All The Many Me's

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
They say the best way to become a good writer is to be a good reader, but it's not always an easy road for your parents and teachers.

Submitted: May 28, 2017

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Submitted: May 28, 2017

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When we were kids my sister kept a diary. It was a secret. She hid the secret under her pillow. (Since I am coming clean, the key was under the felt liner in the top drawer of her jewelry box.) A lot of girls did this back then. I don’t know if they still do. My sister poured her innermost feelings and deepest agonies onto the tear-stained pages of her diary; simpering and mewling against a cold, insensitive world that understood nothing, nothing, about the anguish and torment of female adolescence; clinging to the last ragged fragments of a tattered life; hoping, waiting, longing for a charming prince to whisk her away from it all into the glorious summer of impassioned womanhood. (Sorry kid, but the statute of limitations is up.)

This is now called blogging: diary-keeping on Prozac. Blogging is what you get if you let Kahlil Gibran edit a twelve year old girl’s diary if the twelve year old girl wrote about things like the Zen of play dates in the park and the beautiful imagery of finding a shell with a hole in it all the way up on a city street where shells with holes never go. In blogging there is nothing that cannot be covered with syrup and emblazoned across a picture of a sunset, or a boat on the water, or trees, or trees in front of a boat on the water… at sunset. A dog barks in the distance and it’s blogged as “a lonely, mournful cry that speaks for us all asking, Whither love? Whither a welcoming shoulder for my tears?,” (This, of course, is written in the sand on a placid beach… at sunset.) Many blogs are even festooned with the same rainbows and unicorns and heart stickers my sister had on her diary. But my sister never wrote “whither”, that’s a blog word.

My sister would write that our parents were fashion troglodytes (they were) and made her wear totally ridiculous clothes that turned her into a total social outcast (they did.) Bloggers fume that fashion designers totally ignore the needs of plus-size women and strand them in the wastelands of style. My sister would write that our step-mother was a tyrannical and malicious slave master who was trying to ruin her life (she was,) and that she felt like curling up in a ball to die. Bloggers write that when you see meanness in the world, go into a “Happiness Chrysalis” where only your own goodness can reach you. (But do it on a beach, in front of a boat, at sunset of course.)

Diary-keeping is what my sister did when she wanted to talk to herself without being heard. Blogging is what people do when they want to talk to themselves through a megaphone because they’re afraid nobody will hear them. Blogging is what inflates a diary into diarrhea.

Of course I did not keep a diary. Boys didn’t do that in those days. I kept a “Journal.” The difference between a diary and a journal is that journals don’t simper and mewl, they record. If I didn’t contemplatively record the history of a dysfunctional, jury-rigged, strenuously Southern Baptist family on what my father spuriously called a “farm” in the middle of a cornfield in central Ohio, who would? Until I discovered my sister’s diary I didn’t think any of the rest of my family could read or write.

All the manly men who were my heroes kept journals: Ernest Hemmingway, John Steinbeck, Jack London. Albert Einstein kept a journal. John Wayne and James Bond probably kept journals for all I knew. I thought it was a manly thing to do: To observe and absorb the behaviors of a frivolous and plebian world (though not an uninteresting one, in a casually bemused sort of way) and record my reflections with devoted regularity. This was my duty to posterity. Without a journal, how would posterity know I had been watching?

For some reason I always started my journal entries with the weather: “September 4. Cloudy all day, might rain. The weasels ate another chicken last night…” I might have done this because that’s what ship’s captains wrote first in their logs, like Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty. I don’t remember. I doubt that I thought I would care, decades later, what the weather was like on my twelfth birthday. (It was sunny and cool and the leaves were starting to turn, though the leaves are always starting to turn on my birthday.)  I filled my journal with the kind of gravitas my sister would never think of assigning to her diary: “Cold. Sunny. Dad still trying to fix the Chevy. Now he thinks it’s the ‘Goldurn carburetor’. Yesterday it was the ‘RazzemFrazzem starter. Saw a place where an owl ate a rabbit. The pond is starting to freeze.” It would be years before I learned that the pond freezing should go at the beginning with the weather report, to give “cold” some context.

When John Boy Walton burst into the collective American consciousness, I began to aspire to new heights. Not only could that boy really write, but he could do it gracefully with a tarantula crawling across his face! I graduated from the mere cataloging of mundane and uninteresting events to waxing poetic about mundane and uninteresting events: “The weasels even look like thieves with their pointy faces and beady eyes. No matter how much we work on the chicken wire and my step mother prays for the chickens, the vile things, like slinking evil clad in mangy fur, still manage to savage our livestock.”

