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This site is a group of individuals sharing thoughts, stories, and passages together on one site. Peruse, join the conversation by comment, and enjoy. 

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Monday
Jan112016

Gambler, No. 8 [My Trip to the Lake]

“It is therefore not a sufficient vindication of a character that it is drawn as it appears, for many characters ought never to be drawn” — Samuel Johnson

Gambler, No. 8

About one year ago, it was imposed upon me to read The Wind in the Willows. I am generally inclined to read books before professors ruin them, and so I read it over break. I can say with confidence that it is one of the most delightful, moving, entertaining books I have ever read. I liked it so much, that when it came time in class to sign up for the book we would like to present on, I chose it. Both because I loved it and to save it from my colleagues, who would also ruin it. But the real evidence for my admiration comes in how I immediately reacted to it. Almost as soon as I finished, I began composing my own novel in loose imitation. I wrote two chapters, then began a third; I began to round my characters out a bit more; I hatched out a rough plot-line in my head. Then, as I had done with my other eight or so novels, I laid it aside and never returned to it.

__________

About three weeks ago, I was sitting in the Lied Library at UNLV, reading and looking out the window on the fifth floor at a gigantic Ferris-wheel, several hotels, and a mountain-range. I was minding my own business, taking joy in the peace of Christmas break, when to my great surprise, I looked across the way only to see a very familiar Squirrel, Stoat, and Beaver. They were sitting down at a table, looking at me with many a scornful visage. They seemed upset. But could I blame them? I realized all too well that I had left my main characters in unfavorable conditions: two snoring and one entering a dark wood. I felt guilty. Unlike my other eight or so novels, in this one I had actually created a world for them to live in and a plot-line for them to live out. That world had now been lying idle in my subconscious these many weeks and months. I had thought about them periodically, of course, often while riding a mower last summer, often with great guilt for abandoning them.

I went over and explained to them that I was an important person now. I really didn’t have time to mess around with children’s stories. That’s for creative-writing PhDs or MFAs. I’m a research guy. And on top of that, this is an American PhD program. I’m trying to finish by forty, while I have all my teeth, before I’m on life-support. But they wouldn’t hear any of it. They remonstrated, and griped, and argued, and complained, and even appealed to the children. But I was resolved and moved to another location in the library, hoping they would just go away. Yet after twenty or so minutes, there they were! As I peered over my book, there stood Squirrel, Stoat, and Beaver. I was dismayed. So I cut them a deal. I promised to go home directly and edit what I had. They were relieved at this, for they explained it wasn’t really any good to begin with. I ignored their banter and even promised them I would find an illustrator and a cartographer. That next evening, I would hash out chapter three and then work on a chapter a week until I was finished.

They seemed satisfied with this, though I couldn’t help but notice they held peculiar grins while I shook their paws, as if they knew something I didn’t.

That next morning, I made the mistake of reading Chesterton and almost immediately had two essay ideas in my head at the same time. I’ve always felt that if I have an idea for an essay or a poem in my head, I better push everything aside and write. So I wrote one, then fiddled around with transcribing it. I went to my kitchen to get some food, and who were there but my three characters! They were not pleased. They had been watching me write that silly essay (possibly, a forthcoming Gambler) and neglect their story. If I wasn’t going to be doing PhD work, I had better be finishing their story. I thought this a bit severe and explained that a guy’s got to have some time to himself after all. Anyways, I had to go do some Christmas shopping, and by George! I had that other essay still in my head; it needed to come out too! “Two essays in one day?” They replied. What about chapter three? But these essays come in fits, I countered. They’re almost as bad as my poetry! I already had a good idea of what would happen in chapter three anyways and could easily come back to it that evening.

They were not happy, but obliged anyways. I wrote that essay (Gambler, No. 7) at a coffee shop, did my shopping, came home, and began writing chapter three. That next day, I finished. Just as I was finishing though, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

It was Squirrel!

