As a young man something I’d read of Hemingway and never understood until the day I spent yesterday looking at paintings in The Cone Collection at The Baltimore Museum of Art, something autobiographical, stayed with me all these years: as a young man living in Paris, very poor of course as his own story goes, Hemingway visited The Louvre daily to look at the paintings there, especially Matisse as I remember it, and made a point of saying so in the memoir he wrote as a much older man about his time in Paris.
All these years I’ve misunderstood what I’d read in Hemingway, thinking then he was meaning to say that he was getting something to feed himself as a young writer from looking at the paintings. It wasn’t until I looked at the Matisse’s in Baltimore that I saw how wrong I was: Hemingway was simply hungry, starved for what was in the pictures, for if you stand long enough in front of them they fill you up.
At The National Gallery in Washington D.C, for where else could the national gallery be, I discover Cubism again. It happens in the West Wing in the presence of my wife Lea Ann and the museum guard Marylyssa Smith.
There’s a beautiful Picasso and an even more beautiful Braque there. I go up close to one of the Braque’s, “Harbor”, as close as I can without touching it, and see what I’ve never seen about Cubism before: that it breaks down the beauty of a thing into its component parts, and then invites the viewer to reassemble the broken thing into a new thing of his or her own making.
Looking at the painting I remember reading somewhere that Braque would never answer the telephone without first putting on his gloves. I’ve always loved that story, whether it’s true or isn’t true.
(below) Marylyssa Smith, museum guard, and Lea Ann Roddan, in front of a Picasso at the National Gallery, June 22, 2019. Marylyssa says she likes Cubism but prefers the Vermeer's and Rembrandt’s in the West Wing.
She says, “my father never told the same story twice...heck, he never told the same story once.”
He says, “I remember my grandmother using words like ‘Lordy’ and ‘the dickens’.”
They’re sitting and waiting in the laundromat on their clothes, first for them to be washed and then for them to be dried.
During the wash cycle there are a couple of kind, gentle people to talk to—an older lady dressed in a white t-shirt and bright red Adidas sweatpants and her grandson who’s going to Europe for three weeks later in the summer—but they began their waiting a good hour earlier and get up and leave the laundromat the moment their laundry’s dry and their clothes folded and put away in the bag they use for such things.
Meanwhile, the owner of the laundromat, at least I presume it’s the owner, has placed a stack of books on one of the ‘folding’ tables for people like us—people waiting on their laundry in a laundromat—to read while they’re waiting for their laundry. Unfortunately, they’re the kind of books written by writers who write books to be read by people who belong to bookclubs: therefore, neither of them are interested in any of the books. And so she sits and he sits and they watch their clothes tumble around, first in the soapy water of the washer and then in the hot air of the dryer.
As he watches their laundry go round and round in the dryer, he thinks, ‘fortunes used to be made in cotton and tobacco but now fortunes are made in laundromats, quarter by quarter.’ He doesn’t know what she thinks but he thinks she would agree with what he’s thinking.
At the movie in Asheville, people laughed at all the wrong things. Rather they laughed when I least expected them to or laughed at things I didn’t find funny, and didn’t laugh at all at the things I laughed at.
After the movie—a sweet, somewhat comic cinematic tale of teenagers and their cultural/sexual identities that caused me to wonder afterward ‘what did I just see?’ though not in the same way seeing a Bergman film, for instance, always causes me to think ‘what did I just see?’—I wondered: is ‘Booksmart’ one word or two?
Walking to the RV after the movie, a sudden downpour shifted everything in my thinking. Maybe the movie had more information for me than I thought it had, and that by seeing it again I’d understand why the people had laughed at things I hadn’t found funny and why I had laughed at things they hadn’t.
The convocation is interrupted: Pretty Boy Floyd has robbed yet another bank and the state troopers have posted a dragnet, closing all roads from Macon to Milledgeville. The police sirens are deafening.
