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Thursday, June 21, 2012

To be published who knows when

This is an excerpt from the novel I am only partially working on at the moment. It will come after the book I am mainly working on at the moment, so it's a long way off. 

There are some things about yourself that you will never know: strengths, weaknesses, what you could have done, what you should have done. You probably wonder about these things from time to time, especially when you find yourself in unfulfilling or badly paid employment. Surely, you think, you could be doing something more (however it is you define "more") than creating spreadsheets. And probably you're right. Though, maybe you shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the value of a good spreadsheet. After all, take a look at any great empire and you'll find that efficiency was usually at the heart of its success. 

Indeed, more often than not, the answer to these would-have/should-have/could-have queries is a simple "no." Such as when you're watching football and think: "I wonder if I would have made a good pro quarterback." 

 No. No, you would not. You have terrible aim, you are no good at making decisions under pressure, and -- due to a slight genetic defect -- both your right and left clavicle are particularly thin and prone to break easily. You don't know this because you've never been hit hard enough. However, one slightly high tackle from an NFL defensive lineman would snap your collarbones like autumn twigs. The pain would be excruciating and the injury would take a full nine months to heal properly. You would miss training and preseason of the next year. During which time, local and national press articles, fans' Facebook and Twitter updates, and an unfortunately popular YouTube video would paint you as brittle and a detriment to the team. The backup quarterback, meanwhile, would show incredible promise and you would not get a chance to return to the field until late October. When you finally did, rusty and lacking confidence, you would throw an interception during your first drive. You would be given exactly three plays to redeem yourself (the following drive) before being unceremoniously benched. Your team would finish 5-11 for the season and somehow the blame would be placed on your (frail) shoulders. The next year, you would be traded to some god-awful expansion team in the Southwest, where the fans are so bandwagon they're not even sure of the team's name. After two more dismal seasons you would retire, open a barbecue restaurant, and spend the rest of your days serving as spokesman for a used car dealership and trying to hit on teenage girls at charity golf events. You are far better off sticking to spreadsheets. 

It is, of course, good that you wonder these things, though. It is good to examine one's life, to try to identify and pursue the most fulfilling path. So, it is right to try to find yourself, to try to figure out the most likely should-have scenario for your life and act upon it. Introspection, journaling, yoga, therapy, woodland retreats, Carl Hiaasen novels, etc. -- these are things you can use to learn about yourself. Other truths may be revealed by accident: through adversity, for instance. But still some things you will just never know. 

John, for example, did not know -- would never know -- that he would have made an excellent commander for the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet. His skills served him well enough as an author; they put food on the table. But they could have better served his country. His ability in creating characters, designing their lives and histories, and balancing all this in his head could have been transposed to the tasks of diplomacy and strategy. 

 This life path, however, would never once occur to him. It was a path that would not even formulate in his imagination were someone to suggest it. Being out on open water made him anxious. Once, taking the ferry from Cork to Swansea, he had found himself being unreasonably cautious -- alert to the location of every lifeboat, and calculating in his head how many seconds it would take to sprint to each one. Additionally, he possessed a general dislike of authority. These are things that could have been easily overcome, however. And he could have been one the most respected military minds the world had ever seen. But John didn't know that. 

Another thing he didn't know -- would never know -- was that he was anorexic.



Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Keeping an eye out for Ernest

In the summer of 1994, Beth and I worked together at the Sam's Club in Burnsville, Minnesota. Sam's Club, for our friends in the Soggy Nations, is a chain of wholesale stores that are part of the Walmart family of gigantic, soulless retail outlets. It is like a Costco. Or, at least, I assume it to be; I've never been to Costco. Partially that is because of some strange allegiance to Sam's Club, but more so because I have no need to buy things wholesale. I have enough trouble consuming a litre of milk before its expiration date.

The Sam's Club that Beth and I worked at is no longer there, which is no great loss. The huge, grey brick of a building was torn down at some indeterminable time in the past and replaced with a handful of other buildings that will also not be missed when they, too, are eventually torn down. At some point in history we in the Western world stopped building things with any sense of wanting them to stick around. In the United States, and more and more here in Her Majesty's United Kingdom, most things seem to be on a 20-year cycle.

What's interesting is that we not only tear down and replace the buildings every two decades or so, but often completely redesign the roads around that space. So, it is possible for a person to find himself completely lost in a place that was once more or less the centre of his little life. Some part of him thinks: "Did that summer even happen?" 

But I still get Christmas and birthday cards from Beth, so, I suppose it did.

