Trifler No. 9 [On Triflers]

“Only to make things! There is no greater thing to be said of God Himself than that He makes things.” –G.K. Chesterton

When I was eighteen years old and still brimming with trust for books and their authors, I happened upon a monograph in a Barnes and Noble offering advice to aspiring letter-writers, diarists, and essayists. Eager to learn all I could, I opened to the first page and read (I quote from memory), “Never try to write about your life as if it were a story; your life is not that interesting.” I should have balked. I should have scoffed. I should have tossed the book at the head of the nearest academic. But instead, I swallowed, digested, incorporated, and incarnated the advice on the spot. Those words sank deep and became, for many years, the principle by which I wrote letters, by which I journaled, by which I essayed. They did not sit idle either but, like all ideas do, having found their way into my ideology, they fermented and foamed and expanded into an amorphous, fungal writing philosophy based loosely on the dictums, ‘know your limits’ and ‘write well or do not write at all.’

**********

I sat at my desk four months ago. Rain fell outside and I was alone in the study room, a book of Woolf’s essays open before me. It is a well-known and—among the wise—widely accepted fact that Virginia Woolf is dangerous. One can swim in her sentences and paragraphs, carried along without knowing or caring exactly what she writes. Reading her can be like slipping into a pool that is the same temperature as the air around. One finds it difficult to feel the effects until one steps out. So I read, lulled into a pleasant stupor by her high modern diction and mellifluous syntax. That is, until I came to this paragraph (and even it almost found me nodding):

That is the problem which the habitual essayist must now be prepared to face. He must masquerade. He cannot afford the time either to be himself or to be other people. He must skim the surface of thought and dilute the strength of personality. He must give us a worn weekly halfpenny instead of a solid sovereign once a year.

In a moment of clarity, I saw this sentiment for what it was: my own, and, what is more to the point, something monstrous—something I could no longer believe. To say that an essayist is wasting his talents on weekly essays when he could be writing masterpieces once a year is like saying that the habitual runner has to choose between running poorly five days a week or running gracefully and swiftly once a year. It is like telling the basketball player it is far better to shoot one game-winning shot once a season than to waste time shooting ten thousand mediocre shots (some of them he will miss) in practice. It is like bemoaning the fact that a pianist plays scales and dry sonatinas for hours a day when he could be playing a Liszt transcendental etude every few months. It is—not to put too fine a point on it—absurd. One thing makes the other thing possible. Decent work requires drudging. Great writing requires a pile of poor attempts at writing.

No doubt, one can perpetuate poor writing by writing poorly, but one certainly cannot perpetuate great writing by writing rarely. The solution to running poorly is not to stop running. The solution to a bad basketball shot is not to save up all one’s bad shots so one can shoot a single perfect shot. A man cannot save up talent like he saves money. Skill in writing, indeed in any craft, is more like a garden than a bank account—it is beautiful in proportion to its gardener’s care; productive in proportion to its gardener’s work; pleasure-giving in proportion to its gardener’s patience, and in constant danger of growing less like a garden if neglected. The solution to writing poorly is to write more, with instruction, to choose great authors to imitate, and to write constantly.

In that moment I saw, more clearly than before, the purpose of the Trifler. And as tedious as it is to read writers writing on writing, I should explain myself at least once. These Triflers are a kind of penance for all my years of refusing to write for fear of writing refuse. They are, in a very real sense, the result of my willingness to write poorly that I might, in time, write well.

But in another sense, these triflers are not about writing, for writing, in a sense, is not about writing. It is about living. It is about observing. It is about recording. It is about assembling. Now, I am obliged to practice literary criticism during my working hours. Literary criticism, at its modern worst, is a smashing, a fracturing of a text into a million pieces and then a description of the mess. No wonder reading avant-garde, postmodern writing sometimes feels like picking one’s way through the wreckage of a formerly respectable building. All the postmodern writer’s construction materials have been systematically diced and crushed and blended and pulverised by modern criticism, and he can do nothing but glue together shapeless novelties.