He needed to talk. We had all agreed on what would happen in chapter five, but there was still a great deal of gray area regarding chapter four. Squirrel wanted me to get on with chapter five before I forgot everything. But I explained that I couldn’t write chapter five until I wrote chapter four, which we all agreed I would write next week. Yes, he said, but next week was Christmas. Are you really going to write during Christmas? With the family all gathering around? And your father pestering you to play games? And your mother pestering you to talk? And your sisters pestering you to sign up for snap-chat? And your annual opportunity to read the Kansas City sport’s page? You won’t write!

Well, I couldn’t argue with this. It seemed I just had to get chapters four and five out of the way. So I went ahead and continued on with chapter four that day and resolved that after chapter five, I would really get down to my actual work. I was now feeling guilty about neglecting that.

But shortly after chapter five came chapter six, and in roughly three weeks, with very little writing happening at all Christmas week, I wrote about forty-eight thousand words and nine chapters, finishing the book on January 1, though with numerous edits still needing to take place.

__________

Writing for me is very consuming. When I start writing for school or essays, poems, or fiction, I can easily get tunnel-visioned. I put off eating, drinking, getting fresh air, talking to people, and other normal, human habits. But nothing has consumed my time like this novel I wrote, and it was a different experience altogether. I resignedly went to bed at nights with those characters in my head, scheming the next chapter. I woke up the next morning and got right to writing. With each chapter, I wanted to write more. I thought getting half-way would allow me to step away and it only tempted me more.

C.S. Lewis says somewhere that when a story is put aside, it does not rest idle. The characters continue to grow, the plot continues to work itself out. When you come back to it, even months later, you are surprised at how alive the thing is. In my own case, I found this to be true. I found that writing a novel was like watering a plant; whereas, essay writing—and especially poetry—are more like building structures with Legos or Lincoln Logs. Essays must build in some way along logical lines; poems are, or should be, crafted with minute care. But the novel almost writes itself. It can take so many shapes and often seems to not follow any logical structure other than making sure there are no inconsistencies. The characters basically tell you what to write. And for me writing one didn’t feel like work at all but like something that “had to come out” before anything else could get done. As a result, I became one of those horrible home-dwellers who never leaves and gets no sun, eating little and looking more and more like Gollum each day. Yet I think if you’d ask what I did those weeks I wouldn’t say that I had written a thing. At least, it felt more like taking a vacation than writing. So for now, I will only say that I took a trip to the lake. And now that I return to my real work, I wish I had stayed.

Broom Snow,
Written at The Desert Schooner,
Las Vegas, Nevada
January 7, 2015

Painting: "A View of a Lake"
By A. Lewis,
Oil on canvas, 1987

Saturday
Jan022016

The First Morning

THE FIRST MORNING

of a new year, in its second hour,
I hear a knock against the teak of sleep
and open it to a dream
standing at the threshold
carrying a box addressed to me.
Inside, a couple rides a tandem bike
down an early autumn road,
tires spinning through leaf-mash
kicked up and shredded by the spokes,
a picnic of roasted olives and Muffaletta
wrapped in the front basket.
They left their home with the hope
of getting lost, if only for an afternoon,
pedaling for a trail into the forest
worn only by rainfall and wind.
Nobody knows they are there,
shaded under a lush elm, eating
as light drips through the canopy
to oil the ground,
each licking brine
from one another’s fingertips.
I set the bloodhound of my pen to their route,
barely keeping stride as his nose skims asphalt,
then earth and grass—
I leash him, though, before we arrive,
when their attentions have turned fully
from the world and to each other,
and drag him back through the brush
to preserve some part of their privacy.

Bryn Homuth
January 2, 2016

"Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon"
Caspar David Friedrich 
Oil on canvas, circa 1818/1824

Tuesday
Dec292015

Hobbler No. 4 [On Birth and Returning Home, with a Meaty Interlude]


Each of us has a definitive beginning, and whether by a mother, father, doctor, or some combination of all three, we learn of our births. The long, nine-month lead-up to the day, the onset of labor and ensuing flurry, familiar terms like “epidural,” “breach,” or “Caesarian,” and, finally, the point at which medical technicalities cease and there simply is, you. This event most commonly takes place in a hospital bed, but one hears of the unique variety of places a newborn “touches down,” so to speak—bathtubs, shopping malls, restaurants, and endless others. Birth is a unique event in that the birthed almost always have no recollection of the occasion, yet it is the beginning of the temporal memory of you as a visible human being to others.

