Rebecca Byrkit, Clinical Professor of Liberal Studies and Creative Writing at ASU, recently did a zoom interview with me. Her class is Humor Writing.
Rebecca Byrkit, Clinical Professor of Liberal Studies and Creative Writing at ASU, recently did a zoom interview with me. Her class is Humor Writing.
(at the moment called Amy Among the Serial Killers)
Amy was at the eastern edge of old age and death was ever present in her thoughts, though not yet in a frightening way. She found herself tidying up a lot, tossing out old clothes and mismatched plates and teacups, painting and otherwise sprucing up the inner and outer walls of her house , her penultimate resting place. Once every couple of months she brought to the Good Will a cardboard box loaded with videotapes, kitchen gadgets, small appliances she had not used more than once, and uncracked hardbacks foisted upon her by blurb-seeking agents. Her impulse not to leave a mess was odd, since when she died she would also leave no survivors. Still, there it was, and she honored it.
Amy centered “Leaving a Mess” at the top of the blank page and double-spaced twice.
An old woman, Lucy, watches television at night when her eyesight is blurry from reading. She mostly watches old CSIs and true crime reenactments, but one evening she chances upon a program about hoarders being buried alive. She sees another old woman living in spectacular squalor, surrounded by objects with which she refuses to part. She nests beyond mountains of Chinese take-out cartons, newspapers, dirty clothes, boxed dress shirts, glass bottles, bicycle parts, radios, pizza boxes, pizza, open bags of cat food, Hummel figurines, plastic Christmas trees, six mummified cats, and a three-quarter ton of National Geographics. When asked about this or that hoarded object, the old woman explains its purpose in detail. The pizza, for example, is still edible if warmed in her microwave, which abides beneath an eight-foot mound of souvenir throw pillows. She is led protesting offscreen by a posse of TV people, disaffected daughters, therapists, and moonlighting crime-scene technicians, all of whom stage-whisper about rat feces and stench. Lucy shuts off the program and inventories her house. Since she can easily move from room to room without displacing mounds of garbage, she must not be a hoarder. In fact, the rooms look neater than they did when she was younger. But she does have a lot of books. Every room contains bookcases, all overflowing, unshelved books piled in front of the shelved ones due to lack of space. She remembers a CSI where somebody was killed by falling bookcases, but this was not likely here, since none were freestanding. Still, she does not want to leave a mess. The following afternoon, seeking Good Will donations, she begins with her reference books, starting with her great-grandfather’s Farmer’s Almanacs from 1847. She bundles these along with her husband’s books on structural steelwork and carpentry and volumes K, M, N, and XYZ from the 1964 World Book Encyclopedia. Loading one box so fast fills her with optimism, but the task soon becomes daunting. For every book she lays to rest, she finds herself leafing through another, boxing it, changing her mind, taking it out, reading some more. How had she come into The Moldavian Book of Root Medicines? The handwritten inscription on the inside cover uses an alphabet unknown to her. She can remember noticing the book from time to time; it seemed always to have stood there on the middle bottom shelf in the hall. Here is The Short History of the World by H.G. Wells: She does recall buying that second-hand since it was short and cheap and by H.G. Wells, but his history stopped with the formation of the League of Nations, which happened long before Lucy was born, so she hasn’t yet got around to it. She shelves it between Birds of the Northern Plains and the Physician’s Desk Reference she bought when her husband was dying. Which is of course outdated and useless and would not again be opened but apparently functions as some sort of monument, or else she would be able to toss it out now. Frowning, she places it beside her on the floor. It becomes the foundation of a pile of other curiosities, books she should discard but can’t quite. Orange sunset deepens to crimson all about as she explores shelf after shelf, book after book, and by moonlight the shelves are half-empty with more than enough room for Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Lardner and Woolf and all the other respectables, and she sits amid stacks higher than her head, mountain ranges of etiquette manuals, idiot’s guides, ghost stories, Yiddish folktales, biographies of Mary Astor, Petroleum V. Nasby, Horatio Nelson, and Davy Crockett, How to Avoid Probate, Girl of the Limberlost, Fun with Stunts. Is she a hoarder? She thinks not. If anyone asked the purpose of keeping The Wonderful World of Salt, she would, unlike the crazy old woman on that show, have no answer. She found this comforting. Rising, she surveys a mess of piles and boxes and admits that the whole project was ill-advised without a game plan. She’d return to it later. Sighing, she reshelves everything except for the oldest Farmer’s Almanac, which she takes it to bed…
[A couple of chapters later, Amy’s working on the title “Empty House” and coming up with no story ideas, so she goes back to “Leaving a Mess”]
–Maybe Lucy, the old book hoarder! She’d never finished that one.
