Category Archives: essays

Walking on Purpose, Do You?

Share

This is the final post in a series of three about walking and walkability in the Phoenix area. Read posts one and two.

The winter sun is warm, not hot yet in Phoenix’s desert climate. It evokes a first sigh of pleasure, joined momentarily as my legs start flexing and stretching. Blood starts pumping through my circuits like electricity restored after a blowout. Moderate rush-hour traffic cruising along 13th Street beside my apartment complex reminds me of the time of day but doesn’t molest my mental peace as I plug my earphones in and press play of a “Fresh Air” podcast. One, perhaps two, bicyclists kklickkk past. Their Arizona State University backpacks indicate their status.

 

I purposefully work my legs, turning from the section of Judd Street that runs through the complex, then briefly onto 13th Street before opting for the reconnection of Judd Street. If one were watching my journey from a bird’s perspective, it wouldn’t look different from a meandering zigzag. BMWs and Audis, nor newer model Cadillacs and decked out Hummers are found among the street parking. These houses don’t have expensive lawn furniture outside; they rarely have outdoor decor at all, actually. A sticker on a Westfalia van reads “Who are the Grateful Dead, and why are they following me?”

A man in a jumped up American truck passes after halting at a stop sign. The burr cut, the white skin, blonde hair, and militant face give me pause, make me wonder if there’s a shotgun in his cab, something not uncommon in a state where denizens are allowed to carry guns in public (but not in bars).

 

Near the stop sign where he paused is an artful form of infrastructure. These appear especially on the sidestreets of this neighborhood. Each of the dozen or so I’ve seen is unique, as if part of the street’s identity. Their purpose has evaded me, though my friend tells me they’re outdated and no longer used for whatever their original purpose was. Some are square, some like round chimneys. They’re painted or sculpted. They’re amateur but never pretentious.

 

Something similar are the sculptures that adorn the narrow roundabouts. These also appear to have been built by the residents. As an infrastructural element they gently bring attention to the roundabouts, which Americans simply don’t understand. They’re also public art. Their homegrown feel lends far more appeal than some public art I’ve seen in China or Sarasota. At each roundabout I stop and take a closer look, enjoy their whimsy, their light-heartedness.

Occasional glimpses inside the houses’ windows shows a lack of art, reveals floor plans that don’t aren’t open or spacious. Some landscaping is pristine. It looks like a point of pride for some homeowners. No garage is open. Front doors rarely present greeting mats or decorations. They are not open and do not bear screen or glass doors. Yet in no way would I say the air is one of hostility or fear. It seems to be an end to a means. People go to work, they go elsewhere, then they return to their homes later at night, looking forward to their beds.

 

Toward the end of the half-mile-long street two people are walking. I keep an eye on them. Are they actually out for a delightful stroll like me? But then, no, like the other walkers occasionally spotted in our neighborhood, they are on a mission. They appear to have left a house to get in a car and drive elsewhere.

 

Seconds later we’ve passed each other silently. They get into their car and drive off. The memory of them falls behind like footsteps at the shore. Filling that space instead is a giggle.

 

I can’t really be seeing this. The sun creeps below the rooflines, and shadows grow taller than the single-story 1950s block houses lining most of the streets, sometimes marring my sight. Well, it’s nothing new to see a black and white cat standing regally in his front yard. But the rotund little cow seems to have…a length of thin rope connecting his collar to the chain-link fence enveloping his throne. His stillness– no, his statuesque serenity, the very fact he barely blinks when my tennies halt before his house– seems to void the need for the leash. He couldn’t care less than I’m walking by. Unlike the people I saw on my first walk, this cat barely recognizes my presence. Far be it from him to stare at me, let alone run in the opposite direction.

 

A giggle escapes my throat as I turn on my little red camera and take a snap.

 

“Watching over your dominion?” I chuckle before continuing on my way. Momentarily the air fills with sweet scents of local flora. I don’t know what bushes or trees or flowers filled my olfactory sense. Its sweetness echoed that of jasmine. It became stronger as I approached a quaint old house on another corner. Here a boxy white house bore an equally boxy air conditioning unit atop the roof. Suddenly my mind went on a different journey, back in time along the home’s journey. There was construction sometime in the 1950s. Twenty-some years later, when air conditioning became common, the house cooled itself against the average summer temperatures of 100-plus degrees. Sitting quietly on that corner, I wondered about the original owner, thought that the perfect visual complement would be an octogenarian owner, enjoying the newspaper from a wrought iron rocker on the front porch. The For Sale sign before the house makes me wonder if that potential memory is already in the past. Who knows how many reincarnations the house has seen over its life?

