Armchair Peregrinations

September 28, 1999

I was reading someone's journal today, someone who writes very expressive poetry and uses words well. A craftsman with words, so to speak, someone who is inventive and unpredictable and forthright and honest with his words. I have been drawn into the journal because of that.

But his latest entry, surprisingly, contains these passages:

"I am sick of words today. They surround me like a gang of octupi, suffocating and sucking energy. Words are so shallow...This has to stop...I propose a day without words. Let us all communicate telepathically or with feelings, music, laughter, touch, tears, drawing, painting, movement and dance -- but no more words. I want to delve behind their lies and experience the real you. Please erase the above text and imagine the energy that inspired me to write it...Whatever you imagine is more accurate than the tainted words that I write...."

Words -- how carelessly and thoughtlessly we use them sometimes. They can indeed be shallow and meaningless. Vague, overly general and unspecific. Cliched. Overdone.

Sometimes I find myself writing words without really thinking through what I am writing. It sounds good. It's comforting. It's clever rhetoric. And, over the years I have become somewhat adept at coining clever phrases. Coming up with nicknames for people that stick and last. Priding myself in turning out on demand those "bon mots" as Flaubert was want to call them.

Well, clever writing has it's place, but I've never been interested in writing advertising jingles, or misleading anyone. If I write something that's inflated prose, I should know it, and catch it in the editing process. Sometimes my stilted- writing detector isn't working as well as it should, and some gobbledegook gets by. But it really is inadvertent.

I recently learned a little lesson about words, somewhat painfully, I must say. I tried to make an assessment of where I thought someone was coming from, how they were doing, and I chose the very wrong words to do it. It set something off in the other person. I had innocently written the words, and they came back at me with a vengeance. What I had done was write off the top of my head before I had carefully considered what I was saying.

Now I'm not saying I should agonize over every word, dwelling on all possible implications. I'd never get anything written. I don't intend to censor myself mercilessly just because I may be afraid to say what I really mean. I have to watch out that I don't cast about for euphemisms and weasel words to get out of what I really mean, too.

By the same token, however, I can always edit more carefully and choose words which are simpler and more direct. I can read over the writing more than a couple of times if I have any doubts about it, or if I suspect some of it is phony or artificial.

By all means let me be spared from artificiality. I say what I want to in my journal here, as I'm doing now. I don't write to please anyone in particular, but I'm grateful when people write and tell me an entry has really struck a chord with them.

Words are powerful. I like to write as I'm doing now in my journal because there are no other really serious outlets for my thoughts. My spirit would feel impoverished if I couldn't write here regularly, and so I open up as much as I can, and I talk about the past.

To the best of my knowledge the incidents and events I write about are true and happened as I record them now, but memory is still selective, and words are also so very selective and subjective. I hope my writing expresses something deep down and personal about me. I can do that. But what I must guard against is presuming to know more about other people than I do, and watch out for the words I do use if I am going to tell them what I think.

September 25, 1999

When I was a newspaper reporter covering school board meetings and town government, I wrote a lot of news stories related to the functioning of those municipalities I was assigned to cover, as well as various spinoff stories having to do with education in all its many guises: special education, reading readiness, vocational/technical, school accountability, over-crowding, low test scores, how to improve test scores; new school construction; new administrative appointments, and the like.

And then, there were all the photos I was called upon to take at schools, elementary to high school: talent shows (one of which I remember covering about 7 years ago at an elementary school and the performances were amazing. I was just in awe); science fairs; award presentations; field trips; group shots of organizations and clubs. All of these pictures were immensely popular in small towns where people bought up the papers with their kids' or nephews and nieces' and grandchildren's pictures in them, and sent them to other relatives or squirreled them away in family scrapbooks.

I've always thought that community journalism is valuable for historical reasons. Small town newspapers furnish much of the archival and documentary material for recording a town's place in history as a viable, thriving community, a small universe where every imaginable drama, tragedy and triumph known to humankind takes places, often in mystery and secrecy, but often, too, covered in the pages of the local newspaper. Births, deaths, weddings and engagements, 50th wedding anniversaries, pictures of astronomically large vegetables home-grown in back yard gardens; antique cars lovingly restored; news about people in all the nearby rural communities, farm news, crop reports...the list goes on.

And then there was my favorite type of story with accompanying photos: the human interest feature, as we in the newspaper business referred to the story that is perhaps ordinary on the surface, but which is rich and compelling once the layers begin to be peeled back. One is able to see the extraordinary individuals whose lives are briefly revealed in print and who take their place in the documentary tapestry of the community created over the years by the newspaper.