“Leaving a Mess”
…Lucy goes to bed with the October 1847 Farmer’s Almanac and starts to read.
Amy searched fruitlessly online for text from the 1847 Almanacs.
…Lucy goes to bed with a collection of classic ghost stories and starts to read. She settles in with an old English one set on the windswept moors. Nine-year-old twin sisters share a room containing a locked teakwood armoire with a missing key, and they spend idle hours alternately trying to pick the lock and outdo each other with predictions about its grisly contents . One of them goes mad and murders the other. In another story, a widow is haunted by her husband’s shade, which keeps popping up in his favorite armchair, on the front lawn viewed through her picture window, at her bedside in the dead of night. Lucy shuts the book. Lucy would not care what was in that armoire even if it were right here beside her and her house had a history of homicidal lunacy. She cannot imagine malevolence, or for that matter benevolence, attaching to a physical object, nor can she imagine being spooked by visions of dead people. How would she respond if she turned on her left side and found her husband stretched out beside her, his head inches from hers on the pillow? She tries a thought experiment. There he is, his hair is mussed, he’s wearing his favorite L.L. Bean pajamas. She can see his fine gray hair and starched striped pajamas, but his face is wholly obscured by fog. In words, she can describe each feature in detail, and she tries this now, but no matter how exhaustive her description, his face remains hidden from her. His image, such as it is, is neither frightening nor reassuring, and when she blinks it away, it leaves nothing behind. Lucy can recall his voice, hear it clear in her inner ear whenever she likes, which is often, but the sight of him began to evaporate almost immediately upon his death. If there are ghosts, which of course there are not, they must feed on visual memory. How shallow of them! With that thought she sleeps, and, as sometimes happens, she does not wake up. After her grandnephew has flown in to deal with the settling of her estate, he stands alone in her house, having completed almost all the necessary preparation for sale. His great-aunt was a hermit; her body lay undiscovered for weeks, and he’s had to hire professionals to deal with what was evidently a mess, but none of that remains. As her only heir he has claimed the best pieces of furniture for himself and dealt with the rest, so that nothing is left but these large bookcases, eight of them, each shelf so tightly packed that books need to be pried loose. A conscientious man, a family man, he takes a moment now to summon up some memorial reflection, some childhood memory of her, but all he can recall is her face in the family albums, and he never really knew that woman, let alone the old one who died here. He wanders through the empty house, its bare walls and floors hollowing the sounds of his footsteps, trying to work up energy to pore through a thousand books to see which are worth keeping. Sighing, he begins. He carries in Good Will boxes and starts packing one with useless reference books, setting aside the occasional curiosity, like the ancient Farmer’s Almanacs. He fills that box in good time; he should be able to finish up today. But as he proceeds, the pile of keepers grows, topples, so he has to make a second pile, and then a third. Some books he sets aside because they look valuable, but most for reasons unclear to him. Why did she keep a Moldavian study of root medicines? Why doesn’t he want to give it up now? What is he going to do with a biography of Mary Astor? The day lengthens, the sunlight deepens through uncurtained windows, the bookcases slowly surrender their burden, some of the boxes fill, but the keepers pile up around him, he won’t finish today, he may never finish at all, and with this thought he stands and walks around to clear his head, and now he hears that his footsteps are no longer hollow. The house is no longer empty. He summons the will to pack up those mountains of keepers and empty the house; he knows he can and must do this. But before he does, he stands among the books and remembers her.
Many years ago, the Russians invaded Afghanistan and I almost lost my mind.* All around me, people were going about their lives, oblivious to the impending nuclear holocaust. I spent my days lurking around newsstands (there was no Internet then), listening to news radio, shaking, and looking out my window, scanning the sky for that white light. I slept one or two hours a night; my muscles ached from constant tension. I envied old people because they had lived complete lives. This went on for five weeks. Then it stopped. I woke up one morning and it was like that moment in Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opened the door and the world had color. My colors were back.
This never happened to me again. I’m not confident it couldn’t (even a brief bout of mental illness is permanently humbling), but I don’t worry about it.
I don’t worry about it because it’s not something I can control anyway.
What I remember most clearly about this episode is my profound bewilderment when people (the few in whom I confided) said “Look, there’s no point in worrying about stuff you can’t control.” I thought they were insane.
