The Shaughnessys had a family reunion this July, and my sister Lucy stayed with me for two weeks. I think that during the last two years she and I may be coming to something of a rapprochement in our relationship. Certainly, the fact that my brother Jack and his chere amie of ten years standing, the Lovely Medea, also stayed with me for a few days helped put Lucy in perspective for me. On the scale of how awful a woman can be, the Lovely Medea scores so high that Lucy’s more annoying qualities shrivel into insignificance in the pitiless sun of Medea’s imperfection – in fact, Lucy and I may have bonded somewhat in our extreme distaste for her. The Lovely Medea, though a grandmother, is a trophy type of woman: platinum blonde and flawlessly made up and dressed at all times. This could be seen as admirable, I suppose, but the personality that goes with it is not. The woman emerges talking in late morning from her labors in front of the bathroom mirror until her final putting to bed at whatever hour. And her talk is divided into three categories: her friends, family and experiences, none of which have reached even the lowermost level of interesting; the many and divers men who have attempted to seduce her (all of them, all the time); and honeyed blades of poison inserted into the backs of any of my kin who is not present. The Lovely Medea is a rich topic for a lengthy entry, but she is not my topic for today.
My sister Lucy brought with her a quilt she has been working on for a year, which depicts various scenes from our days on the Farm. In one scene, she has my mother pinning up laundry on the pair of clotheslines that spanned most of our back yard. Sitting with his back against one of the anchoring posts that held the clotheslines is the figure of a boy reading from a book. Lucy says that is me; she says that Mom told her I used to sit and read to her as she worked. I don’t recall doing this, but certainly it seems like something I might do. If one wanted to picture me when I was happiest as a boy, one would have to show me reading a book.
I loved books. I read and re-read anything I could get my hands on. I can still picture our local library, which consisted of two rooms and an adjoining alcove on the first floor of the Town Hall, which was located a little more than a mile from the Farm. Entering the library to return books and to get more was one of the great pleasures of my youth; it was akin to the feeling I had when entering a theater. I would linger long over my selections; there were books that I considered and dipped into over and over again for years before I finally selected them. When I found an author or a genre that I loved, I would get a book from that source each time until the supply was exhausted. I read the dog books (Lassie, Come Home; Lad, A Dog), the horse books (Farley’s Black Stallion books, and the Island Stallion books), the Little House books of Wilder, the Moffat family chronicles by Eleanor Estes, the Lois Lenski books with their pen and ink sketches of children who always had a certain almond-eyed look – to this day I occasionally see someone on the street who looks to me like he or she stepped from the pages of Lenski’s books. I read boys’ series, girls’ series, and the tales of the talking animals in Walter R. Brooks’ Freddy, the Pig series. When I found The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, I was ecstatic. I followed the fortunes of this impoverished family through the several sequels, each centered on one of the children: Ben, Polly, Phronsie, Joel and one I distinctly remember being called Ned, but Google tells me he was Davie. Have I confused the Peppers with the Moffats or some other series family? The Peppers echoed the girls of Little Women or the plucky lads that filled the pages of Horatio Alger’s books in that they were poor people who managed to have the good (and plot-enhancing) fortune to attract the attention of a wealthy benefactor who was attracted by their virtue and unspoiled spirits.
As I moved into the more mature books – the Young Adult category, I believe it is now called - I only grew more entranced. Of course I read Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys (How I loved mysteries! What is more magic than a secret stairway, room, alcove or passage?) and Tom Swift and a host of series that are no longer remembered: the Mimi books, the Little Colonel series, the Go Ahead Boys, the Rover Boys, the Girls of Central High and so on. In fact, when I was introduced to Harry Potter by the daughters of a friend, two girls as book-crazy as I was, I realized that underneath the wizardry and magic Rowling’s books were exceptionally skilled ‘boarding school’ series books, with all the familiar and much loved trappings – the sports contests, the ‘good’ hero and his ‘chums’ versus the rival ‘bad’ boy (bully, braggart, spoiled child, whatever) and his ‘toadies’, the unfair burden on, or accusation against, the hero – a noble, plucky lad or lass who bore the bad with grace and who rose above adversity. Our side wins again!
For me, the absolute acme of young adult books was a quartet of books written by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, which I read and re-read and then read again. These centered on a life choice in the lives of teen-aged heroes or heroines, all orphaned, in exotic settings – logging camps of the Northwest, the circus, the old frontier West or ancient Egypt. Though on a recent re-reading, I find the Newberry winner Moccasin Trail to be better, my personal favorite, a favorite which led to a lifelong interest first in archaeology and then in history, was Mara: Daughter of the Nile. I don’t know how many times I read Mara’s story, probably twenty or thirty times at least. My goldfish were named Mara and Sheftu after the leading characters. Oddly, my best friend Emily tells me that she was equally a Mara fan and that she met a lifelong friend when she noticed that each time she borrowed the book from her school library, a girl named Kirsten had borrowed it in the interim and sought that girl out at her school. Ms McGraw also wrote some of the sequels to Baum’s Wizard of Oz (something I only found out recently). The high point of the school day for me when I was in third grade was when Mrs Holfoth would read the next chapter of the Wizard, and when the original was finished, one of its sequels. Occasionally she would try to introduce a different book, but popular demand always returned us to Oz. I was spellbound by the Oz books. Oz time beat recess time all hollow for me.