We at the convocation, which is called a “symposium” in the marketing materials, stop talking. Any word that might be said from this point forward becomes an act of listening rather than of speaking. We’d been sitting outside in a nice semi-circle behind the big white house talking literature amongst ourselves and then, rather suddenly we all got perfectly quiet.
Just before we vote to temporarily disperse, the quietest one among us says, “now our gathering has become a symposium of empty lawn chairs.”
Dispersing, some of us get up and go inside the big house and some of us go for a walk in the woods.
The path is narrow, the trees tall, the insects whirr. A snapping turtle breaks wind in the pond. Then it’s as silent as it is hot and as hot as it is silent. We keep walking. Some of us slap mosquitoes with our right hand, some with our left. The atmosphere feels almost as swampy as truth, serenaded by a backup-band of police sirens in the unseeable distance.
“Gee whiz” one of us says, breaking the hot silence, “this is just like walking through one of those amazing stories by Flannery O’Connor.”
After two days in Memphis I finally ‘understand’ William Eggleston and why his photographs are so acclaimed and considered so wonderful, though first I must pass through four museums and two nights of sleeplessness to come to this understanding.
Graceland, where Elvis is buried beside his parents Vernon and Gladys Presley in the Mediation Garden beside the swimming pool, is Museum #1. The Sun Records Studio where Elvis cut his first hit record, “That’s All Right Mama”, is Museum #2. Museum #3 is the marvelous Stax Museum near the intersection of College and McLemore where Elvis isn’t even a ghost but the real live ghosts of Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, Rufus Thomas and Albert King and so many other worthwhile musicians are delivered straight into my ears. Museum #4? The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel. This is where I’m panhandled at the entrance and exit, before and after the exhilarating four-hour history lesson on innate American white supremacy, both fact-finding mission and guilt-trip, culminating with racist white man James Earl Ray shooting civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from a boardinghouse as King stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in 1968.
From Memphis I drive to Trace State Park, near Tupelo, Mississippi and camp for the night. Exhausted, I sleep like a photograph of a dream I’m having of a mosquito who turns into a poet and then a short-story writer and finally into a novelist. It’s the best night’s sleep I’ve had since I left Jackson.
Eggleston? His photographs investigate the tension between the ‘official’ story and the ‘real’ story. Some are uncanny this way, either allowing me to see that all the better days to come are available right here in the present, or forcing me to imagine I am either the artist Jacque-David Louis painting Marat/Sade or Marat/Sade himself.
Somewhere between Norman, Oklahoma and Port Arthur, Texas I was gifted with the idea of a ‘driverless RV’, at least I’m taking credit for the idea: I actually worked with a team.
We’d meet at a German restaurant not far off the interstate and sit in the beer garden there and drink beer brewed from kernza, the ‘new’ wheat I engineered several years ago that’s a perennial, not an annual, and for which I won both the Nobel Prize and the Congressional Medal of Honor, accepting that award, by the way with no other than Tiger Woods and from no other than President Donald J. Trump in a ceremony at the Rose Garden at The White House.
The testing of the vehicle is nearly complete. I’m pleased to report, no I’m excited to report, as they say in the language of corporate literature, that I was a passenger yesterday in the prototype model of ‘driverless RV’ for 1.2 miles along an empty stretch of road on Pleasure Island near Port Arthur, while reclining on one of the two beds in the rear of the vehicle and drinking a 16 oz. Lone Star beer.
I’ve entered into negotiations with Google and Elon Musk to partner on the project. The rollout is expected this fall. Patents are pending also for a ‘makerless frozen yoghurt machine’, a ‘one person roll-up potable toilet’ that can be conveniently carried in a small backpack or purse, and a bug repellent made of peanut butter.
Prototype of the world’s first ‘driverless RV’, parked amongst eighteen wheelers in a rest stop alongside Interstate 10 east of Houston, Texas.
