Friday, June 14, 2013

Stop Smelling the Flowers

A minor revelation this week. I realized I’m not one of those people who’s going two hundred miles an hour with his head down all the time and needs to slow down and stop for a while to smell the flowers. My problem is that I’m always stopping to smell the flowers. Not literally. I’m allergic to most flowers, so if I stopped to smell them all the time, I’d spend half my life sneezing. I’m speaking generally. Trees, faces, clouds, a peculiar stain in a rug or cool old rusted spiral staircase outside a building – these kinds of things are always grabbing me, making me stop and think. Often they send me off on some strange, high-speed train of thought that rips along and drops me off somewhere in, I don’t know, the Crimea. Surrounded by unicorns. And people drinking tea brewed in samovars. I dream up whole new stories, start writing them in my head, then remind myself, 'No, no, no. You have to focus.'

A case in point: This week, I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to do some research. They’re running an amazing exhibit on samurai, and those legendary warriors are part of the focus of my next novel for kids. So this is not exactly work, or not in the way most people think of work, but for me, this was serious business. I was there to learn. On my way to learn, though, I cut through the courtyard and spotted this unintentional exhibit on the brick walls. A tapestry of ivy waving in the wind like the glassy surface of the ocean brushed by the first hints of wind. Here’s my little video of the scene:

I was transfixed for a while. I don’t know how long. And then I reminded myself: Stop smelling the flowers! Back to work!

Eventually I recovered my focus, but the day kept trying to distract me. Walking home from the train station, I passed by a local construction worker, a big man who lives around the corner from me and walks with great heavy strides in big, worn old boots. He was sitting outside a small house that looked like it doubled as a day care center. His shirt was off. He was sitting in a lawn chair and seemed to be sunning himself. I believe he was eating a brownie and there was a plastic kiddie pool at his feet. “The Bruins are on tonight!” he called out to me. We’ve chatted before, but he was entirely out of context there on the lawn. I didn’t expect him to speak. So I stuttered a response. “Yes!” I said. “Go!”

He wasn’t supposed to speak; he was supposed to act like the exhibits I'd just seen at the museum. He was supposed to sit there quietly and let me walk off and conjure some kind of short story.

A few hours later I passed a man sitting on a bench outside a bank. He, too, was entirely out of place. He looked French, and people don’t ever look French in my town. He wore a jacket with thin lapels. He sat straight-backed, wearing stylish glasses. A funny little canvas pouch lay beside him on the bench. I averted my eyes and headed for the ATM. When I came back out he was smoking a pipe. A pipe! Who smokes a pipe? On a bench in the middle of a suburban town where you’re always supposed to be going somewhere?

I'll tell you. Here’s my theory. He’s a French physicist. Maybe from the future. He was running a little experiment in his lab and everyone told him he should really wait for human trials but he had so much confidence in himself and his theories that he figured he'd give it a try and so he activated his machine and stepped through a wormhole and popped out on the other side in suburban Massachusetts in 2013. Stumped, and perhaps stuck, he decided the only thing to do would be to stop and enjoy a pipe while devising a strategy for returning to the France of the future.

There was also a sunburned little man with curly red hair trying to open the doors of several neighborhood banks. They were all locked. He looked desperate, ready to rob one.

The samurai exhibit was amazing, by the way. Absolutely stunning. They wore bear fur on their boots. Yes, bear fur.

This week I wrote about vegan crisps, quantum cryptography, child psychology, submarines, and samurai. Not all at once, though. And I read. Randomly and widely and incompletely. In reading about the new Hopper exhibit at the Whitney Museum in NY, I was excited to learn that he created many, many studies for his masterworks. I guess I never thought about painters creating drafts, but it makes perfect sense. A writer can’t be perfect on the first attempt. Why would a painter be any different? The exhibit includes 52 studies for "New York Movie" and 19 for "Nighthawks." That’s quite a few drafts!

Some quotes from the random readings this week:

“Chickens are categorized as birds by zoologists, as Sunday dinner by families, as a commodity by investors, and as a source of salmonella infection by pathophysiologists. Each categorization has a useful purpose.” - Jerome Kagan

“The measure of value of a not its plausibility or compatibility with a subset of facts, or its presumed validity, but its heurestic potential - how much it suggests for the next stage of investigation.” - Theodore Bullock

I’m sure there’s context to this next quote, but I’m not aware of it. Following the Emersonian model of reading, I picked the memoirs Ulysses S. Grant off the shelf at the local library, opened to a random page, and read this:

“I am not aware of ever having used a profane expression in my life; but I would have the charity to excuse those who may have done so, if they were in charge of a train of Mexican pack mules at the time.” – Ulysses S. Grant

After reading that delightful line I put the book back on the shelf. What more could General Grant possibly teach me?

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