Soon my journal entries began to flourish in direct proportion to my burgeoning vocabulary. One year I got a Thesaurus for my birthday and had to ask for more journals at Christmas because my entries exploded with Homeric inventories of gratuitous adjectives. I was writing the Iliad: “The stealthy, gray, slinking, filthy, vampiric, furtive, menacing weasels…”

Gratuitous adjectives, fun as they were, did not serve me as well in other areas of my life as they did in my journal writing. Asked to define a scalene triangle in Geometry class I wrote: “Skewed, distorted, collapsing, pathetic parody of a triangle.” F! Miss Rager asked that I “try to think of Geometry as a kind of Math, not an Edgar Allen Poe story, please.” Had I been told to write “I will not throw chalk dust on Cindy” one hundred times it would have taken me months: “I will never, in a thousand lifetimes of tomorrows, throw pallid, anemic, ghostly, ashen chalk dust on poor, anxious, abused, melodramatic, theatrical, histrionic Cindy.” That thesaurus, for me, was a verbal racehorse; a wild lexical ride across a seemingly endless expanse of new ways to express myself. I saw no need to apply the reins: “Cold, penetrating, biting, bitter, piercing, raw, stinging weather today…”

Then I began to read seriously, and books became a brand new set of shiny silver spurs.

I had always been a reader, but the year I turned thirteen I began to read voraciously. My sister thinks it was to escape a home life that can be euphemistically described as “caustic” in the best of times. I think it was simply because I suddenly began to understand the really good books.

It was Hemmingway that started it. Hemmingway is the perfect literary catalyst for a thirteen year old boy. Concise, terse, pithy, manly: Short sentences. No verbal flowers. Talk like a man. Say it succinctly. Now it is well and truly said. Now say something else. I devoured Hemmingway, and threw over my epic trains of gratuitous adjectives for the simple, manly life of nouns. Best of all, I could abandon agonizing over punctuation.  Real men stick with periods. An occasional comma for effect, maybe, like a lone cheetah on the Serengeti Plain, but mostly just periods. Period.

She tells me take out the trash,” I wrote. “She does not know trash. She does not know me. She speaks of trash like a thing to be noticed. A rabid dog. An angry bull. She does not know bulls. She does not know dogs. She cannot know trash.” My father ordered me to help him fix the pasture fence. “This fence,” I penned. (Period.) “He has me build a prison. The cow watches. I bind her life with wires. It is sadness I see. Sadness in staples. Sadness in strong posts.” I became Hemmingway. “This Judas,” I told my Sunday School teacher. “He is not strong. He is weak. Strength is honor. Men have honor. Men have strength. He has no honor. He has no strength. He is not a man.”

“Well,” she replied, looking confused, “he did kill himself, sooo…”

Then I read A Moveable Feast and discovered that Hemmingway’s best friends were a cranky dyke and a guy named F. Scott Fitzgerald. No teenage boy wants to read the works of a cranky dyke, so I turned to Fitzgerald. Soon I asked myself, “How could these guys possibly have been friends? Fitzgerald hates periods!” Here were long, meandering sentences that started one place and wound their way lethargically from topic to topic to topic, comma after comma after comma. How could the two of them have even had a conversation? What could Hemmingway possibly find to talk about with someone who wrote books like Tender is the Night and This Side of Paradise? Nobody kills lions and spears bulls on tender nights on any side of paradise! But I gave it a try. I found some short stories I liked, and soon became comfortable with compound sentences:

If cleaning my room is a thousand small tasks of menial significance, then there is something grand about me, grand like the awakening of sense in the watching of leaves bud, one by one, and knowing that they each work their way to the sunlight as miners struggling into the day, a day that holds the promise of a sun rising thousands of miles away over a cold and boiling gray ocean, then setting over an earthquake thousands of miles the other way, and has been this way for days and nights uncountable.”  It was oddly liberating beginning a sentence with cleaning my room and ending it with an earthquake. The possibilities were endless. It was also the cause of considerable eye-rolling among my teachers. But I was just getting warmed up.

As I slouched listlessly through puberty, I discovered that F. Scott Fitzgerald had a bet with James Joyce to see who could write the longest sentence in the world. But even more important, and concordant with my many and varied newly discovered adolescent revulsions, (yet much to my delight,) Joyce submerged his interminable sentences in a mood of existential dread. Just what I was looking for! I stocked up on Journals:

There is no hope beyond this,” I wrote of my chores, “ the enactment of these chores, the realization of my endless efforts as night after night I see this house after feeding animals, night after night study the squares of the windows and find them lighted the same way, dimly, and night after night wondering: are they idle, do they sleep, and I say softly to myself the word paralysis, which sounds so strange in my ears like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word Nephilim in the Scripture, but now sounds to me like the name of a door, a bad door to be unhinged and replaced by a door that closes, closes forever on the ultimate doing of a dismal chore, of feeding animals.”