I suspect this might be why watching a recorded video of one’s own birth is among one of the most bizarre experiences for a person. Before technological capability, there could be no trace of visualization in the sharing of these stories. All was left to oration and imagination, much like the divide between literature and cinema, though that is not a perfect comparison. To this day (though I do cherish having had the opportunity and do acknowledge a parent’s impetus to record), for me and for some close to me, our births were the first films we were never meant to see. Though it may have been and may continue to be indiscernible as to exactly why, we will never be the same. The rest, I leave here to further, future written exploration.

I rather like to think of the birth moment as a shuttle’s re-emergence into Earth’s atmosphere after a space voyage. You “were” before and “will be” after, but the crossing, the travel across a boundary of such magnitude, holds a special significance. While certainly borne initially from the ground and certainly very much a real, viable entity while beyond the confines of our planet, the craft and crew take on a new quality once they’ve returned (or arrived, you might say). They are visible. They are palpable. We know we could get to them if we needed to. In other words, they’re now on our same plane. I think it no coincidence that I have compared the baby growing inside womb to an astronaut; they never cease to be human, yet they carry a mysticism from what they have seen that borders on the superhuman. They are apart from us, yes, by time and space or by blood and tissue, and yet there is more layered into that separation than the aforementioned hurdles, impenetrable as they may seem.

Some families differ in this regard, but for those like mine, a birthplace and a dwelling place were synonymous. I spent the first twenty years of my life largely within the same ten to fifteen mile radius. For others like my darling wife, or perhaps military families, among others, a birthplace is merely one in a series of destinations for those eyeing a settling point. Whether yours is a case of the former or latter, you likely have one place that rises above others in your mind and to which you have assigned the designation, “home.” Because I do not have the wisdom or the appreciation of one who has had to leave such a home for an extended period of time, I find myself now, in year two of marriage, looking anew at the place I first tasted air on my tongue. I could choose a number of memories from the holiday on which to wax, the least of which being my dislike of candle lighting and candle smoke, but instead will concentrate on Christmas Eve dinner—my chief charge for the visit.

Of my hobbies, few offer the same level of satisfaction that does a perfectly prepared and devoured meal. This year, my mother once again gave her blessing for one of the more favored holiday centerpieces—a prime rib of beef (boneless, admittedly). I turned it over in my hands after unwrapping it from butcher paper; the surrounding layer of fat seemed to be the ideal thickness for a rich, caramelized, near-blackened sear to a peppery exterior. I was pleased with the weight, the laced marbling, and despite having to slice a bit of rubbery gristle from the underside, the overall appearance of the roast. I coated it with a mixture of Worcestershire sauce, dried herbs, garlic, and left it to marinade in an airtight bag overnight. Next afternoon I uncovered it, left it on the counter two hours prior to roasting, and by the time I had handed the baton to the oven, I had only to watch, wait, and temp the meat. After far too much watching, the rib reached 130 degrees and I tented it with foil for fifteen minutes. If only I could convey the true joy of the carving that followed! My knife dipped through the fatty crust with a soft rustle like a leaf’s crunch; the pink, steaming slabs fell away and folded over one another while the juices caught and held the light. When I served it, the room grew into that busy quiet of any room of full mouths concentrating on every prod of their taste buds.

Some may dispute the delight in cooking and suggest that such a fleeting observation of the consuming does not equate with or justify the methodical producing. These people would be correct, of course, in some regard. I recall the whole of our meal concluding in barely one hour. Theirs is an opinion, and like all opinions, they are entitled to it. Like few opinions, it may even be sufficiently supported with thought and reason. However, for me, that brevity of pleasure is what fans at the embers of any pursuit with which I occupy myself.