I read everywhere. In summer, one of my parents would see me curled up with a book in the house on a lovely day, and tell me I should be outside enjoying the weather. I would move, book in hand, to the porch or to a spot under a tree and continue reading. My dad would get very irritated because I would not hear him speaking to me when I was lost in some book. I can still quote from memory the entire first page of the first hard-cover book I ever read, The Tale of Betsy Butterfly. Losing myself in a fictional world was like settling into a warm bath.
I have lately realized that I am still that guy. While I can’t seem to find books I love like I once did or continue reading uninterrupted for hours, I am still a guy that is indoors on lovely days, reading or writing or watching a film. I feel guilty about it, and it is a part of a larger issue for me, that I have only begun to see clearly. There are two ‘me’s – the one I wish I were (and sporadically believe I am), and the one I actually am. I constantly plan for things as if I were Doing David and wind up way off the mark because I am really Reading David. There is nothing like a long period of isolation, which this first full year of retirement has essentially proved to be, for getting a new perspective, or maybe a clearer one, on oneself. I find that I planned my retirement, insofar as I planned at all, for the wrong David, for the David I wish I were. I had the odd idea that I would be this man who gardened faithfully: mulching, weeding, fertilizing; who made repairs and enhancements to his home, learning new skills as he went along; who went about visiting old friends and making new ones in his new-found open-ended leisure time, and who opened his home to friends and relatives for long visits. I actually imagined I was self-directed, and throve without a schedule to limit me as work had done.
It would be OK, in fact it would be wonderful, if I could say, “Oh, but I am Reading David, as I have been all along”, and could pick up a book or magazine or watch a film with unalloyed pleasure, as I once read through my young summers. But it doesn’t feel right; it seems like wasting time. I can’t seem to forgive myself for not being that elusive Doing David that occasionally put down the book and learned to surf and to box, or who went off to Saudi (though I spent a lot of time there seeking out English language books, it must be admitted) or who hitch hiked west to see what was there. I feel I should be doing something more active and useful, particularly during these truly beautiful summer days we’ve been having. Any time I actually do anything in the gardening or home fixing vein, it seems to be desultory and in passing. I am very much afraid that I have a commitment problem that makes Casanova seem like a solid family man. If life were a multiple choice test, my answer would be “E. None of the above.”
Even Reading David is not what he used to be. George Will wrote a column for Newsweek very recently which crystallized a lot of thoughts I have had about my attention span. He brought up something, however, that I had not thought about (or known) but the results of which I have experienced. He mentions that brains can actually be rewired (even at my advanced age) by constantly repeated experience. What I HAD noticed is that I have drifted into a lot more magazine reading and a lot less book reading. I feel more comfortable with the shorter attention span required. I read Newsweek every week, and I subscribe to Atlantic and read it cover to cover. Recently I re-subscribed to the New Yorker, a subscription I had allowed to lapse, because it has a lot of reading in each issue and is a weekly. I was pretty much backlogged, and with each week I was falling further behind, which created some kind of guilty feelings. But I find myself casting about for something to read often, without feeling like I want to plunge back into any one of the several novels I am halfway through. So I am back with the New Yorker– I guess anything that I’ll actually read, even sometimes, is better than computer games.
I just cannot read for long hours like I used to do. Occasionally I will come upon a book that is an exception, but for the most part I find I constantly interrupt my reading to get coffee, to go to the kitchen on vague errands, to check e-mail – anything to avoid long stretches of uninterrupted reading. I don’t know why this is, but I truly believe that it is related to the theory put forth to explain the growth of attention deficit disorder in children – the nature of current television programming. It is not the watching of television or movies in itself that is the problem, it is the way that more and more the fare is sliced into tiny bites of interwoven plot narratives. Back when we were watching Beaver or Lucy or Gunsmoke or Mary Tyler Moore (although the last named showed the beginnings of the trend), a TV show had a single plot line that played out over the course of the show. Incidentally, there were fewer interruptions for ads, and even these tended to be for a single product per interruption; shows were ‘sponsored by’ a single advertiser. Now, however, every show has a series of plotlines playing out, and the ad breaks are for multiple sponsors. In Modern Family, for instance, (or Parenthood or The Good Wife) there is an ensemble of actors who, in various combinations, play out three or four plotlines in brief interlaced scenes. You are here, you are there, you are somewhere else, and you are watching three seven minute stories at once. Crime shows have moved from the single star detective to teams on different parts of an investigation, or even whole squads pursuing different issues. Add the nearly constant commercial breaks, which many of us use to try and do tasks in the 90 second interval thereby provided and you are doing some serious brain wiring: move, move, move. I am becoming incapable of sustained attention to anything. I notice that even one of my favorite crime novelists – Robert B. Parker – keeps my attention by writing novels of 50 or more very short chapters – many only a page and a half in length. Compare that with something by Mark Twain.
I don’t like this development in myself, and I don’t like it in others. I resent people putting me on hold during personal calls while they take a second call. I resent people constantly checking a mobile device when we are together. I realize this is the world today and it will not change for me. I am trying to decrease the feelings of insult and anger that arise over something that is not personally or exclusively aimed at me. But most of all I resent that I can’t keep my own attention on a good book any more – I resent my own addiction to constant stimuli. I suspect I can only change this for myself if I stop watching TV and other modern electronica, and I am pretty sure that isn’t going to happen. So I guess I am watching the evolution of a third me – Jittery David.
I wish I liked him more.