At its best, literary criticism is a careful disassembling—a minute examination of a text in its relationship to its whole self. Writing, especially creative writing, is the foil to this, for it is a process of assembly, of putting back together, which, as car mechanics know, is a far more delicate process than taking apart. It is a healthy exercise for the critic to try to assemble as well as deconstruct—and not just brutalist, utilitarian paragraphs of the academic article, but the gothic spires of the everyday conversation and the careful masonry of the personal narrative. The critic has his value, but he will understand his value far more clearly when he attempts to produce that which he criticises and realises that he cannot. So I write these Triflers.*  

*********

The park across from our apartment has become a near-eden in the last few weeks, filled with plum and cherry, first blooming then dropping petals in snow-swirls of pink and white. I find it more and more difficult to content myself with merely gazing at it on sunny days, so, on occasion I pad across the road and make two or three loops on its paths. Often I bring a book, either audio or paper, and stride around the place, taking in prose along with the pollen. One of these days, I was looping the park, reading some self-important philosopher, when I noticed a limb dangling from a nearby Birch. It had been knocked off, no doubt, by the man who mows—though it would be more accurate to say rampages—the park. The branch hung by only two or three ragged strips of wood, and, I knew that, with the right application of human force, it would come off. Still, I hesitated, wondering whether I should leave the thing for city employees to lop off on their own paid time. I thought about how it would look, a man with a book of philosophy tearing a branch from a tree. Finally, I threw aside these worries, set aside my book, and began the surgical procedure. I grasped the thing in two hands and twisted my whole body in an attempt to wrench it from the trunk. Just as I began to hear the crack of splitting wood, a voice called out from behind me: “Hey! What are you doing?” A man on a bike, wearing a red reflective jacket and concussion-proofing bike helmet had stopped in the middle of the street and was gazing in my direction. His son sat on a smaller cycle next to him.
“Me?” I said, looking up innocently, holding the limb at shoulder level.
“Yeah, you. What are you doing?”

I know now what I should have done. I should have torn off the limb from the trunk with one more great heave, lifted it high above my head and said, “Doing? What am I doing? I’m doing, that’s what I’m doing—not standing and waiting for others to do, not prognosticating and equivocating and authenticating and prevaricating on the ins and outs of doing but really doing. Can’t you see?” Instead, I explained that I was cleaning up the mower’s mess and not going around the place tearing off healthy tree branches at random. He rode on without comment. I completed the procedure, deposited my prize by the trash can nearest the road, crossed the street, went into our apartment, and began a new Trifler.

R. Eric Tippin
Watching the cherry trees snow from Corner House, Cambridge
May 1, 2016

Image:
"Cherry Tree"
Oil on Canvas - 20th Century
Unknown Artist

*A reasonable reader might expect a Trifler on triflers to come nearer number 1 than number 9. In this case the reasonable reader would be wrong, for when a man begins a thing, no matter how careful he has planned it, he knows less about that thing than when it is underway and humming and even less than when he has completed it. I suppose a patient and wise writer would wait until the final essay of a series to introduce that series. I am neither patient nor wise. 

Gambler, No. 16 [Bird-Watching, or What Happens Here, Leaves]

I am willing to love all mankind except an American. – Johnson

Routine is underappreciated and misunderstood. The common response, or thought, toward it is that it is very plain or dull. On the contrary, routine is an exceptionally vivid thing. A man who walks the same route every day sees the gradual, and thus violent, change that takes place. Are not all the most violent of changes gradual? And only the calm, consistent, unchanging man can truly perceive, and appreciate this violence. Why, violent men never notice violence – they are too busy yelling, beating, smacking, slapping, shoving, or throwing. And likewise the man who constantly shifts and moves around can’t notice change any more than a runner keeping up with the sun can see it move. Moreover, the man who constantly changes may be the last person to change; the steady man changes though, for he has an environment in which to change. But I suppose all this is merely a prelude to the fact that I have a new routine, now that I’ve moved. And it is rather plain. One might even say it is rather plane. For I decided a week ago that I would engage in a new ritual and sit on the plank of the Jolly Mariner each Sunday morning with my coffee and watch as the planes leave Vegas in droves, as they had the prior Sundays. I made this decision, decided that each Sunday morning, for the next twenty years – when I finally complete my PhD and have a job – I would observe these planes take their exodus, as men flee the town with little cash, a new wife, and a throbbing headache. I decided all this, and was firm in my conviction. So this morning, a Sunday, I prepared and gathered my French-pressed coffee and sat in my lawn-chair. I sat and I sipped. I sat and I mused. I sat and I observed. I sat and I waited. I sat and I saw. I say, I saw nothing but bright blue skies empty of airplanes.

