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June 12, 2001
Familiar Territory


Summer's supposed to be a time of relaxation, at least in this hemisphere, but as the days grow hotter I find myself buried ever deeper in work, chasing paper across desks from Africa to Dodge City. I stop to think how nice it would be to just while away the days like I did in Santorini last year (three, count them, three days was all, but at least I wasn't an eager-to-run-back pompous jerk like the Teva-wearing dude who was holding a souvenir store employee hostage with tales built on the dull specifics of his hard-earned new blue somethingorother Amex card), but then I hear the rattle of the chains of my desk and it's back to the real world.

I have a hard time starting on new things (you know, good, fun things) when I'm busy like that. I can't start a good novel if it'll take me three weekends to finish. I can't even put on decent music often for fear that it'll pin me and I'll end up spending an hour staring at the ceiling. Which I do anyway.

For relief I find myself returning to the tried and true -- the familiar streets, the neighborhood park... they're my Linus blanket. When I want to purge my memory of work by reading something else, I go to something that I already know, something that's already proven itself by pushing the right buttons in me. All the Mornings of the World (Tous les matins du monde), for example (and if I'm particularly brave I'll even visualize the scene from the film with the little girl opening her present, a viol, and holding it like a stuffed animal, and I'll play a few tracks of the 17th century music while slowly, slowly sucking on the words by Pascal Quignard):

Monsieur de Sainte Colombe wrote down his new compositions in a leather-bound notebook. He did not want to publish them and submit them to the judgment of the public. He said that they were improvisations noted at the moment and for which the moment alone provided an excuse, and not completed works. On days when the spirit took him and when he could make time for leisure, he would go off to his brook and dream. In summer, when it was very hot, he took off his shoes and his shirt and gently went into the cool water, wading up to his neck, stopping up his ears with his fingers and burying his face in the water.

One day when he was gazing at the ripples on the water, sighing, he dreamt that he was going into dark water and staying there. He had given up everything that he loved on earth, instruments, flowers, pastries, rolled scores, kites, faces, pewter plates, wines. Emerging from his dream, he remembered the Tombeau des Regrets that he had composed when his wife had left him one night to join the death, and he suddenly felt very thirsty. He got up, climbed up the bank grabbing hold of some branches and went off to his cellar to find a bottle of mulled wine covered in a straw wrapping. He then went into his garden shed where he practiced his viol, hoping that he was out of earshot, so that he could try all possible hand positions and bowing movements without attracting anyone's judgment for this was just what he wanted to do. He put his bottle of wine wrapped in raffia on the light blue cloth covering the table where he unfolded his music stand, with the glass of wine that he had filled at his feet and a pewter plate containing some rolled honeycomb cakes, and he played the Tombeau des Regrets.

He did not need to refer to his book. His hand found its own way over his instrument's fingerboard and he began to cry. As the melody rose, near the door a very pale woman appeared, smiling at him and indicating by her finger that she would not speak, so that he would not be disturbed in what he was doing. She walked silently around the music stand of Monsieur de Sainte Colombe. She sat down on the trunk of music which was in the corner near the table and the bottle of wine and she listened.

It was his wife and his tears flowed...

Sometimes I turn to the story of David Boring, the protagonist and narrator of the eponymous graphic novel by Daniel Clowes. Again and again I pick up the pages I photocopied before I returned this excellent book to the library; I look at David's face, as blank as one would expect from an experienced mortician, and at his words, which I know at this point by heart and whose starkness, scribbled thin on the page like etching on metal, I've come to love:

Here, by some miracle of circumstance, I was, naked, about to have sexual intercourse with what the consensus of the day would have held as a perfectly beautiful woman.... The breathy noises trailed off and I couldn't help but feel that at any moment she might extract herself from the situation and dash off to a just-remembered party to mingle in her natural element among B-list actors and the children of millionaires.

And then, much later, as things wind down he writes:

We've stopped worrying about the police. Or even the cloud of poisonous microbes that is surely wafting toward us. We've been trying to live peacefully, without regret or foreboding, mindful of a return to living in the present rather than for an imagined future.... We graciously accept this happy ending, and recognize it as such: a suspended pocket of stillness between climax and oblivion....

I go through my notes and ephemera and find things like this once in a while, and I'm shocked that I was able to forget collecting or writing it, even though everything about it (what I was thinking, where I scribbled it) comes back to me instantly. As I put it away I know I'll forget it again, which is why sometimes I just go around my room, pulling folders, books, photographs from the shelves, leafing through them, trying to construct some kind of mental scaffolding around me, so that I can build things later, always later.

It becomes harder to write as time goes by, and when I see all the notes taken and projects half-finished, I do my best not to be overwhelmed, but I fail nonetheless. It's the same with books I buy, meaning to read, and with magazines I line neatly on the shelves, or stack on the floor.

Then there's the Web site, of course. I want to add the nice emails that have come in since I touched the Feedback section, put up more photographs in the Gallery, link to more Essays, talk a little about Books now set to appear with my name in them somewhere. The pages languish for months, and then in the middle of the night they get updated in a mad spurt. That's just the way it is. When I set up the Stats page I naively thought I could update it weekly, but I completely underestimated the sheer volume of strange search terms coming in daily. In the hours following the Timothy McVeigh execution, more than a hundred people dropped in looking for an "execution photo." Well, they got Ruth Snyder in the electric chair; I hope that satisfied their curiosity.

New colors

If I can't devote all my time to something, often I don't set aside any time at all, playing around with little things instead. I'm mesmerized by shifting the colors on these familiar photos, for example. I can do this for hours.

New colors

Like old friends they comfort me. And I'm not the only one, apparently. I found a German site linking to these photographs, remarking how in the fast food-like, kitsch-saturated landscape of images and templates, their lyrical originality catches the eye. At least, that's what I think it says. I couldn't help noticing, as well, that less than three weeks away from 34, I'm "ein junge Mann" once again...

Does that mean I have time to do everything I want to do in life?

New colors

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