Denial is a wonderful human strategy. It makes happiness possible. I’m sure we’re not the only animal that knows we’re mortal, but other animals don’t need denial because they’re too busy surviving. To deny, and to need to deny, you need top-of-the-food-chain-leisure time. Anyway, when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, my denial mechanism crashed, and there I was in the howling void where anything can happen and tomorrow is hypothetical.
I’m not much of a sharer except in fiction, but I’m sharing this today because all around me I see good people worrying about stuff they can’t control, and I wish I could help them, and I probably can’t, because all I can do is tell them to stop it, and I remember how useless that advice was when the Russians invaded Afghanistan.
We hang by a thread. We always have and we always will. Sometimes a thing will happen and we glimpse that thread, which is just a metaphor but metaphors are all we can access because the void itself is unimaginable, and the metaphorical curtain parts and confronts us with what we’ve been blithely denying.
This is not fun. Still, it isn’t unbearably scary if you’ve learned your lesson about the limitations of your own anxious mind. All we have is now. It’s all we’ve ever had and all we ever will.
This is one of those profound truths that you can “know” without really knowing. Real knowledge sinks deep. Millions of people know already, some of them so eminently sensible that they never thought otherwise, others having learned through experience. Also, it really helps to be old. But I do worry about the people who can’t sleep.
If you’re one of them or worried that you might be, this is all I have to offer, and forgive my presumption:
Look after your colors and lean into the now.
*Not funny at the time, but that is a funny line.
My literary idols include the great humorists of the first half of the twentieth century. They continue to entertain me when I read and inspire me as I write. They knew how to craft a sentence.
They sometimes began their pieces with a quote they found especially ridiculous and proceeded to use it as a writing prompt. For example, Perelman had a field day with Diana Vreeland’s Why don’t you rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne to keep it gold, as they do in France?
James Thurber begins “Something to Say” with a quote from a thing called “Memoirs of a Polyglot” by William Gerhardt.*
Hugh Kingsmill and I stimulated each other to such a pitch that after the first meeting he had a brain storm and I lay sleepless all night and in the morning was on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
After that, Thurber is off and running. His fictional narrator recollects his experiences with the spectacularly obnoxious Elliot Vereker and explains why he was “the only man who ever continuously stimulated me to the brink of a nervous breakdown.”
This is one of my favorite Thurber pieces, and one which still sticks in my mind not just because it is funny but because of the structure of a single sentence. Thurber was a rewriter—every piece went through multiple drafts—so you know that the published sentences were structured exactly as intended.
That single sentence appears within:
“…Vereker always liked to have an electric fan going while he talked and he would stick a folded newspaper into the fan so that the revolving blades scuttered against it, making a noise like the rattle of machinegun fire. This exhilarated him and exhilarated me, too, but I suppose it exhilarated him more than it did me. He seemed, at any rate, to get something out of it that I missed. He would raise his voice so that I could hear him above the racket. Sometimes, even then, I couldn’t make out what he was saying. “What?” I would shout. “You heard me!!” he would yell, his good humor disappearing in an instant.
I had, of course, not heard him at all. There was no reasoning with him, no convincing him. I can still hear the musketry of those fans in my ears. They have done, I think, something to me.”
Note the odd structure of that last sentence. Most of us would have worded it
I think they have done something to me.
Thurber interrupts the sentence, sticking “I think” in the middle, creating an awkward rhythm. If you try reading the piece aloud, you are likely to trip on “I think.” The narrator himself stops here, still grappling with what that “something” was. The structure of this sentence conveys the damage done to the poor man. It’s brilliant.
That’s the thing about the great American humorists of the last century: They weren’t just funny—they were wonderful stylists. We can learn from them.
Writers and their critics often focus on word choices, and of course they’re important, but they’re not enough. Mechanics and syntax are equally crucial. As we write, and as we rewrite, we must honor the rhythm of our sentences.
*To make sure that “Memoirs of a Polyglot” was an actual publication, I searched the web, and it was. His name is listed as William Gerhardie, and he apparently wrote lots of books, including God’s Fifth Column and The Memoirs of Satan.
I remember when amusing yourself was not internet-dependent. For example, my husband and I used to write limericks. They’re not particularly good, but, unlike whatever Netflix thing I watched last night, they survive.