To feel accomplishment in terms of an absolute finality is a dangerous thing for a human being. It suggests that we, by solely our capabilities, can produce anything of a lasting good. Consider an inventor who found his or her breakthrough to exist without need of improvement or development. Consider a boat-builder who determined his or her vessel the safest and last necessity for sea transport (need we look any further than to the Titanic and her voyage?). Consider even a mother or father who find their children without blemish. The result for all is a devastating disappointment. How grateful I was at dinner that evening, that my parents had no such view of me, but rather basked in a brief bit of elation at a baby boy and then set to the dutiful work of parenting.

Even NASA missions fail, despite the jolt of power and illusory glimpse at immortality that humanity felt after successful journeying outside our planet. The Apollo 13 crew as they floated, smoldering in the South Pacific came back to a wider home, as we do to our smaller homes. Homes of mistakes. If caught in the proper light, our true successes—small as they may be—gleam accordingly with a bit more triumph. 

Bryn Homuth
On a Christmas Break evening
December 29, 2015

Photo credit: <secretlifeofachefswife.com> 

Sunday
Dec202015

The Further Joys of Cycling: A Response to the Gambler  

"There are obvious noted benefits of riding a bike, the least of which is that you help the environment." –Broom Snow, Gambler No. 4

As the Cambridge sun rises every morning, it looks down upon a lone cycler, pedalling along Victoria road, down Castle Hill, across Magdalene bridge that spans the sluggish and lichen green waters of the Cam, through a beech and blackberry lined lane, through a wrought gate, past the university library that often glowers down with a single-lighted ogre eye at the top of its brown brick tower, and to a bike rack near the English Department.

I am that pedaler, and I make my lonely morning trek on a machine that requires no power but my own—a machine powered by calories, by human muscle and effort alone. It does not require the driver to venerate and negotiate with fire and the potential of deadly and uncontrollable speed every time he takes the wheel. Perhaps the bicycle is, along with the paper book, “a perfect form,”[1] as Jacques Barzun said. It has certainly acted on me and shaped me like you would expect a perfect form to do. It has bred in me an awareness of my city, a healthy respect for and interest in the weather, the habit of associating speed with human effort, and swift motion with the noise of wind.

But what of my faithful steed? His name is Bree like the cowardly, bumbling horse in the story. He replaced my former bike Balaam (may he roll in peace [back to me, preferably]) which replaced my 2.0 Turbo Saab 9-3 when my wife and I moved to Cambridge. He is my vehicle and my great pride, the bike of my youth and my joy. He is not perfect, of course. He jolts and he jerks. He rattles and he quivers. His gearbox is coltish and if even one of his gear-cable pulleys is out of line, first becomes second and second disappears altogether. Still, he is a thing of beauty, a faithful machine built fifteen years after the Second World War that serves me as steadily as he served some clerk or bearded supervisor in a velvet suit forty years ago. He does not roar like a wild beast when I press his pedals but leaps forward silently, only as eager or as sluggish as his rider. For this reason and for others, I would like to add my yes to Broom Snow’s and tell of my own joys in cycling.

I have thought, if not long, hard on the differences between the automobile and the bicycle since the cycle became my only means of transport. I share the road with cars and am the object of much vitriol and revving from them and their drivers, as are all the bikers in Cambridge. We coexist like Turks and Greeks a century ago, speaking very little and yelling very much. You could say, we (bike riders and car drivers) act in accordance with our machines—form our attitudes to theirs. The car is a thing of fire and tearing and heat-by-friction and, in consequence, its drivers find their minds, at times, filled with a sudden irrational white hot wrath. I have known it to grip me on my most peaceful day. The bike is something more lithe, more silent, more gliding. It can tear down the road but its tearing is more like slicing. The bike can approach and pass a pedestrian on a windy night and only be noticed by its lights. It is more exact and, though slower, somehow more nimble. And these are the traits I find working on my own mind. As I bike I am always triangulating, surveying, cutting city blocks into possible routes, weaving between pedestrians, and inching between parked cars. I can feel my mind sharpen, but it does not often grow irrational or frenzied like it does in a car. I suppose this is due partially to the fact that the bike, unlike the car, does not hold the power of dealing out life and death. I may kill myself on a bicycle, but it would take real skill to kill someone else. I have no outlet for my anger but ringing my bell or yelling, which, I have learned, have little impact on those at which I ring or yell.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that I have peace on a bike, not deep peace (that can only be found by the man who walks), but a certain settledness. Now, this peace does not come from silence. The bike is a quiet machine, but riding a bike is not a quiet activity. The wind roars past the ears. Doors slam. Cars rip and honk and rev. Pedestrians call to pedestrians. Street musicians drone. Cross walks beep. Birds twitter and squawk. Other cycles rattle, ring their bells, and squeak their brakes, and music drifts from open windows. The man on the bike is a man fully in his city, for he can hear it. The man in the car is a man isolated from his city, for he cannot hear it. Companies sell cars for their interior quiet, for their capacity to keep out their own noise and the noises around them. Bikes have no such feature. So it turns out that the car is quiet for its driver and noisy for all others and the bike is quiet for all others and noisy for its driver.

