Friday, June 28, 2013

Let's Return to Amity for the Fourth of July!

My quintessential Fourth of July read on film or in print is Jaws by Peter Benchley. My memory of the book tells me that I read it during the summer, and maybe I actually did or maybe it's just that the book is about the Fourth of July festivities. It's also about businessmen and women in an island community who try to make a year’s worth of income over a short summer, about demons above and below the surface, about the initiation of a grown man into the hazards of the heart. Even though the book inspired the slaughter of sharks everywhere, a truth I bemoan, I still love this book and recommend you pick up a copy for your Fourth of July joy.

Windmill on Pasture Land near Edmond, OK (Photo by Al Griffin, 2013)

Chief Brody is a stranger in a strange land, a man who hates the water, a city-dweller and big city policeman, transported not by space craft, but by desire to live away from the chaos and brutality that characterize cities--at least in our fictional imaginations. He lands a job as Chief of Police in Amity, a place of friendship and minimal criminal behavior. Except, of course, the greedy corrupt streak coursing through the veins of men at Town Hall. They know how to win votes, and they intend to please the voters by being business-friendly even if a sentient, woman and boy-eating shark swims up and bites them in the ass.

So Brody must fight City Hall and the whole town, especially after the shark swallows that little boy whose mother spits in Brody’s face, an archetypal show of disrespect that Atticus Finch and countless other characters have endured. Brody must also fight his inner demons: the water, his fear of it, and his ignorance about how business trumps life in Amity. He enlists the help of Hooper, an elite, well-educated shark enthusiast who, in the book, seduces Brody’s wife, a fact that Quint seems to know but Brody does not. Thus, when Quint taunts Mrs. Brody, and she flees the pier, readers know what film-goers do not: Quint has seen into her unfaithful heart.

Quint is another foe for Brody. Not a proficient captain or even a good journeyman sailor, Brody ends up shoveling chum into the waters, trying to entice the ultimate demon, an oversized, hell-bent Great White, into the light. Quint hates sharks and belittles men who shirk sharks. As a survivor of the USS Indianapolis, Quint knew the naked fear of bobbing in shark-infested waters. He survived. Now steeled against the terrors of the sea, he seems to take delight in making Hooper, Brody, and Mrs. Brody wriggle like worms on hooks.

Brody, of course, beats them all. He mans up and tries his best to save Quint from himself. Even though he fails to save the crusty old man and witnesses his terrible end, Brody does not falter. He proves to be resourceful and gutsy, quickly devising a way to kill the shark as the boat sinks. Then he and Hooper swim to shore, determined to save themselves not only from the jaws of death but for a new life as friends in Amity (Cue the chorus in the filmed version.)

So Jaws is a great read, perfect for the beach or lake, read while the sun bakes and drives us to the water for a cool, quick dip, all the while trying not to think about what lies below. Jaws features heroes, villains, monsters, and all five types of conflict. It’s a story that moves quickly and closes with a promise that mankind will overcome.

Reading Challenge:

Read Peter Benchley’s best-seller Jaws and/or watch the film. You won’t be sorry that you chose this book for your mid-summer read.

Writing Challenge:

Get honest and tell the story about your first swim in deep, dark water after reading Jaws.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Grief in the Words of Emily Dickinson

Last week’s post was yet another lesson in showing readers the intangible world of emotion and experience without announcing what the emotion is. Writers we love to read show their readers the human experience from new angles, provide new insights; they allow readers to infer. 

The writing samples used last week were Shakespeare’s long soliloquy about sleep and a much shorter speech about grief delivered by Hamlet. I also wrote four sample passages about grief, using the five senses to reveal the look of grief, its sound, taste, texture, and scent.

Quite coincidentally, an acquaintance revealed this week that she has entered into her own grief, and I know exactly what she must do in the coming days, months, and years. Emily Dickinson said it well in one of her poems:

The last Night that She lived
It was a Common Night
Except the Dying—this to Us
Made Nature different

We noticed smallest things—
Things overlooked before
By this great light upon our Minds
Italicized—as 'twere.

