Archive for June, 2010

A Writer’s Best (Non-Human) Friend

June 26, 2010

After all these years, I specifically remember only two of the presents I received upon graduating from high school. I know there were many others, and I recall the wonderful gathering of friends and family at our house — and the many cards wishing me well. But, material presents, I remember two: the Taylor family gave me a big black umbrella, which I thought was very cool — it seemed like just the thing to have as a college student; the other, from my parents, was Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. They filled out the front page: Presented to Fred Durbin by Mom & Dad, June 6, 1984. [Wow! That was the anniversary of D day, 40 years later! Isn’t that a solemn realization in and of itself? Forty years before I exited the troop ship and charged up onto the beach of the world, other young — and not-so-young — guys were doing it for real. If they hadn’t done what they did then, I would have been going out into a much different world. . . .]

But anyway: that dictionary has been my constant companion ever since. It’s been to college, it’s crossed the ocean several times, and wherever I’ve set up a workspace for even a short while, my dictionary has been within easy reach.

In 1993-4, the year I worked for a Japanese company thinly disguised as a school, I had an actual desk at work — that’s the only year I’ve ever had a workspace all my own on the job, a desk with my stuff on and in it — and yes, to be sure, my dictionary was there. My fellow native-English-speaking teachers, who had desks all around mine, regarded me as “the guy to have proofread your writing before you use it in any public way.” One co-worker in particular would ask me to proofread things, and whenever I would frown slightly and reach for my dictionary, she would laugh and say, “Okay, what did I misspell now?” (A dictionary at work is a great tool for politeness. It takes the heat for you. You never have to tell co-workers that you think they’re wrong; you adopt the official stance of being “not sure,” you look it up, and the authoritative answer is there in black-and-white!)

About ten or so years ago, I got to  thinking that the language had changed enough since 1984 that it was time for a new dictionary. Not that I wanted to get rid of my dear old Webster’s from my parents — not at all! But I felt it was time for that one to have a junior partner, a helper, a back-watcher. My mom was of the opinion that dictionaries never go out of date; she was still using the Webster’s she received when she went to college. Truth be told, I was using that one (of hers), too. It was our “house dictionary.” Mom had it on a wooden stand that was probably supposed to have been for a Bible. Throughout my childhood and even into my Japan years (since my dictionary was in Japan), I would run into the dining room when I needed to look up a word. It was tattered from decades of use and the pages were yellowing, but it still got the job done.

But I longed for a dictionary that reflected the current language, so when my friend C. in Niigata asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I said I’d really like the latest edition of Webster’s Dictionary. As it turned out, the local bookstore didn’t have a Webster’s when we went shopping. However, they had a beautiful Oxford English Dictionary. I immediately saw the wisdom and attractiveness of having both my Webster’s (American) and the Oxford (British). I could compare spellings and usages in the two countries as well as across time. So that was my birthday present from C. that year, and it’s one of the birthday presents I’ll always remember most — because now it stays with me, too, wherever I am.

C. is full of questions. Once he asked me something about the battle of Thermopylae. The next time I saw him, I gave him some detailed notes. He said, “Wow! You went ‘Net-surfing!” I said, “No, I looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary you gave me.”

After my year in the States, I was shipping things back to Japan, and the guy who runs the shipping company in my hometown looked askance at these two heavy dictionaries I was sending overseas. It’s not cheap to send books that hefty. He asked, “Don’t they have dictionaries in Japan?” Well, yes, they do . . . but these were my dictionaries. They have children in Europe, too, but if you’re moving there with your family, I’ll bet you’ll take your own kids, even though they cost.

A third dictionary joined the team after Mom passed away: not her old one, which is now in storage (but will be back on my shelf someday, Lord willing, when/if I set up a desk in the States), but a deluxe Merriam-Webster’s that my dad gave her. I haven’t really gotten into the habit of using it, because my Webster’s and Oxford do the job so well for me. But still, I’m glad the deluxe edition is there.

