Stories of my life...The Old Man and the Sea

There are stories that I return to again and again. These core stories satisfy me in ways that aren't always easy to explain, but I'll give it a shot. I read Hemingway's, The Old Man and the Sea, for the first time in grade school, or high school. It was a simple story, easily devoured, and I gave it not a single thought, once done. I started tutoring during graduate school. No matter what I've done since then, I've continued to tutor part-time, and sometimes full-time. I love it. I was living in south Florida and many of my students were immigrants, wanting to improve their English language skills. I encouraged them to read the very best that was available to them. We'd meet at the local library, where they could get library cards. That's when I rediscovered Hemingway. His language is simple; the stories straightforward -- I thought he would be a perfect start for my students.

The Old Man and the Sea became a staple in my tutoring kit. And then -- to play on Marilyn Hacker's poem, Nearly a Valediction -- he happened to me. Hemingway's work opened up in ways that I had never expected. Nothing like a little life experience to add depth to a work. I was reading this story multiple times a month with adults, people living the immigrant story in its current form. As part of the exercise, I would have the student paraphrase their understanding of the story. I found that I gained as much from their reading of Hemingway as I had from my own. Every one of them had empathy for the old man; they understood that he was trying for something, and failing, but the failure didn't keep him down. And then they saw that the story wasn't really about an old guy on a failed fishing expedition...something else was going on there. 


We read aloud, shared the reading, back and forth in a natural pattern, according to breath and abilities. The sentences sprang to life; the world of the story opened up before us. Some students would share their own experiences; I learned a lot about fishing, and reading the water, and different ways of viewing strength: waning strength was held in balance by a lifetime of knowledge.  


I keep coming back to this story, again and again, because of the beauty of its storyline: an old man, by dint of doing what he does, day after day, gains a particular knowledge of the sea and its inhabitants. The old man, made invisible by age, is left with just the young boy to see him beyond the measure of his daily catches. In those waters, in his quest for that marlin, the old man is in communion with that fish; it is this communion that changes everything. It isn't the villagers' story of bones on a beach, as the unlucky one hauls in a shark ravaged carcass that was beyond his ability to bring ashore intact. It's the story of a man who met his match, understood what was at stake in the exchange, and participated in full. It's that awareness of place, and seeing what's before you in the universe of possibilities, that makes the story one I remember. There is no dominion over, but an equal to, that gives the story its juice.


We become what we focus on day after day. What we give our attention to, where we spend our energy, counts. The old man was a fisherman, whether he was resting in his hut, or out at sea with nothing to show for a day's work. The writer in me loves this story. I can't tell you how many days I've spent writing, or thinking about writing -- circling the language -- with nothing to show for it. I've suffered some real losses along the way, but I can't think of a better way to spend a day than writing, or thinking about writing. 

Bill Cunningham New York


I found the documentary, Bill Cunningham, New York, fascinating. I was first introduced to Cunningham on the fashion pages of the NYTimes. With a digital subscription to the paper, I've enjoyed the video contributions on his street photography, depicting the styles to be found on New York sidewalks.  I'm more interested in photography than fashion, but by the end of the piece I began to see the world through the photographer's eye, and what an eye for fashion, and fashion history, Cunningham possesses.

Cunningham zips around on a bike and finds the sweet spot on a crosswalk where he eyes and shoots, waiting for what he knows, and declares, as the emerging pattern of the season -- it's right before your eyes. He's unpretentious on his bike, just as he is in his own choice of clothing. He lives like an ascetic, amongst file cabinets of his photo shoots. What is seen in the film is the style of the man: he's found a way to be free and to live his life as a photographer and fashion historian in one of the most inspiring cities on earth. New York and Bill Cunningham -- it's a mutual love affair.


*  Available on Netflix streaming.

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

I saw Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird, a documentary created by Mary McDonagh Murphy, that explores the enduring power of Harper Lee's story. I love the title of the documentary; "Hey, Boo," the greeting given by Scout when she sees Boo keeping vigil over Jim, along with the rest of the family, near the story's end. That simple greeting is at once inclusive and boundary breaking in its warmth; the outsider, who was always one of us, is humanized with a child's voice. 

The late editor, Larry Ashmead, tells a wonderful backstory about Lee's novel. Ashmead was part of a panel, An Evening with Legendary Editors, at the Women's National Book Association in January of 2002 when he shared this publishing story: 

Tay Hohoff, with Lippincott, was the editor for To Kill a Mockingbird. The manuscript came into the firm and was first handled by a reader, who brought the manuscript to Ms. Hohoff's attention. The reader thought that the book needed a lot of work, but that it contained the seeds of a wonderful story -- a diamond in the rough. Hohoff agreed and asked her boss for three months off; she intended to help the author edit the book. Hohoff and Lee went through the draft, line by line, and that's how To Kill a Mockingbird came into being! Can you imagine? It just proves that editing is vital to the process of writing, and necessary in shaping a story. Good editors are invaluable.

