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Inadvertently

 

Journal Entry February 27, 2022: The oddness of our existence continues. Last week, because of scheduled school cancellation early in the week, Sue taught in person only one day, on Thursday, instead of twice. This week, because of a fierce ice storm, her Tuesday in-person teaching was called off again. Luckily, we learned of it a dozen minutes into our commute, in time to head safely back home before traffic got heavy. She'd again tutor in-person only on Thursday. Yesterday, at sunrise, the sun shown directly into our study window for the first time this year, a sure sign that we are headed for spring, and today we woke early to the sound of plows attacking the five or six inches of snow that fell overnight.

 

On those in-person teaching days in the past, I'd drop Sue off at the school and head for a coffee shop to while away the time before the local library opened. In this fiercer pandemic time, I avoid the coffee shop and visit our daughter's home for an hour or two. Often our daughter has already gone to work and her husband takes the kids off to school and then goes into his office. Yesterday, when I sat down on a couch near windows overlooking their back yard, I opened my briefcase and realized I'd forgotten to pack my laptop. The cord was there and a yellow pad and a small empty notebook and my journal, some pens, a second pair of eyeglasses, but no computer. The radio was on, and I sat there listening for at least an hour and a half to NPR reports about Russia's invasion of Ukraine and commentator speculation about the consequences. Then I packed up and went to the library.

 

After two years of pandemic, accelerated climate change, the threat of Republicans returning to power, and dangerously repressive Supreme Court decisions, a major war suggested the nearness of an apocalypse that we don't want to believe in. So, I am content to be in a very quiet space in the library, with only hints of snow flurries beyond the windows to connect me to the outside world. It was good to get away from hearing reports about yet another world crisis, but then I remembered a blog draft I started about how out of touch with the world I have been throughout my life.

 

That draft was on my laptop. My laptop was probably at home on my desk. Its cord was in my workbag on the library table. I could've driven back to Waukesha to fetch it but decided not to, though I wouldn't pick up Sue for another five hours—I drop her off at 7:00, pick her up at 2:30 or 3:00. In total that's an eight-hour day, six of them for me in the library. I looked at my cellphone to make sure I had no email I had to take personally—I didn't; I usually don't—but then turned it off to save the battery so we could contact each other later.

 

That meant I'd have no touch with my Facebook page or CNN, NPR, or BBC news or any of the links to the outside world my laptop usually provides. I'd see no ads, no commercials, no images of people's cats or dogs or backyard birds, no updated profile pictures or selfies, no shared articles or blog posts on political or cultural matters, no videos of gymnastic events or Olympic events or excerpts from ballets or operas or Broadway musicals or dramas or comedy skits, no beloved or respected quotes from literary works or psychological advice columns or philosophical pronouncements or health reports, no invitations to join or donate or celebrate, no chances to send birthday greetings or family loss commiserations or acknowledgements of all kinds of anniversaries, no notices of spam mail or blocked efforts to hack my computer. (There's no one near me in the library—no likelihood of my journal, in which I'm composing this, being hacked.)

 

It also meant I couldn't review any log entries or journal entries or rough drafts I composed on my computer. I could only review handwritten entries in my journal. What I wrote last time, on February 8, interested me but I wasn't sure it provoked anything on my laptop or not. I wondered if I should print everything I compose on the computer but then, I couldn't trust myself to bring a mass of printouts—or at least certain pertinent ones—with me when I left the house on a day like today.

 

So, this all brings me around to a persistent question that seems to arise with increasing frequency. What do you do when you have nothing to do other than write about having nothing to do?

 

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Incidentally

 

I've been to Alaska only once, in 2009, to teach and read at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference. My friend Mike Steinberg had taught there the previous year and I was invited on his recommendation. The conference was held at the Land's End Resort, at the tip of a narrow spit of land extending out from Homer, a small city on Kachemak Bay opposite a longer arm of the Kenai Peninsula. To prepare for the conference I read books by other presenters, especially those essayists and memoirists who lived and wrote in Alaska: Marybeth Holleman, Nancy Lord, Peggy Shumaker, Miranda Weiss, Sherry Simpson, and the poet Eva Saulitis. I was eager to hear them read at the conference, eventually acquired some of their subsequent books, and was saddened to later learn of Eva's and Sherry's deaths.

 

Sue came with me to Kachemak Bay and our son Tom flew up from LA to wander some of Alaska with us for a few days. We visited Anchorage and locations on the Kenai Peninsula and, perhaps most memorably, toured Harriman Fiord on a vessel that took us close to a glacier that sheared tremendous sheets of ice into the water. I had wanted to see the glacier because, prior to the trip, I'd read both John Muir's Travels in Alaska and another book about Muir's experiences with naturalist John Burroughs on the 1899 Harriman expedition, gathering material as if I might write a book about John o' Mountains and John o' Birds. (I didn't, but I still have folders full of notes and printouts.) We three then returned to our homes in California and Wisconsin and I didn't keep in touch with many of those Alaskan writers for long, except for one.