Thomas Fuller, a writer I publish and cherish, is now living in Sterling, Kansas. I stopped in Sterling and spent a couple of days with the enigmatic Fuller who seems, finally, to have found a place that suits him as well as San Francisco once suited him, long before the dotcom gold rush.
”Sterling is real,” Fuller said while greeting me, “and we can live here quietly and within our economic resources.”
Fuller lives with the artist Muriel Schnaps, and is working on a new novel, a book he says will be “somewhere between poetry and science-fiction”, provisionally titled, “The Autobiography of Poetry.”
After dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant we go on an evening stroll. The neighborhoods we walk through are quietly leafy, that is you might hear leaves falling if it was fall, and interspersed with big well-preserved turn of the century homes, ranch style 1950, one-of-kind handbuilts, solid brick, Victorian, even a Frank Lloyd Wright prairie derivative. No two homes seem to be alike. The streets are wide. Main Street is charming, not precious but real, with coffee shops, a market, bank, offices, and feels lived in and still useful to the people who live in Sterling. At some point we walk beside the lake, where a scene in the movie made of William Inge’s “Picnic” was filmed.
Fuller’s happy, as happy as I’ve ever known him to be. When I tell him his latest novel “The Classical World” is back ordered, mostly by college and university library’s, he smiles and then quickly changes the subject, showing me some of Muriel’s latest paintings and a binder of cartoons that she’s made since moving to Sterling with him, including the one below.
Sterling Lake, Sterling, Kansas, May 13, 2019.
Cartoon by Muriel, 2016.
Not sure I could live here. Too many people that are like me, and the altitude—7,000 ft.—too rarefied, a little too extreme, though the locals say it keeps the place cooler in summer than Albuquerque or Phoenix. Too much art, rather too many galleries in which there’s not enough art. The Georgia O’Keefe Museum. O’Keefe the Joan d’ Arc of Contemporary Art. I’m not suggesting O’Keefe self-bestowed this appellation, only that it was bestowed upon her by others both before and after her death when it was, by then, too late to confirm or deny. Agnes Martin, late painter of whom I have an almost otherworldly regard, lived for years in Cuba, New Mexico, a small town a couple of hours from Santa Fe in which we stop for coffee. The coffee may be the worst coffee in the world, it’s that bad, but the town is kind of sweet, in that it doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. It’s a day later, the day after I throw the coffee away, that I learn Agnes Martin lived in Cuba and made some of her best paintings there, before she moved to Galisteo where she lived before she too passed away.
I used to be in advertising, a copywriter.
I worked with an account executive who would come into my office minutes before he was to leave for a client meeting, in which he was expected to present an ad campaign and for which he had the layout but not the copy, and say, “can you give me a couple of lines of poetry?”
O to live in a world of purified sentences.
On the road I ask myself, “am I someone who lives or only pretends to live.”
Everything I’m interested in seeing is off the road, the further off the road the more interesting, but I don’t have time to see it, I’ve got to be somewhere else tomorrow.
The mission at my age is to slightly expand my world, a little at a time, but not to overflow it.
Driving the interstate, one must be ever vigilant not to exceed ones limit of driving – that is, not to drive any longer than it takes to read a long novella at one sitting or a light entertainment, one of the detective novels by the late John D. MacDonald that I used to consume like candy when I was young: that is, two hours.
Driving the interstate the landscape is junk except when it isn’t and then it’s a parade of trees, lakes, rivers, and magnificent raptors soaring in from Mount Shasta. Common birds, if any bird can be called common, hug the interstate—crows, ravens—close to the source of their major food supply, roadkill. Trucks, carrying everything we need to build our houses and fill our shelves rumble along in the slow lane, except when one of them wants to pass another truck and takes over the fast lane, slowing cars, which they outnumber now 2 to 1, to a 60 mph crawl.
