I have to pick and choose what I am willing and able to devote my actual reading time to perusing, and accept my limitations with as good a grace as I can manage.

This summer, though many of you whose blogs I am fond of visiting for both reading and commenting might be surprised to hear it, I have been reducing rather than increasing my holiday reading. Since much of what I do read is online, and on an erratic schedule with less frequent long periods of sit-down-and-read time, let alone with reliable wi-fi access, I must think about what little I can squeeze in between other summer activities and parcel out my energies and devotion accordingly. I assure you that this is in no way a reflection on the quality and desirability of your work and its pull on my imagination, but it’s rather the reverse: that I want to return to it when I can give it more of its due and proper attention and appreciation. I will return to you, rest assured. Meanwhile, I hope you are lying back on a comfortable chaise in the summer shade, sipping a cool drink, and reading whatever stirs your soul while the season lasts.

Hot Flash Fiction 13: Eternity Beckons

Photo: Science by CandlelightEternal life has always been the masters’ magnificent goal; no wonder that great magister and alchemist Osteodaimon was also determined to solve this elusive mystery himself, to plumb the Stygian depths of knowledge collected by the most piercing minds and intrepid souls ever to walk this dangerous earth. He began with years of reading, apprenticeship, exploration, privation, and experimentation. What Osteodaimon learned most quickly was that the process of becoming immortal was in fact incremental; it was a long series of tiny steps and grand leaps, of fallings-backward and soaring upward, all of which took him through both his long and arduous life of study and also a few strange periods of stasis, in which, all told, he began this mystical transformation of his into one truly able to transcend death. Many and terrifying were the missteps and passages, rites and elixirs, incantations, and the heart-shaking, wrenching feats of bravery and agility required of his profound intellect and the ever-disintegrating body that sought answers from that abyss.

One winter’s night, when he had traversed the grueling routes both between his birth and the ninety-two cycles of the seasons that already marked him as uniquely time-defying by his ancient era’s reckoning, and between the smoothly un-furrowed innocence of youth and his avidly acquired brilliance, he recognized in the ice crystals forming along his lashes the last increment required to complete his journey. Carrying the tinctures and potions that would preserve his last bits of mental and physical strength for the ritual, he set forth in the falling snow and moonlight to go farther into the frozen wilderness than he, or anyone, had ever plunged before. He began to notice as he went forward that the slower he moved, the faster the vastness of ice seemed to recede before him, until it was clear that his pace of progress was directly opposed by the increasingly swift passage of time. He knew that his own final breath was hardly a hairbreadth ahead of him, racing both toward him and away, and that only by letting the speed of it catch up with the glacial slowness he himself was approaching, at exactly the right juncture, and by taking the last dram of his precious medicine at exactly the same instant, could he affect the perfect circumstances for his final transformation.

Osteodaimon finally marked the spot. He lay down on the bottomless swath of blue-black ice, took the last draught of his alchemical magic into his gaunt grey mouth, and stopped. He became fused to the ice there instantly, his eyes made into a pair of wide, dull mirrors for the relentless moon and faded stars of perpetual polar night.

When he returned to himself and forced his eyes to focus again, his vision was oddly fragmented, and he sensed that he had drifted from his last stopping place far more than he had imagined he would have done. But the new place, also moonlit and cold, was pleasant enough, and he knew that soon his vision would clear and the slight buzzing in his ears would pass as he regained his strength. His sense of physical power, indeed, astonished him immediately as it returned; it was not only as though he were young again but as though he had new and exhilarating powers that would easily surpass those of his remembered early years, when he had labored so mightily in his pursuit of conquering death. This new Osteodaimon was a super-being to be reckoned with, and he took off at great speed to see what he could now accomplish in this next passage of his life.

It startled him how quickly he was able to go from place to place, how he seemed now to see things from so many new perspectives and rarely wearied of dashing about, looking, stopping to sup cold water or wine, or have a little food when he chose, but endlessly pursuing the delights of his renewed life. We cannot be sure, for history has failed to record all of the details perfectly, but it may be that it was only a matter of days, or at most weeks, before he realized that he could no longer read.

This proved a surprising disappointment that he would attempt to address soon enough. Not quite soon enough, perhaps, that he was ever able to learn the story of how, in A.D. 1867, a small group of botanists on the steppe discovered a perfectly preserved man encased in ice at the edge of a receding glacier. How the intrepid scientists chiseled their magnificent find out of his tomb in a manageable block and labored to drag it back to their fledgling university by sledge and wagon and train. How they built an ice-house museum room for the express purpose of preserving and examining this amazingly lifelike ancient man. How, one awful night in 1871, the city and that little-known museum in it were consumed by fire. How the ice-entombed mystery man had been spared cremation himself only because the conflagration had taken so long to melt his ice block that he remained weirdly, wonderfully intact, his eyes dully mirroring the moon once again.