My teachers’ eye-rolling gave way to simply throwing their hands in the air and walking away, which was exactly what I needed to feed my suffering. So, like any angst-ridden pubescent journaler, I redoubled my efforts to provide grist for my dark and indignant word mill. Term papers were a perfect vehicle:

You ask me for a term paper, knowing what these words mean, or not knowing, cloaking your ignorance in deception, shadowing, clouding your intent to bring me into lockstep with the blind walkers who I see as I navigate the town, day after day, plodding, sheep, toward the shearing of their characters with the knives of a relentless and unjust grammer…”

I heard “David, sit down!” a lot in those days, but mostly they just pointed to the door, and once again I would have to explain to a tired and war-weary Principal: “What is a term paper but a long, darkly lit path to the obscure, capricious vanity of a grade, a grade that, like falling leaves in the bitter autumn…”

My step mother just said, “Fine, I’ll pray for you while you feed the chickens! Go!

Luckily I discovered Sir Walter Scott before I drowned in my Joycean anguish. Scott, like Hemmingway before him and Robert Service and Jack London who would follow, was made-to-order for teenage boys. Plus he was a real Sir, just like in King Arthur.

Scott took some getting used to at first, especially in the rhythm and rhyming pattern of his poems, but once I got the hang of it, and learned to overlook words like “Buccleuch” and “Ousenam”, I loved his galloping hardiness. Feeding stupid animals became almost tolerable:

 

Of Marmion were wild beasts led,

Glance quick as lightning in this stead,

Where still this errand’s cause is tried;

Press spur into your courser’s side,

And grant these brutes must need be fed!”

 

My parents were cautiously optimistic about my newfound enthusiasm for chores, but, in the way of non-literary parents, did not seem to approve of my flailing at the chickens with a stick astride an uncooperative pony. “Whack another chicken and you’re stewed,” I think is how my father put it.

My teachers, by now exhausted, were just happy to shag Sir David off on the next grade’s unsuspecting educators:

Question 21: Who was Teddy Roosevelt?

 

Less frequent heard, but strong of will,

At length the various clamors died,

But not the shout from San Juan hill,

No sound but Teddy’s rushing tide;

“Bully, boys! We’ll take them still!”

The 26th President-to-be cried.

 

“Have you ever,” Mr. Crains asked sadly, “just answered a simple question with a simple answer?” I was sure I had, but I knew he would ask me to cite an example, so I just shrugged.

“You passed,” he said. “Go away.”

Then there was Kafka. Looking back, even I don’t understand a single thing I wrote in my journals during the Kafka time. I suppose therapy could help, but I don’t think I want to know. I am happy to consider it a lost time; a Salvador Dali painting from which I somehow escaped without knowing.

There were many authors after that: Robert Service, Jack London, Charles Dickens, (that was a wonderful time for parents and teachers!) Poe (that, too!) Steinbeck, Orwell, Kipling and many others. They all taught me to love books, and by emulating each one in turn, I discovered that I, too, aspired to one day be a famous alcoholic. I would water down some iced tea to look like bourbon and drink it from a rocks glass while I wrote, a pencil stub dangling from my lips like a cigarette. When I read Steinbeck I stole real cigarettes from my step mother and broke off the filters to authenticate my reverence.

Many writers speak proudly of when they “found their voice.” I had the great good fortune to find my voice not just once, but over and over again, each voice more fitting and fulfilling, so it seemed, than the last. It was a wonderful time to be a journal writer. I loved all the many me’s.

I went into boot camp five days after graduating high school. That was when I stopped keeping a journal: “The Marine Corps did not issue you a journal because you do not need a journal!” If we weren’t slogging through mud or doing calisthenics we were drunk, so at least I was still half a writer.

After the Marine Corps, the years passed; sluggishly at first, then, soon, with quickening pace. One day in middle age my sister came to visit, and as we sorted through some old boxes in the basement she asked, “Oh! You kept a diary, too?”

“A Journal,” I explained tiredly.

“Whatever. I never saved mine.”

“That’s because you were simpering and mewling, not keeping a record for posterity. Nobody saves mewling”

“Oh. Okay! Can I read your diaries?”

I have started keeping a journal again. Not because I will care in my dotage what I thought in my middle age, but because you can’t write an essay about keeping a journal if you aren’t keeping a journal. It’s unprofessional.

So: Clear today. Warm. My birthday is coming up so the leaves will soon begin to die. That is so sad. I’m going into my Happiness Chrysalis…on a beach…at sunset. I need a boat… and whiskey!


© Copyright 2017 Dave Suter. All rights reserved.

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