The other day I picked up our own Charleston newspaper, went to the "B" section with local news and features and saw just the type of story I am talking about. It's exactly the kind of interview and photo assignment I loved to do. I've saved clippings of similar stories, and I'll save this one, too. It's about D___, a gentleman of 69, who owns what is truly an anachronism in this day of computers and word processors: a typewriter and business machine repair shop in the north part of the city.

Here's how the first paragraphs of the story read:

"Not long ago, back before the world of word processors existed, folks like typewriter repairman D___ populated the landscape.

"The typewriter, with its staccato sound and systematic movement, dominated desktops everywhere. Over time, it evolved form a simple paper-eating machine into an electric, self-correcting piece of office equipment.

"A lot has changed since then. Typewriters have been replaced by compuers and those who can repair them, well, belong on an endangered list..."

His shop is described as a veritable dinosaur "boneyard of typewriters." The writer goes on to say, D__'s shop dates to the days around 1960 when typewriters "ruled the earth." But, says, D___, "I'm not history yet." Regular customers often dig up ancient typewriters and bring them into the shop. On the ink-stained counter was a recently refurbished 1940 Corona. "It's a thing of beauty," D____says.

Concerning the new computer technology he says, ""There's nothing like an old typewriter. In fact, I don't mess with those plastic things they call computers. They're too complicated."

The article goes on to profile another typewriter repairman, 72, who describes his experience with computers as "problematic" and "very impersonal." He added, "They keep telling me about these PCs and how fast they are and what good memories they have. But I'm pretty quick, can spell better than any spell-checker, and my memory's just fine. No, thanks."

I just love the picture of D___ in his shop working on a typewriter carriage. He's got an unlit cigar in his mouth and a shirt pocket full of black felt tip markers. The wall is full of calendars, leaflets, and hand-written signs, one of which says, "All items not picked up in sixty days are sold for repair or junked!"

You don't see that much anymore. I think those kinds of businesses are still more common than we think, but they're kind of invisible, owned and run by people who don't depend on them for a living anymore and just love to keep the craft going.

I learned to type on a boxlike Royal typewriter in 12th grade typing class. It was one of the two or three most useful courses I've ever taken, high school or college. Those bulky machines did the job. You could really hear them, too, and a little bell went off at the end of the line and then you hit the carriage return. Ink pressed on paper from the ribbon. No electronic bytes formed into letters.

In my first newspaper jobs we used manual typewriters, and later when I moved to a small town in North Carolina and worked on a little run-down paper the publisher was waiting to sell and get rid of, the equipment was so bad I brought my own Corona manual to the office and banged out hundreds of stories on that clunkly contraption that never lost a file.

I'm not saying I'd want to go back to those days, but the typewriters we used had character. My machine was an extension of myself. All my words flowed directly onto paper and I had a finished copy that I pulled out of the typewriter. Of course, all the copy editing was done with pen and pencil. I never wondered about any better way because it worked at the time. Although, what happened to it after it left my hands and went to another person for typesetting is another matter.

So, I really liked that recent newspaper story about the typewriter repairman. I had my typewriter in the shop for repairs a couple of times. And that reporter who wrote the story. Well, he's good. He writes with all the curiosity and wonder of a true journalist who is out to learn about the world around him and report back to his readers what he's discovered.

I guess I got a little nostalgic. I saw myself in that reporter 20 or 25 years ago.

The millennium's coming, but some things, fortunately, don't change too much in the newspaper business. There will always be wonderful human interest stories to write, and people will eagerly read them. I'm glad of that.

September 22, 1999

As Aristotle astutely observed, a friendship can exist only if you are aware that another person wishes good for you unconditionally, for your own sake, and the other is aware that you feel the same way about him, and each regards his affection as somehow reciprocating, or being equivalent to the affection of the other. Friendship, whatever else it is, is a bond of mutal awareness. The deeper it is that we see and the more articulate we are in sharing what we see with another, the richer the friendship.

Michael Pakaluck

I've been thinking about this quote and how powerful a force true friendship is. It seems as if our closest friends are our friends unconditionally, despite our flaws, our lapses of judgment, and our carelessness toward them. They know us so well, far back into the deepest reaches of our psyches, that there is little hiding from them, ultimately, or beating around the bush. They know us as well as any mortals, including, or more so, than our own families. And, a lot of the communication between old friends is non-verbal: familiar looks, gestures, and facial expressions. We are attuned to all the subtle clues. A lot of times nothing has to be said in their presence.

I think, too, there is very little we can do or say to alienate us from those closest friends for very long. The bonds have been cemented so tightly at some mysterious point in the past that it will take great, seismic, earth-moving forces to break it up.