 

Bill Sherwonit, a journalist and outdoor essayist, shared his experiences in the wild reaches of Denali National Park and what he terms Anchorage's "backyard wilderness," Chugach State Park. He'd written To the Top of Denali: Climbing Adventures on North America's Highest Peak (it's 20,310 ft high), and I knew I wouldn't emulate him there, but his later books, Living with Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey and Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness, gave me a somewhat less intrepid model for the kind of nonfiction of place I wanted to write. We talked some at the conference, and in later years I linked up with his writing on Facebook. "City Wilds," his column for the Anchorage Press Sports and Outdoors section, is accessible online and its subjects are wide-ranging, including remembrances of poet Robert Bly and Anchorage birder Dave DeLap; considerations of ravens, Bohemian waxwings, snowshoe hares, snow spiders, hiking in the Chugach Front Range; a celebration of the black-capped chickadee; a call for a "healthier relationship with our home planet, the wild earth"; a celebration of the "wondrous wild."

 

These memories of Kachemak Bay and Alaskan nonfiction were triggered by reading Bill Sherwonit's recent column taking "a brief look back at 40 years of writing in Alaska." It provides an overview of his writing life since he left southern California in February 1982 and anchored himself in the north. He mentions coming "to identify [him]self as a 'nature writer'." I especially appreciated his perspective on what being a writer has meant to him. He writes that whenever he's asked when he'll retire, he responds, "A writer never retires," yet acknowledges to himself that he doesn't "devote the time and energy to writing that [he] once did," spending more time now "in the close company of nature." He adds that "writing for me has long been more than a job or career, and something closer to a way a life, a way of being in the world." Those comments are the ones that I related to the most in that particular column.

 

Last week, when I finally opened the log I keep to record thoughts about this blog, I pondered some reasons for taking time off for so long but also found myself imagining topics that might prompt more new entries in the coming months. Every so often I seem to need to be reminded that writers usually keep on writing even when there's no likelihood of—or any particular interest in—publication. Writing does something for them that they need to let it do. It's a psychological necessity, perhaps even a spiritual one. It helps them come to terms with themselves—to know who they are and where they are and why they need to be there. They don't always remember those things—I haven't lately. The next time I read Bill Sherwonit's "City Wilds" column, I hope it will remind me of them and I will be able to reassure myself that I am still writing.

 

 

Notes: Bill Sherwonit. "City Wilds: A brief look back at 40 years of writing in Alaska," Anchorage Press. (February 9, 2022). [If you scroll below this particular column, you'll find other "City Wilds" entries.]

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Suddenly

 

My wife and I are mostly creatures of routine. We get up around the same time each morning, have breakfast at the same time, have dinner at the same time, sit in our bedroom watching television for about the same amount of time each evening. We call our far-flung children and grandchildren each Sunday, visit our nearby daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren usually once a week. Each Saturday I make out a weekly task list to run off on Sunday morning after I start the past week's laundry. For a good long while, I worked off and on during the week preparing a blog entry to post on Friday morning. A calm and predictable routine, modified and tightened somewhat lately by pandemic precautions, the specifics modified by changes in location and employment over past decades but essentially stable and orderly. What varied this year was adjusting our schedule for Sue's in-person tutoring at a Milwaukee elementary school and my fetching curbside orders near there some of those days.

 

Then the accident happened. Traffic lights were off in Elm Grove when we passed through around 6:40 that morning and were still out on our way home from Sue's tutoring just after 3. At one familiar intersection, traffic had stopped in all four eastbound and westbound lanes of a major avenue. We stopped there southbound on a single lane road. On our turn to cross, we were barely midway when an eastbound car surged in front of us and we collided. Instantly smoke across our windows cut off our vision, our car swerved eastward, hit a signpost and rose onto a curb, our seatbelts yanking us backward, airbags slamming into our chests, emptying them of breath. I remember yelling, from shock and fear and pain. Somehow the car stopped. Somehow I turned it off. Bystanders came by to offer help, Sue already mobile. Struggling for breath, I wondered if, completely unprepared, I were about to die.

 

The other driver and we two lived. A firehouse ambulance crew thought I'd be alright, but drove us to a Hospital where their emergency team thought I'd be alright, and our daughter the nurse attended to us there, eventually helping to get us home. Our Honda Civic, purchased in 2010, nearly 174,000 miles on it, with brand new rear and right front tires and our daughter's birthday gifts in the trunk, was totaled. The street corner where it sat when we left was littered with parts of the car, a great deal of whatever flowed out of the engine, and the pole with a stop sign attached that we knocked over. The next morning Sue filled out a police report and an insurance report and located our car so we could get birthday presents out of the trunk and empty the glove compartment in the dashboard. We both forgot to grab our garage door opener. Our daughter drove us to get a rental car. Our son-in-law drove us to a celebration of his wife's birthday. On the fourth day after the accident, we commuted to Milwaukee again for Sue's tutoring. By the eighth day, we'd leased a new car. Three weeks later the scrap yard sent us our garage door opener. Nine weeks later I barely felt any pain in my chest or back. We still commute several days a week, alternating drivers, both of us alert and sometimes tense, not completely trusting ourselves on the road and ever wary of other drivers.