 

A skateboarder’s ca-zzushhh breaks the quiet air and wiggles its way past my earphones and into my ears. It’s been several minutes since I’ve seen any other sign of movement, other than an occasional car passing. Where are the homeowners come home at the end of the workday? Where are the retirees who might be enjoying a tea on their front porches? Where are the children? The void of people makes me feel like I’m walking through a ghost town until I turn a corner where a church hides the park behind it. There a smile lifts my face as I see parents playing with their children, dog owners treating their “kids” with some fetch and the ability to frolic with other four-legged fellas. A couple of older people sit together languidly on a green, wood park bench.

 

My mind flips back its mental files to an earlier walk. On that walk too I found people enjoying their neighborhood park, that time with a barbecue and some frisbee. It’s this skateboarding and bicycling, and outdoor activity at the park and at South Mountain (the largest city park in the country, if not the world, and part of a local mountain preserve system) that keeps most of the locals so thin. I’m reminded that all this thinness came as a surprise when I’d landed here from Ohio a month ago. Suffice it to say that in Ohio, volume was the surprising element. The reality reminded me of Phoenix’s proximity to California, where the waif is the norm. Most people here in the Phoenix Valley aren’t waifs, but they’re getting their exercise somehow.

 

Located just a few miles from the apartment where I’m temporarily residing, South Mountain’s parking lots fill almost to overflowing with truck after truck and SUV after SUV. A runner friend took me there a few weeks ago for some exercise. Finding my own spot to rest after a walk in the roasted river bed was a cinch, though. Mountain bikers were plentiful as jock straps in a locker room. Running teams and individuals were abundant as stars in Arizon’s clear skies. Families enjoyed walks together. I even overheard a couple on their first date there. Evidently this is the way of outdoors exercise. A neighborhood walk is just so…trite.

For me, though, a neighborhood stroll makes one of the best possible means of familiarizing yourself with the locale. It doesn’t matter if I’m in Peru or India, mainland China or Hong Kong. It cleans out the cerebral cob webs but relaxes the muddled mind. It stimulates the blood but calms the heart.

 

What would revered 19th-century British essayist Robert Louis Stevenson say on this?

“It seems as if a hot walk purged you, more than of anything else, of all narrowness and pride, and left curiosity to play its part freely, as in a child or a man of science. You lay aside all your own hobbies, to watch provincial humours develop themselves before you, now as a laughable farce, and now grave and beautiful like an old tale.”

 

Indeed, on the final stretch back to my friend’s apartment, I feel humored and beautiful, curious and purged. I see a blonde, middle-aged woman walking toward me on the sidewalk. There is no purse on her shoulder, no pet leash stretching before her, no keys to a nearby car dangling from her hand. There is a peace to her face. She approaches and we look at each other. We smile, and I’m happy that someone else can enjoy a neighborhood stroll.

Outgrowing David Foster Wallace

Share

My eyes first glanced over David Foster Wallace’s words in the early 2000s. I was in in my grad school days. Only in Harper’s magazine did I ever read him, though. Then he died and I started to travel the world, in countries where the bookstores don’t carry much serious contemporary American literature. Finally, with this trip back to the States I dug into Consider the Lobster.

 

Our reading preferences change greatly in ten years. Wallace’s words no longer had that resonance, his voice no longer had that ring. Words spinning like the cogs in a clock.

 

Literature need not ramble endlessly on. That’s obviated by the fact that today works brief enough for a Hallmark card fill innumerable publications. It’s evidently his free-association that rubs me the wrong way. (I felt similar after reading other authors/writers who rose with Wallace. That style leads me to empathize particularly with one quote from Consider: “Has the son of a bitch ever had one thought published?”).


Consider some examples from Wallace’s book. Let’s look at the essays “Up, Simba”, “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”, and “Authority and American Usage”. The first wasn’t an essay but long enough for a graduate thesis. That makes a reader long for its end. Its lack of structure is a pathos that annoys the reader, resulting in a distant reader/writer relationship. Its constant shifting feels like a house of mirrors until no points made seem to stand up or take on relevance. In the “View” Wallace spent half the essay to reveal its subject matter. Its lack of dynamism makes a reader feel like she’s crawling through mud. The images are enjoyable until wandering enough along makes her wonder what the whole point is. “Authority” possessed the same structure flaws as “Simba” but made them two-dimensional by using excessive footnotes that even scholars would roll their eyes at.

 

It’s of sad relief that others have also found flaws with these essays.

 

A subtle control and implicit use of literary tropes appeal more than rambling and careless structure. For me the difference between the free-association writing style and one more like Graham Greene’s is the difference between simple and easy. This is thanks in part to editors. They shape our writing. Editor after editor in my 15 years of professional writing made me shorten paragraph lengths, deconstruct elevated vocabulary, and deftly structure the work.

 

David Foster Wallace

Not everything in Consider irritated me.

