Saturday, June 10, 2006

A Present

The new Atlantic just arrived today. It is a welcome balm to the morning’s irritation. I spent the whole of my morning trying to sort out a scheduling mix up with a copyediting client. Great fun. Such moments have, occasionally, made me contemplate the idea of taking a part-time job at a gas station. I could do a simple job, do it well, and watch the Midwest and its vehicles roll past. I could observe the world from a vantage point that few people—at least few people with the leisure time to read literature—ever have the opportunity to witness.

Of course, I seriously doubt I’d ever take a job like that. I did it once—out of necessity—when I foolishly failed to find a job after graduate school. Back then, I think I made about 7 dollars/hour. Every once in a while, I’d managed a 60-hour workweek that netted me about as much as I’m expecting for a lazy week spent mostly working on a top-secret novel. You see, there are benefits to getting older and being middle class.

In fact, I sometimes wonder if my parents can even fathom what life is like for me now. My father—true to his protestant upbringing—worked diligently for his entire life. He served in the Air Force, worked as book binder, and then worked 20-odd years as a die cutter. His work was tedious, brutal, stifling, and dangerous, yet never earned as much in a month as I can make in a week (if I actually worked for a week). Nevertheless, he always kept me well-fed, always kept a roof over our heads, always made sure we had transportation, always made sure I had my own spending money, and somehow managed to take me to a few baseball games when I was a child. And for some reason—perhaps because of how very precocious I was as a child—I always assumed that I would go to college.

Now, because of what he did then, it’s possible for me to sit here on the patio and think, “I’d like to be a millionaire some day,” without chuckling to myself at the idea—even though I’m taking time off to pursue literary ambitions. Either that top-secret novel will actually turn into a publishing contract and (let’s not kid ourselves) a portion of a nice middle-class income that Michelle and I can invest or I’ll simply work harder at freelancing until I have enough clients to provide a steady income. My father, on the other hand, will only reach that financial plateau if my step-mother hits the lotto. Frankly, I hope she wins someday, even if I don’t see one penny of the windfall. After all, I don’t personally know anyone who deserves such luck more than them.

I think if I mentioned all of this to anyone who went to college or graduate school with me, they’d immediately form a perception of my father. They might assume that he wasn’t well-educated or that he didn’t have the talent to work his way, from the bottom-up, into middle-management and beyond. They would be dead wrong. In fact, I suspect, often enough, he was the smartest person at the places he worked. Yet, he never got a promotion to an office job. He always wore a blue shirt with his name stitched above the left breast pocket.

My father, who simply never had the opportunity to attend college, is, I think, among the smartest people I know. He was smart enough to volunteer for the Air Force at a time when being drafted into the Army might have significantly shortened his life expectancy. More, he’s among the very few people whose advice I always trust—not only because it comes from a place of genuine concern but also because it is consistently sound. Plus, he reads more than anyone I have ever known—with the possible exception of my wife.

I remember, as a child, that at bedtime, when I went to say goodnight, I would always find him sipping on a tall glass of milk and reading a novel. Now, I suspect he still reads a few chapters before bed each night, and I suspect that he will continue to do so until he no longer has the strength to focus his eyes.

Nowadays, with so many other distractions, I wonder how many readers like him will be lost. Will the Internet, satellite television, and personal gaming systems lead to the demise of such average readers? Will there be a day when the audience for fiction—like that of poetry—consists largely of students, other practitioners of the craft, and those who either love us or pretend to do so?

Personally, I doubt it.

You see, when I applied to graduate school, one professor gave me a recommendation so glowing that, if you were to read it now, you’d suspect I paid him. When I showed the letter to my father over Christmas break, he took the letter to work and made a photocopy of it to keep. That day, I think he showed everyone. He showed the secretary. He showed his boss. He showed the people on the floor who stood up all day facing cubicle-sized pneumatic machines with razor-sharp blades a letter written by a poet about a young poet he admired. And my father was proud.

To me, that story demonstrates how much respect remains for literature today. It reminds me that people are still impressed by the word writer—and even by the word poet. The challenge is to write poetry that isn’t laconic, ironic, or simply moronic. The challenge is to write poetry that an intelligent person—like my father—who has no use for ontology, who has no use for the thinking of Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, Sartre, or Lancan would appreciate. Some times, I think that contemporary poetry has failed miserably in this respect.

Then again, when I opened this month’s Atlantic, I went straight to the poem. The poem “Arabic” by Alexander Nesmer—who was an undergraduate at Yale when he entered The Atlantic’s Student Poetry Contest—succeeds. I think my father would like it.

For me, I still intend to write poems that my father would find difficult—though I know he’d try. But, to be successful, I think I need to write more than just a handful of poems that my father would photocopy to keep in the living room, showing them off if company arrived, his face beaming with pride, and with the knowledge, I hope, that every lovely word would not be possible if I had not inherited or absorbed his love of books.


Anonymous me said...

Maybe your father spends as much time reading as Michelle, but you didn't mention that Michelle reads at speeds that could get her arrested, even on Texas's new 80 mph limit roads.

12:46 PM  

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