A silly old bag from Loch Lomond
Believed in a terrible omen
With chattering teeth
She fled o’er the heath
And stumbled and drowned in the gloaming
A near-sighted harpy from Wells
Confused all her magic and spells
She mixed up a potion
With Calamine lotion
Because of her love for the smells
A middle-aged woman from Guam
Sat down on a hydrogen bomb
Her feet and her face
Were completely erased
But her ass remained perfectly calm
Of nuclear fission
Depriving her bairn of their mom]
A grotty old guy from Vancouver
Employed as a furniture mover
Got horny one day
In a violent way
And made love to a customer’s Hoover
There was an old man in Dobb’s Ferry
Who went to the public library
He took, as his choice,
The works of James Joyce
To paper his new apiary
There was an old man from Rangoon
Who ate with a runcible spoon
He used his bread knife
To butter his wife
And fed her to his pet baboon
There was a young lady from Nimes
Who slathered herself with whipped cream
And traveled to Thierry
Dressed as a strawberry
Rendezvoused with a shortcake intime.
A tidy old broad from Spokane
Once fell face-first into a fan
But she was so neat
And so fast on her feet
That she caught the whole mess in a pan
Go ahead and write one. It will improve your day.
My mother was my hero, and here is why.
Back in the 1950s, she was active in Sweet Adelines, the women’s equivalent of SPEBSQSA (both international barbershop singing organizations). After Brown v. Board of Education, both organizations inserted the word “white” into their bylaws to keep African-Americans from participating in championship competition.
Lots of individual chapters protested, but in the end only a handful did so in a meaningful way, by challenging the change in the by-laws and, according to Sweet Adelines, generally being “troublemakers.” My mother was president of the Providence chapter; when Providence put the issue up for a vote, its members voted unanimously to withdraw. Theirs was the first chapter to do so; they were followed by Massachusetts chapters in North Attleboro, Scituate, New Bedford, and a Canadian chapter in Orillia. This small group started its own organization—Harmony, Inc.—which has since grown internationally and continues to thrive. (Both Sweet Adelines and SPEBSQSA discreetly deleted “white” at some point.)
Barbershop music comes across to many as square and very, very white (although its origins are anything but; I grew up listening to records of the Golden Gate Quartet), so all this may seem rather quaint and inconsequential. It wasn’t. This was the Fifties: These women were housewives, file clerks, factory workers, and once a week they got to sing, and once a year they went to international conventions and sang themselves hoarse for three days straight. Singing was their passion, and giving it up was a meaningful sacrifice. And the moral courage it took to buck the system was something I witnessed as a child and never forgot.
My mother went into the fight a young, idealistic, optimistic woman; she went in expecting that of course the right would prevail, the international board would see the light, or if not, then there would be a wholesale exodus of outraged members. She learned a lot about human nature, and so did I, from watching her.
Daughters watch their mothers very closely. Once she said to me, “In life there are tests. If you’re lucky, you’ll never get one, but if you do, you may not recognize it for what it is. Always watch out for tests.” I do.
In memory of Joanne Willett, 1925-2019.
Accidentally shooting yourself in the crotch is becoming a thing, so here’s the beginning of a new list.
Yet another late-breaking update
Epiphanies are not just fodder for writing fiction, although of course they do a lot of heavy work in our stories. But epiphanies are real. We all have them. I have not had many true epiphanies for a person my age (72), and I’m wondering if that’s unusual. Anyway, I invite you to share your favorite epiphany here in a comment. Here is mine.
I was about 22 or so and living in an apartment with a roommate. One evening we sat around with our dates and played with a balloon. This was one of those huge thick-skinned balloons with big rubber bands attached, you could buy them at a drug store and bat them around with your fist, sort of like paddleballs. We were also drinking. At one point, we stopped fooling around with the balloon and rested it on the coffee table. Sometime later, the balloon lifted off by itself and swanned around the room, making a prolonged farting noise and knocking pictures off the walls, before deflating and coming to rest on the floor. We all found this so hilarious that we blew up the balloon again and again, just to watch its comic antics. There was no Internet then.
The following week I stopped off at my parents’ for a visit. I brought the magical balloon to show them. My mother was busy, but Dad was in the sunroom watching a football game. I sat down next to him and asked him to turn the volume down for just a minute because I had something amazing to show him. He smiled pleasantly and did as I asked.
He watched as I blew up the balloon. This took a while, because it was huge. When I got it almost to the point where I could demonstrate its farting, room-swanning powers, it exploded. Not a pop, an explosion, because the skin was so thick. It sounded like a gunshot. Neither of us said anything. Dad turned back to the TV, and I got up and left the room.
Here, then, was my epiphany:
You raise a daughter and she goes out in the world, and then she comes into your home and makes you watch her explode a huge balloon. And so it goes.