If you'd like to hear Larry Ashmead tell the story, you can cue it to 1:14. 


To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary Edition


Here's the DVD by Murphy:

Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird


Here's the book by Murphy:

Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird



On poetry

I was in English class, seventh grade, at St. Thomas School in Southington, Connecticut when the unexpected (for me) happened. We were reading poems from an anthology. We started that class with a selection from E. E. Cummings - anyone lived in a pretty how town. I remember everything about that moment -- the afternoon winter light hitting the page; the sense of play those words engaged in -- no sense, or nonsense, made sound -- all the while telling a story with a beginning, middle, and end; the joy and the sadness, both at once, that filled me as I finished the poem. That was a threshold moment for me; I was to be forever changed from that one specific encounter with a poem.

After that exchange with Cummings, I was open to poetry. I didn't exactly seek poems out at that age, I just allowed for their presence, whenever I encountered them. The magic didn't happen with every poem, but that it happened at all, and continued to happen again and again, eventually made me a seeker of poems. Poetry is the well that I keep returning to, day after day, year after year; it's pure sustenance in a distilled form.



Man on Wire And Let the Great World Spin

Some things go together. In this case, the documentary Man on Wire that tells the tale of Philippe Petit and his high wire act between the Twin Towers in 1974, when they were brand new, and Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, a novel that centers itself in New York, just as Philippe is walking on air.  

It's this aerial view that we start out with in McCann's novel -- New York imagined from above but seen from the ground in its disparate characters. It's in his reach that McCann works a magic, giving voice to prostitutes and priests, dowagers and the down and out, all drawn together and kept apart by events and zip codes, by loss and attempts to reach across the many divides on something as slender as a wire. There is exhilaration in the air in this mosaic of a story that McCann has spun. There's an inclusive joy, that works beyond plot, in Let the Great World Spin.

Man on Wire is a breathtaking recounting of what should have been an impossible act: walking on a wire drawn between the Twin Towers. Petit and team plan and execute this feat with great care and precision; there is no other way. We know the outcome before the start of the documentary, yet it works to keep us spellbound; you can't help but ask "Why...why would anyone attempt such a thing?" It's the impossibility of answering that question that gives rise to the thrill of it; in its pure excess and its live or die stakes, the spectacle is assured an eager audience. Petit was a changed man after that one act. He entered a new life, crossing a threshold built to accommodate exactly one of a kind. 


Man on Wire  is available on Netflix

Let the Great World Spin


Waste Land ... a documentary directed by Lucy Walker

Description from Netflix: Vik Muniz -- Renowned artist Vik Muniz joins creative forces with Brazilian catadores -- garbage pickers who mine treasure from the trash heaps of Rio de Janeiro.




Walker tells the tale of Vik Muniz, who combines heart and eye as he explores the artistic possibilties in the largest landfill in the world, located in Rio de Janeiro.

(to be continued)  

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Ghosts by Cesar Aira

Ghosts (New Directions Paperbook) Permalink: translated by Chris Andrews


I love New Directions Publishing. They're devoted to finding great voices from around the globe, with the strength of story or poem being their sole criteria for selection. If they fall in love with it, they run with it! Can you imagine? I have been introduced to writers I never would have known without them, and my world is richer for it. 


I first read Cesar Aira's Ghost two years ago. The story has stayed with me. Now that I've completed some stories of my own, I'm always looking at craft -- how did the writer manage to draw me in like that? But, first, I let myself be taken away by the words, and take you away, he does. He begins with a grounding in place: a construction site in Buenos Aires; a skeleton of an apartment building; the night watchman's family residing in the becoming -- rooms without windows or doors, unfinished cement, an idea of a building. Aira sets us up with a porousness that allows the ghosts to enter, shrouded in cement dust. They are as real as the building that doesn't quite exist yet. As this one day unfolds, everything is on the verge; the portal is wide open.

Aira's ghosts become a presence that direct the reader's attention toward the play of time. It's the ghosts casualness that unsettled me; they move through floors, hang from a satellite dish on the roof-top terrace, and beckon a young girl in the startling ending. The ghosts do their job.

There is a magic in the translation; a tip of the hat to the translator, Chris Andrews.