Category: creative writing

Four Gourgeous Dillard Excerpts

dillard-for-the-time-beingI read a lot. Weekly trips to the public library are my substitute for the farmers market runs of others.

It used to be, when I chose and checked out a book, that I felt an obligation to read the whole thing. Probably  a common trait among many boomers, whose parents were children of the great depression and, thus, felt compelled to finish anything given to them, whether a serving of luke-warm peas or a library book.

But, as an adult, I began to exercise discretion and began making quicker judgments about likes and dislikes in my book selections. Now, I’ll quit a book 10 pages in, 100 pages in…occasionally, when I simply grow tired of the subject, 3 or 4 days after the initial infatuation that moved me to check it out.

Perhaps this is why, when I find a book and author that I really enjoy, I latch onto their words that much more ravenously. This is the case, this year, with the writer Annie Dillard. Her book – For The Time Being – was a joy to read. Here are four excerpts, vividly described, which I hope will give you a glimpse of what the book offers. Enjoy!

#1

serinus_canaria_lc0210Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape to trick out in gilt, and then shadow sweeps it away.

You know you’re alive. You take huge steps, trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.

Kazantzakis says that when he was young he had a canary and a globe. When he freed the canary, it would perch on the globe and sing. All his life, wandering the earth, he felt as though he had a canary on top of his head, singing.

#2

KODAK Digital Still Camera
KODAK Digital Still Camera

Certain Indians used to carve long grooves along the wooden shafts of the arrows. They called the grooves “lightning marks,” because they resembled the curved fissure lightning slices down the trunks of trees.

The function of lightning marks is this: If the arrow fails to kill the game, blood from a deep wound will channel along the lightning mark, streak down the arrow shaft, and spatter to the ground, laying a trail dripped on broad leaves, on stones, that the barefoot and trembling archer can follow into whatever deep or rare wilderness it leads.

I am the arrow shaft, carved along my length by unexpected lights and gashes from the very sky, and this book is the straying trail of blood.

#3

1990-issue_us_penny_obverse_2It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so hungry and tired that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny.

But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.

It is that simple. What you see is what you get.

#4

Peeping through my keyhole I see within the range of only about 30 percent of the light that comes from the sun; the rest is infrared and some little ultraviolet, perfectly apparent to many animals, but invisible to me.

total_internal_reflectionAs for what I do see, a nightmare network of ganglia, charged and firing without my knowledge, cuts and splices it, editing it for my brain.

Donald E. Carr points out that the sense impressions of one-celled animals are not edited for the brain: “This is philosophically interesting in a rather mournful way, since it means that only the simplest animals perceive the universe as it really is.”

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Three Books On Living and Dying

when-breath-becomes-airI read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air  this weekend. It is a great book; one worth owning, so you can refer back to it at moments of need.

I dog-eared several pages of my library copy, which I’ll share below. But, first, I want to mention to other books that are favorites by doctors.

First is The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks.

the-man-who-mistook-his-wife-for-a-hatThis book shows shares stories from Sacks’ practice, working with people who have neurological conditions. His patients were men, women, children, old, young, from many countries and means.

He writes about their conditions with a combination of curiosity, wonder, and compassion. Ever the detective, he describes how each situation presented its unique challenge for diagnosing and often, though not always, treating.

how-we-dieNext is How We Die, by Sherwin Nuland. Using a series of stories as the set up for each chapter, Dr. Nuland describes the variety of ways that people die, from old age, to infectious disease, to massive trauma, by way of accident or intent (e.g., homicide and suicide), and other causes of death.

In each case, he transitions from a vivid, personal accounting of death from the perspective of the patient, to a scientific, clinical description of the chemical, biological, and physical forces that combine to bring about the end of life, from whatever triggering event(s) occurred.

But, far from cold-hearted, the book is an honest, comforting accounting of a subject that is too often avoided, even though it is a universality that every human being shares — from the richest to the poorest of us.

So, I recommend these three books to you, providing a trilogy of insight on humanity and death.

In closing, some of my favorite passages from When Breath Becomes Air.

kalanithi[For brain surgery patients], “the question is not simply whether to live or die, but what kind of life is worth living. Would you trade your ability – or your mother’s – to talk for a few extra months of mute life? The expansion of your visual blind spot in exchange for eliminating the small possibility of a fatal brain hemorrhage? Your right hand’s function to stop seizures? How much neurologic suffering would you let your child endure before saying that death is preferable? …What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?”

