Tuesday, May 12, 2015

After So Many Years

I know I write this blog with the unavoidable biases of a 20th century refugee now living in the 21st.

Even when I'm reminiscing or sharing an anecdote from my past, it's tinged by how we, as a culture, interpret the world in 2015. In my case, you also have to allow for my gross eccentricities, but even then, often my take on life reeks of the here and now.

My annual trek to the beach can usually be counted as one of my favorite weeks of the year and understandably so. Certain pleasures - the outside shower, the long walks on the beach, the contentment of hearing the ocean night and day- carry over year to year while new experiences surprise and delight.

Coming to the cottage in May instead of July means first crack at the new pack of clothespins in the third kitchen drawer. If that doesn't sound like a treat to you, then clearly you've never known the hausfrau satisfaction of hanging wet garments out to dry on the clothesline in the salty breeze. By Independence Day, rust is showing itself on the clothespins. Not so now.

Our earlier arrival also meant that we practically had the beach to ourselves, with only a few visitors in residence nearby. Shells were abundant, unlike later in the season when they're picked over by early morning scavengers while I sleep in.

Lingering over a crescent-shaped bed of shells one morning, I look up to see a man playing bagpipes on his deck directly in front of me. It's a rare shell-gathering expedition when I'm serenaded by bagpipes for half an hour as I take my time searching for just the right specimens while he plays to the ocean and me.

And there's the reading, the pure, unadulterated self-indulgence of spending hours doing nothing but reading a book. I read on the beach, in the porch swing, in the big rattan chair on the screened porch, on the front sunset porch, on the couch after dark and in bed before I sleep.

After nine days, I've read five books and it's a disparate lot.

I begin with Gully Wells' 2011 memoir, "The House in France," about an ex-pat family's years in London during the swinging '60s and the house in Provence to which they return as a family for many years. It's a positively glamorous lifestyle I'll never know (neither Robert Kennedy nor Christopher Hitchens ever dropped by my parent's house), making for fascinating reading.

From there, I take on a 1964 book called "Edith Wharton 1862-1937," part biography and part literary analysis. What catches my attention here is the perspective. Author Olivia Coolidge is writing from a crucial point in women's history, only a year after Betty Friedan's seminal treatise, "The Feminine Mystique."

So while Coolidge is trying to explain the mind of a women who'd been nominated for the Nobel prize in Literature 30-some years before, many of her explanations are colored by the '60s, not Edith Wharton's era.

I don't know what I expected from a 1973 biography of Clark Gable, "Long Live the King," but surely not to read the word "groovy" as many times as I did. Written only a dozen years after Gable died, author Lyn Tornabene, had the distinct advantage of being able to talk to people the actor had flirted with, worked alongside and known.

The humor was courtesy of the interviewees' oh-so 1973 dialog, as they attempted to put a hip angle on a man born in 1901 and dead by the start of the tumultuous '60s. Not hip and the 400-page book showed me enough about the man to know that he would have hated being described that way.

And talk about dated! William Saroyan's "The Human Comedy," written in 1943, is about a world that no longer exists, a world where mothers accept the sacrifice of a son to war as part of their duty to country and even boys under the age of ten are referred to as 'men.' Everyone is in this together and pulls together for a greater good.

Ancient history, in other words. Perhaps most interestingly, it's the book that was made into the film "Ithaca" and filmed in Richmond last year. I'll be curious to see how the dated concepts are seen through the prism of 2015 when it comes out.

My final read of vacation was a 2009 novel picked up at the Kill Devil Hills library used book sale after I finished all the books I'd brought with me.

I'm not even sure why I selected it. I rarely read current fiction, I'd never heard of the author despite a cover squib saying, "One of the best writers in America~ Washington Post" and the cover photograph of angst-ridden millennnials is just the sort of rot I abhor. And don't get me started on a main character whose iPod has more musical importance to him than his stereo.

"The Song is You" has turned out to be the beach read over which my mind (and possibly heart) are most entwined. The main character, a mid-40s man still deeply attached to music, is trying to figure out how to be happy after some huge personal losses.

References to music thread throughout ("It took some more beer and listening to the Sundays before the illusion of randomness melted away"), catnip to a music lover such as myself. "He swung through his collection with what he felt was random compulsion, one song paused and blinking its consumed time after less than a minute because a chord or a voice or the liner notes reminded him of another song."

I have done that musical tangent game many a time myself.

Which is to say that the book captured me to the point that I began rationing out my reading the last two days, unwilling to go home knowing the ending. No, I meted out the pages, particularly saving the last 30 for once I was home. I want the pleasure of this book, this offbeat romance, the music that defines the anti-hero, to be something I got to savor at home and not just at the beach.

Because life at the beach is illusory, wonderful but unsustainable and now I'm back and things feel different. Because they are.

Maybe the song is me.


  1. ..like a coast line breaker receding away --- the 20th Century becomes further a part of the past....a world that no longer exists....unsustainable but as you say wonderful. the passage of time decides all anyway. but enough of me... i'm not a writer, you are and todays' posting hits the mark. this is why i read you.


  2. Thanks for saying that, cw. I was feeling especially low when I wrote it, so I'm glad it still resonated.