 

The day after the accident, December 17, I posted the blog entry I had prepared earlier that week, originally intending to take the next two holiday weeks off. I've taken ten weeks off. Some of what I've written here was adapted from an accident report I was required to write as the driver of one of the vehicles. Our insurance company was reliable and responsible. I just made the second monthly payment on our new car's lease. We still drive through that intersection several times each week and never see any remaining sign of the accident. Except for driving a white Kia instead of a dark blue Honda, we seem to be living through the same routine we'd been living all along.

 

Except for the persistent anxiety.

 

Except for the awareness that if I'd turned right at that intersection, the way I usually did and again usually do, instead of crossing it in hopes of getting to an area where traffic lights were still working, we wouldn't have been in that collision. And, yes, if that woman hadn't ignored the stopped vehicles and the dark traffic lights and blithely stayed in motion into our path, we wouldn't have collided. But, in a matter of seconds we did. And now our routine has an added element—it repeatedly, consistently, feels ominous.

 

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Logging In

 

When a publisher recently accepted my book about the Niagara Escarpment, expecting to publish in a year or two, I started rereading it. I needed to be specific about its history when I added entries to my Escarpment Log, so I opened that file to the first entry, dated March 18, 2013. I'd forgotten some particulars of how the book got started; reading the earliest entries reminded me how much a book may have a rather haphazard origin.

 

That first entry claims that, while lying in bed the day after having completed an advanced draft of another project, I thought about the mention I'd been making of an escarpment book over the past several years and decided to start this log as a way to figure out what information I had and what I needed to have "if I were to do such a book." I had journal entries about escarpment sites in Wisconsin, photos from a trip to Michigan's Drummond Island, the draft of an escarpment essay set in western New York, and a potential subtitle, A Personal History. By the end of March, I'd begun to imagine what an escarpment book would be like and to plan how to get material; April 1st's log entry was essentially a draft of the manuscript's prologue; in September I reviewed substantial research entries I'd made.

 

I scrolled a long way ahead to the October 25, 2018, entry where I claimed to have finished a full revision of the manuscript: "By my present count The Arc of the Escarpment runs 88,685 words and 350 pages, 357 with Acknowledgements and Works Cited, which I tightened up today." I thought pruning it down from 100,996 words and 383 pages had improved it and I had begun to submit selective and intermittent proposals to publishers. My subsequent submissions files—three different versions—record four outright rejections and a great many silences, until the end of 2021 when Cornerstone Press offered me a contract.

 

There's a hitch. The manuscript is still too long. I need to cut it down substantially. I'm not so much worried about shortening the book further than I did in the past but uncertain about what I'll be changing. Much of this kind of self-editing involves not merely deleting words or sentences but also replacing longer stretches of words with shorter ones, tightening up ideas already expressed, making substitutions as well as eliminations. The joke I've repeated too often suggests copyediting by removing every instance of "the" and "of"—Escarpment Arc in place of The Arc of the Escarpment, for example—not to mention "is" and "and" and "a," and using "I'm" and "I've".

 

I last read the book maybe two or three years ago. A curious thing happens when you've been that long away from your own manuscript. It seems less like your writing, more like someone else's. You don't tend to spot passages where you think, "No, what I meant to say was . . ." because the prose strikes you almost as if it were another writer's expression. You need to read the manuscript entirely to be certain what the author is driving at, how the various parts fit together, what the cumulative effect of its chapters adds up to. You may not completely recognize yourself in what you're reading.

 

For example, at times I will reread a long sentence and start wondering how to condense it but then realize it sets up a sequence of sentences leading into other sentences that follow it; it's expressed exactly the way it is in order to develop a thread of specific ideas or a certain narrative immediately after it. Revising won't simply be getting rid of something superfluous—it will be replacing something essential in fewer words than expressed in the previous revision.

 

To figure out where things stand, I've gone through the manuscript, correcting obvious errors like spacing problems or occasional misspellings and counting the words in each chapter of each section. The sections include a prologue and an epilogue, nine introductory segments, and 25 chapters. Two days ago, at the end of the sixth section and the 20th chapter, I reached my preferred word count for the book with three sections, two introductory segments, and five chapters yet to be reviewed. Yesterday I completed the word count for those portions. Today I know roughly how many words I need to delete—the equivalent of two segments and five chapters and the epilogue. All I have to do now is delete that number of words throughout the entire manuscript, shortening everywhere so that the epilogue ends at the exact number of words where the 20th chapter now ends. Piece of cake.