As We went out and in
Between Her final Room
And Rooms where Those to be alive
Tomorrow were, a Blame

That Others could exist
While She must finish quite
A Jealousy for Her arose
So nearly infinite—

We waited while She passed—
It was a narrow time—
Too jostled were Our Souls to speak
At length the notice came.

She mentioned, and forgot—
Then lightly as a Reed
Bent to the Water, struggled scarce—
Consented, and was dead—

And We—We placed the Hair—
And drew the Head erect—
And then an awful leisure was
Belief to regulate—

Those last two lines, in bold font added by me, are such a wonderful gift to us. They stay with me always for in those lines Dickinson captured the truth about grief or loss or heartache. She knows what it is we humans must do: accept.

Image from

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, famous for describing the five stages of grief, wrote that the last stage is acceptance, perfectly described by Dickinson as an awful stretch of time in which to accept or believe that the universe cannot and will not restore our beloved, return what we’ve lost, restore us to the state of well-being we enjoyed before the catastrophe hit.

My friend now looks into her future. It’s unfamiliar, dark and vast. Once full of thoughts for that other dear person in her life, she now must find other thoughts, new and different anniversaries. She must make familiar what is not just unfamiliar but unknown. She has too much time on her hands with one pressing duty: comprehend and accept her loss.

Joan Didion wrote about this awful leisure after her husband passed. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion confesses that her grief allowed her to deny his exit, to grow angry that he left her so abruptly until she finally regulated her belief, accepting that nothing she did or thought, did not do or did not think would bring him back to her. Didion lived Dickinson’s description of what the living must do after death.

Reading Challenge:

Read to uncover new angles, new insights about the human experience. Let your new understanding give you greater understanding. Consider reading Elizabeth Kubler Ross's On Death and Dying and/or Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and/or Calvin Trillin's tribute to his dear wife in About Alice.

Writing Challenge:

Tell your own story about regulating your belief to accept a loss.

Friday, June 14, 2013

In the School of Shakespeare: Making Intangibles Real

How do I love thee, Shakespeare? I cannot count the ways for there are many. Foremost among them are the mini-essays in poetry.

In the History of Henry IV, Part II, Shakespeare opens Act 3, scene 1 with a vivid little essay on insomnia:

How many thousands of my poorest subjects 
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep, 
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,
That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down, 
And steep my senses in forgetfulness? 
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs, 
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee, 
And hush'd with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfum'd chambers of the great, 
Under the canopies of costly state, 
And lull'd with sound of sweetest melody? 
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile 
In loathsome beds, and leav'st the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common 'larum-bell? 
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast 
Seal up the ship-boy's eyes, and rock his brains 
In cradle of the rude imperious surge, 
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top, 
Curling their monstrous heads, and hanging them 
With deafing clamour in the slippery clouds, 
That with the hurly death itself awakes? 
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude; 
And in the calmest and most stillest night, 
With all appliances and means to boot, 
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down! 
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Shakespeare reveals that the King enjoys “perfum’d chambers” and sweet melodies while his subjects must lie down “in smoky cribs, / Upon uneasy pallets.” They enjoy “forgetfulness” on their “vile / … loathsome beds” even as the “dull god” of sleep denies the king the same “respose,” requiring Henry to conclude that “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

In Hamlet, Act 1, scene 2, Shakespeare provides a succinct essay on grief:

…'tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother, 
Nor customary suits of solemn black, 
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath, 
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye, 
Nor the dejected havior of the visage, 
Together with all forms, modes, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed seem, 
For they are actions that a man might play; 
But I have that within which passeth show, 
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Here Shakespeare shares the customary dress of mourning: an “inky cloak” and “black suits.” The grieving also sigh, sending forth “windy suspirations of forced breath” as they cry a “fruitful river” and look downcast or “dejected.” Hamlet contends that any man or woman might manifest these behaviors but his grief is not a show; his grief is deep “within.”