 

Wallace does address more societal issues. In his essays he shows his quandaries and questions. He ponders the power and clone-like behavior of mainstream American media in “Simba.” He addresses the fact that Americans find politics so deceitful to place much faith in anymore, too. In “The View” he implicitly writes that most Americans are overly reliant on television, that they can barely communicate effectively any more.

 

In “Lobster” he notes the dissonance between animal-rights activists and those who attend an overhyped annual lobster bonanza in Maine. He, in true essayistic style, doesn’t give us an answer but lets us brood on the matter. Take these examples:

“I’m not trying to give you a PETA-like screed here— at least I don’t think so. I’m trying, rather, to work out and articulate some of the troubling questions that arise amid all the laughter and festivities … of the Maine Lobster Festival.”

“I’m also concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I am is more confused.”

 

Just like my recent posts on Chuck Palahniuk, it’s clear that as we read more and grow (AKA age) we outgrow some authors. It’s a tough pill to swallow sometimes. It’s good to remain thankful, however, for the joy you once derived from their work.

Writing Privacy into Nonfiction

Share

Lest you think my last post on writing proposed lying, deceit, or reckless insensitively writing your nonfiction, let’s consider it from another direction. I want to look at Nancy J. Brandwein’s “Scraping the Bottom,” an essay published recently in the fantastic literary journal Hippocampus. But keep in mind Kaylene Johnson’s essay discussed in my last post.

Nancy Brandwein

What Courage!

Brandwein‘s at wit’s end with her husband, possibly with their marriage. Imagine writing an essay/memoir that coincides with the song “Is That All There Is?” The song hums through my mind as the memoir progresses. I’m reading that Brandwein’s bliss, relief,  and happiness of her once-young fantasies are all but dead memories.

 

“Back then irritation was a precursor to romance. Now irritation, is, well, irritation,” she writes.

I can feel my own grimace grow. I can feel the clench of having been in a relationship too long. But there’s more.

“She is looking at her husband’s profile with seething resentment.”

“I couldn’t help seeing the petrified bedroom and living room furniture as metaphor for marriage in midlife.”

 

There is no telling if the author is still married to her husband at the time of publication, but they were at the end of the essay. In fact, she had a beautiful essayistic twist. Not only does it delight with the subtle capacity for a twist. It also shocks at its exceptional intimacy. Here we have a different angle to exposing private facts through nonfiction.

Unhappiness Requires Liberty to Write

In “Scraping” Brandwein does this to herself and her husband, giving us an intimate view of the interior of one’s life– one that’s

daring in its revelatory details of a crumbling marriage. Yet never once does this essay come off as a ranting, self-pitying journal entry. That’s where a lot of new writers go wrong.

Johnson’s “Privacy in Creative Nonfiction” addressed that. The subject such as Brandwein’s could so easily be initially seen as a question from amateur, yet what we tackle in essays and memoir— literary nonfiction overall— is the legitimate concern of writers everywhere.

 

“It turns out that permission to write about these hard truths is more easily gained than one might imagine—so long as truth, compassion, and empathy are braided throughout the work,” Johnson writes.

 

Here’s another example of how Brandwein might have forgotten the professional side of writing and lost it all to a handwritten entry in her journal:

 

“The last leg of our trip becomes a struggle to keep from sobbing, which is hard to manage when The Shirelles are singing Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? Richard wrote out the lyrics for me when we first lived together, his way of saying that yearning uncertainty was now behind us. Thinking of the numbing certainty of our life together, I blurt, ‘I can’t bear it!’”

 

This is indeed an essay. Brandwein brings it round, trying to figure something out in true essayistic style. She doesn’t become sappy or melodramatic. She partially makes fun of herself and tells us what “exactly” happened to get her to turn it all around, to stop being a crybaby. Why did she do it? “There is something freeing about confronting the disappointments and limitations of our marriage.”

 

Asking Permission

Did Brandwein ask her husband’s permission to write this and that detail, to publish the thing? Did he have a chance to look at it before it went to the publisher, even before it was submitted? After all, as Terry Tempest Williams once wrote, “The minute we pick up our pen, we are on the path of betrayal.”

 

Now let’s flip that statement onto its side. Could we see in Brandwein’s essay what Johnson says in hers– that all writing is about revenge?

 

Or we might liken it to Freudian psychoanalysis. “Freudian psychology allowed for the exploration of private experiences, which in turn revealed the motivations behind our public personas.” Freud believed psychoanalysis might allow man to take a deeper look at himself, “to control himself more from within than through external authority…” Johnson writes. We as nonfiction writers do this. We work through our insecurities through our writing (and sometimes psychotherapy too). It is not, however, our responsibility to ensure that the subjects of our work are equally as secure in self-awareness and/or self-exploration.

 

Be on the look out for a third post in this series on privacy in nonfiction.