 

I wonder how many "the"s and "of"s are in the manuscript.

 

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Once a Writer Didn't . . .

 

In my weekly column, cleverly titled "Root '66," for my college newspaper, I wrote short pieces. An advantage of that task was constantly wondering what to write about and continuously imagining new entries. Later, as a college professor, for several years I wrote short essays for local public radio meant to run around four minutes long once a week. Once, a potential script was so compelling that I kept composing until I needed to break it into three scripts to record and broadcast sequentially. It made me aware of my format's limitations, but I stayed with it.

 

I wrote about 40 scripts throughout fall and winter semesters and worked on convention papers, critical articles, or a scholarly book in the summer. The academic writing earned me tenure and promotion; few people ever commented on the broadcasts. After eight years I gave up the radio spot to work on longer, larger projects. One year I was lucky enough to follow a semester-long sabbatical in spring with a semester-long research fellowship in the fall and spent a lot of time on research and travel and editing projects, which led to more personal writing, especially about place.

 

Eventually, during my final sabbatical, I started a project exploring a comparison of the Rhine and Hudson Rivers across both history and literature, gathering abundant material. But then our lives began to change. I retired, we moved to Colorado, and I wrote a different book about place; then we moved to Wisconsin, I taught mostly remotely for a graduate program in Ohio, and I wrote essays and taught essay writing. I compiled other books, became fully retired, and started this blog, my approach reminiscent of my college column and my radio broadcasts.

 

My unpublished writing is largely stored on cassettes and disks and hard drives and also in travel journals and daybooks. Every so often I wonder about that rivers project. In twenty years, I've published only one short essay recounting my travels on either river. Every so often I flip through the files about the project on my laptop. The theme of the research project had been "Time and Timelessness on the Hudson and the Rhine" and I can find a prologue, an introductory chapter about timelessness, and typed copies of the journal and daybooks handwritten during my travels. Somewhere are stored envelopes filled with slides of the sights we saw (but no working slide projector). The first entry in a Rivers Log on my computer is dated October 10, 2002.

 

I keep a lot of project logs, including a Blog Log now for entries I post or imagine posting online. I worried about how much ground I'd have to cover in the rivers book, The Endless Landscape, and hoped to discover an organic structure to build upon. I once pondered composing the book as a myriorama, a collection of countless views of the two rivers. I've been a proponent of what I call the "imagessay" (say it as if it were French), a kind of haibun-like subgenre where the prose is accompanied by an image rather than by a haiku. The log I started during my final research semester stopped in July 2003 and a second series of entries began in December 2016 with two entries that month and no further entries until April 2019. Many of the later entries—the log ends in November 2019—discuss that single essay, "The Marksburg Photo," and its publication in the Ascent Special Issue. My logs chatter a lot about the project as a whole, but the most recent entries offer little constructive contemplation.

 

If I look through my files and check the musing in various logs, I'd likely find references to other projects I never followed through on—notes that suggest such and such would be worth pursuing, connecting this with that would be rewarding, looking closely at something or other would be illuminating—but The Endless Landscape accumulated a mass of material and took up an amount of time and expense and energy equivalent, on a beginning level, to other projects I completed. My manuscript on the Niagara Escarpment, a project on so similar a scale, was completed, and my frustration with it only involved the time it languished unpublished. Somehow—despite its voluminous resources—somehow the rivers book can't find viable expression. I'd have to do all the background reading and notetaking and national and international travels all over again in order to discover—to recognize—what I'd need to be writing about.

 

I won't do it over again. I'll just try to acknowledge that not everyone finishes everything they started before they themselves end. I'll try to learn how they accepted that as they moved on to something they might finish. Someday, I might even try to delete all those files.

 

Notes: Robert Root. "The Marksburg Photo." Ascent. November 6, 2019.

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Once an Editor . . .

 

I do crossword puzzles first thing in the morning, hoping to trigger some sort of thinking. I also do word search and scrambled words puzzles, all on AARP's games site, then work a jigsaw puzzle or three elsewhere online. I don't challenge myself by picking harder crosswords or jigsaws of more than 24 or 48 pieces—I shouldn't burn through too much of the morning before checking the weather (Why are weather videos always interrupted by ads preventing you from seeing the videos?) and finally opening my email (most of which I delete without reading since few are actually addressed to me personally). Then I'm ready to do something useful, like writing or editing.

 

Is it obvious that I'm retired? Composing weekly blog entries is my major preoccupation. I don't know why I need to post one each week. Maybe, like the crossword and jigsaw puzzles, I need to have some habits beyond occasionally walking in my neighborhood.

