Friday, July 12, 2013

Eye Contact

Some of your favorite essayists are writers who set their thoughts down on paper long before you arrived in any condition to be able to read them.  Even then, you were not devoted to their work because of your fondness for fiction and poetry and because you had not yet enough experience of your own to ante up when you read these worthies.

You were reading fiction and poetry,hopeful of being transported to a place of experience without having to think.  Writers such as Dickens, writing as Boz, William Hazlett, and Emerson set you down the remarkable path of the essay.  In more recent times, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Gertrude Stein, Wendell Berry, and--even though you thought he had a rotten persona as a teacher--Gay Talese, helped fit all the working parts in place to the point where a work such as John McPhee's recent New Yorker piece on, of all damned things, golf balls, had the effect on you as a Tom McGuane or Deborah Eisenberg short story.

Thus you come to another remarkable essayist and longtime blog friend, Gloria Garfunkle, who writes flash fictions, self-examination essays, or what you would call investigations.  Some years ago, GG extracted a promise from you not to call her by her actual name because at the time she was a practicing therapist and wished to keep her professional life and writing life separate.  

The fact of her also being a self-identified individual in whom a bi-polar imbalance existed made her professional and personal writings all the more momentous for you to the point where she became a part of the role model pantheon for the kinds of essay you care most about and most wish to write.

You could not have come up with a better character, a psychotherapist with bi-polar imbalance, in a sense a perfect metaphor for an engaging character.

Think then of the essay as more than a form; it is an interesting eponym because in the first place, to essay something is to test it and in the second place, the essay has become through convention a way of playing out one or more hypotheses, carrying one or more to some resolution.

Think then of this:  When you switched banks earlier this week as a result of your longtime, locally-owned, small town bank being taken up by a larger bank almost like a coyote having a neighborhood cat for supper, the manager who supervised your enrollment spoke of changing banks as a source of grief and mourning.  True enough.  Habit and tradition die a slow death.

When a car dies or reaches the stage of moribundity, you cannot help recount some of the trips you took together, the moments of tiff when you saw some repair bills, the moments of joy as you cruised together into some remarkable vista, some place neither of you had been before.

Now, we're leading up to something momentous.  Your relationships with moribund computers.  With the possible exception of your Ancora and Conklin and Shaeffer fountain pens, you've used computers as more than a tool, more like an intimate instrument.  You and your computers have had thousands of conversations, shared correspondence, investigated possibilities.  Your computer knows your intimate secrets.  True, you get some IMs on your cell phone that your computer knows nothing about, but if sharing were possible, you would.

You had a momentary pang when you switched from PC to Mac, and you did feel some sense of loss at the departure of previous computers. Without any conscious awareness on your part, your computers, in particular your laptops, became the equivalent of an intimate, a close, cherished friend to whom you could tell anything, with whom--and this is important--you could essay your way through ideas and concepts to some form of understanding.  In a sense, your past computers were partners, collaborators in the writing of essays, reviews, blog posts, books, lectures, speeches, love notes.  

To this day, you still think with nostalgia about the fire engine red Olivetti portable typewriter, given to you with love and devotion by an individual you'd hoped at one time to be your mother-in-law.  That Olivetti and you produced how many books together?  How many short stories?  That Olivetti, that splendid, fiery, Italian machine.

So here is the difficult part.  Here is the mountain goat leap from machines, implements, cell phones, pocket knives, fountain pens, to live, sensate beings, to absent family, absent friends, absent lovers, and above all, one being most recently gone from you.  Here is the part about someone with whom you had any number of the experiences and exchanges you had with such inanimate things as fountain pens, computers, and your Leica camera.

You were hunting this afternoon through a clump of papers on a coffee table near your reading chair.  A plastic envelope with a compact disc in it fell from between the leaves of a manuscript.  It bore the name of your veterinarian and your late dog.  In all probability, the disc has an x-ray or some other photographic image authorized by you for the purpose of diagnosing a distant symptom, long since diagnosed and dealt with.  The material on the disc is in effect no different from the three-foot by four-foot photo of your late dog, or the oil portrait of her, or the photo of her as a two- or three-year old, residing in the kitchen bookcase.

In the spirit of devotion and that complex bond between dog and human, you've had any number of conversations with her that were more verbal essays, ideas and concepts floated before her as though she could understand them and partake of them, then help you form some sort of resolution or decision.  The many times you asked her, for instance, "What about it?  Eat in tonight and finish off the pasta with the Bolognese sauce, or perhaps The Habit and a burger for you and the albacore tuna for me?  Or perhaps we go sharesies, half of each for the two of us?"  Did you expect a finite answer?  No, of course not.  Did she understand the implications?  Probably not.  Most probably not.  

But she did understand the intonations of your voice and through those tones, she had a wide spectrum of your emotions and attitudes, which became tools for her and the ways, particularly through eye contact, she conversed with you.

You've spent a major portion of your life focusing on ways to communicate, which means you've had to learn how to extract information, how to process it, how to infuse it with your experiences and the conclusions those experiences left you with.  Many of your tools have been from visuals such as books, film, canvases, walls which were receptacles for frescoes.  Many of your tools were recordings or live performances of music.  Other tools were conversations with individuals--family, friends, mentors.  Still other tools came from your internal essays, your conversations with and within yourself.

On April 15 of this year, you left a tribute on this digital wall to the friend who'd left you hours earlier.  You called it "A Thirty-Pound Learning Curve," essaying some of the internal and external conversations you'd had with her since the November afternoon in 1997, when you brought her home from the Santa Barbara Animal Shelter.

The mechanical devices--computers, fountain pens, and the recording device on the cell phones--captured what you had to offer with an admirable kind of objectivity you'd not expected.  There were all your notes, as written or uttered, first of all for you to see, then to revise and correct.

Sally captured all you had to offer as well, with a significant difference, and after all those years you had with her, you could experience that difference every time you made eye contact with her.

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