It’s kind of a heady experience to discover that my essay, “Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist” (2007), has been cited in a cultural history published by Oxford University Press with cover art just this side of a Fabio bodice-ripper. If this sounds like your sort of intellectual titillation, check out Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire by Carol Dyhouse.
I am honored by the favorable attention given to “Hell and Reason” by Geoffrey Wieting in this review in the Boston Musical Intelligencer. If you’re wondering what you missed in the program that I presented with Christa Rakich at Old West Church in Boston last Sunday, Wieting’s piece provides both a summary of the essay that I read from, and a thoughtful analysis of Rakich’s inspired selection and performance of music. And though nothing compares to hearing a masterful live performance, this review may begin to give you a sense of what makes Fisk Opus 55 (the organ in Old West) one of Boston’s cultural treasures.
Behold, an explosive poster (designed by Dana Sigall) to promote a reading that I’ll be doing in Boston next week, in collaboration with the talented organist Christa Rakich. For more detail, visit the website of the Old West Organ Society. You can also preview the program here.
“Hell and Reason” Sunday, May 21, 2:30 pm Old West Church 131 Cambridge St, Boston, MA 02114
I’m pleased to announce the publication of a new essay entitled “Hell and Reason” in the Spring 2017 edition of the Georgia Review. The full text of “Hell and Reason” is available now on their website, and the even more attractive printed version should soon arrive in the mailboxes of subscribers. You can peruse the contents and order a print copy here.
“Hell and Reason” is about Charles Fisk, who worked, unknowingly at first, on the development of the atomic bomb, before later becoming a pre-eminent pipe organ builder. The essay is also an examination of the reasons why the bomb was created, then used, then spun into–and out of–history and mythology.
The Swedish translation of my essay “The Long Run” is now in print in this volume of travel narratives entitled Gränslös–which, I’m told, means “Without Borders.” When I received my copies in the mail this past weekend, I was pleased, but not quite sure how to honor the occasion. Reading the book was not really an option, as I don’t speak Swedish. I contemplated having a party at which I would read it aloud to my friends while throwing food around the room, Muppet-style, but that seemed a little disrespectful of my Grandmother Tongue. Instead, I just loaned the book to my one Swedish acquaintance here in Albuquerque. I hope she’ll enjoy reading it, and perhaps tell me what sort of fun the translator had with my words, and fill me in on the kind of company my essay will keep in this anthology.
If you know any Swedes who are interested in travel narratives, direct them to adlibris or bokus to purchase a copy.
It’s a dubious distinction to have the road to the town dump named for you. But that’s precisely what happened to Ann Fisk, (first wife of organ builder Charles Fisk, whose biography I am writing). To be fair, “Tin Can Annie” really earned the honor.
Back in the 1960s — long before recycling was a part of the zeitgeist — longer still before dumpster diving and freecycling were Things — Ann was a pioneer in these fields. Liberal ideals surely came into it, but there were more pragmatic reasons, too. Organ building is not a lucrative profession (in fact, you could do better financially waiting tables at the right sort of restaurant). For Ann, managing a household on what her husband brought home required a considerable measure of thrift. One of her strategies was to take the kids down to the dump on Saturday morning to see what was fresh on the pile. Some of their best finds were practical: clothes and shoes. Others were entertaining: her daughter Miranda once salvaged a dictionary so old that it defined a parachute as a safety device for evacuating a hot air balloon, and her son Si found a still-functional 8mm movie camera with just a slight defect in the mechanism for taking up the film.
Later, as a Rockport selectman, Ann worked to institute a municipal recycling program — a precursor to the kind of system that now allows most of us to leave our empty milk jugs in plastic bins by the curb. But instead of plastic bins, Rockport in the late 60s had the Fisk children. Ann drove around town and made them hop out and dash onto the porches of the houses that put out bundled newspapers for her recycling drives. Later, she arranged for the construction of the Swap Shop — basically a shed on dump grounds where useable and fixable items could be deposited or collected. It made dump picking a little more dignified. It endures to this day.