Surely Osteodaimon could not have learned how to read again even in time to make sense of the tale that followed, of the chaos after the city’s destruction that prevented anyone from having further sightings of this miraculous time-traveler that had so clearly been the earthly form of the great magister and alchemist himself. Even if he had been able to read again, there would be no document to explain that his ultimate disappearance meant neither that he had finally ceased to exist nor that his old ideas of perpetual life being possible were entirely incorrect, for in the days and weeks immediately following the Great Fire, there was far more concern for removal of dangerous debris and rescue of injured and homeless known victims than for tidying up the remnants of an obscure museum. Had there been a witness to record it, there might have been something that Osteodaimon could hope to learn to read, something telling him that his thawed remains had rotted in the post-apocalyptic drear of an abandoned building, showing no more activity than the usual decay and natural recycling would show.

He might also, of course—had he been able to read it—thought that perhaps the early philosophers and proto-scientists were not entirely wrong but only slightly misdirected in their belief in spontaneous generation. For he would have found in the documentation of the ice-man’s progress that feeding on his mortal remains had been the usual generation or two of avid creatures that led to his emergence, eventually, as revivified carbon in the form of a blowfly. Once alive, always alive, but not, perhaps in precisely the way he had long imagined it.Digital illustration from photos: From Here to Eternity. Maybe.

Get Me Some Book-Larnin’

Drawing: Samuel ClemensJust because I have had the benefit of a decent education doesn’t mean I am smart. We all know that it’s entirely possible to have any number of degrees and diplomas, plaques and endorsements, letters and titles decorating your name and still be a complete fool. Idiocy is a far less rare condition than the number of high school and university graduates would have us believe.

Indeed, I have read a great quantity of writings during the course of my life, but I would never go so far as to say that I am well read. Among other contradictions to that claim would be my incredible slowness as a reader, both in speed and in comprehension: as a multifaceted dyslexic, able to turn words, letters, numbers, directions and relative spatial placements all inside out and upside down without even trying, I can easily spend four times the amount of energy and hours reading that any decent reader would need to get through the same amount of text. And of course that doesn’t guarantee that I will actually understand what I read in precisely the way the authors intended.

A more important reason that I don’t consider myself well read is that I have managed to conquer only a relatively small segment of the library most scholarly and literate persons would consider to be well written, informative, accurately researched and defended, or just plain must-read, important stuff among books. Long before I knew why it took me so long and so many tries to read a mere paragraph, let alone a book, I was required to tackle a handful of the so-called Classics of literature, and a bit of contemporary contenders for the title as well. It’s just as well I didn’t imagine I had such an anomalous reading style or that it was considered a disability by others, because I might have had yet more frustrations and difficulties in trying to fit the mold of how one was expected to overcome such things, instead of finding that by plodding through in my own backward way, I became attached to some of the books and stories to an equally unexpected depth. Whom should I, as a struggling reader, admire most among authors but those champions of the dense and complicated, say, Charles Dickens and Robertson Davies.

On the other hand, it’s probably less surprising that I also favor the purveyors of the most outlandish and appalling and ridiculous, from Ogden Nash, Evelyn Waugh, and Edgar Allan Poe to Mark Twain, S.J. Perelman and Franz Kafka. This part at least makes some sense, if you tend to believe I’d read writers who reflect something of my own mind’s workings or the weird ways in which I see the world. In any event, this latter crew might explain a little more about my tending to choose the least arduous paths in life, since I find a certain sort of familiarity in the strangest of their inventions and so can perhaps navigate their writings with a surer strength than otherwise.

So while I may not be the sharpest pencil in the drawer or the most edified of readers, I have at least a few pieces of proclamatory paper in my coffers to prove that I did my homework somewhat dutifully if not doggedly. My degrees don’t confer any special wisdom upon me, but they at least excuse my curmudgeonly attitude about how long it takes me to read my own posts, let alone anyone else’s books and articles and poems and proposals, no matter how brilliant and scintillating and clever and beautiful they are. I’m still trying, but give me plenty of time!