= = =

“In that first year (of medical residency), I would glimpse my share of death…At moments, the weight of it all became palpable. It was in the air, the stress and misery. Normally, you breathed it in, without noticing it. But some days, like a humid, muggy day, it had a suffocating weight of its own. Some days, this is how it felt when I was in the hospital: trapped in an endless jungle summer, wet with sweat, the rain of tears of the families of the dying pouring down.”

= = =

“Death comes for all of us. For us, for our patients: it is our fate as living, breathing, metabolizing organisms. Most lives are lived with passivity towards death — it’s something that happens to you and those around you….Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you  are ceaselessly striving.”

= = =

kalanithi-family“There is only one thing to say [to your child(ren)], who is all future, overlapping briefly with you, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

That message is simple.

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

END

This Is My Family

family 1

Not long ago, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me.

If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do. Chances are, you won’t truly understand it. But, hopefully, it will leave a mark on your memory, that causes you to remember singular images and phrases, as I did.

I won’t say much about it, other than to say the narrative device is that of a father’s extended letter to his son.

What I will mention is the depiction of the Dream that Coates writes about, as a central construct of the book. There are people (the “Dreamers”) who live their lives in total unquestioned, unthinking immersion in the Dream.

coates bookThen there are people who live their lives outside the Dream, or perhaps better said: excluded from the Dream. Perhaps, even better, threats to the Dream.

Shortly after I read the book, I had a dream inspired by the book. I dreamed that I awoke one morning to find that every black person was white and every white person was black.

As a newly transformed black man, living in Austin, you can imagine the scene I encountered going to work that day. Overnight, downtown Austin was transformed into a city that much more resembled downtown Atlanta or Memphis.

More remarkable was how I was treated, in my dream. All of a sudden, I felt an attitude that was colder, less helpful, more suspicious towards me. People took a slightly wider berth walking by me on the street.

Servers seemed a little slower to ask me for my order or if I needed help at the store. Was I just imagining it, or was this overnight change in how I felt real?

And then, I began to think about who I was…nothing about me had changed — I was the same person in every way — except that my skin was now black. My skin pigment was darker >> that was it!

Yet, as my dream leaped ahead (as REM-sleep dreams are wont to do), I began to experience discrimination, from the petty (name calling) to the significant, like being denied job interviews, passed over for leadership roles, getting fewer financial and VIP privileges than my white peers.

family 2

And, as I looked ahead – and backwards – I saw the accumulation of this discrimination across generations of my family. From the non-violent injustice of exclusion from schools, communities, and social groups, to the violence of confrontation, struggle, and crime.

Often, the violence was wrought by the desperate and those lost of hope of the same color skin as their closest neighbors, because they were nearest and easiest to rob.

And, the whole picture seemed so ridiculous to me. It seemed such a preposterous thing — that the color of one’s skin was the thing that triggered this generations-long, no, this millennia-long dividing of the powerful and the powerless.

It made no sense; there was no justification. Logic yes, in a perverse way, as a contest to get and keep power. But justice — as represented by life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the promise that all people are created equal — no.

And, in my dream, I finally began to develop a new awareness of the profound, unholy, and completely immoral unfairness of it all. This new, internal knowledge of what others deemed my “place” in life, and that of my family’s, was totally, comprehensively unacceptable.

I awoke and shared my dream with Rebecca. And, I thought about the Dream. And, I thought about members of my family who live in the Dream — both the black and white members of my family.

family 3Because, you see, the photos in this post are members of my family — my real family. They are my nephews, nieces, brothers, and cousins through marriage.

They are Larry, Lindsey, Shani, Logan, Harper, Ryan, Lori, Maya, and more!

They are smart, talented, strong, beautiful, funny, hard-working, loyal, trustworthy, silly and fun!

I love them and am thankful to be in the same family together.

I know that no amount of dreaming on my part, nor clearing away the real life miasma of the Dream that Coates writes of, can ever help me fully comprehend a life of fundamental unfairness.

Of being born the wrong color…or the wrong caste, tribe, gender, nationality — or any other irrational, inequitable “wrong” that absolutely lacks any connection to the true, the holy, the righteous.

So, I’ll leave you with this one question. Ask yourself: “Who is my family?”

