Insistence of Memory

I got chickenpox, mumps, and measles. I had my tonsils out—an operation that required an overnight stay –when I was in 3rd grade because they had been the source of repeated infections. I bounced through cases of flu and other passing illnesses. Years later, I had mononucleosis during the first semester of college. Nothing keeps us from bumping into some microscopic problem. And forget about the web of mysteriously genetic and environmental causes that lead to Parkinson’s Disease or Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma—the two illnesses that plagued my parents—but that was on the distant horizon.

I read Alistair MacLean’s novel The Satan Bug—in which a mutant virus threatens to wipe out humanity—in the 7th grade. In a world that lived under the menace of nuclear war, a biological threat was quieter and almost less tangible, and therefore more insidious. I traced these threats through films and books like The Andromeda Strain, Pursuit, and Rage. Even Close Encounters of the Third Kind used the possibility of a gas or disease outbreak to move the plot along. The insidious unseen nature of these gaseous or microscopic adversaries held my interest.

In my 20s, the HIV-AIDS epidemic galvanized my attention. How could it not? The emergence of a disease that would kill you after sexual intimacy staggered all of us who enjoyed the freedom afforded by birth control and an unshackled moral climate. We felt screwed (and not).

Whether fear or mordant curiosity drove me, I began to study viruses and epidemics with fury. The sudden spread of hemorrhagic fevers that Richard Preston (The Hot Zone) and Laurie Garrett (The Coming Plague) wrote about exacerbated my concern. It was impossible to moralize about what was coming—this wasn’t about sex. Deadly diseases lurked. Diseases have always been half a hair away. In Norfolk, a small park memorializes those who died during an outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1855. I lived a block away.

Still, in my 30s, I read Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.  And then, almost by accident, stumbled on reports of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918. I read Alfred W. Crosby’s America’s Forgotten Pandemic at some point in the late ’90s and then John Barry’s The Great Influenza when it came out in 2004. How could it be that we all knew about the Great War, but not the pandemic that occurred at the same time? We know about this now; Barry’s book made it to the bestseller list in 2020, but the memory of the pandemic faded in popular culture. I was surprised this past year when I realized that Mr. Gower’s son dies of influenza in It’s a Wonderful Life; it was the Spanish Flu. Where else was the pandemic?

So when COVID emerged in the winter of 2020, I was not surprised. After all, SARS and MERS had already flourished in their own specific ways. When it became clear that this would be more serious, I bought masks as soon as possible, kept my distance, washed my hands even more assiduously than usual, and settled in for the count. History provided stern warnings; I knew that a count—of cases and deaths—was coming.

We like to predict what will happen, and strangely enough, we tend to think that the future is unwritten. It is, and yet, for a good indication, look to the past. This is true whether you want to know what the weather will be like on May 14th or if there will be traffic on I-95 tomorrow morning. Yes, there are exceptions and random occurrences that will skew the numbers, but the past is all too reliable a guide. Fifty Million people have not died from COVID as died in the last great pandemic, nor have half a billion people contracted the disease. But our imagination does not need to stretch far to encompass those numbers. 675,000 United States citizens died in the influenza pandemic; that number is all too close to where we are headed this year. Yes, the population was smaller in 1918-19, but did anyone expect this to happen?

Over the past year, I gobbled down the numbers. I felt a strange intoxication with having a sense of where things were headed and seeing them move, painfully, sadly in that direction. Anthony Fauci, and most of the medical community, played Cassandra to a population that wished for another outcome. As if wishing could make it so. But what good did it do to know? What effect did my knowing have on anyone other than me? The numbers were a despairing gruel that neither nourished nor encouraged me. I had to wait them out. Eventually, I stopped reloading the numbers every hour and settled on the grim results that appeared each morning in the New York Times.