(HAMILTON – Nearly four years ago, John N. Miller of Missoula allegedly threatened to strike two officers with a toilet tank while nude. He was formally charged in that case this week…The case dates back to March 2013 when sheriff’s deputies were called to an apartment in Stevensville at 2:16 a.m. for a reported disturbance. The first officer on the scene looked into the apartment and saw Miller running around naked inside, according to an affidavit. The officers could see broken items scattered about the apartment, a refrigerator turned on its side and a broken window and door…The affidavit said he eventually “burst from the bathroom” holding a porcelain tank of a toilet above his head. Believing Miller meant to hit them with it, the officers deployed their tasers several times to subdue the man. Miller continued to resist after being handcuffed. His loud statements did not make sense to the officers.)
SAN DIEGO – A 25-year-old man was arrested early Thursday in Clairemont after police said he went into a neighbor’s home, took off his clothes and got into her bed.
The woman returned about 12:30 a.m. to her home on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard near Limerick Avenue where she found the naked intruder and called authorities, San Diego police said.
Officers arrived and took the tattooed man into custody.
He told officers that he heard a noise at the woman’s residence, went inside to investigate and then got naked and into bed to wait for her because “he did not want to startle her, “ police said.
He was arrested on prowling charges, authorities said. (San Diego Union Tribune, 8/9/2012)
Okay, from now on, Headlines Only. The most recent are at the top (it’s November, 2015). The Higbee mayor naked broom attack story is well worth a look. Also, Arab is in Alabama. Also, and take my word for it, if you troll Google News for “naked woman,” you get nothing like this list. Apparently women don’t like to goof around naked in public. Except in Alaska.
(This last headline merits the whole story.)
SOUTH CAROLINA (The Times Democrat) A mental evaluation has been ordered for a Rowesville man charged in a second incident involving nudity.
Circuit Court Judge Ed Dickson ordered the evaluation Monday after a second charge of indecent exposure in just over a year was levied against 34-year-old Paul Ott.
“After having been evaluated … we will schedule a bond hearing,” Dickson said.
The Bay Street man was arrested Saturday on a probation violation and later charged by county authorities with indecent exposure after a Rowesville family notified deputies of a naked man in their yard.
State probation agent Lisa Boltin told the court Saturday’s incident placed Ott in violation of a plea agreement in a prior indecent exposure charge.
In September 2011, Ott was charged with indecent exposure after being accused of trying to break into a Cope residence naked while demanding in crude form to have sex with the homeowner’s wife.
Ott pleaded guilty to that charge in January and was placed on probation.
Boltin requested a mental evaluation, saying a toxicology test showed no drugs in his system.
“We don’t have any indication this is the result of drugs,” she said. “It’s a safety issue for the community, but we are also concerned about Mr. Ott’s safety as well.”
Defense attorney Charlie Williams III agreed a mental evaluation is in order, citing the possibility of a bipolar condition.
Williams declined comment until after an evaluation, but did say his priority is the “well-being of my client.” Any health issues would be addressed first, he said, and legal matters at a later date.
Prosecutor Sarah Ford recommended a bond hearing be held only after the court can consider the results of the mental evaluation.
Ott was taken into custody Saturday after a Rowesville woman noticed a man “standing in her goat pin (sic) completely nude,” according to a Sheriff’s Office incident report.
The naked man ran at her, but stopped after she yelled at him, she said. When she asked him what he was doing, he said he “was running with the birds.”
The woman’s husband tried talking to the man, but the man refused.
Deputies found some clothing in a nearby wooded area and a hunter who said he saw an individual running past around daylight.
Ott was arrested last year after a Sept. 1 incident in which a Cope man reported a naked man trying to break into his residence.
When deputies arrived, the resident said the naked subject was at his back door using a stick in an effort to get inside.
According to the report, the naked visitor allegedly pointed at the homeowner’s wife inside the house and “started moving in a hunching motion.” The naked man crudely yelled he wanted to have sex with her, the homeowner claimed.
A public disorderly conduct charge was later dropped due to the incident taking place on private property.
And in a bench trial in November 2011, Ott was found not guilty of trespassing after Williams argued the Rowesville man had “good cause” for being on the property. Williams said Ott was seeking medical treatment after a car wreck that had happened immediately prior to the Cope incident.
Ott then pleaded guilty in January to indecent exposure related to the Cope incident. He was sentenced to 15 months of probation. (10/16/2012)
*No vivid headines please