 

Sometimes I'll compose something to send to an editor hoping to have it published or I'll edit something a writer has submitted to The Humble Essayist Press, the project Steve Harvey and Kathy Winograd and I committed to a couple years ago. In the past few weeks I've both edited and also been edited, and this morning, having completed my puzzles, instead of reflecting on a book I recently read (It was a very good one!), I've been thinking a lot about editing.

 

I've been edited in the past. Sometimes editors steered me towards a stronger, smarter manuscript; sometimes an editor's vision of my text was insistently at odds with my own. Although I'm comfortable with most of the books and essays I've published, a few have portions or passages I regret having been forced to delete or forced to have added. Both personal editing triumphs and editing defeats often rise up in memory whenever I start editing someone else.

 

The truth is that every reader reads every text differently than the original author would read it. I once had to negotiate through a senior editor a sentence in one of my manuscripts that their copyeditor (someone worried about the correctness of the language in the writing) felt was ungrammatical or awkward and wanted revised. I'd deliberately worded that line as an allusion to something in the text I'd been discussing but she was more remote from my manuscript and its subject and concentrating on achieving extratextual stylistic conformity. I've noticed that kind of distance surfacing in book reviews where a reviewer insists on reading a text differently than the author intended it. I once was forced to delete a sentence in a critical essay that the editor found funny rather than academic—I'd actually written it to be funny rather than academic. I suspect that a manuscript's acceptance or rejection usually depends on an editor's personal taste rather than on some imaginary universal standard of literary quality being adhered to.

 

When the first edition of my textbook Wordsmithery was accepted by Macmillan, two peer reviewers disagreed with elements of the book in ways contradictory to one another. One thought it needed to be more assignment oriented, more directly instructional; the other thought it ought to have less emphasis on composition research and theory. I approached Barbara Heinssen, my editor, with frustration—how could I revise the book to satisfy demands in opposition to one another as well as in opposition to my manuscript? She advised me to listen to whatever comments I felt made the book stronger, more readable, and ignore the comments that undermined what was already unified in the manuscript. Her advice has stuck with me through the revision of every subsequent book I've written since.

 

Recently, in a matter of weeks, I've heard back from the reviews editor at River Teeth about my review of two new books. Most of his suggestions were grammar- or style-related, many of which I accepted, many of which I ignored. One passage troubled him, and I responded with an explanation that eased his concerns. The review now satisfied us both. In the same period, I heard back from an essayist whose manuscript I'd edited for The Humble Essayist Press, explaining his resistance to some of my recommendations and acceptance of others. At THE Press the author ultimately decides. We both seem satisfied with the manuscript as it's been evolving. The editor's involvement hasn't changed my sense of that review being mine; my editorial involvement hasn't altered that writer's sense of his manuscript being his.

 

Both my review and his manuscript say what their authors want them to say. That's what editing should make happen and, happily, just happened twice.

 

Notes: River Teeth: A Journal of Narrative Nonfiction. Book Reviews

 

The Humble Essayist Press

 

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Abandonment's Aftermath

 

Cal Flyn's Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape records the breadth of her travels to sites around the world where the landscape once inhabited and exploited by human populations has been altered and become occupied by other creatures. The sites she visits include three in Scotland, her home country, three in the United States, and others in Cyprus, Estonia, the Ukraine, France, Tanzania, and Montserrat. Associations no doubt arise in readers who recognize certain locations—Chernobyl, of course, probably Detroit and the Salton Sea—and locate others on a mental world atlas with less concrete assumptions of what might be abandoned there.

 

Flyn spent two years researching and exploring these places and in each chapter we learn what once was there and what is no longer there and what, if anything, occupies it now. The book's Invocation, set on Inchkeith, an island in the Firth of Forth, was formerly a fortress isle with a centuries-old political history and now, "fallen into obscurity, it has risen in environmental significance." Once only nested on by eiders, it is now a breeding ground for a dozen more species and intermittently visited by countless others. When she steps out onto "what once was a gun turret" she sees "the birds rise up as one great moving, wheeling mass [. . .] outraged to see me—here, now, on this island of abandonment."

 

She warns readers that she will be visiting "some of the eeriest and most desolate places on Earth. A no man's land between razor-wire fences where passenger jets rust on the runway after four decades of neglect. A clearing in the woods so poisoned with arsenic that no trees can grow there. An exclusion zone thrown up around the smouldering ruin of a nuclear reactor." These and others are abandoned places, each "left to its own device," where "nature has been allowed to work unfettered." She believes they offer "invaluable insight into the wisdom of environments in flux."