When I think of the friends I have maintained contact with for 25 years or more, I know them with a depth of understanding and caring that surprises me sometimes, it is so strong and resilient. I'm not saying there aren't times when I feel they don't care as much about me, wondering why they don't call or write after many months or even, sometimes, years. But then, one day I'll open my e-mail or mailbox, and there will be that friend telling me I am thought about constantly, even though actual words exchanged between us are few and far between. At that moment, reading those words, the widened chasm is bridged instantaneously. We've leaped across the divide that separated us, even if only temporarily, and we are reunited in spirit, across the miles. And all it took was a few words in an e-mail.

But then there are other old friends, who, to my great disappointment and chagrin, slip away, viewing the friendship as something perhaps turned sentimental or convenient to keep up for the sake of habit or custom. When these very old and formerly quite close friendships arrive at that stage where, wittingly or not, a Christmas card once a year with a note saying, "Come see us," constitutes the sum total of what's left of the communication, then I have a hard time holding on myself. I try. I write. I call. Nothing is reciprocated.

And then, people say their lives are so full and busy and crowded with all the immediate concerns of the day that they don't have time to write. Well, I know that if I had a family to care for and be attentive to, and if I didn't live alone with a lot of time for introspection, I could empathize more, but I don't, and so I get exasperated. A lot of times I don't want to write, but in the wee hours of the morning, I will put those thoughts that have been accumulating into an electronic message and send an e-mail. If it is someone I truly, and from the depths of my soul, want to maintain close ties with, and to know more fully as the years go by, then I will make the effort, no matter what. Nothing will interfere -- not my own personal pastimes and pleasures, graduate school course work, going out somewhere -- nothing. (Again, to be perfectly honest, I don't have as many distractions as the average mortal, so I must keep this in mind. But I just want to make a point.).

When I look at the collections of published letters between writers and their friends, and between other writers, I am always astonished by the breadth and duration of the correspondence. It is like an ongoing, lifelong dialog, incapable of being quenched. I see them as friends who were always interested in what the other had to say. They were people who thrived in an atmosphere of stimuating thoughts, reading, and "talking" to others through the medium of letter writing, about all those things that interested them in their lives, ranging from their consuming passions to everyday routines. For years, those letters stretched across time and held friendships together.

E-mail has all but taken the place of letters. It is a fact. So be it. I'll print out and save e-mails as I would letters in a shoebox. My friends, old and new, should know that I want to write them often, even if they won't or can't be as diligent and forthcoming with their time. I want to give as much of myself in this way as I can, because you, my friends, deserve that much of me, and no less.

September 19, 1999

Pat Ross's richly textured book celebrating the American main street is a very fine tribute to a wonderful institution that I have been drawn to, and fascinated by, for years, ever since I was a child (Remembering Main Street: An American Album). I really can't explain the allure entirely. It's something very deep within me and stirs powerful associations and emotions. One reason, perhaps, is because I grew up in a large city, the suburbs of New Orleans, to be precise, but spent many a happy summer and Christmas vacation in a faraway place in South Carolina called Sumter. It is a small city in the middle of the state and is my mother's birthplace. Sumter County is the ancestral home of my grandmother and her people.

Sumter, when I was a boy, had one of those thriving, bustling downtowns, about eight blocks long, filled with shoppers who came "upstreet," as my aunt used to say, to frequent the department stores; 5&10 cent emporiums, of which there were three, I remember vividly; drugstores with old-fashioned soda fountains; specialty stores; and a big movie theater. It was a magical place because it was not huge and overwhelming as was Canal Street in downtwon New Orleans. I could walk the entirety of it, stoping in at all the dime stores which had high ceilings and wooden floors and long counters of goods on display. There were big chunks of chocolate in glass cases, and such a bewildering assortment of items that I was literally the proverbial child in the candy shop.

When traveling to South Carolina from New Orleans, we'd pass through numerous small towns along the way and I'd look closely at all the brick storefronts as we passed by, block after block. In December, every little town had different kinds of Christmas lights and ornaments on lamp posts all the way down Main Street. I'd imagine myself liviing in one of those, and I watched the townspeople go about their business with a child's simple curiosity. What did people do for a living? Where were the schools? It was all intriguing: people coming and going from the bank, the drug store, the grocery store on the far end of Main Street.

Years later when I actually lived in small towns, some of the magic was gone, of course, but I liked them a lot, nevertheless. Here I was, walking down Main Street to work every day, stopping in at the soda shop to get a Coke and perhaps thinking of a weekend drive in the countryside, which was very easy to get to. That was another advantage of living in a small town.

Pat Ross' book is full of wonderful photos, new and old, of main streets all over the country, from the South to the Midwest and New England, and in all their variety and individuality. When looking through the book, I like to observe the differences in architecture, the fascades of buildings, and to notice how well preserved and untouched by time some of them are. People are proud fo those old streets. They're the soul of the town, the core, the center. All the tree-lined residential streets fan out from there, lined with old houses that have big front porches. Kids can often be seen riding bikes along actual sidewalks -- imagine that.

