A decent, different sort of week here. The boys being otherwise occupied, I’ve had every day, all day, free. To work. To some, that might seem like a sad plight, but honestly, this is the first truly alone time since….last summer, I guess. I used to be able to write at night, even after teaching all day, but those days are long gone, especially since I hit fifty, and especially since we started homeschooling. I just can’t focus, and my creative energies are spent by the end of the day. So this week has been exactly what I needed in order to hammer out a first draft of a project that isn’t actually due until next February, but there’s other stuff in the hopper that I will need to be working on this fall (somehow), so it will be good to get a solid draft done early. I can revise and edit on the fly, just fine, but the initial writing takes a kind of focus I can only achieve when I’m alone for several hours at a time.
Since piano camp has left the camper exhausted every day, and every day has been a full day for him, there were no extra travels this week. Last weekend, however, we did go to Sweetwater Creek State Park in Georgia, which was very nice and which you can read about here. What I didn’t know when I initially wrote the post was that the Hunger Games movies were filmed in part there. (They were filmed all over Atlanta, of course. I guess.)
And what of the rest of the summer? I’m not sure.
What’s weird is that I’m already thinking that summer is almost over, while some of my Facebook friends are just this week posting “last day of school” photos. What?? We’ve been out for a month!
Of course, school (for the high schooler) also starts a month earlier than those northerners will be returning – orientation is August 6, classes start August 10. Blah.
There’s only one other *obligation* owed during that time – a scout rafting trip – so we’re contemplating options. Probably some combination of some local wandering and perhaps one bigger road trip.
Speaking of high school, you might read this very sad local story. There are some ambiguities in the narrative, and some unanswered questions, but here’s the bottom line for the mother grieving the loss of her 14-year old daughter:
“If I had known then what I know now, one, she wouldn’t have had a smart phone,” Seller said. “She would have had a phone that could make a call, get a call, send a text, get a text. And all of her internet activity would have been in the living room.”
As far as I can tell, we are one of the last holdouts in this regard. My 14-year old does not have a smart phone and only uses the internet in my presence. I just last week purchased a basic flip phone for them to use when they’re out and need to contact me. I wish more parents were holding firm on this. It makes it very, very difficult to hold the line. I don’t understand why 8-year olds have Instagram accounts. I wish schools would be proactive, and along with all the other crap they send out on a constant basis, send out a weekly report to parents on the latest internet fads, from Kik to Snapchat to all those apps (which exist) which enable the other apps to remain hidden.
The good thing about not feeling an obligation to follow and comment on Every Catholic Story coming over the Interwebs is that you actually have time to read.
So this week I finished: Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians.
It’s the story of a small group of mostly writers and performers who were gathered at a Manhattan bar called Pfaff’s by a man named Henry Clapp, the son of New England Congregationalists who found himself in Paris, was besotted with cafe life and returned to the United States, determined to recreate it. Walt Whitman was the most well-known of the regulars, although he tended to stay on the margins.
It’s a good tale, if padded a bit – without Whitman, the book would probably be half as long, which would make it more of an Atlantiic Monthly article, which would then be bad, since the Boston-based Atlantic was Clapp’s bete noire. There are a slew of vivid, interesting characters whose lives show very vividly that excess and self-indulgence, as well as delusions of grandeur and relentless self-promotion are not unique to the 21st century would-be artiste.
I was probably most taken by the story of Hugh Ludlow, who became very famous as a very young man because of his drug experimentation and the book he wrote about it called The Hasheesh Eater. Ludlow couldn’t follow up on that book’s success, took various writing and office jobs, then in 1863, got the opportunity to accompany painter Albert Bierstadt out west. Bierstadt was going to sketch and paint, and Ludlow would write about their travels, in articles that would be published in the New York Post, and then in a book.
This interested me, not just because of the fact that we’ve just been out West, nor just because of the interesting paths that were crossed on that trip, but because one of Bierstadt’s paintings of Yosemite – one of the fruits of that trip – is one of the most treasured pieces of our Birmingham Museum of Art’s collection.
The trip, however, did not end well. They returned and Ludlow’s wife left him for Bierstadt, the book’s publication was delayed to the point that when it finally did make it to print, reviewers mocked it for being out of date, since by that time, the Transcontinental Railroad was finished, and going out West was not nearly as exotic a quest as it had been.
If you want a good introduction to the group, head to this comprehensive website – the Vault at Pfaff’s – from Lehigh University. It’s a treasure trove, and will keep you busy for a while.
I also finished The Wapshot Chronicle. I had begun it a month or two ago, so I was a little confused at first and required a refresher, but it didn’t take long to get into the swing of it. It’s a strange book, and I suppose everyone is correct about Cheever being a stronger short story writer, but there’s some gorgeous writing, nonetheless. There’s something unreal about the whole thing – it doesn’t feel as anchored in reality as do, say, Updike or Walker Percy – to take two male writers from around the same time – and everyone is fairly miserable and stumbling into things and life choices in the most haphazard way. I never could really picture either Moses or Coverly, the two brothers, in my mind. They seemed more like two dimensions of the same person, which they probably are.
Just as quick sample, from near the end:
[Leander – the Wapshot father] went to early communion, happily, not convinced of the worth of his prayers but pleased with the fact that on his knees in Christ Church he was, more than in any other place in the world, face to face with the bare facts of his humanity.….Even as the service rose to the climax of bread and wine he noticed that the acolytes’ plush cushion was nailed to the floor of the chancel and that the altar cloth was embroidered with tulips but he also noticed, kneeling at the rail, that on the ecclesiastical and malodorous carpet were a few pine or fir needles that must have lain there all the months since Advent, and these cheered him as if this handful of sere needles had been shake from the Tree of Life and reminded him of its fragrance and vitality.
To no good end, unfortunately, but that’s the way it goes. I’ve never read Cheever but for a few of the stories, and while reading the novel, I also read up on his famously sad and fractured life, and was confronted once more with the paradox of such a mess of a human being producing art that really does, in some admittedly imperfect way, reflect truth. Not that a mess of a human being wouldn’t be able to see truth – we are a mess, and we all have the capacity – but it’s the discipline required to express it in an artful way in the midst of the mess, which for Cheever included being drunk much of the time, that confounds me.
And what of all these lost, post-war, mid-century men?
Mill ruins, Sweetwater Creek State Park, west of Atlanta.
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