“Under this dark sycamore”

It is sometime after midnight, and there is a man driving down a deserted Texas two-lane highway. There’s an atlas on the passenger seat, closed: he still knows where he is, roughly, and his goal at the moment is to get lost.

He drives on into the night, making turns at random, changing roads on impulse, avoiding major highways and towns whose names he recognizes. By three o’clock in the morning, he’s lost enough that he’s not sure he could narrow down what quadrant of the state he’s in—which is lost enough for his purpose.

There is a pale predawn light in the sky when he pulls off the road—another two-lane farm road with another four-digit number as a name—and onto the strip of gravel that functions as a shoulder. He opens the trunk, takes out a shovel and a metal lock-box of the sort one sees at bake sales and charity car washes—and walks perhaps a hundred yards away from the road, into a thicket of trees he can’t quite identify.

The dirt is dark, moist, easy to dig: he soon has a hole several feet deep. He picks up the box; there is a moment of hesitation. It passes, and he puts the box into the ground, covers it with dirt, walks back to his car, and drives away.

It is now somewhere in the neighborhood of six in the morning; he wanders the highways for another hour, not wanting to associate the grove of trees with a town too near. Somewhat after seven, he stops at a small-town diner, quietly eats a greasy breakfast, drinks several cups of bad coffee, and finds himself in the atlas—a process which takes several minutes. He plots a course back to the interstate, and thence home: a trip of several hours, in his estimation.

It is late morning when he arrives at home, but his children are still in their pajamas, eating breakfast. The oldest has made waffles. There is a moment of silence when he walks in, a hesitation, an unspoken thing with them in the room. Then the youngest asks: “Where did you leave Mom?”

“I don’t know,” the man answers; “that was the point, remember? Not knowing.”

That was the point, yes: the family had no real connection to the places where their relatives were buried, couldn’t even name cemeteries or towns; no real connection to the place they were living now, no plans to stay there longer than necessary. His wife’s ashes would be lost to them just as much in a cemetery with a headstone as in a grove of trees off a farm-to-market road somewhere in the big middle of Texas with nothing recognizable to mark the spot.

It didn’t make sense to bury her at all, really, since she was ashes, but the man didn’t want to scatter her, to let go of her in the absolute and final way that scattering requires.

It was a decision he would come to regret.


Clarissa: the first twenty-five letters.

Alright, I’m finally fulfilling the promise made in this post to bore entertain you with my commentary on the biggest novel of the 18th century.

A lot happens, sort of, in the first twenty-five letters, almost all of them written by Clarissa to Anna Howe, though she occasionally encloses letters she wrote to various family members, and their responses.

Clarissa is the youngest of three, with an elder sister (Arabella) and an even elder brother (James, junior); their father (obviously also James), is the middle of three brothers, John being the elder and Antony the younger. Clarissa’s uncles, though, never married, and have no children, and so form, with James, the family’s board of trustees, with James Jr. as the CEO who’s going to do big things.

That’s an anachronistic but fairly accurate description: the entire family is concerned with the accumulation and consolidation of land, and James Jr.’s elevation to the peerage. The family is upwardly aspirant, and mercenarily so — all of them, that is, with the (possible) exception of Clarissa, which is the source of the conflict.

Clarissa has, as one might expect, this being that sort of novel, two suitors: Lovelace and Solmes. Lovelace is wealthier, and charming and generous, but also a libertine, which is the family’s reason for disapproving of him (his brief courting and rejection of Arabella prior to pursuing Clarissa doesn’t help, either, nor does the fact that he wounded her brother when provoked by him into a duel). Clarissa doesn’t care for him, either, but her family’s dislike of him is so vocal, and so excessive, that she feels compelled to defend him, for the sake of justice — and both she and Anna remark that her family is in danger of driving her into his arms by the force of their hatred.

Solmes, the family’s choice is, at least in Clarissa’s eyes, absolutely distasteful, and she refuses to marry him; this defiance drives her father to intractability, Clarissa is confined to her room and forbidden to correspond with anyone (though, this being a novel composed entirely of letters, she finds a way around this immediately), and she and the family enter an epistolary Mexican standoff.

Part of Clarissa’s problem is that her grandfather left her a small estate — the “dairy house” — not particularly large, but large enough for her to live on, independently, as a feme sole. One of the enclosures we get is the part of the grandfather’s will where he explains this bequeathment: all of his sons have plenty of money, only one of them has children, his two eldest grandchildren will be well provided for (indeed, as the novel opens, James Jr. has inherited an estate from his godmother), and Clarissa is his favorite.