***** 

There is this terrible rumor going around that an election is taking place. I wouldn’t know but for the distress texts I receive from people. I wish not to get too political – though maybe a little – this year. I know little about the issues bar two and will thus content myself with ad hominem attacks, which, I hear, is par for the course this year. Anyhow, I was minding my own business one fine evening at the Desert Schooner this last January, just before the Iowa primaries. (Anyone from Iowa will declare their primary is “first for a reason!”) As I was content and happy, thinking little of politics, I received an unfortunate text from a family member asking if I was watching “the debate.” My gut told me to sarcastically replay, “yes, I purchased a television and signed up for cable just for this meaningless debate.” Instead, I pulled out the ‘ole radio and dialed in. If you’re bored some day, get twenty or so white guys (and one black guy and one gal) in a room together whom you’ve rarely, if ever, heard speak and try to figure out who’s speaking when. One truly goes for “the issues” when listening to debates on the radio. I was proud of myself, though. By the end I had about half of the voices fitted with faces (the black guy and the gal were rather easy to peg). But, now, that is neither here nor there. What shocked and disturbed me was the opening address by the first candidate, who with this silly little speech lost any of what little respect I had for him. Addressing a group of Iowans, the man said these ghastly words: “When I’m president, Iowa will no longer be a fly over state; it will be a fly to state!”

What that means, or how it will exactly be accomplished, is disturbing enough. I imagine that man making Iowa a type of prison, forcing convicts to fly to it. But though disturbed by his words, I am more disturbed by the applause that followed. Iowans should know better. Iowans should know that what makes Iowa special is all too obvious: Iowans are special because there are not that many of them. The pride of Iowa is “more pigs than people!” The pride of Iowa is their corn and soy; John Deere versus Case; tractors, combines, and silos, that huge I-80 truck-stop and an unreasonable devotion to irrelevant and mediocre sports teams. And the pride of Iowa is that those who come don’t feel some insane obligation to immediately leave. The pride of Iowa is not in drunk tourists falling off combines and tweeting about it, then leaving. No, I say. If you’re ever in Iowa, it’s probably because you live there, for its too special to merely visit; If you're in Iowa, it’s probably because you’d die for it not treat it like a mistress; it’s probably because you have firmly decided, "till death do us part"; and it’s probably because you have a bumper sticker that says, “Iowa: Is this heaven?”

But I personally couldn’t help but think of Kansas. If I am ever president, I will do things differently than that horrible man. Kansas will not be a fly over or fly to or even fly from state; nay, it will be a no fly zone. That will be the first item of business, the first thing to sign into office when I’m sworn in. Then, I will annex the state and give it its long overdue liberty, and I will then immediately cut off any trade relations between Kansas and America. This, my second executive order, will make Kansas a free-country. I will then begin my great project. I will build a wall – a wall all the way around the border of the United Counties of Kansas. And I will make America pay for it. By now, February 2, there will be talk of impeachment or assassination, so I will call a press conference and give the very first “State of the State” speech by a president, further solidifying the liberty of Kansas. Then, I will go ahead and impeach myself, give the White House keys to the vice president, fly to M.C.I., run to the border, and climb the wall, helped over by Bill Snyder himself, as the last brick is laid and I become the first illegal immigrant.

And we will finally be left alone. And all will be well.*

***** 

Another day allows me the opportunity to observe the exodus. It’s a chilly, Iowa-like, late-April afternoon as the clouds conquer the skies and the ground is damp from overnight rains. The birds seem to chirp louder after a rain. Or maybe they chirp for another reason.