So what’s all the fuss? What’s so great about dictionaries? After all, our computers have spell-checkers, right? And if you need to know anything, you can look it up on-line. Plus, there are perfectly good, state-of-the-art electronic dictionaries no bigger than a pocket calculator that could save me hundreds of dollars in shipping expenses. Yes, but. . . .

Partly, it’s the difference between buying a book on Amazon and buying a book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore. The difference is getting to see and walk past and handle all those books you don’t buy.

When I go to look up a word in a paper dictionary, I almost never get to that word without being ensnared by four or five other words first. Seriously — can you go right to the word you went after, and not read anything else? It’s like putting a mouse into a cheese shop and telling him, “Go straight to the far wall, tag it, and come straight back here.” Not going to happen.

There was an English prof we had in college who would say, “I got the new such-and-such dictionary. I haven’t finished reading it yet. I’m about halfway through.” We thought that was hilarious, the idea of sitting and reading a dictionary. Personally, I’ve never done that, but the longer I live and the more deeply I appreciate language, the less funny that sounds to me.

Dictionaries give you definitions, of course. When I read H.P. Lovecraft, he nearly always sends me running for the dictionary. When I read Lud-in-the-Mist, I made a list of words to look up. You want to know what the list was? I’ve got it right here. Are you ready?

pleached, propinquity, ribands, ribbands, chiaroscuro, hierophantic, cozeners/cozening, plangent, potsherds, poncifs, fulminate, byre, barouche, exogamy, cockchafe, spurious, disquisition, spinney, brawn [as a food], syllabub, squills, “mopping and mowing,” hartshorn, carminative, civet cat, velleity, tuftaffities, sententious, osier, porphyry, quinsy, perdurable, casuistry, cicerone, frangipane, perroration, pullulating

Be honest, now. If you knew the meanings of even most of those, you’re a far better man than I! (Even if, like Eowyn, you’re not a man!)

But also, dictionaries help us with spelling. Like I’ve said, “queue,” “oubliette,” and “oeuvre”. . . . I have to look them up every. Single. Time. (It’s like trying to figure out which side of the car the gas tank inlet is on. If you’re like me, you squirm inwardly every single time you pull into a gas station — which side is it?!)

But those are just the clinical uses of the dictionary. The real reason I love my dictionaries, not simply rely on them, is that they’re like friends who actually help me write.

Writing is a notoriously solitary activity. We writers cloister ourselves off from the world, face the blank screen or paper, and make our sacrifices. We miss the TV shows and the visits and the concerts, etc., in order to walk the lonely path, that line from word to word to word. No one can do it for us. No one can tell us what to write. Except. . . .

“Where do you get your ideas?” people ask us. “Where do these ideas come from?”

I think the single best answer just may be “from the dictionary.” The words we use are all in there, after all. (Well, no, that’s not true. We speculative fiction writers insist upon making up a sizable percentage of our vocabulary. But the dictionary is a great help in making things up, too.) I can’t tell you how many times the dictionary has bailed me out when I’ve needed a name for a character or a place. Not that I necessarily use a word as-is to be a character’s name — I’m not writing Pilgrim’s Progress. But words have resonances; words have sounds and elements. I may lift a part of this word and combine it with a part of that one. I may borrow a word for the way it means or the way it rings. One thing can lead to another — the dominoes fall — and sometimes the dictionary can even unravel plot problems. It’s the wise friend who’s always there. It’s comforting, solid, and infinitely sane. It’s realistic, your anchor to the Earth. It can absorb your tears and help you see more clearly when you’re ready to.

Webster’s is the king of dictionaries for two reasons: it shows where words are divided (which Oxford doesn’t) — and far more wonderfully, it comes with pictures! They’re not there for every word. But for a huge number of words whose meanings are hard to grasp or envision, Webster’s is there with a visual rendering. Again and again over the years, a picture has snagged my gaze, and I’ve understood something new and crucial about my story. If a picture truly is worth a thousand words, then Webster’s is priceless.

