Archive for Musings

On Painting Houses & Writing Books

I painted my house this late summer into fall.

The outside.

Up on the roof, high on ladders. Scraping, priming, the works. A slow process. A day here, a day there. Weekends when it didn’t rain. Physical work, too. Hauling ladders, standing braced on steep inclines, literally hanging on for dear life with one hand in some places. It took some getting used to. Not my usual line of work. 

You should know that I’m not practiced at this stuff. No one would mistake me for a handyman. Others might handle this easily, but for me it was a challenge. My own mountain to climb. But for a variety of reasons — the $7,000 estimate and some spare time (virtue of grown children) — I decided to take on this big project. I sought out different friends for advice, tips, strategies. Bought the supplies. And got started.

There were times I was absolutely frightened. Because I so did not want to become that guy with the broken back, or worse. A distinct possibility. As time wore on, I get better with the heights. Felt safer, more secure. Used to it. But never ever fully comfortable. I don’t think you want to feel too comfortable. That’s when mistakes are made. 

One day, for instance, I purchased a long rope at Lowes. Came back home, looked at it for a long time, then went back and bought a thicker rope. I tied it around my chimney, put on a borrowed harness from my good neighbor Bill, tied the rope to it, and stepped out on the steep incline that I’d been dreading for weeks. Seriously, I’d look at that spot every day and wonder: How am I going to do that without falling? I hammered a nail into the trim and hung a small red paint can from it, so I’d have a free hand to hold onto the rope. Not so bad after all. Steady as she goes. 

I very much enjoyed it. Being alone. Slowly making progress.

In many respects, it was much easier than my regular job. The key was to accept the process, take my time and do what had to be done. Slowly, patiently, carefully. I didn’t have to finish the entire house. If the windows needed to be reglazed, I’d do it. Some rotted wood? I’d patch or replace. Just do what was in front of me. Winter was going to come regardless. I accepted that I might run out of time. Miss my deadline. And that it would have to be okay. 

Doing the job, I found myself dreaming up new thoughts about the book I’ve been writing. Or, actually, not writing. Stuck, trapped, bored, angry, blocked, uncertain. Whatever you want to call it. But I’ve finished enough books in my life to know that eventually I’d land the plane. Meanwhile I was circling in stormy skies, seeking open ground. 

I got distracted for days, weeks, months. Wasted time. Uninspired. Full of doubt. Did the world really need another mediocre manuscript? But I could gradually sense a thawing. Maybe the words would come after all. Maybe I’d have something to say.

The reality that no one — or very few — will care to read the final result was and still is part of the problem for me. To work so hard and fill it all with hope, only to be disappointed is, well, disappointing.

And yet, and yet.

Here’s the thing:

There was a moment that happened to me, and it happens to pretty much anyone who paints a house. I was up on the ladder, frowning. One coat wasn’t going to be good enough. It looked okay enough, but. Then I glanced down and to the street. Two women were passing, walking a dog. Could they tell? Would they ever know, from that distance, if I only painted only one coat?

No, I decided, they wouldn’t notice. 

But I would. 

And I realized, of course, that I was going to put on that second coat. The entire house. The walls and the trim. And with that decision, the job got a lot bigger. And more satisfying. 

Yes, I thought, painting is a lot like writing a book — even if no one reads it.  

Shucking Corn: Memory’s Golden Haze

“There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow
The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye
And it looks like it’s climbing clear up to the sky”

Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’

by Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers

We all have them, the sights and sounds that trigger memories, connect us to our past. The old times. Our long gone days.

For some, it might be the sight of an old red wagon, the bells of an ice cream truck a block away, or the aroma of fresh, baked bread. We see it, hear it, smell it and are magically moved, transported, to another time, another place. Our former lives, the past.

J.K. Rowling plays with the idea of the transporting object in the fourth book of the Harry Potter series, The Goblet of Fire, when she introduces the concept of the portkey. It is an object that, once touched, holds the power to warp space, shifting a body to another place — a portal not unlike Proust’s light, spongey madeleine cakes. In the case of Proust, the experience takes you to another time. One sniff carries you away.

I experience a reliable portkey whenever I shuck an ear of corn, an act which always evokes memories. The stripping away of outer leaves is similar, in affect, to peeling back layers of time. I instantly (and involuntarily) recall being a boy again — standing barefoot at the side of my old red house on 1720 Adelphi Road, that narrow strip of property just outside our kitchen door abutting the Esteps’ place, literally our next door neighbors. I am handed a brown grocery bag and pushed out the door, tasked with the chore of shucking the corn.

There are seven children in our family and this is a job that even the youngest child can’t screw up too badly, though I don’t recall ever having a perfectionist’s patience while pulling away each fine strand of corn silk. I loved tearing away the rugged green leaves, layer by layer, revealing the bright kernels of sweet summer corn. So delicious and suddenly in season, piping hot on our kitchen table in a great steaming bowl, wrapped in a kitchen towel to keep warm.

I still love that job today — shucking the corn — and always volunteer. I even love the word itself: shuck. Aw, shucks. That wonderful “uck” sound: truck and cluck and who knows what else. It’s as fun to say as it is to do. Each time I’m brought to a simpler moment from the past, a childhood ideal. Our family, bustling and busy, together. A time before any of the hard stuff ever happened.

We even had a dinner bell my mother would let me ring. And I’d shout: “Barbara! Neal! John, Al, Billy, Jean! Dinner’s ready!”

And then we look up and the leaves have turned, we blink and they have fallen, and soon we’re wearing sweaters and tramping off in heavy boots. The harvest season is over. The corn spent, the stalks cut, the fields brown and barren. But the golden memory persists.

Some folks talk with disdain about living in the past, as if it were a bad thing. We’re told that we need to focus on the here and now, the life that’s lived in front of our senses. And I suppose they’re right about that. But the older I get, the more past I gather. There are people I love who exist only in my past, exclusively in that long gone time: two brothers, Neal and John, a father, some absent friends. I visit with them only in memory.

Richard Ford, one of my favorite writers, has his most well-known character, Frank Bascombe, make a casual comment about dementia. Frank opines that it’s probably not as bad as it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps not for the circle of loved ones, but for the dementia-sufferer herself. Living in that white-blue haze, staring off at the television screen, watching something or some time, misty and uncertain. The chair my mother sits in becomes a portkey and the crumbling architecture of her mind lifts off, roams and wheels like seagulls above the surf. And there in the lambent light steps forward a flickering image, her youngest child struggling with a heavy brown bag filled with corn, tasked with shucking, peeling away the outer leaves and silky tassel to reveal, once again, those yellow rows of tasty kernels, a bright golden haze on the meadow.