So what’s the point? Partly this: when you see it coming, get ready: hurricane, pandemic, or whatever is on the horizon of time and place. Get ready before you see it. You have been sick before; people have been sick around you. We should have known better, and our ignorance cost lives. The obvious is always right there. Yes, while knowledge can be overwhelming, there must be a sweet spot: enough information to teach us and lead us into productive discomfort without flooding us into anxious inaction The only way we learn is by exposure.

But there’s something more.

There must be a reason that the pandemic of 1918-19 disappeared from memory. Why and what do we forget? We forget, or remember selectively, and not just about events like pandemics. I’m not aiming at what we don’t retain. As a teacher, I am too aware that students do not retain everything. I wonder why do we forget some things and not others? This is not a reflection just on this pandemic or the last or the run of diseases.  What else have I forgotten? I scramble to instill new habits and new awarenesses or avoid falling down the well of past practices. To borrow from Robert Creely, “[w]hat am I to myself that must be remembered, insisted upon so often”? But more, what have I failed to remember and insist upon?

We resume the remembered rhythms of our lives and return to our old habits and anxieties as if they were never interrupted. Repetition has essential gravity and draws us back. Except sometimes some things should interrupt us. The persistent nudge of discomfort—that we do have something new to learn and some new way to behave—should goad us onto a new course. Except, we stay the course and return to the known, even if it is a life half-lived.

I can (and I suspect that I will) point to the world and shout, “J’accuse! You forgot!” I shout at myself. I must insist that I remember—or that I remember to insist. I write in the face of forgetting, in the face, to borrow once more from Creely, of “the tiredness, the fatuousness, [and] the semi-lust of intentional indifference.” I must return to the hard work of insistence.

The pandemic passes, the lessons must not.

Certainty, News, and the Way Ahead

I grew up reading the news. We did not watch it in my house; my mother felt that the news, which included reporting from Vietnam, was too ugly (her word) for her sons. Keep in mind, this was the same mother who read Edgar Allan Poe to us at bedtime. However, my father brought home the Philadelphia Bulletin every night—back when the Bulletin was Philadelphia’s evening newspaper. He also had Time magazine delivered weekly, and my brothers’ names were often on the subscription. Whether my father was honoring us or getting a new subscriber’s bonus, who knows? I read both.

Later in life, I listened to Philadelphia’s all-news radio station KYW-1060 and grew inured to the rhythm of repeated stories. If they were updated over the course of hours, I noticed. Even later, when I was a night owl, I would slot in my 35 cents for a freshly delivered morning paper. A newspaper and breakfast before bed was near to heaven.

Cable news in its early iteration varied little from the repeated scroll of radio news. That was no matter in Philadelphia, which delayed the spread of cable TV until I was on my way to grad school and other obsessions. Nowadays, whatever used to be journalism has faded out of reportage to be replaced by a carnival barker’s promotion of something like the news. Reporting is more about the changing opinions than the changing facts. The internet does better, providing repeated updates of the day’s events: everything from the stock market to an ambassador arriving in Bahgdad to a 3-2 count on a hitter in the fourth inning of a baseball game in Seattle. Information pours out. At first, it came through the box on my desk, but then it glimmered miraculously from my phone. I pay attention.

I get obsessive. I chase the news with the same intensity that I once chased down sources in the library. And worse. I sit as rapt as I had when I churned through drafts of stories until 7 o’clock in the morning—if I slept at all.

I recognize that I had fallen into the trap that Henry David Thoreau noted back in 1854 when he claimed that “[h]ardly a man takes a half hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels.” I felt that if I knew, then I could be one of life’s sentinels. On guard, on the post, always. There was no radio, no television, and no internet, and still, he bemoaned the obsession with “news.” Go figure, our national illness.

I tried to know everything. When my family gathered, we were all expected to hold forth on any topic of the day: popular music, politics, foreign affairs, movies, the weather. Our knowledge was expected to be sweeping and insightful. I could not understand people who did not consume—and comment on—news as we did. My father spent hours wringing information from the Wall Street Journal and passed that fervor onto his sons. My mother, despite herself, had some news station, finally settling on NPR, blaring in the background.