The family — and especially James Jr. — are hacked off not only because Clarissa has some measure of independence (which she gives up, naming her father steward or some such thing), but also because they are hell-bent on consolidating the family’s holdings, and hope that, in marrying Clarissa off to Solmes, they can recover the dairy house. There are other hoped-for benefits as well, but I’m not quite sure I understand them.

One final thing to mention: Clarissa is engaged in a correspondence with Lovelace. At first, before the opening of hostilities, the letters were to the family, care of Clarissa, and were about travel — these are unimportant. After the “rencounter” between James Jr. and Lovelace, Clarissa maintains the correspondence in order to pacify Lovelace, because she’s worried — rightly so, I think — that he might murder all her relations if he felt there were no chance of his acquiring her.

These letters are primarily interesting because of their absence. We know about them because Clarissa tells Anna about them, and even paraphrases a few, but we never get to read any of them. I’m not yet sure what to make of this, but it seems important. If I figure it out, I’ll let you know.

Day 151: Everyone has a favorite dinosaur.

“Go to your local natural history museum and make sure yours is properly displayed.”

This one prompted an existential crisis: do I actually have a favorite dinosaur?

After Jurassic Park, the raptor is everyone’s — and by everyone, I mean males in the early-20s to late-30s demographic — favorite, and so, as much as I like them, I have to pick a different favorite dinosaur. Raptors are too mainstream.

What about T-Rex? T-Rex is pretty awesome, especially this T-Rex. Also, I have a stuffed green T-Rex — “green” is probably redundant, because it seems like all T-Rexes (which is an incorrect pluralization, I know) are green — anyway, I have a stuffed T-Rex from my infancy that is still around, on loan to Jack. T-Rex is a cool dinosaur, but even more mainstream than raptors, really. Maybe they’re so mainstream they’re underground again? Not the ones that have been excavated, obviously, but the ones that haven’t been found yet.

Apatosaurus is pretty damn big, which is cool, but I’m not sure how I feel about having an herbivore as a favorite dinosaur. Vegetarians are cool and all, but not violent enough. Triceratops is a much more bad-ass herbivore, and I wouldn’t say this to a Triceratops’s face, but an herbivore is an herbivore, and anything that doesn’t eat animals is not quite good enough.

I’m hanging out with Lorna and my brother and his wife, drinking Pimm’s cups, and I asked the room at large whether people had favorite dinosaurs. Lorna said no, but Celia’s favorite is the Triceratops — also Brontosaurus (Apatosaurus) and Stegosaurus — and Jeff’s is raptors in general. Jeff also told me, in the blunt manner that a younger brother ought, that I was a dirty fucking hipster for not just embracing my liking of raptors. He’s right, really: they’re awesome, and T-Rex are awesome, and if I didn’t have a perverse need to not like things that everyone else likes, I’d have no problems. The whole point of this blog, though, is that I have problems. Stupid problems, and strong opinions about ridiculous things like water and peeling potatoes — I admit it, I’m well aware of it, but that’s how it is.

I’m not going to get any sleep tonight. Existential crisis not resolved. Life is terrible.

Damned dinosaurs.

Day 148: Leave a note on someone’s car windshield.

Notes that get left on car windshields are always mean – passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive, or frighteningly violent – and I didn’t want to leave that kind of note. What to leave, though? Something “affirming,” but not too affirming.

“You’re doing a fine job. Keep it up.”

My friend Nathan and I say this to each other. If I remember correctly, it’s something his boss or a co-worker used to say to him – or maybe something he used to say? At any rate, it’s both affirming and sarcastic. The adjective changes: “adequate” is my favorite, I think, and occasionally one of us will use a “terrible” or a “pathetic” or something like that. We also only use it when the other is doing something really simple, like putting forks on the table or making coffee or just walking down the hall.

I made nine or ten of these. I put one on Carl – Carleton Livingstone Butterworth Goldsmith I, Duke of Somerset – who lives with my brother and his wife. I left a few on random windshields around Hampden, but windshields got boring pretty quickly.

I left one in a copy of Machine of Death in Atomic Books. I left one with (not as, because that’s not right) the tip for our waitress at 13.5% Wine Bar, where we drank beer instead of wine, because bottles were half off, and they had good bottles (I had a Brewdog Hardcore IPA and an Orkney Skullsplitter; my brother had a Petrus Aged Pale Ale and a St. Bernardus something-or-other). I left one on a bicycle – a nice vintage Peugeot – in front of a Rite-Aid (when I came back out of the Rite-Aid, the owner of that bicycle was preparing to ride off; the note was gone, so he’d obviously seen it, but it would have ruined the effect to have said anything).

