I am drawn to good simple writing (e.g., William Saroyan, Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, Ivan Doig, James Lee Burke), but once or twice a year I take on an author who I consider complicated. The catch with complicated writing is that I must decide, sometimes in as few as the first dozen pages, 1) whether I am capable of understanding the book at all, and 2) if so, whether the extra effort is worth it.
I usually read late at night, which is not when my brain is at its best. If I come across a complicated book I deem worthy of my time, I need to find a different hour of the day to read. The first two hours of the morning are for my own writing, and nothing will replace that. Nine a.m. is the hour to walk the dog. Even if I wanted to skip the walk for a chance to read, Jack’s incessant barking would not allow it. That leaves 10 in the morning until dinner as possible options. While that seems like a good block of time, it is also when I fish, paddle, ride, bicycle, garden, nap, and do chores. Even in retirement, I have to prioritize my leisure pursuits.
Prior to the COVID pandemic, reading during the day was not a problem. I’d spend each morning in a coffee shop. Hours one and two were for writing, hour three was for reading. Now that I do my writing and reading from home, there are dogs, wives, and daily tasks that tend to make that reading hour disappear. The pandemic also coincided with my old recliner falling apart (with me in it), and I replaced it with a piece of a sectional that is not as comfortable for reading. I’ve always known that I need a good place to write. Only since the loss of my recliner did I realize that I also need a good place to read.
The subject of complicated writing came up because I recently started a book by Charles Bowden. I’d never heard of the guy until a couple months ago, but a tribute to him in Aeon Magazine made him sound like the Southwest’s version of Jim Harrison. I wanted to give the guy a try. This morning I looked at the first two pages of Blues for Cannibals. Many readers would not consider the prose particularly complicated, but it also is not light reading. In the next day or two the book will either draw me in enough that I make extra time to read or get returned to the library. That decision will depend more on my frame of mind than the quality of the writing.
Clare graduated from college last week. Sometimes personal events are so significant that I have no choice but to write about them. I was half done with a blog about a crow walking a full block down the middle of the street in front of my house, when I realized that writing about anything other than Clare’s graduation would be ignoring the topic most on my mind. I have no qualms about writing on the subject, but I don’t think I have anything to say about college graduation that is as interesting as a big bird taking a leisurely walk.
While I was sitting through Clare’s very chilly outdoor graduation ceremony, I did wonder whether my daughter would ever return to the tiny town of Grinnell. My own post-secondary schooling took place at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota, and I always assumed, correctly as it turns out, that I would return repeatedly to both Madison and the Twin Cities. Grinnell College literally is in the middle of a great Iowa cornfield, and I doubt happenstance alone will ever bring her back.
Immediately after the ceremony, I met many of Clare’s friends. I knew Clare had been active in Asian organizations at school, but I didn’t realize that her extracurricular activities translated into a circle of friends who were primarily international or Asian American. When my biracial daughter was in grade school and high school, I think other students considered her a white kid. At Grinnell she may have transformed into an Asian American. When I asked Clare about this, she said, “In La Crosse, Asian American issues didn’t come up. In Grinnell, they do, and it is assumed that I know about them.”
Right now Clare is home for ten days. In a week, she will take a short trip with two college friends. Then she’ll move to Madison for the summer where she has a sublet at a place just off State Street. The University of Wisconsin had been her second choice for a college to attend, and she’s always wanted to spend some time there. Her plan is to get a summer job to pay the rent and figure out what is next.