It’s odd to watch each plane take off, considering each holds roughly two-hundred people. If but ten planes leave, and the number is much higher, that’s two-thousand people. That’s Clarksville, Iowa sitting in a seat, hovering on air. Each plane is just as wonderful as the next. Each plane holds almost two-hundred stories. Where are these people headed exactly? Do they leave loved ones or head to them? That one’s San Francisco, I say to myself. Seattle, that one. Boise, Salt Lake, Denver, Kansas City. Kansas City. If I could but stick a note on that one and let the fair city know she's in my thoughts.

The Midwest is special because of its unattractiveness. They don’t have these silly tag-lines that declare, “what happens in Kansas, stays in Kansas.” They don’t have them because they would be too true. What happens in Kansas does stay there because Americans are too snobbish to care. But any fool knows that what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay here. It goes online or becomes Monday’s water-cooler conversation. And it leaves because those who visit, in thinking they’re doing something new, do the same exact thing millions have done before, so that whatever activity they engage in is news to them but old to us. And these silly tourists are quarantined on the strip. They think they’re visiting Vegas when they’re really only visiting Las Vegas Boulevard. We pray they stay contained during their short stay. We locals look at the strip like a painting, some backdrop to an old movie, or a valley of death that no one dares visit because the dregs of the world are there. The rabble on the strip is a rabble of ruffians who do nothing they couldn’t do in their own city; yet they wish to corrupt ours. But, we know better. If the locals are anything like me, they too raise their glass and sing with the birds as the planes depart in droves. They too wish them a hearty good riddance; they too are reminded that though America owns and corrupts the strip, we own and bless the city. 

Broom Snow
Waiving Goodbye
The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada
April 24-25, 2016

Painting: "Cornfield in Surrey"
By William Linnell,
OIl on canvas, 1860

_______________________ 

*I am anticipating your concern regarding the inevitable counter-revolution that would occur in Douglas County. Of course, the new United Counties of Kansas, though difficult to enter, will be easy enough to leave. One may will themselves away or be kicked out by popular vote, tarred, feathered and driven out on a bull. The possibilities are endless, and “If you don’t like it, you can leave!”

 

Trifler No. 8 [On Accepting a Quest]

“Motion was extraordinarily easy that afternoon, and I had no doubts that I did well to bicycle instead of walking. It was as easy as riding in a cart, and more satisfying to a restless man.” –Edward Thomas

“To whom Sir Gareth drew / (And there were none but few goodlier than he) / Shining in arms, ‘Damsel, the quest is mine.” –Alfred Lord Tennyson

It is far more satisfying to be in a hurry on a bicycle than it is in some powered machine you exert no effort to move. All one’s nervous energy is channelled into pedals and translated into the roar of wind over one’s ears. The car has more power to move the hurrying man, but it has no power to remove the hurry from the man. He can only press a small pedal, turn a belt-assisted wheel, and fume and rage at cyclists and pedestrians who slow him down. The cyclist can weave and leap and glide and lean and pump until his legs ache and feel his machine respond to every move. He can arrive at his destination feeling a sense of exertion and exhilaration. The car driver can only transfer his stationary body from one location to another, and, if he lives in Cambridge where traffic inches along like a sludge-creek, he may just arrive there after the cyclist.

The cycle, next to the horse and the foot, is the noblest beast of burden for a man on a quest,* and that for many reasons: one cannot joust adequately in a car. One cannot divert from established roadways in a car —a thing necessary to most quests. A car requires far too much maintenance and care from the man on the quest. A car may explode unexpectedly at any moment.** The quest is as much about the road as it is the destination. The car is armed and engined for one sole purpose: a hermetic ride to a destination.***