But I believe that the great difference between the car and the bicycle is this: the bicycle is limited by the physical capacity of its rider; the car is not. My bike, Bree, works with my natural strength and is therefore limited by my natural strength. I am the machine; it is only an extension of me; not so with the car. With the automobile, it is the machine, I only the pilot. The bicycle can do nothing without my consent, except in special circumstances when rain renders my brakes useless and gravity shoulders in.

The truth is that I long to spend even one day in a Cambridge emptied of cars—a Cambridge in which I can stand on Castle Hill and hear the bells of the Great St. Mary’s floating on the air. We have lived in a century of uninterrupted white noise filling every cranny of every city—a century that has almost completely silenced the church-bell-ringing that every traveller to England marked and remembered and longed to hear again. That older, quieter Cambridge will, most likely, not return until the city is remade after the day of judgement; I have resigned myself to that fact. Still, when I am on my bike just before evensong or on a Sunday morning, if the wind is right and a bus or car is not tearing by me, I can hear the church bells.

R. Eric Tippin
Four thousand miles from Cambridge
December 16, 2016                                                                                             

Image:
"Marine Terrace, Margate, the Kent Hotel, Ladies on Bicycles"
Oil on Cardboard - Date Unknown
Unknown Artist 


[1] “The book, like the bicycle, is a perfect form.” From Dawn to Decadence

Thursday
Dec172015

Gambler, No. 7 [Battle Born]

“Sir, you know courage is reckoned the greatest of all virtues; because, unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other.” — Dr. Johnson

“If a madman were to come into this room with a stick in his hand, no doubt we should pity the state of his mind; but our primary consideration would be to take care of ourselves. We should knock him down first, and pity him afterwards.” — Dr. Johnson

Battle

There is an evil often perceived as a good but no less black than sin itself. This evil I speak of is the rejection of evil—so prevalent in today’s society. It is, of course, just as false a premise to say that everything is evil as to say nothing is evil. When a man is confronted by pure evil itself, he must overcome this with a valiant thrust of goodness. He must dispel the darkness by letting in the light. Ironically, I did not perceive the evil I will write about until I turned on the light. Often, we find that is the case.

__________

I once took an online literature course which focused on Native American Literature. In one of those books, the opening line has the main character urinating. It is one of the many fallacies of modern creative writing that the bodily aspects of men—such as urinating, flagellating, bowel movements, etc.—must be described. Your main character snorting his snot all over his napkin does not add to his realism. It is gross. That is all. It says nothing about him or humanity, other than the too obvious fact that they do gross things. Any artist, I hope, would accept that. Would a musician compose a symphony of notes depicting the many noises of the human stomach? A painter would not paint a portrait of a man drooling all over himself or picking a scab. But I fear I’ve stressed this preface too far, and I only give it for two reasons: (1) My story begins, unfortunately, in the same way as that Indian story I mentioned, and (2) this preface keeps this post from undergoing the same tragedy, though it perhaps draws more attention to it.