Eight hours of driving and I’m done. I haven’t had one thought I can hang onto. I pull off the road and check into a Best Western, asking for a quiet room because I’m a writer. Mason, the night clerk, puts me on the third floor. I plop down on the bed and close my eyes, but it’s no use it’s like I’m still driving. I turn on the TV. Every hotel room in America should be required to have C-SPAN, as every hotel room offers the Gideon Bible, but the Best Western doesn’t offer C-SPAN, so I hit the remote to ESPN and watch the Lakers play the Jazz.
The idea—to paint circles by hand in homage to Giotto—was disrupted the moment I told someone that I was making a painting made of handmade circles in homage to Giotto, the artist who’s said to be the first artist ever to be able to draw a perfect circle by hand.
The circles I drew by hand were not perfect; they were so imperfect in fact that I had to use language to rescue them from their imperfections by writing, “as long as the circles I draw end up connecting back up to themselves I will consider them to be circles.”
From that point forward, a point that occurred 4 weeks ago, after I had made dozens upon dozens of handmade circles, I saw that my mission as a painter painting this particular painting was to somehow bring all the circles together, the perfect with the imperfect.
I use a brush to make my circles, applying paint to the brush and going from there and if that doesn’t work I use stencil, tracing a circle with a small pencil I keep in my golf bag to keep my score if and when I keep score. There’s something to be said about seeing brush strokes in a painting—for the painter to leave them there as they are and for the spectator to see the hand in them.
I’m now rapidly approaching that time in the life of every painting when the painter loses the painting and the painting he thought he was making doesn’t make sense to him anymore. This is the Reverse Gear of Actual Excitement, in which I’m strapped to a rocket ship and transported to a place as strange and unnatural as Daylight Savings Time.
My circles now appear to be overcoming or trying to overcome other circles, to cannibalize their brothers and sisters and propogate at the same time, so rapidly that I’m led to believe I’m creating a brand new planetary system in which the painting itself will soon outgrow its surface.
A story doesn't have to tell a story if it’s well written; this is true now as it wasn’t in the days before what is now known as literature existed, when everything written and passed down as worth reading had to have a story at its heart, e.g. ancient Greek literature, biblical lore, Aesop’s fables. Most pre-literature stories aren’t particularly well-written and, furthermore, might not or would not be published today, i.e. would not pass muster as being publishable to those in control of the literate media who now determine what is literature, regardless of the merits of the story being told. In fact, the quality of the story as a story might be held against it, or held in equal contradistinction to the quality of the writing, the writing itself having more weight, more heft than the quality of the story. Thus the newer moderately well-read reader may claim to admire writing that has little or no story, or a story that relies solely on the writing itself, or even a story that has no story, only simulates a story by having a beginning and an end. This newer reader is mostly offered, by those more intelligent than he and much better read, things that are so well-written that they don’t need a story, a story might only detract from the writing, the writing being paramount. The new reader reads a story for the writing, with as much devotion and love of literature as those in the past read when they were reading mostly for the story.
Have I become someone beyond caring?
Someone who doesn’t care, who’s let it all go without knowing what he’s let go?
I can’t see a future without it, what I can’t see that is, what I don’t care about.
I make the slightest excuse to visit even if it requires a detour.
Only place in town where I wish I had a dog.
Reading Hannah Arendt’s foreword to the Walter Benjamin book, “Illuminations” and for the first time understanding why Arendt is held in such esteem by so many good thinkers.
Understanding, as I read Arendt, the full meaning of the word ‘flaneur’, and how the meaning is embodied in the life of Benjamin, the time he spent in Paris, and the urban planning imposed on the city that made it possible for a flaneur to persevere.
Not looking at my iPhone and therefore granting myself my very own 15 minutes of complete privacy, which I imagine to be far better than fame,
Tasting the sun as I would a cup of coffee.
I wonder who lives in the grand tower building across the street, and if there is a doorman.
Not having to go anywhere I don’t want to go or to see anyone I don’t want to see.
Where am I?