 

I dog-eared a great many pages in the book, consulting them later to see connections. In each chapter she anchors her reflections on the past and the likely future of a locale in an observant and vivid narrative of personal exploration at the present site. In Detroit she enters and surveys an abandoned but easily accessible church and its adjacent deserted school before describing Detroit as "a city shrunk from its shell [. . .] in terminal decline for seventy years, its population reduced by almost two-thirds." She explains, "What that means, in practice, is that to drive through the city is to spin through streets and sometimes whole neighborhoods in a state of what looks like decomposition. Tens of thousands of homes stand empty and falling apart, shingles melting from roofs like hot icing, [. . .] sharp-edged gaps where rotten buildings have been pulled like teeth."

 

In contrast, she reports staying overnight in the deserted Rose Cottage on the Scottish island of Swona, where decades ago people about to abandon the island opened fence gates to let cattle run free, allowing creatures that had long been domesticated to begin leading feral lives. Flyn notes that here, the "process we call natural selection is coming back into play." All the rabbits on Swona, "initially black and white [. . .] now appear brown, like their wild forebears." She continually wrestles with understanding what the aftermath of industrial abandonment and military devastation and climate change mean in terms of what will replace everything that, inevitably, has been and will be lost.

 

Extinction has happened—repeatedly—throughout the history of Earth; after all, that's how we got here, as an adjustment, an accidental replacement for what was eliminated by a meteoric collision or a change in climate and atmosphere. One of her visits takes her to the ash-coated remains of Plymouth on the volcanic Caribbean island Montserrat where the landscape is reminiscent of Pompeii or Krakatoa or the supervolcano believed to have triggered the Permian extinction of 252 million years ago that eradicated "more than 95 percent of marine species and three-quarters of land species [. . .] leaving a vacuum in which dinosaurs would later come to the fore."

 

In the end she tries to consider the present planet reasonably. If the planet, "with its warming climate, has mass extinction ahead," she reminds us, "Every major extinction event on the planet has been succeeded by a burst of evolutionary creativity: rapid diversification as heretofore insignificant species take on the roles left empty by those wiped out by meteor or climate change or supervolcano." Her book asks us to consider that inevitability and hopes that, by seeing change in our own islands of abandonment, we will endeavor to resist it, delay it, be active in slowing it down.

 

 

Note: Cal Flyn. Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape. New York: Viking, 2021.

 

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Aging and Writing

 

I've lately been noticing people in their eighties and beyond, particularly celebrities that Facebook highlights. Often an obituary or a commemoration appears on the date of their births or deaths. Annually in November my two sons-in-law and I observe and mostly celebrate our birthdays, their ages far lower than mine, but this year I'm often reminded that aging is, inevitably, linked to mortality. As some of your powers dwindle, pondering the eventuality of losing them all is occasionally unavoidable.

 

Carl Klaus, tracking his own aging in The Ninth Decade: An Octogenarian's Chronicle—"octogenarian" is a word I run across more frequently these days—mentions reading, in his eighty-second year, Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall, published in 2014. Klaus' own book will take him into his eighty-eighth year, but he doesn't mention whether he encountered Hall's final book, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety; it was published in 2018, the year Hall died three months shy of his ninetieth birthday. Klaus had read Hall because he was "curious about his octogenarian experiences, as well as his way of recalling and writing about it." He credits Hall with being "very frank and self-deprecating about his recent physical mishaps, bodily infirmities, and mental lapses, but he never mentions memory problems," an issue then troubling Klaus. Acknowledging that Hall "writes extensively and vividly about his past, much more so than about his octogenarian experience," he refers to moments in Hall's life that Hall's readers over the years are likely to be very familiar with.

 

As it happens, I've been such a reader, not only of those two final books but also of some of his poetry collections and many of his books of essays and memoir, starting with Seasons at Eagle Pond in 1987. Both Henry Thoreau and E. B. White had aroused my interest in New England essays and memoirs and Hall and his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon (whom I'd also read), had left Michigan to live on a family farm in New Hampshire. Hall's memoirs and his final books of essays are set at Eagle Pond. Thinking about everything I'd read by him, it took me awhile to recall publishing a review of his memoir Life Work in a 1995 issue of The English Journal.

 

At the start of the review I claimed, "I keep Donald Hall's Life Work on my bedside table because I take it personally. I first read it for insights into Hall's work habits (and perhaps my own); I now reread it to bring perspective to the intimations of mortality tolling around me." To me, the first half of the book was "a personal meditation on the nature of work" and Hall admits that the idea for the book arose from his saying, in his analyst's office, "'work' where he meant to say 'life'." But the second half of Life Work deals with his concern about his own mortality as a cancer survivor who had "discovered a growth in his liver, and the implications of the title changed again." The book became more "open and intimate" from that point on. I wrote, "So movingly does Hall portray his clear-eyed awareness of imminent loss that we sense our own inevitable losses as well as his."