With such mini-poetic essays, Shakespeare proves his encyclopedic understanding of human emotions. He also proves his mastery of verisimilitude (the quality of truth in literature). As all great writers do, Shakespeare teaches us about ourselves. He holds up a mirror and shows us the human experience. Therein we see anew what we have seen and felt; we comprehend our very hearts and souls.

Reading Challenge:

Read Shakespeare to discover grief, doubt, jealousy, arrogance, love and so much more.

Writing Challenge:

Write like Shakespeare, trying to bring to life abstractions. If you have the gift for iambic pentameter, use your gift, but if you are not confident about meter, then write prose. For example:

Photo by Al Griffin: Evening Sky, Westheimer Field, OK

Consider grief. What does it look like?

I don’t know them well. In fact, when I heard about their loss, I wasn’t at all sure that I could match the correct faces to the names given. And I didn’t see them for several weeks, the time, I suppose, when they withdrew from the world, when they drew together to find some reason to enter into this world again. Upon their return to the group, I watched them, trying to see if anything in them would betray their grief for its weight is unimaginable to me. They’d lost a son, a soldier who’d been to a killing field for the U. S. and returned home whole, a firefighter who’d danced with Jeopardy on many occasions. With him was his wife, the mother of his children, grandmother to his grandchildren, a woman who encircled his waist with her arms as they rode the highways on the two wheels of a motorcycle. He’d crossed the centerline on a curve and slammed into an oncoming car, and they were vulnerable. Little shielded them from asphalt, gravel, dirt or metal that crushes bone. His parents, the ones I know but slightly, are much too old to bear such a loss, too old to outlive a son and daughter-in-law, but that is the truth they must embrace. I catch them sometimes, eyes seeing something not present, looking into a distance I hope never to reach. Theirs is the knowledge that this life delivers harsh blows randomly; it is a knowledge that the fabric of this universe is as thin as old, yellowed paper.

And what does grief sound like?

You try not to wake me. You’re thoughtful that way, but I often bubbled into consciousness as the doors clicked softly behind you on your way out to photograph the sun or bask in the morning’s dew, strong brewed coffee in hand. You preferred the TV at a deafening level, and your blues sent forth tiny tremors as if a Louisiana earthquake opened crevices beneath the floor. But now, as I wake, I listen, eyes closed. Silence, only silence, pulses. Another day in this silence is unthinkable, but rise I must and somehow, the deafening pulse of the universe nudges me through another day.

Does grief have a taste? I believe it does.

I see a parade of shoes in dark, tasteful colors of dove gray, steel gray, ebony, and a brown so dark it masquerades as black. Voices that inhabit those shoes tell me to eat; they urge me to eat something, and I nod as if the advice is new and welcome. They cannot know that even Auntie’s moist rum cake, prepared just for me each holiday, becomes dust in my mouth. I sip water, then coffee, some strong brewed sweet tea, but none of these wash me clean. They force themselves into a tight throat, one that will scream your name if I open my mouth to eat. So I just nod as if at any minute I will fill a plate and gobble it down. I won’t. I can’t. I cannot swallow the sour taste of losing you for it is all that’s left.

What is the texture of grief and its scent?