***********

I sat alone at my desk in the full light of a spring morning, an hour’s work complete and my books before me. All was well. I thought to myself, This is a day of quiet industry. This is a day of duties done and solitary thought and ink lines through list items. This is a day to sink into my studies—to marinate in my subject, to the carry the Ph.D. one day nearer completion. I began to make a list, including those things I had already done, just for the pleasure of crossing them off. I never completed it. As I wrote “return books to Library,” I received a text from a damsel in distress. It read, “I forgot my cookies at home!! (crying emoji)” Now these cookies, I happened to know, were required for an elementary school bake-sale, and, being often near this damsel, I had an idea of the work and care that had gone into their baking and storage. This damsel often sends me on quests: once to purchase crushed almonds, once for a tub of ice cream, once for a pad of steel wool, many times for doughnuts on a Saturday morning. She sends me out to do battle with over-filled trash cans, to hunt and bring home Chinese take-away from Cook4Me, to wrestle black-hearted bicycle chains, and, every few weeks, to search out some barber-magician who will make me look presentable. At this final quest, I often fail.

Most days I relish the opportunity to jump on Bree, my steed, and do whatever my damsel bids, but, this day, to my shame, I balked, and like the weak-kneed, purblind, short-sighted academic I am so afraid of becoming, I thought, What of my important work? What of my list? What of my Ph.D.? What of the life of the mind? This moment of madness passed quickly, however; I repented of it, and, after a hurried text informing her that I had accepted the quest implied in her text, corralled Bree and raced toward Carlyle Road to pick up the cookies.

Now, this damsel works in Girton, a twenty-some minute cycle from the Cambridge City Center along roads crawling with cars and busses that are by no means friendly to cyclists. Knowing this, and steeling myself, I took Carlyle to Searle and turned left on Victoria. It was 8:40, and the morning commute to and from the northern necklace towns was at its peak. I rode behind a middle-aged man wearing a somewhat tired herringbone sport jacket, scuffed black shoes, and what I can only describe as clown socks. He sat astride a three-wheeled reverse-rickshaw pedal-buggy with two children seated on a covered bench in front to his handlebars. He was going my way, or, rather, I was going his, and though he had twice the weight and an unwieldy machine to manage, he clipped along at a surprising pace. I could hear the children singing some lilting, joyous nonsense song as their father sat above them like some horseless charioteer charging down Victoria. Every once in a while, he would pat their buggy-topper just to let them know he was still there and still going. At some turn off on Huntington, we parted ways, and I continued on, making a right on Girton Road. Here I began to notice schoolchildren lining the roads, no doubt, waiting for busses or parents. Deep-green holly hedges, Magnolia, Cherry, and Plumb trees speckled road-side gardens and passed me in a pleasant blur of lilac, pink, green, and white. I crossed a bridge and looked down at a bumper-to-bumper highway, thankful I rode a vehicle that could weave between bumpers. Girton College went by, then the community gardens. After a few more pedals and one or two brushes with death-by-city-bus, I turned into the school drive, delivered my parcel, received a smile of gratitude from the damsel—all the payment a man needs—stayed to watch her students recite a poem about a beech tree, and returned, victorious.

**********

As Bree and I rolled back down the now calmer roads, I considered how pleasant it was to ride another man’s commute for a morning and to see a weekday unfold in another part of Cambridgeshire. I considered too how all this fullness and colour and life and exercise had come about because of a moment of forgetfulness and a woman in need—a felix culpa. I thought too that we who keep to the old roads will find ourselves in a smaller and smaller company. Chivalry will grow yet more sickly as gender grows more fluid. Loyalty to country will become loyalty to state. Loyalty to state will become loyalty to town. Loyalty to town will become loyalty to family, and even that may be taken away. But as long as I am a man and my wife is in need, the age of quests will not come to an end.

 

R. Eric Tippin
Written, typed, and transcribed with much huffing and puffing
Corner House, Cambridge
23 April, 2016
 

* Broom Snow makes a similar point in a more cogent treatment of the subject here.
** I speak from experience. See Trifler No. 6
*** Diction of this last line shamelessly stolen from Kipling’s “The Female of the Species.”

Image:
"Knight Riding by a Lake (recto)"
Oil on Panel - Date Unknown
Alfred James Munnings