 

In fact, at 64, Donald Hall had another 25 years to live, enduring the loss of Jane Kenyon to leukemia only two years later and weathering a host of "physical mishaps, bodily infirmities, and mental lapses" (in Klaus's terms) into his eighties. Essays After Eighty and A Carnival of Losses are very much evidence of Hall's tendency to make "life" and "work" mean the same thing. Near the end of the final book, in the next to last chapter, he claims to have "admitted to myself that I had stopped writing my new book, notes and essays of memoir and meditation, as I shuffled towards ninety." He finds himself unable to "add a sentence to the manuscript, which was hard, because I had written or tried to write every day since I was twelve." He says he knows he won't have another birthday. He died a month before A Carnival of Losses was published. His life and his work ended close together.

 

While I've been composing this, I've been sitting in a local library with high windows that let me view autumn-hued trees where a brisk wind swirls yellowed leaves across the lawn. Driving away from our condo this morning, I noticed that almost all the trees in front of our complex were entirely bare. It's November in Wisconsin and snow is predicted for the weekend. The seasons will change, the weather reminds me. It's time for me to shelve those aging books, make sure we celebrate those birthdays, and find more work to do in coming days.

 

 

Notes: Carl H. Klaus. The Ninth Decade: An Octogenarian's Chronicle. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2021: 52-53.

 

Robert L Root, Jr. "A Poet on Why We Work." The English Journal. 84:2 (Feb 1995): 125-126

 

Amanda Petrusich."Postscript: Donald Hall." The New Yorker. June 26, 2018.

 

Hannah Aizenman. "Page-Turner: Donald Hall in the New Yorker." The New Yorker. June 26, 2018.

 

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Reading Images

 

I'm not certain when my son, the writer for animated television programs and occasionally comic books, and I started talking about graphic novels. We probably shared reactions to Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman, where Jewish mice are oppressed by Nazi cats, and Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, where female children in Iran struggle with political oppressions; we've likely conversed about their sequels and adaptations—Persepolis eventually became a movie. Memory tells me that one of my gifts from him was the graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, an actor best known for his role as Sulu on multiple seasons of Star Trek but also a memoirist.

 

Sulu's family were of Japanese descent, his father born in Japan, his mother, his siblings, and himself born in the United States. The memoir centers on his childhood experiences with his family while, because of their family background, they were incarcerated in concentration camps in Arkansas and California during World War II. I've read it a few times now. Initially, by paying more attention to the nature of graphic storytelling, I considered finding a way to think more about Takei's book and compare the political nature of it to those by Spiegelman and Satrapi, all centered on troubling historical moments. The oppressors in Takei's memoir are not quite as villainous as the Nazis and Jihadis in those other books, but they are certainly callous, oppressive, and unjust, and Takei's mention in the final pages of recent bans on Muslim immigration to the United States as on a par with the treatment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s brings his readers into the present.

 

But then I started connecting Takei's graphic memoir to other visual presentations that have haunted me, specifically Dorothea Lange's internment camp photos that caught my attention over a year ago. I'm tempted to focus on two aspects of Takei's book: its internal narrative and graphic representation of the internment camp and its effort to make the book almost like a scene-by-scene reproduction of a film. On one page there are two almost-identical pictures depicting the Japanese-American internees in the context of two problematic items on a form they were asked to sign, the first making them feel complicit in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the second making them deny an allegiance to an emperor they never felt to begin with. Another page had three images of military trucks in increasing sizes, each with sounds labeled on them, each larger (and louder) in succession. The sequence suggests to me one of the aspects of the book's narrative composition, the graphics working almost like clips from a movie or television series. In an expanded version of the book published a year later, additional pages explain how the illustrator, Harmony Becker, worked with Takei and two co-authors, Justin Eisinger and Steve Scott, to visualize the moments and develop them in an almost cinematic way. One could imagine the book as a graphic screenplay. Throughout the book we are aware that Takei is narrating the story as if it were a TEDx talk—in fact, he is sometimes portrayed on the TEDx stage, sometimes in close-up, sometimes at a distance, the way the speakers on those telecasts are filmed.

 

So what is the difference between a Lange photograph and a Takei-Becker graphic, between a static image and a hand-drawn illustration? I've seen a series of black-and-white photographs that Lange took at the internment camp. They are not sequential or serial, but essentially random and individual and cumulative in their often ironic impact on the viewer. The images in Takei's graphic memoir, also in black-and-white, are less explicit in terms of background and close-up details; they emphasize expressions on individual faces and establish sequences of action and re-action in the characters they depict. Narrative insertions tend to contextualize the images. The book is cinematic in its visuals and sound-effects and virtually provides a voice-over narration as well as dialogue in prose rather than in sound.

 

In the expanded edition Takei explains how the book came together through the efforts of himself and his team. They essentially provided a screenplay for a graphic production of the story Takei was essentially telling on his TED talk in Kyoto. Does this alter our sense of how a graphic novel or graphic memoir (or comic book) operates? A sequence of narrative images that might readily be transferred to cinematic animation? I've seen (and enjoyed) Marjane Satrapi's film version of Persepolis. I suspect that Maus could make the transfer readily. Maybe we yet will get the chance to see They Called Me Enemy as an animated film and reading the graphic memoir will be even more emphatically like reading the screenplay of the film.