A dictionary can help you find things that you didn’t know you were looking for. Character names . . . costuming . . . architecture . . . plot points . . . conflicts . . . historical details . . . complications . . . specificity. Precision. The right tool for the right job. At every stage of the writing process, from conceptual work to the final buffing of a manuscript on its way out the door, a dictionary is the friend to have beside you.

So how about you, dear readers? In your walk of life — in your career or your hobby — what is the tool you wouldn’t want to be without, and why?

The Enchanted Hour

June 12, 2010

It’s been called the Hour of Magic . . . the Enchanted Hour . . . that time when the sun only just peeps over the edge of the world, going or coming . . . when shadows take prominence, shapes become fantastic, the sky is painted with extraordinary hues, and the light is soft and strange. Even the words we have for it are beautiful: dusk . . . twilight . . . gloaming.

The transition time between day and night has always been seen as mystical. Ancient fairy-lore suggests it is a prime time for encounters with the Good Folk. How often it is recalled in story, song, and poetry! And I’ll just bet we all have some vivid memories of twilights — long ago or not-so-long ago. Among this crowd in this season, I think this topic could be one of our best times yet!

Since I’m wearing the blog conductor’s hat, I’ll start us off. First, I’ll go back to summers in junior high and high school. My dad’s favorite place in the world was the pond at the back of our ten-acre plot in rural Illinois. In the corner of the long, thin property, behind the field, and accessed by a quarter-mile of grassy lane, the pond was bordered on two sides by wild timber teeming with wildlife. Many’s the time we’d startle a deer drinking at the water’s edge. At our approach, it would spring away into the trees, a flash of tawny grace. The chorus of coyotes is typical night music there. I’ve met bright red foxes near the pond; opossums, raccoons, skunks, more snakes than I care to count . . . and you’ve heard, I think, of the adventure Mr. Brown Snowflake and I had down there on a moonless night, being stalked by a bobcat.

The hike down to the pond was the perfect length: long enough that you felt you were leaving the everyday world behind, but short enough that you could get there pretty quickly. Of course, we always had special pond vehicles: a barely-running car or a pickup truck with no doors (for easy jumping in and out of) — vehicles that were just for our land, not road-licensed; and, like most farm kids, I learned to drive them when I was about ten years old. [The problem with no doors on a farm truck is that wildlife thinks the truck belongs to it: more than once, we found discarded white snakeskins, disturbingly long — and diving into the truck without looking could mean diving through a giant spider web, spider present. In the country, you learn to keep your eyes open.]

But anyway, I was talking about my dad. He loved to go down to the pond and work: mowing with his weedcutter, sickling by hand, or reinforcing the dam, all of which we did together, and I’m sure there must be a place in Heaven for doing it again. As it got too dark to see the weeds, Dad would retire to a bucket seat out of some old car that he had placed on a high point a few feet from the water. He’d sit there wearing his ever-present bill hat, smoking a cigarette. (Can I say “cigarette” in a public forum?) From a long way off through the dusk, I could see the red spark of the cigarette’s end, a little beacon showing me where Dad was. If we’d stopped work early enough, while there was still light, I’d sit on a rock, or the concrete retaining wall — or best of all, on some piece of rusting farm machinery half-overgrown by weeds — and I’d read fantasy as the light faded. I specifically remember reading parts of Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique and parts of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane down at the pond.

Mom, for her part, loved to pull weeds in the garden until it got too dark to see. Or to pull weeds in any of the dozens of flower beds she had all over the yard. She was a firm believer in pulling weeds, not cutting them. “You’ve got to get the roots out,” she said. I always tried to convince her that, if floating seeds and spores had planted the weeds there once, they would do it again — it was the wonderful way of the green world — and that cutting or mowing was faster (and much more fun!). But she’d have none of it. I think we were both partly right.

