Archive for August, 2008

The Olympics and Writers

August 22, 2008

Hello from the midst of summer vacation! I’m traveling now and don’t have a regular Internet connection, but this is to remind you that I’m still here, and regular posts to this blog should begin again at the end of September when I’m back at my desk.

I’m generally an “asportal” person, but when the Olympics roll around, we’re all affected. The Olympics bring the world together, but they also serve as a kind of cadence or set of mileposts for our lives. When we think back through the years, we remember who we were and what our lives were like when such-and-such an athlete was on everyone’s mind. Just today, a friend of mine said, “The Olympics are more than just sports.” That’s true, and I think I’ll leave it to you to interpret that idea however you want to.

I was surprised to note that Lang Ping, now known as “Jenny,” is coaching the U.S. women’s volleyball team! I’ve never forgotten Lang Ping from the 1984 summer Olympics, when watching the women’s volleyball at those games was a happy pastime for me as I lay around in the hospital recovering from a hernia operation. That year, the Chinese women (of whom Lang Ping was one) won the gold medal, defeating the U.S. in the final match. According to what the commentator said yesterday, she became tired of her fame in China, tired of always being recognized, so she moved to the U.S. for a life of relative anonymity. But apparently she wasn’t meant to be apart from Olympic volleyball!

Anyway — for us as writers, there’s a lesson to be learned from the Olympics. If you want to win a gold medal, your whole life has to be about doing what you’re best at. Think of the intense focus these athletes fix upon their respective disciplines. If we aspire to write books that will touch the lives of readers everywhere, that’s what we need to do.

However, I do find myself wishing our task were as clear-cut as that of an athlete training for the Olympics. In sports, what you need to do is clear; and if you don’t quite grasp it yourself, you have a coach who does and will tell you. You just have to do things over and over until you can do them perfectly. Studying Greek in college was like training for the Olympics.

Writing, on the other hand, is a murkier prospect. There are no absolutes about the right thing to do, other than that you need to keep writing. Who knows if you’ve got a good idea? Who knows what the right way to execute it is? When you’re finished, if it doesn’t immediately knock readers off their feet, who knows precisely what’s wrong with it and how to fix it?

Not long ago I took a personality test, and one part of the results, I thought, was quite insightful: it said I’m capable of making tremendous effort, but that I often do that in directions that don’t necessarily do any good or produce the results I want. The more I think about that, the truer I find it to be. Oh, I can move mountains (with the help of God) — but whether the mountain is standing at point A or point B, so what? I can scoop water out of the ocean for days on end, cup after cup after cup. Oh, for clear tasks to bend our efforts toward!

Here, then, is an often-overlooked aspect of what writers ought to pray:

Oh, Lord, send us clear vision and good coaches.

Keep your noses to the grindstone, all you who would write for an audience. Let’s press on for the gold!


A Long Time Ago

August 8, 2008

This is an unprecedented (on this blog) next-day posting. If you’re an occasional visitor, don’t miss yesterday’s entry! I’m about to head Stateside for summer break, and I expect there will be more lulls coming. So I’m taking this opportunity to post while I have the Internet connection.

I have here seven old photos that all belong on this blog — now, I guess, is as good a time as any. If I don’t survive the trip — a possibility that’s always in my mind when I travel — our lives are in God’s hands — then this will serve as a fitting farewell. But chances are good I’ll be bending your ears again soon, so don’t start mourning me yet.

These first two photos reveal my personality like none others ever taken. This is me. The Dreamer and the Imp. They were taken in the early 1970s behind The Book Center, my parents’ bookstore. I was out in back playing one day, wandering around in my daydreams and jiggling the little piece of rope I always carried (like Linus carries his blanket). Our good friend and landlord for the business, the gentleman who owned the photography studio next-door to our store, came out with his camera. (Out of respect for him, I won’t say his name here, but those of you to whom his name would mean something know who he is — I met him about two years ago in a restaurant, and he was still doing fine. And he brought up the little piece of rope, which he’s never ceased to wonder about. . . .) Anyway, he asked me to put my elbows on the hood of my parents’ car and look that way, now look this way, click, click. And here we have the results. Pretty cool, huh?

This next one was taken in June 1970, even farther back. That’s my mom’s Volkswagen Bug — you can actually see my mom sitting in the driver’s seat. That’s me at the front end. Nice haircut, huh? That may have been the time that Mom really did put a bowl on my head and cut off any hair that stuck out past the rim of the bowl. I think Mom pulled a Tom Sawyer that day: she told me and my cousins Charley and Bobby how much fun it would be to wash her Volkswagen. Something else to notice here: the stable next door hadn’t been built yet — nor had the house beyond it. This is the landscape I grew up with: that towering, unbroken oak forest all across the southern horizon, a great cliff of trees, green and mighty and ancient. We’ve looked into the history of the region, and it’s pretty well established that the young Abraham Lincoln, then a circuit-riding lawyer, would have passed along on his horse not far from where this picture was taken. He was riding from the long-vanished town of Allenton to the new, burgeoning community of Taylorville, his last stop on the 8th Judicial Circuit. The road in his day may very well have lain exactly where our tar-and-gravel road lies today — and the trees in this picture are old enough that Lincoln would have seen them as he trotted past. So there you are.