One of the most influential books ever written about small towns is Lewis Atherton's Main Street on the Middle Border. I'm providing a link here to a review of the book I wrote in college years ago. It's a very excellent work of social and cultural history. I recommend it. The review can be found here.

Main Street on the Middle Border

September 16, 1999

5 p.m. -- The neighbors across the street from the house in Charleston are repairing their picket fence, which was damaged by some of the strong winds that buffeted Charleston last night as Hurricane Floyd raced along the coast 90 miles east out in the Atlantic. It's very peaceful on the porch under the ceiling fan now as I write this. There's a good feeling of normalcy returning slowly to this nearly empty city. Most people still haven't returned after evacuating Tuesday and Wednesday.

It was a harrowing three days prior to and in the aftermath of the hurricane. Nearly 800,000 people were ordered to leave the coastal areas of South Carolina in anticipation of a monster Category 4 maelstrom of a storm churning up the ocean and our lives.

Just this past Sunday we were settled and comfortable. It was a rather pleasant weekend. But Monday night I knew with terrible apprehension what the morning would bring. I went to bed around 1:30 and tossed and turned, telling myself to be calm. Morning finally came, and I dreaded getting up and looking at the Weather Channel and local news broadcasts telling me the storm was coming our way.

Visions of hurricanes Hugo and Andrew in years past leaving in their wake miles of littered rubble that were once houses, struck deep fear of the wrath of Nature in eveyrone. You could sense it everywhere. We decided to get out of town before the 12 noon mandatory evacuation order from the governor, and it's a good thing we did. We had a 2-hour drive turn into a 4-hour one. Others spent 12-18 hours stuck in crawling traffic on I-26 trying to get to anywhere that wasn't Charleston or the Lowcountry.

Imagine what it was like Tuesday morning to begin pulling together things you value and treasure and want to save. Books. Pictures. Memorabilia. I couldn't comprehend it all, so I just started stuffing travel bags and gathering together clothes, food and water for the trip. I had this very awful forboding that I might return to a place in ruins.

Having to abandon your home and possessions and head inland is a terrible experience. It had to be done, I know, but the chaotic traffic jams caused many to turn back and sit out the storm in town. I don't know what I would have done if I had been caught in the worst of that traffic madness.

The possible impending loss of all your possessions in a hurricane that was being called one of the three most powerful storms of the century, has a rather chilling and sobering effect. It makes one take stock of priorities in life. Am I so attached to my computer, books and CDs that I can hardly bear to leave them behind? The books I have carefully acquired for my library over the past four years? Then, to make things worse, after I had left and was on the road, I remembered I didn't bring in the screen covering that came loose from the sliding glass doors on my balcony, and which lay flat on the deck. I had all kinds of imaginings about its fate in those fierce winds -- possibly hurtling through the glass and leaving my living room and every book in it vulnerable to the wind and rain that would blow through in horizontal sheets. I tossed and turned last night worrying about that. When I returned and saw the apartment, the screen covering had indeed blown off the balcony and was on the ground below. No damage done. My glass doors were intact.

Why did I get so concerned about something I couldn't do anything about? It's just the self-reproach one feels, having done something so stupid as to leave it there to blow away.

It really does seem like half of Charleston is still gone. King Street this afternoon was almost deserted. Estimates are that 70 percent or more of the population heeded the evacuation order. The street where the house in Charleston is located is also nearly deserted -- still. And, it's almost 6 pm and the evacuation order for south of Georgetown was lifted at 7 am this morning. I guess people who spent 12 hours trying to get out of town and heard the worst of the hurricane had passed us by were in no great hurry to return.

A little while ago I was sitting in the back garden by the fish pond, listening to the small fountain and watching the goldfish. A few leaves were scattered around on the surface, but it seemed as it nothing had happened in this small, quiet enclave. Earlier, a butterfly had floated over a flower bed. Some of the zinnias had refused to bown down completely to the wind. The garden is so still now. It's like being out early in the morning.

I don't know. An experience like this does something to you. You cherish people more. I saw my neighbors packing up their cars at the same time I was, about 7 a.m. Tuesday. One of them, whom I'm very fond of but don't know too well, told me she was just glad knowing I was there upstairs, even though we don't see each other too often. She's a special ed teacher. I was struck at the time how unfortunate it was that I didn't know my neighbors any hetter.

This type of near disaster, this terrible, elemental force of Nature, came marching relentlessly toward us. You can lose everything in a storm like that, but you can't lose the things that matter most in life: my family and friends and the wonderful people I've come to know through this journal. I treasure them all more than ever, and I am thankful.

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