So I’d help her pull weeds as the sun went down, and we’d have itchy hands that smelled of plant juices, our skin needing the occasional spine or bur removed with tweezers in the bathroom’s yellow light. And Mom and I would do the same: when she’d pulled enough weeds, she’d sit on the porch with her cigarette glowing, and I’d sit on a lawn chair or a cart and read H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Lord Dunsany. . . .

Childhood games were the best, weren’t they? Playing and playing with the neighborhood kids as the purple shadows deepened, as the sky shifted from gold to red to lavender to purple, and night came on with slow wings. If you were playing hide-and-seek, the twilight helped you hide. The dark made your dramatic charge back to home base all the more dramatic. And always, just before you finally surrendered and went inside to baths and beds, you would stop just for a moment and gaze in awe toward the west, where the last glow was crimson behind the silhouette trees, and the soybean mill stood like a black castle.

I remember the summer of 2006, after both my parents had passed away, and I was living in our old house, slowly cleaning it out, discovering all the old relics of our pasts — long lost toys, photos, Dad’s early writing, the treasures of my parents’ combined libraries. . . . By then, the pond was overgrown — ringed round with new trees, high with weeds — but still there, a haven for the deer and the foxes and the birds, which would make Dad happy. Weeds had taken over much of the yard, sharing the space with Mom’s flowers, some of which are still coming up unassisted to this day. (In her last years, when Mom was too arthritic to do much weed-pulling and Dad was too frail to mow, Mom declared that she was deliberately letting the yard grow into a “restored historic Illinois prairie,” which was a good thing, recommended by ecologists. Always looking at things from the best possible angle, my mom!)

During that summer, I nearly always made it a point to be outdoors when the sun neared the western horizon. I’d walk around the yard, studying the trees and the weeds, always accompanied by the dogs, who understand a person’s moods at least as well as any human being. Sometimes they’d wag and jump up and ask for petting; sometimes they’d sit quietly beside me on the sun-warmed road, peering west across the fields, watching the light go behind the bean mill.

And the fireflies! At our place, they come out by the thousands — yellow-green, Earth-bound stars! Winking and winking, far and near, high and low, from the trees to the fields to the forest. They are the heralds of things ancient and timeless, things whispered and read and re-told, the emissaries of Faery.

Give us what you’ve got: stories, memories of the dusk — all the tales that are meet and right to share! (Dawn is okay, too!)

Take Me to the Fair

June 6, 2010

As far as I know, this is a wellspring of memories we haven’t yet drawn from on this blog: carnivals and county fairs. Over the years, I’ve tried to capture some of those recollections, first in an unfocused attempt at a literary short story, “County Fair” (more than a dozen years ago now!), and more recently in a story called “Glory Day,” which is out of the nest and under consideration.

But fairs and carnivals, particularly when we were kids and teenagers. . . . I suspect we’ve all got some fond mental pictures. I think July is when the fair comes to my hometown, so we’re early — but for many of you, I know the weather already feels like July (you fortunate people!). [At least I haven’t had to use my kerosene heater for three days now.]

Taylorville is the seat of Christian County, so the county fair is held on our fair grounds every summer. When I was little, Mom would take me out there. Usually we’d end up going at least twice during the week the fair was in town. We’d go after 9:00 p.m., when the attendant opened the gate and admission was free. As we’d drive west down Main Cross Street, we’d start to see a glow in the sky over the west end of town. Then we’d hear the snatches of calliope music, the growl of tractor engines running the rides, and the dozens of intermingled game noises — beeps and tweets and boiinnngggs. It seemed so wonderful and magical to me then — all the lights in the dark, velvety prairie night . . . the food, the rides, the haunted house with weird laughter and screams coming out of it . . . the carnival people with their tattoos, urging people to play games and win prizes. The field’s grass would be pressed down by the tread of hundreds and hundreds of feet, and flattened paper cups and cigarette butts were here and there.