Next, me in high school, circa 1983 (?), dressed as the Tom Baker Doctor Who. That’s a yo-yo in my hand. This must have been for some event during Homecoming Week. No, we didn’t have a “Dress as Doctor Who” day — it was probably something like “Hat Day,” and when they gave me an inch, I took a mile. Later, we got a copy of the official pattern for his scarf from the BBC, and my mom, bless her bless her, knitted it for me! That scarf (the official one, not the one shown) is so long that it goes around my neck with the loop hanging down past my knees, and then both ends hanging down to just about my ankles. I still have it — in some later year it was slightly damaged by mice, but it’s safely stored now.

Next: Mom, Dad, and Grandma Emma. This is before I was born. Wow.

Finally, these two just for laughs. Me in high school again — first in my costume for madrigals, and second trying to look like Peter O’Toole in Masada. Heh, heh, heh.

Yeah, we’ll get back to writing talk one of these days!

The Light in August

August 7, 2008

Today I turned in semester grades to the university office. We have the option of mailing them in, but I’ve always enjoyed hand-delivering them. It’s like a victory lap when the term is over, when the hard work is behind us all, students and teachers, for a little while. The campus is pretty much deserted these days, but it was such a perfect summer day, absolutely cloudless, that I decided to take along my camera and capture, for your viewing pleasure, some of my favorite places there.

First, there’s this wonderful, whispery stairway between the new Lawson convenience store and the library. The campuses I can remember being on the States are all pretty much flat (maybe because I’ve only been on ones in Illinois, and non-southern Illinois, at that). But Niigata University’s grounds have delightful drops in elevation such as this one. The land falls sharply below the main plaza outside the General Education building. The trees and underbrush have been left untouched where the ground is steep, providing patches of what amounts to full-scale forest in the midst of the pavements and traffic of university life. More than once I’ve been startled by a lizard scuttling underfoot across the bricks or clinging to a bush’s leaves beside my elbow. Today I was marveling at the spiderwebs in the thicket behind the bicycle rack. I could see ten spiders at once without turning my head — it was Mirkwood, right here in Niigata — the webs catching the light of the afternoon sun, nets of flashing gold. [I’m still getting used to digital photography, and I couldn’t get the webs to show up, no matter what post-production tricks I pulled, so those pictures aren’t here.] Note the weeds growing from the roof of the bicycle parking shelter (very top picture) — pretty cool, huh? I also saw an actual pheasant browsing along in the undergrowth at the southwest corner of the General Education building!

I’ll also include here some views of one of my classrooms. This is B-354, the one in which I taught Advanced English for economics students and the Practical English Seminar for (mostly) humanities students. This is pretty typical of Japanese classrooms, with long, straight rows of desks. In conversation classes, though, it’s not at all uncommon to move the desks around, gathering them into little “islands” when the students speak in groups. Notice also the platform for teachers to stand on. This wing of the building was just remodeled, so this room was brand-new this past semester — very nice, roomy, bright with the row of windows along the side, and air-conditioned. The row of inner windows looking out into the hallway can be screened off with pull-down blinds. The only problem I’ve noticed is with sound: much more than with the old classrooms, sound from neighboring rooms carries quite loudly. It was hard for us all to keep straight faces one day when a class somewhere nearby was apparently studying traditional minyou singing (I think) — I’m not sure if it was the professor demonstrating, or if we were listening to a tape, but it did make it hard to concentrate.

Another of my favorite little features is the way a treetrunk and a hedge form a living framework around a doorway into the General Education building. The picture is here on the left.

In a much earlier blog posting, I showed you “the birthplace of Dragonfly.” This photo tour includes the place where, just over a year ago, I worked out the details of “Here About to Die” during the late spring/early summer. I frequently ate lunch here, above a stagnant pool in a basin. Sometimes a crow would hop around at what it considered a safe distance and would “beg,” snatching up the little pieces of bread I tossed its way. So it was here, in this green light, that I thought about Lucia and Athria and the Grand Arena on Cheleboth.

Finally, a view of the place I usually park my bicycle (the little photo on the left). To the right here is the Lucia grove above the stagnant pool.

Those of you who know me well know that I speak at times of regret. I was reflecting on how one thing in life that I do not regret in the least is teaching at this university. I really do love it — the chance I’ve had to intersect the lives of so many students at such a formative, direction-finding time for them, a time when they’re making all sorts of discoveries, realizing how wide open the world is, and trying to choose their courses in it. If I live to be an old man, I know a great many of the images that will come to me and make me smile will be the faces and the words of my students over the years. What a privilege it is to be here!

What does this all have to do with writing? What, I ask you, doesn’t have to do with writing?!