It was too much. This past year’s perpetual blast of breaking news—the fires, the politics, the case numbers—drove me to distraction. And I realized that I had been distracted for years. I don’t believe that “ [a]s for Spain, for instance, if you know how to throw in Don Carlos and the Infanta, and Don Pedro and Seville and Granada, from time to time in the right proportions…  it will be true to the letter, and give us as good an idea of the exact state or ruin of things in Spain.” While there are recognizable patterns to history—and history’s first draft—the distinguishable differences are meaningful and worth noticing. And yet, the news can pile up.

Thoreau was on to something, if only that our drive to know masks another deficit: a feeling that life is out of our control. Information is the salve to uncertainty, but it’s snake oil, especially when opinion is disguised as fact.

Writing, for all my appreciation of the uncertainty, is about control. At the very least, and perhaps the very most, I control when I write and that I write. As for the what, well, I take a gentle hand, relying on surprise and a fair amount of chance. Yet, I am aware that no writer, short of a few Dadaists, Postmodernists, or Pornographers, slaps words on the page and waves, “Voila!” I avoid Prufrock’s “hundred visions and revisions”; I don’t have time for such nonsense. The work needs to be done.

During the first draft, I write to discover—just as I listen to the news to find out what is happening in the world. I research my subject the same way I study how the new vaccines work. I have learned (painfully and too slowly) that I must write to the point where I do not know what will happen next; there must be surprises. I go back, organize the words, and develop the surprises, letting them, and not all my preplanned ideas, serve as guides. The writing must be out of control for me to find control. Otherwise, it all falls flat. That was not an easy lesson. No one can stand that—not the reader and not the writer. Not this writer.

This past year, while everything felt out of control: the fires in Australia, the pandemic, my mother, the election, and its aftermath, I charged back into the news. Did knowing all about it help me? Maybe. But knowing got in the way of the creative uncertainty that I needed to engage. I have spent years wielding some kind of authority, and like it or not, that has been the death of my creative life. I do not know how other writers do it. So, for now, I am backing away from the news, cutting the cable, and heading back into the unknown.

Emily Dickinson writes about the “Route of Evanescence”—the road of fleeting possibility. Take her advice. This way can be daunting, especially for someone who likes—no, loves to know. You too write to be in control, except, finally, we are not. But the route Dickinson so briefly and beautifully delineates is one way to uncover the mysteries that wait: “Some mail from Tunis, soon.” So must it be. The unknown and fleeting. Get there.

Writing, the pandemic, and distraction

Writing during the pandemic has been difficult. Each day I felt the tap-tap-tap of news on my shoulder. The muse grew silent and was replaced by an incessant whisper about infection rates, intubations, and death tolls. Sometimes the whisper roared into a press briefing, and I listened, wanting to know, firsthand, not trusting the arbiters of history to tell me what was what.

To be fair, since AIDS swept over the landscape, I have been virus-obsessed. I read about pandemics in the 80s and 90s. Diseases are one of the secret threads that weave in and out of history. When COVID-19 struck, I felt enmeshed in an account that I already knew, but that did not make me any less interested. I watched and listened as the tale unfolded, aware of the habits that surround such events. None of the rhetoric or the inaction surprised me, which is not to say that I hoped for better or despaired when the all too predictable happened. I take solace in the knowledge that it was not as bad as it might have been.

Still, it was a distraction. Add in the other distractions in my life, and writing has been difficult.