Huntin’ ‘n’ Fission

I’m told that it’s both fun and useful to have hobbies. There are certainly plenty of books, magazines, news articles, classes, clubs and social organizations devoted to leisure-time pursuits, all of them trumpeting the value of such avocations. Some of them are decidedly age-specific: I haven’t seen a large number of free solo rock climbing promotions aimed at senior citizens, for example. There are hobbies considered preferable to persons of certain economic strata, fitness levels, sexes, nationalities and any number of other identifying categories, some active and some quite passive or spectatorial, some of them expensive to learn and requiring extensive training and practice and others free and simple to master. Regional favorites abound, like, say, noodling (catching catfish by hand), which would be hard to enjoy in desert climates unless you happened to be both a big fan of the sport and dedicated enough to stock your own evaporation-protected pond. Some of the more intellectually stimulating hobbies, like competitively designing robotics for cage fights or nuclear plants for home use, are highly entertaining to their practitioners but utterly escape the attentions of us more modest-brained folk as either too highfalutin or just plain incomprehensible. Sudoku, popular with millions of people cleverer than I am, falls into that too-challenging category for me since I’m so mathematically unfit, but I do like some kinds of word puzzles reasonably well if I’m in that rare mood.

Should I take up golf, having decided to move (when my spouse gets around to retiring) to a place on a golf course partly for its–surprise!–affordability and its location in a great town in a great part of the country, and in no small part as well for its great view into the green and leafy first fairway of the course? That would require my learning which end of the club is the grip and which the head, not to mention a whole bunch of other stuff, and on top of that, paying dearly for the privilege.photoWhile I’m still living in Texas I’d certainly be in a logical place to take up hunting, but that doesn’t appeal to me at all, unless it’s with a camera. For that matter, I’m more inclined to practice target shooting with a longbow, something I’ve enjoyed briefly in the distant past, than with a gun as well, being mighty skittish about those things. Being on the fast track to old age, I could probably pick up something more sedentary like knitting and crocheting if I had the patience. My single brief fishing moment post-childhood actually garnered me a cute little throw-back bass (as a kid I never caught anything but one big scary looking White Sucker that even my older boy cousins wouldn’t touch) and was enjoyed in good company while sipping a fine Texas brew; maybe that should inspire me to get busy with fishing.photoThat’s the thing, though: I just don’t enjoy games and sports, puzzles and pastimes much at all. Whether this arose or was reinforced by my longtime social phobias, perfectionistic fear of being seen as incompetent, dyslexic inability to keep anything I’m doing on a standard track, hilariously hideous sporting skills or any combination thereof is probably irrelevant. You see, there’s no separation of church and state in my life. I spend my days and evenings doing the very things that lots of folk can only do on an occasional basis and to fill their free time.

If I took up drawing, concert-going, reading and writing, cooking, DIY projects, gardening, photography or collecting weird bits of Stuff as a so-called hobby, what would I do with my day job? The truth is simply that I’m a fully fledged frivolous person. If eccentric creative activities and ways of thinking are on the periphery of real life, then I am a bona fide fiction, an imaginary character myself. If on the other hand art is, as I’m convinced it should be, central to existence and well-being, why then I’m just ahead of the curve; I won’t need to retire to any old rocking chair or go in a desperate search for something to keep me occupied, because I already have too many fun and pleasing things to do. Either way, I’m keeping busy.

Regaining My Memory

photoAntique Finishes

The lovely grain of quartersawn oak

With age’s silk patina glows

And hints of many-storied lives

And past events nobody knows;

The ghosts and gossips of days gone

Are whispered in the cupboards’ glassed

Door fronts; the table’s curving legs

Bespeak its long, mysterious past;

In the looking-glass, the passage

Of the hours and years is blurred

By antiquity’s sweet singing

All the stories ever heard,

By the voices of the missing,

Of the dead departed wealth

That once filled these halls with magic,

Now reached only late, by stealth.

If antiquity should call me,

Siren-like, to take a look,

Once more in my soul I’ll draw it

From the pages of a book . . .photo

Toward Home and Hearth

photoAt Close of Day

After the labor that fills the day and long before full darkness falls,

We long to gather and go away, to leave the dimness of labor’s halls

And go back home to the fireside, where supper and books and armchairs wait,

To spend the remains of eventide over soup and a novel beside the grate.

This is the way the day should end, and peace and renewal repair the spent,

Frayed souls whose work was less than friend, for whom the fire is heaven-sent–

This nest of comfort from which we roam always draws us back to hearth and home.photo montage

Her Moment of Respite

graphite/digital illustration

Reading

A heavy braid of brown-black hair

Coiling over her shoulder frames

The mourning dove-brown collarbones

That rise and fall in subtle flight

As she breathes, sitting back there in such quiet repose

As if to lend some grace to that so humble vase of white

Field lilies at her side, and when she turns

The antique pages of that favored book,

She spares a moment’s look to watch the lilies catch

The kitchen windows’ waning light

Just as the late-day sun tips in

Behind those distant trees to

Chase the night