I was still in the phase of always wearing a pen around my neck in those days -- a Uniball Micro Deluxe 0.5 mm, clipped to a bit of leather shoelace that I wore as a kind of necklace. It was my blatant attempt to copy Jeff Nelson, who had worn the same thing when we were in high school. Obviously, the goal of such a fashion accessory was to make one of those heavy-handed teenage declarations of identity: "I am a writer. So, I wear a pen around my neck. Because a pen is something you write with. And I'm a writer."

I didn't actually write all that much in those days, and I read even less. But I had a fondness for storytelling and an ever-present writing utensil, so I felt I was well on my way. For the most part, what I did in my late teens was talk to girls. It wasn't always flirting, necessarily. I just liked getting attention from girls. If I could make a girl laugh, it felt like more an achievement than making a guy laugh. I enjoyed it more, I felt more important.

So, I could often be found speeding through the cavernous aisles of Sam's Club trying to hunt down Beth because I had thought of something funny to say and wanted to tell it to her. I once ran up, placed an enormous ham in her hands, sang, "Hold my ham. I want you to hold my ham," to the tune of "Hold My Hand" by Hootie and the Blowfish, and ran away.

Because of the pen and the self-appointed "writer" title, Beth's nickname for me was "Hemingway." I pretended I didn't like that nickname, but really, I did. I really, really did. And it is only because of that nickname that I ever actually went to the trouble to read anything by Ernest Hemingway, having to that point managed to limit my field of literary knowledge to little more than Dave Barry, Henry Rollins and Douglas Adams. I read The Sun Also Rises which somehow led to my reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road -- thereby setting me on the well-worn path of just about every white American writer boy alive today.

It's cliché, but I still list Hemingway as one of my favourite writers. I still sometimes find myself copying things he did. For example, in the book I am working on now, there is a conversation between myself and an imaginary person. This is bald-faced theft of a trick Hemingway used in Death in the Afternoon.

What I do not copy, however, is Hemingway's famous brevity. He would not have used all the above words just to meander to this point: there is in Cardiff a road called Hemingway Road. And when I first came across it many years ago, I got all excited to think there might be some kind of previously-unknown-to-me connection between the author who had inspired me and the city I wanted to call my home.

"It's fate!" I thought. "This is some kind of a sign!"

In fact, the road is named after Robert Hemingway, a marginally successful 19th-century Cardiff businessman of no apparent relation to the great American author. Nonetheless, some part of me gets excited when I cross Hemingway Road, as one must always do when walking from Cardiff Bay train station to the restaurants and pubs of Cardiff Bay. I feel exotic in a way I can't quite explain. 

It is a feeling facilitated by Cardiff Bay station itself, I suppose. Now just a concrete platform, one can see it used to be something more. There is an old station building there, boarded up and with weeds growing from the chimney stacks. It sends your mind back to some past to which one is inclined to apply a kind of Instagram filter for the imagination. 

I imagine that inside -- hidden in a cobwebbed case -- there are dusty bottles of glorious, old, red wine. I imagine breaking in, streaks of sunlight exposing an old table and some old chairs. I would dust them off and somehow a young Ernest Hemingway would show up. He would dig one of the bottles from the case, hold it up to the dust-heavy light to try to read the label and then grumble something along the lines of: "Well, needs must."

He'd use the bottle as a way to launch into a story about driving through Spain with a matador and three whores, casually working and then pulling the cork as if it were punctuation in his narrative. He'd take the glasses and hold them at waist height, then pour the wine from about shoulder level, explaining it's an unpretty but effective means of allowing the wine to "breathe" quickly. From his bag he would pull sausages and bread and we'd sit and eat and drink and he'd teach me how to write a really amazing novel.

Or something like that.

I started a new job Monday. It's not a full-time, but, honestly, the only reason I care is the fact I remain financially strapped. What does that phrase even mean, by the way: "financially strapped"? I use it to mean that even with this job I will still not really be able to do things I want to do, like see my family at Christmas or buy a car or adequately fund our wedding. But, I find I want to do this job far more than any previous roles, so the money thing upsets me less. Before I was poor and doing work I found unfulfilling. Now I'll be poor and doing something I care about.

And they give me vacation time. And match my payments into a pension. I feel like a grown up. I have to wake up ungodly early, put on a suit and take the train into work. These are things that will almost certainly lose their novelty in, oh, mid-winter, but at the moment I think they are very cool. I think, also, that the building I work in is very cool. It is old, has been there at least 100 years (though, I would guess it to be closer to 150 years old) and it is believable to think it will be there some 100 years more. It is not a part of the 20-year cycle. I will be able to come back to it many years from now and not feel lost.

But one of the things I like the most is that I have a big window at my desk, which looks out upon Hemingway Road. The crumbling, old train station is right there in my view. Occasionally, I look up from my computer screen and see it in the corner of my eye. I feel a rush of that strange unexplainable excitement. If a young Ernest Hemingway ever turns up, I'll be ready.