On a Friday afternoon when I was visiting Rockport last month, I persuaded the Fisk “kids,” Si and Miranda (who are now old enough and solvent enough to buy their own shoes), to take me to the dump for old time’s sake. I envisioned a historical re-enactment in the name of research. That is, I thought it would be edifying to talk about the Fisk family with Miranda and Si while doing something characteristic that the family used to do: searching through cast-offs for something useful or fun.
We met at the house where I was staying, piled into Si’s car, and drove to Ann Fisk Way. Unfortunately, there was a sign indicating that the dump was closed that afternoon, without explanation. But if anyone had a right to go to that dump when they pleased, it was the living descendants of Tin Can Annie herself; we flouted the sign and drove in. Nobody confronted us, but we didn’t linger, either. Perhaps the “kids” were relieved to have an excuse not to dig in. For a moment, Si eyed a freestanding toilet paper holder that would fulfill a present household need, though ultimately he decided that it savored too strongly of Someone Else’s Bathroom*. He climbed back into the car, and we drove away.
After dinner that evening, we screened the old family videos shot by Si on his 8mm dump camera, which Miranda had digitized. It was a mash-up of childhood scenes: a dog runs in circles while one kid pounds on another in what appears to be fun, at least for the assailant; kids use a rowboat in an unsafe manner; old cars cruise by; matronly women wear hats and sip drinks in somebody’s yard; mailboxes open and shut in an experiment with stop motion animation. Then a younger version of Miranda leaps from the rowboat in a ruffled bathing suit. Young Si pulls on his courier bag to begin his paper route. I think I see fleeting glimpses of Charlie and Ann, in the scene where they’re shoveling off the surface of the frozen lake to play hockey, but it’s hard to tell for sure. Like many home movies of that era, the action seems to race, frame by frame, to outpace the clock; people do not move with the same fluidity they do in life. And whatever the auteur’s artistic sensibilities may have been, he was a kid with a damaged camera he found at the dump. The movie is, on one hand, nearly useless for telling me anything of significance about the family that they were. On the other hand, it is a revealing artifact unsurpassed in its authenticity, for all its inscrutable details.
It’s true, last month’s dump picking expedition was a bust. I came away literally empty handed. Fortunately, most of my “real” research has been more productive. And yet, dump picking seems like an apt metaphor for the experience of digging into a personal history to write this biography. The research process has been largely about sifting through dusty old stuff in search of what remains useful. There are items that stink and items whose original use I cannot decipher, amidst all the metaphorical tuna cans and banana peels** (remnants of daily life), and a few real treasures that make it all worth the effort. The best moments of research/dump picking afford a satisfaction beyond mere entertainment. I imagine Miranda’s wonder, as a child, the moment she understood the world view of the lexicographer who had to define “parachute” without knowing that one day there would be planes.
— Corrections —
* After I shared this post with Si, he wished to clarify that the reason the toilet paper dispenser was unacceptable was that the rust patterns at the base were strongly indicative of pee splash. It’s not like he’s just too good for other people’s bathroom fixtures, in general.
** As Miranda points out: her mother would insist that these two items technically belong in the recycling and compost bins, respectively–not on the trash heap.
”If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.”
Charles Dickens was a man who got stuff done. “He edited a weekly journal for twenty years, wrote fifteen novels [weighty ones, at that!], five novellas, hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles, lectured and performed extensively, … and campaigned vigorously for children’s rights, education, and other social reforms,” sayeth Wikipedia.
According to Merrell Noden, in his 1988 Sports Illustrated article, “Frisky as the Dickens,” he also walked 20 miles a day. Noden and others seems to believe there’s a correlation between Dickens’ walking and his prodigious literary output. Walking was both a way to engage with his subject matter, “the teeming urban landscapes” of which he so often wrote, and a necessary antidote to the psychic torment of sitting at his desk. I know the feeling.
I was reminded of Dickens yesterday when I read that Lise Meitner, a luminary of twentieth century physics (and the namesake of element 109, meitnerium), walked ten miles a day. Apparently perambulation is good for creativity of all kinds.
So… maybe we should all step away from these screens and go for a walk. Ready? Go.