 

Notes: George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steve Scott, and Harmony Becker. They Called Us Enemy. Expanded Edition. IDW Printing, 2020.

 

Dorothea Lange, Pledge of Allegiance Internment Image is viewable here.

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Essaying Aging

 

Nearly fifty years ago, Carl Klaus introduced me to English Restoration drama in a graduate course at the University of Iowa. Good paperback editions existed of plays by the best- known dramatists—Dryden, Etherege, Wycherley, Congreve—but only a library copy was available for Thomas Southerne's The Wives Excuse. Carl assigned me to report on it in class. That began my immersion in Restoration drama and eventually led to my wide-ranging dissertation, The Problematics of Marriage: English Comedy 1688-1710, directed by Carl in the English Department and Judith Milhous in Theatre. I remember Carl sticking up for my approach to the subject matter at my dissertation defense. My first scholarly book, Thomas Southerne, followed a few years later.

 

Academic Jobs for Restoration specialists were few, and when I became an unemployed Ph.D., Carl advised me to pursue a year of post-doctoral study, concentrating on composition, rhetorical theory, and nonfiction literature, courses that would eventually become a Masters Program. Though my employment at Central Michigan University initially began as a result of my having taught Ancient and Biblical Literature at Iowa as a teaching assistant, composition and nonfiction became the major focus of my academic career. I wrote a a textbook for composition classes, a book on nonfiction writers, and, with Carl's editorial input, a study of a major essayist, E. B. White. Eventually, I became an essayist and memoirist.

 

Carl had co-written or co-edited several textbooks and anthologies—Elements of the Essay was a favorite of mine—but as he neared retirement, he focused more on his own nonfiction narratives. An avid gardener, he published My Vegetable Love: A Journal of a Growing Season (1996) and Weathering Winter: A Gardener's Daybook (1997)—the second book, drawn from a portion of the first book that his commercial publisher preferred to omit, was published by University of Iowa Press. Later it also published Taking Retirement: A Beginners Diary (1999). All three books grew out of frequent journaling, the process of thinking by writing constantly—often daily—rather than standing back from composition in hopes of something eventually rising to demand expression. I don't use that method often enough but relied on it for portions of my first travel memoir and for writing weekly radio essays years ago and, presently, for composing weekly blog posts (like this one).

 

Everything I've written here was set in motion by discovering Carl Klaus' newest book, The Ninth Decade: An Octogenarian's Chronicle, covering his thoughts about aging. Each chapter focuses on a six-month period in his life from his eightieth birthday to his eighty-eighth. The book, he claims, is "a product of good luck and irrepressible curiosity" that grew out of his desire to learn what others had written about their eighties and, unable to locate "personal books on the subject," encouraged recording his own experiences and reactions. The format resembles his approach to composing the gardening and retirement books as well as Letters to Kate, centered on the loss of his wife, the writer Kate Franks. His letters updating Kate about his efforts to adjust to her absence are a form of confessional grief therapy that helps him arrive at a place where he can continue to live a life without her, a life he never wanted to be living.

 

In The Ninth Decade he sets out to chronicle his adjustment to his eighties by recording not only what he thinks and feels about his health and his most intimate relationships but also by noting "the experiences of other octogenarians—loved ones, friends, acquaintances—and thereby produce a collective depiction of life after eighty." Each essay is based on notes made throughout a six-month period and recounts encounters with friends, family members, and acquaintances, health issues for him and his beloved, experiences during brief vacations or excursions. Throughout he expresses his innermost reactions to moments of pleasure, pain, and, inevitably, grief, as many of the people he worked with and socialized with pass away.

 

My copy of The Ninth Decade now has about a dozen dogeared pages, some of them reminding me of people I knew in Iowa, mostly my professors or advisors, tactfully identified by first names only, and some of them reminding me of aspects of aging I'm beginning to be too aware of myself. I'm a decade younger than Carl, and though I suffer from few of his ailments, I identify with certain aspects of his life: his efforts at and resistance to decluttering, his problems with hearing or with mobility or, most familiar, with memory. I'm not that far from eighty. I'll keep Carl's book handy for when I reach it, to give myself notice of what I might expect, what likely lies ahead of me. I'll also hope to face up to aging as well as he has.

 

 

Note: Carl H. Klaus, The Ninth Decade: An Octogenarian's Chronicle. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2021.

 

Laura Farmer. "Writing is a 'mind-altering endeavor' for Carl Klaus." The Gazette. Oct. 21, 2021. 7:00 am

 

Root, Robert. Interview with Carl Klaus, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 14.1 (Spring 2012): 125-145.

 

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