I don’t know how long your towel hung across the bar in the bathroom. I only know that one day, I noticed a thick layer of dust across the fold. Still, I let the dust fall until we broke a record for our part of this world, the temperature climbing to eighty degrees. In the spirit of spring, I ventured outside and cut every hyacinth, using those heavy Anchor glasses you love the shape of as vases for each bloom, one in our bedroom, another on the kitchen table, several in the family room. I spent a half hour walking from bloom to bloom, setting a sweet scent swirling through rooms you once visited. With the promise of brighter tomorrows pulsing like sap through my veins, I snatched up throw pillows and tossed them in the dryer with a lavender scented sheet. In twenty minutes, they were dust-free and plump. I pressed my face into two of them and breathed in the clean smell of Highland moors. I knew then that I could wash your towel, and I almost did. But the soft feel of it reminded me of you, damp and hot, just out of the shower, bending to kiss me and with that towel, mop up a droplet of water you let fall upon my cheek. So I left the towel across the bar and lay down to breathe in the dust of all those hours without you.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Sounds in Words

Top photo by Al Griffin, Murray Lake, OK

All hail to he or she who first conceived of buzz, hiss, and sizzle, great words that sound just like their meanings. I’ve often thought of how clever those word inventors must have been as I struggle and fail to turn bird song into letter combinations.

The crow, for example. It’s one of the earliest risers here at the lake. Like a rooster on a farm, the crow cries “dawn” with its first caw. But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and the little knowledge I have about crows, thanks to PBS’ fine programming, specifically Nature, is that crows know us and differentiate between humans, not just categorizing them as threatening and non-threatening, but also distinguishing one of us from another, even letting other crows know what they’ve seen, who’s about, and whether caution is required. I cannot then settle for the simple caw as an onomotapoeic descriptor. Crow language is richer. The first caw may contain subtle intonations, so subtle that this human misses them. Upon seeing me, subsequent combinations of caw may announce that the old woman who labors up the hill is out and about again. What onomotapoeic word captures such a declaration?

Photo Above: Pied Crow, Dennis Donohue,

Smaller birds begin to warm to the day and continue to trill (not bad as onomotapoeic words go) throughout the day. Each song is quite distinct, however. One bird trills the word, sweeter, and others, swallows I think, seem to chatter sweetly in a rapid-fire, high-pitched whistle that many describe with the word, twitter. Mourning doves coo, according to many, but they often coo three sounds followed by two more, their rising and falling intonation seeming to say, “Who are you? Who? Who?”

Photo by Al Griffin, Moore, OK (Life after a Week of F5 storms)

Bluebirds seem to say, with a sharp, loud whistle, Oh, wow, what a day! And the brilliant cardinals clearly whistle, Whoop, whoop! followed by chuckles, or whoop, whoop, whoop that precedes a pulsing purr.

Over the lake, the gulls speak up a little behind the crow. Theirs is the sound that once emanated from early dolls. At first, it’s the mechanical sound of toymakers, then it picks up speed and pitch to blast as a screech upon the air (listen to "Short Call"). Our lone Little Blue Heron seems afflicted. His sound is as cacophonous as the gull’s. He honks and when peeved, makes a sound like an animal croaking its last.

All these noises must arouse the eagle for along it comes, usually alone, sometimes flying with his mate, each seeming to fly at the FAA’s legally prescribed height for eagles, one circling above the other. Its chatter (choose Chatter) is surprising, given his iconic stature and size, but it's high-pitched, reminding me of a gossip weighing in and passing on secrets. The cry (choose Peal) most often associated with eagles is the one sent out on the air, the one that fades in the wake of the eagle’s flight. It’s a peal or a thrust of sound against air, the sound easily, always o’ermastering air.

The ducks and coots and geese pass through now and then. Of course, the ducks seem to grunt rhythmically making a noise that only a broken whoopee cushion might make. Coots, from a distance so much like a duck in appearance, make a sound like that of a misshapen brass instrument. With each note, it must emit a final, flat tone. Geese, on the other hand, in a hurry on their way anywhere, seem to honk like an old Model-T or bark like a dog with a wretched head cold. These water fowl seem to drown out the song birds until I listen closely; the sweeter twitters and whistles continue, theirs the song upon which all else rests and theirs persists throughout the day.

Reading and Writing Challenge:

“Read” The Big Year (2011) starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson. Savor the great variety and challenges in the birding world. Delight in their songs, then try to put letters together to capture the sound of just one.