So there we have it. Every morning I observe the common human experience of “using the restroom,” to use a euphemism. Now, as I’m undergoing this daily ritual, it so happens that my cat, Theodore, must paw at my leg until I am finished. Often this causes me to move around the toilet and in between the bathtub, though, praise be to our Lord above, that was not the case this day. I then proceed to pick up Theodore when I am finished and hold him until he is content and ready to be put down. Now, I must add that I was barefoot and did not have contacts in, meaning I was virtually blind. Holding Theodore, he contorts his body so that it is cradled, much like you are holding a baby. This means his head hangs and he can see around in many directions. As I was holding him, then, he happened to catching something out of the corner of his eye. I then noticed it too. This thing was on the bottom of the tub, in between it and the toilet. Right where I often step, barefooted and exposed.

Theodore scurried out of my arms. The battle began.

__________

As Theodore pawed whatever it was, I left to get slippers and glasses, thinking to myself that it was some spider. Returning, I could now see much clearer, and I recognized at once that this was no spider. I recognized that I almost died. I quickly grabbed Theodore, who continued to squirm and squeal and swear at this thing, daring it to attack him. Though impressed with the cat’s courage, I put him outside the bathroom, closed the door, and began my own battle.

Striking the thing with my slipper once, twice, I soon realized the folly in this. This slipper was too flimsy. I sensed the demon grew angry and even perceived it to strike the slipper in retaliation—perhaps letting my imagination get the best of me. I grabbed the nearest weapon I could find, a plunger. I struck it. Or attempted to. But hitting little devils with plungers requires hitting them on the very lip. Otherwise, they are relatively safe, unless one press down firmly. I did not. So missing the mark, I turned the plunger sideways and struck, missing. Then, again, hitting this time. Then turning the plunger back upright, struck again, like a sword meant to pierce a heart rather than swipe a head. I trapped the demon to the floor. Unsure how much damage I had done to it, I decided on a new tactic.

“Theo! We almost died!” I said leaving the bathroom and not letting him in, for he was still full of wrath and indignation. “That was a scorpion!” I continued. The first live one I’ve ever seen. I grabbed a more firm sandal, put on the slippers, grabbed some bug spray, and returned to the battlefield.

Not sure how injured the scorpion was, I thought I would “free it” from the plunger and numb it with the sandal before dousing it in bug spray. I slowly lifted the plunger and at once realized the plan must be abandoned. The scorpion clung to the lip of the plunger, giving me no angle to strike. I re-trapped it, regrouping, grabbing the spray, and turning its “safety” off. When swords don’t work, I suppose we must use the inferior gun.

I figured it would scurry away once I sprayed it and I had to be swift and prepared to re-trap it, if necessary. So, slowly lifting the plunger, I sprayed. No movement. I had apparently stunned it enough with my earlier stabs. But I sprayed again, and again, and again, until I was certain the demon was dead. And there, with heart beating, I stood over the dead scorpion and thanked the Lord I did not step on it.

__________

I have a sincere belief—based on no theological premise—that certain creatures have been completely given over to Satan. These creatures look too much like the incarnation of hell itself, as if all evil was put into an exoskeleton or snakeskin. When I see scorpions, thankfully in pictures, I see only evil. But reflecting on this battle, I thought to myself how un-American my reaction was. That is, I reflected on my perception of true evil and its powerful force. And this belief changed how I reacted. I struck it. I did not strike a deal with it; I did not rationalize its existence; I did excuse it because most scorpions are not lethal; I did not sit around and wait until Theodore was stung to death and I woke up with it my bed; No, I played no diplomat. But neither did I, like the ultimate coward, who recognizes the danger but will not confront it, sit outside the bathroom and wish it away; I did not draw a red line; I did not sit outside and try to kill it by throwing pebbles at it; I did not set a trap, or call an exterminator, making it someone else’s problem; I did not concede defeat. As a fragile, faint-hearted, frail man with old bones and weak nerves, I confronted the demon despite my fear, for the situation called for courage. I confronted it with sword and spray. And I confronted it until it was completely obliterated and I knew I—and Theodore—were safe. My cowardly little self proved the common truth that man is made for battle. Even in the early hours of the morning, he must be alert. He is like Nevada. He is battle born.

Broom Snow
Written at Sunrise Coffee Shop,
Las Vegas, Nevada
December 15, 2015

Painting: "To Battle: Knights"
By Brian Hatton,
Oil on canvas laid on board, 1909