Readers of this column will have noticed that over the last months, instead of offering my typical fare of marginally insightful commentary on crows or the challenging climate, on the vagaries of the writing life or what falls out when you shake a family tree, I’ve instead conducted interviews with writers who are meeting their deadlines and publishing actual books.
Maybe you’ve assumed that I’ve been so engrossed in the byline-touted novel I have in the works that I’ve hardly had time to come up for air, creatively speaking. Any minute now, you might have surmised, the bugles will blare, announcing the soon-to-be-released opus by yours truly.
Yeah, I didn’t think you’d buy that.
I have made progress. And I do think this manuscript will see the light of day, preferably while I’m still above ground and can see it as well. But nearly nine years have passed since the publication of my memoir, and nine years might as well be ninety in the publishing world. And to come out with a “debut” novel at this age or older is ridiculous, isn’t it? It’s a little late to become an overnight success.
So I’ve been thinking about transitions lately, and about re-evaluating the meaning of success at a point when it’s not so easy. In your 50s, the supports propping up the foundations of life are deeply cemented into place. The goalposts were established long ago. The ruts are deeply entrenched as well. Any sort of upheaval or extrication -- career or otherwise, even of a mindset -- won’t be simple or pretty.
Why should that matter?
Mr. Davis had taught junior high science in lower Delaware for many years, and he was ready to retire. A big man, tall and broadly built, sporting a crew cut I recall a vibrant dark red in my mind’s eye -- for I can picture him fairly clearly, all these years gone by – Mr. Davis was a benevolent dictator in the science lab, ruling over a land of Bunsen burners, dissecting trays, and all too breakable flasks and beakers set out neatly atop high slate-gray workstations.
|Not Mr. Davis|
No stretch of the imagination grants me a scientific mind. But I loved Mr. Davis and enjoyed his class. It helped of course that my boyfriend, Kenny, was also enrolled.
Kenny had a striking resemblance to Steve Martin, who was then the standup guy with the arrow through his head, and made the most of it, reciting for my amusement long excerpts from Martin’s and George Carlin’s routines. He was all around terrific, and knew that a shared sense of humor forged a stronger bond than the clunky ID bracelet he’d given me, which I wore faithfully around my left wrist.
“You gotta laugh,” my mother used to say, especially when times were tough. Laughter is vital.
That last year in Mr. Davis’s class, during those final weeks, the windows were open wide to the balmy mid-Atlantic late spring air. His instruction was equally breezy and warm; I can’t say I recollect the slightest anxiety about exam preparations or assignment deadlines.
But I remember the still.
The distillation assembly, that is, of burners and beakers and tubing, set up along a wall, perhaps not in the classroom proper. A long storage closet comes to mind. A prior fermentation process took a while, I seem to recall. This was a veritable project.
We were allowed to sample the end result. Just how much we tasted, I’m not sure. A tablespoon? A dram? My small sip carried with it an unpleasant rubber tubing aspect along with the burn on the tongue. I was unimpressed, but it was great fun to be in the thick of the moonshiners.
The memories are blurry, fused as they are with Kenny’s rendition of Carlin’s Wonderful WINO and the acute longing to be set free from the monotonous cage of junior high. But the mood is clearly etched in my mind: joyful, effortless. A happy anticipation of what was to come. We were riding the tailwind of a powerful locomotive into the carefree summer months.
Of course, it did occur to me that there was something mildly verboten about it all. Something askew in Mr. Davis’s management of his classroom at the end of that school year, in the jettison of rules and requirements, in his relaxed oversight of the growth of young intellects and curiosities.
Mr. Davis, I’ve recently come to realize, didn’t give a flying fuck.
There’s something to be said for not giving a flying fuck. For not being (overly) concerned with expectations and appearances, with foundations, with upsetting the less than satisfactorily full applecart. It can take some time for a person to realize this as well.
Which is clearly not to say I advocate passing around a bottle of gin during study hall or condone the teaching of basic bootlegging to teenagers. But I get Mr. Davis now in a way I did not then.
|Also Not Mr. Davis.|
A gift my father received upon his retirement from teaching junior high English for twenty years or so comes to mind: a Johnny Paycheck album. You know the one.
My father and mother eventually sold our farmstead – we raised chickens and sheep -- in Sussex County, moved to the coast of Maine, and enjoyed many years as antique dealers, buying and selling highly collectible porcelain and paintings through auction houses such as James D. Julia’s, Bourne’s, and Christie’s East.
I don’t know what became of my science teacher, and Kenny’s family moved away that summer. I’ve imagined good things for both of them: lots of laughter in any household Kenny called home. And there was certainly no rocking chair for Mr. Davis.
Fitzgerald was wrong.
Maybe it’s okay to take a decade to write a novel after all.
Images of "Not Mr. Davis" from the Library of Congress. Image of "Not Kenny" from a blogger who calls himself Robot Cosmonaut, who provides a link to Steve Martin's website from whence presumably the photo came. Or perhaps from Steve Martin himself, as -- who knows? -- maybe he and Robot Cosmonaut are good friends. It could happen. Regardless, this #vintage photo does not seem to be one of the 10,576 likenesses of Steve Martin owned by Getty Images. This column appears, in a slightly less offensive form, in the August 2015 issue of The North Star Monthly. Check out their site: www.northstarmonthly.com