I have written about distraction before here, and about listening to the muse. Until the pandemic, I spent a day each week writing in noisier spaces—surrounded by art and people. Throughout my writing life, I have gotten much when surrounded by others. The presence of human voices and human effort inspires me. When I write, I am conscious of the conversation that surrounds my words, and I add my words to that conversation. Sometimes the conversation is less grand than a response to the announcement of Ashurnarsirpal II of his greatness. It may be a polite transactional response to the sale of a napoleon and coffee—the man at the counter has them waiting for me before I reach the front of the line—at the Courtyard Café in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Words—even these—are little more than transactions. We like to romanticize the expressive characteristics of language—the eternal “I am here!” Yet, even that is meant to turn a head or stop a step. Even the king, especially the king, wants to be noticed. Otherwise, why speak? The transaction here is less quantifiable. A friend once asked, “What do you see your work leading to?” It was a marketing question, and it’s a fair question. As a budding novelist, I am aware that at their hearts, novels are a commercial form—a grand transaction requiring the enduring attention of a reader. The request each word makes is: “Keep reading.”

Each word also requests, “Keep writing.” In this way, words are kind of tricky, and, if you will, like a virus, creating the conditions for their replication and spread. I’m not sure what the words actually spread (more words?)—the ideas and quality of the writing do not seem to matter so much (a terrifying thought to a writer who attempts something more). Of course, lousy writing will fail (mostly), and like a virus that cannot find a host, it disappears. I will not extend the metaphor; I have viruses on my mind.

Perhaps what writing creates is attention: the attention of the writer who creates it and the reader who what? interprets it? Consumes it? Well, let’s settle on: reads it. During the pandemic, other viruses have taken possession of my attention. Enough. It’s time to give into my original illness.

The Music of Effort

I start paying attention after 17 minutes or so — the meter on the elliptical estimates that I am burning 24.3 calories every minute. I am about halfway through the current “run,” and I will burn through 720 calories in 30 minutes and well over 800 when I include the five minutes of cool-down time that the machine grants me at the end of the workout. I get pissed because the timer starts as soon as I start moving my feet, and the first 15 seconds are “slow.” I make up for it. After a five minute break, I jump on another machine that allows me to take longer strides, and run for 12 minutes, aiming for 7-minute miles. It’s a workout.

This is not about working out.

I listen to music while I work out. My playlist is a series of hard and fast (mostly) rock and roll songs. If you were in the gym with me, you would see me silently singing along. “Need a little time to wake up. Need a little time to wake up, wake up. Need a little time to rest your mind. You know you should, so I guess you might as well…” Or  “Save the strong, lose the weak—never turning the other cheek. Trust nobody, don’t be no fool. Whatever happened to the golden rule?” Or, “Touch me, take me to that other place. Reach me, I know I’m not a hopeless case. What you don’t have, you don’t need it now. What you don’t know, you can feel it somehow. What you have you don’t need it now, don’t need it now.” Or “We’re going boom, boom, boom, and that’s the way we live.” There are others.

This is not about the music I listen to while I work out.

When I was a swimmer—in high school, college, and after—there was no music in the pool—at least no music that wasn’t already in my head. I had a much shorter playlist then—just a four or five songs any given day that I played over and over again in my head while I churned through mile after mile. I had a little hortator pounding away, beat after beat, distracting me from the pain in my shoulders and knees, guiding me through the agony of hard work. When I took swimming back up, there was a waterproof mp3 player that took over that task, but by then, I felt swum out — besides, it’s hard to sing with your face in the water. Drowning.

Seriously, this is not about music and workouts.

Several years ago, I tipped my hat to loud music in a sermon that praised the virtues of Rock and Roll as a way to access the spiritual. I noted how Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars” worked up to and encouraged a communal moment of dance/rave. I pointed to U2’s “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” as a memoir about the discovery of the Ramones by someone “young, not dumb, and wishing to be blinded.”  It might as well be my memoir. Or yours. Rock and Roll has the power to blind us, the way a flash of lightning blinds us. There are times when we need to be blinded, when we need to erase all the sordid images of the day from our mind’s eye so that we can start fresh, and see with new eyes, hear with new ears, and feel with newly opened arms. Or something like that.