I have one left, which I’m going to deploy somewhere in NYC tomorrow. I’ll keep you posted.

Day 143: Distribute these friendship coupons.

…for things like “one hug” and “honest advice” and “one round of drinks,” which turns into “one drinking binge,” to be followed with “one embarrassing secret” – although you’d have to give all the coupons to one friend in order to get that progression to work. That’s not a problem for me, because I don’t have any friends.

Seriously, though, I don’t like these things. They work for children, and what I mean is that they work for children of a certain age to give to parents, or caretakers, or whoever (whomever? —whatever), usually at the prompting of a different parent or caretaker or &c. I can remember making them as a youngish child, and Elanor is about the right age for such things (she has, in fact, given her mother a coupon good for a ‘tea party’, which is sweet, except that she made it with the expectation that Lorna would make the tea and cucumber sandwiches).

Coupons like this can be useful tools: they can teach children that familial relationships and friendships work because people who care about each other do things for each other – because love is expressed in sacrificial action, and the most meaningful sacrificial actions are those that seem most mundane: emptying the dishwasher, taking out the trash, folding the laundry, scrubbing the toilets, mucking out the pig-pen. At some point, though, they become bad things, because they encourage people to think about relationships as transactional.

If I buy a friend a drink, I’m not doing it because I gave that friend a silly piece of paper at some point when I felt guilty or otherwise obligated, and that friend then ‘cashed in’ the silly piece of paper. No, I buy friends drinks – rarely, but it happens – because that’s the kind of small sacrifice friendships are built on. More than that: the buying of a drink, or the receiving of a drink, is a symbolic, ritual action – it’s the outward sign of the communion that happens in the conversation and time shared over those exchanged drinks. It doesn’t matter if nothing ‘important’ gets discussed, which is usually the case when guys talk over drinks – although after a certain number, shit can get real – because the sacrifice, though a small one, hallows the entire experience.

Nobody gets hugs, though. Nobody.

Day 141: Build a bird nest.

I’m a day late on this – a first, and 38% of the way through the year, not bad – because I actually had a bird-thing to erect in the front yard, and didn’t have the time to do it yesterday. It’s not a birdhouse, but a bird-feeder: a diner, and not an extended-stay motel.

It’s actually Elanor’s bird-feeder, and she helped set it up, sort of: she told me what to do, and I did it, and then she chastised me when I spilled all some of the seed on the ground instead of into the feeder.

Her grandfather – my father-in-law, Kelley – “Poppy” – bought her the feeder, several weeks ago, at this point. He’s had one up in his backyard all spring, and he and the kids love watching the birds come and go (and watching the squirrels try, and fail, to climb the vaselined pole).

Kelley had to retire over a year ago, for health reasons – fairly extensive and painful neuropathy in his legs – and bird-watching is one of the hobbies he’s picked up to deal with the boredom and pain. He’s getting Ella interested, too, which is great: learning to pay attention to the natural world is important, and being able to identify the things one sees is a big part of that. It’s the part I never got very good at, despite the example my father set: he can give you the scientific and common names of pretty much anything you’re likely to encounter, at least in the parts of the world where he’s lived and/or worked.

Hopefully Ella will take after her grandfathers in this, and be able to say – not, like me, “Hey, look at that bird” – but, “Hey, look at that Hirundo spilodera, or African swallow, well-known from a scene in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail where several characters are discussing how a coconut made it to England.”

I can’t really even take credit for the pop-culture knowledge, because I learned that from my father. Now, if Ella then launched into an extended and insightful (but boring to the people around her) analysis of the significance of it being an African swallow, and the importation of African/tropical commodities into England, and what it means that the coconut is empty, dry, hollow – and, further, why it’s crucial to recognize that the coconuts are replacing the horse, an animal first domesticated in the parts of central Asia where British colonial presence was always tenuous – and if she then points out that Arthur is trying to centralize power just by calling himself “King,” and segues into talking about the class hierarchy and exploitation of the worker going on here, which leads her to the anarcho-syndicalist peasants, at which point she realizes everyone’s left the room —— well, then, she got that from me.

Day 136: Make sure your parents know you love them.

They know.