My mom liked to play a game where you put a coin on a color of your choice, and the game-master (usually a tough-looking fortyish lady) would let some random player from the crowd throw a ball into a net, from where it would wander down through a hole onto a spinning color wheel (like a roulette wheel). (Or like Wheel of Fortune.) The ball would stop on a color, and the person who placed a coin on that color patch would win, and all the other coins would get swept up and dumped into the carnival lady’s apron pocket. Depending on the denomination of the coin you’d wagered, you could choose your prize from various hanging tiers of toys. I remember having a medium-sized, pale purple teddy bear that I loved as a very young child; it had come from the county fair.
 
I’ve been back to the fair as an adult, and it always amazes me how small it is. Was it always so small? Back then, it seemed to stretch on and on. But it’s still somehow fun to go, and find scraps and patches of the old magic drifting here and there between tents, like strands of dandelion fluff stuck to thistles. Even now, I can turn around and hear just the right sound, or catch just the right whiff of something, and the present melds with the past. Things get all Bradbury.

I remember one teenage year on the night of the Miss Christian County pageant. The show was over, things were winding down, and the midway was thinning out. I ran into my friend (we’ll call him “R”), a guy I’d known since gradeschool. We were talking near the all-but-empty grandstand, when who should call out and approach us but the girl who’d just been crowned Queen . . . Miss Christian County! She was a year or two ahead of us in school. She may have been in chorus with us — I’m no longer sure — but of course we weren’t friends. We were geeky guys who played D&D and read books and stuff, and she was this gorgeous person who probably wouldn’t have noticed us in the school halls. (I’m not blaming her; that’s just the way life is, right? Kids — and grownups — move in different circles.)

But anyway, she says hi to us and calls us by name, as if she’s really happy to see us, as if we’re her best friends. We stand and talk and congratulate her. I’m sure R and I are both wondering why on Earth she’s alone after just winning the pageant, chosen as #1 among 30 or 40 of the county’s finest young women.

She asks if we would walk her back to her car. (!) The midway is muddy and uneven in places, and she’s wearing impractical high-heeled shoes and a long evening gown. She hands one of us her giant bouquet of flowers to carry, and she takes each of us by an arm, and we escort her across the fair grounds as it’s all settling down for the night, going to sleep, the engines shutting off, the lights starting, in places, to wink out.

That’s all there is to the story — we don’t save her from a marauding motorcycle gang or anything. We escort her safely back to her car, and she thanks us, and we say goodbye. She drives away, and we go on with our school lives, and I don’t recall that we ever talk with her again. Who knows why she was driving away alone on a night that has to be quite a glorious experience for a Midwest teenage girl? Probably she was meeting up with family and friends somewhere — we’ll never know. The point is, for a few minutes that evening, we two frogs from the pond got turned into princes and defended a princess against darkness and mud.

 We had funnel cakes at our fair. There were corn dogs, of course, and popcorn (which no one got, because you could get it year-’round at the theater); there was cotton candy (isn’t that mystifying stuff, the way it just disintegrates when you put it into your mouth?), and there were lemon shake-ups (lemonade with ice and slices of lemon floating around in it). Best of all — the absolute KING of fair food — was something called Indian Bread. It was a local thing: a man named Les C. had a secret recipe for making it. Imagine a big, doughy square of cakey bread — deep fried in a vat, so it gets all wavy — then taken out and liberally slathered with semi-transparent white icing. You’d get that on a big napkin. It was piping hot, so you were in pain as you tore off a piece. For a while, the icing was still liquid and dripping. Halfway through the piece, it would harden into a nice, white, opaque frosting. Les C. has passed on now, but Mom used to play Bingo with his daughter. I asked her at one Bingo session if she had Les’s secret recipe for Indian Bread, and she said, “Oh, yes!” But I wonder if she ever makes it. . . .? I never see it at the county fair any more. We just have funnel cakes, which are a poor vestige.

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop there. I would truly love to hear any memories — daytime or nighttime — of magical (or mundane) fair or carnival experiences that you’d care to tell!