When I work out, I play music that beats back the exhaustion of the day, and that transports me into the steady hard effort that burns an extra few calories and raises my heartbeat to 170 beats a minute. I don’t want much—just a kind of blindness. And yet, I’m not blind to any of it. I feel all the effort—I love it—every ache, every heartbeat, every drop of sweat. The music helps me break through the “tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-lust of intentional indifference.” I sweat “with a decent happiness.”

I play music while I write. Listening to the same piece helps me reenter the dream with the same mood. Unlike Annie Dillard, who demands a Spartan silence while she works, I need the wall of sound. Maybe this is because I spent years with a sound in my head while I sped through the pool in repeated max-effort swims. I have an affinity for noise and the distraction of the world. After all, I am, always, writing about the world—how could it be a distraction? Yes, there are moments when the actual world fades, when the world made of words engulfs me, and when I get blinded, properly and completely blinded by the work.

I wish that experience for any and every writer. Whatever it takes to get you properly and completely consumed by the world that you strive to create, do it. If silence gets you there, find a quiet place. If noise and distraction get you into the state of mind that produces all the words, then find that noisy place and work it.

As I revised my novel, I discovered that my book needed a scene or two—how did I leave THAT out? (I know why. I wasn’t ready to write it, not yet.) And so, knowing that the magic of Gorecki’s Symphony Number 3 was not going to generate the energy that these scenes needed, I dug into the catalog and pulled out Led Zepplin’s “When The Levee Breaks,” because weeping and moaning were ahead. And, yes, that song is on the workout playlist. When it plays, I feel the story coming from the muscles in my arms and legs—not just my head. I breathe deep, my heart races, and the words flow like sweat. Fortunately, I like to sweat.

If it keeps on raining, levee’s goin’ to break. Let it break, I’m ready for the onslaught—bright and loud.

 

Distractions

The past week I have been distracted by the possibility that my country would once again go to war in the Middle East/Central Asia—in Persia. The thought transfixed me and kept me up at night. I have no control over the policy of my country—besides the meager franchise I exercise. Who, after all, is going to listen to a 59 year old English teacher? That said, I have little doubt that policy, even policy set by people with greater expertise than I possess, has been ramshackle and reactive over the past 50 years. Longer. Without a clear and positive vision of what we support—say, the spread of human rights—my country ends up defining its mission in terms of what it does not want—not communism, not Islamic Fundamentalism, not terrorism. When a positive goal is enunciated—we want the free flow of oil—that goal tends to be acted on only in a self-serving and too often militaristic fashion.

Too often this misses the point. Those with the oil want to sell the oil. Naturally, they also wanted to possess the oil first, and then, of course, to sell it.

But this is true of any commodity, or anything one has that is valuable, whether that is a resource found under the ground or made by the work of hands. And even if one does not wish to sell—to escape the cycle of commodification—one wishes control over that which one possesses or makes.

I am sitting in a museum while I write this. I am surrounded by works of Alexander Calder. They are gifts, but he also sold them. There is a fabulous photograph of his workshop in this gallery.

I wonder what distracted him, if he was distracted by the world around him?

When I look at any of the works of art at the National Gallery, I do not immediately think of the dates and the events that were taking place in the world at any given time. Art is timeless in a way. And it is not. I am reminded that horror in the world was never limited to acts of overt war, but that it proceeded—and proceeds—in an endless stream of cruelty and misfortune. And yet, in all times, there has been art.

Maybe we keep art in a box—even when it responds directly to the events of any given era (as contemporary art more pointedly and more often) does. Artists (and writers) also have something which they make. Maybe they need to stay in a box, to ignore the world and engage in the process. This seems like a fairly effete vision of art. While there is something self-serving about making art (my vision!), art only lives when it enters the world, partakes of the world, and reflects the world in all its grizzly terrible presence. The horrible beautiful world.

So, I am reminded while I am distracted, to include the world in my work, even as a reflection in some fragmented shards of a broken mirror. This too.