My Axes

sxsw econ impactMusic is big business. You don’t need to look any further than the economic impact report for SXSW to see the proof.

In 2015, the festival injected more than $317 million into the Austin economy, as a result of its two-week run and year-round operations.

Yet, music is also art. And, art is a passionate, sensory expression of human emotion.

In this respect, I first became an amateur artist back in the early 1970s. My paintbrush was my guitar.

Harmony studentIn musical lingo, a guitar is an ax.

I got my first one more than 40 years ago, while still in grade school.

It was given to me as a gift by a friend of my dad’s …a used, kid-sized acoustic guitar, like the one in the picture.

My dad’s friend had clearly had it for awhile, perhaps since when he was a kid, but decided to pass it on to the next generation.

The first “song” I learned on it was the Mission Impossible television show intro, way back before Tom Cruise was born!

My first electric guitar was bought brand-new off the shelves of Skaggs-Albertsons department store with my first big paper route money.

Starter guitarThe shape was generally a Fender Stratocaster body, with the classic sunburst finish.

But, that’s where the similarities ended!

It had two pickups (instead of 3) and a whammy bar that was so awful, every time you used it, the guitar would stay permanently out of tune!

But, it was loud, electrified, and mine.

I spent many a night picking out the melody lines of early Elton John and Alice Cooper songs on that guitar.

Harmony acousticSince I was primarily a bass player, I didn’t buy another guitar until high school.

But, in my sophomore year, a drummer friend offered to sell a Harmony acoustic guitar.

It had the sweetest action, the most beautiful sound, and looked just like the one Jimmy Page is holding.

I paid $100 cash for that guitar and played it for at twenty years. It was my constant companion in college and early married life.

It finally met its end when, as a new dad, one of my little bambinos, accidentally knocked into its stand and tipped it over, breaking the neck clean off. I was on business travel at the time.

ovation acousticMy wife, Rebecca, knowing how much I loved that guitar, bought me a new Ovation acoustic — a guitar I had always wanted, due to the gorgeous full sound they tend to produce from their unique bowl design.

It was a loving gesture and I still have that Ovation, as my primary acoustic, but I still miss the Harmony.

It was so wedded to my brain and fingers that I couldn’t let its memory go entirely, so I cut the head off and framed it!

Gibson ExplorerBack to electrics, all throughout my high school years, I coveted one of the two coolest rock and roll guitars in existence, in my opinion — the original Gibson Flying V or Explorer guitars.

My best friend, Jeff and I, would go to music stores in our hometown of Amarillo or, whenever we would travel to a concert or school field trip, the local guitar shops. Whenever I saw a Flying V or Explorer, I asked to try it out.

I came very close to buying a Flying V several times, perhaps the closest was on a trip to Ray Henning’s Heart of Texas music store in Austin, back when it was in the spot where the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar location is situated.

But, for some reason, I could never pull the trigger and, over the years, the craving has passed. To assuage it, I bought some other axes instead.

Gibson SGFor example, another Gibson I had a hankering for was the SG.

Not only did we share initials (“S”teve “G”uengerich), but I was attracted to its growing rep as the hardest rockin’ guitar in showbiz, courtesy of Angus Young and the bad boys of early AC/DC.

I owned a lovely tobacco sunburst SG for a number of years, before selling it while living in Louisville, Kentucky.

And, lastly, my friend Jeff sold (gave? traded? I can’t exactly remember which…) me his Gibson L6S.

Gibson L6SThat was/is a unique electric guitar, with multiple pickup settings and a melodic tone that appealed to a wide range of musicians.

Everyone from Paul Stanley of KISS to some of the greatest jazz playing talents of the day could be seen playing an L6S.

guitar-5The final electric guitar I bought was a Fernandez 3/4 electric.

It was something of an impulse buy, after seeing it in a holiday season edition of Forbes magazine, in one of those articles featuring unique and different gift ideas.

The jelly bean shape and built-in, practice amplifier where the sound hold is normally located, piqued my interest.

Upon receiving it, I’ve never regretted it, with the Fernandez becoming my current (and perhaps, last) electric guitar purchase. The neck has amazing action and the single hum-bucking pickup screams.

The simplicity of the set-up – an on/off toggle switch and a single volume control (who needs tone!) – are the epitome of rock and roll…I love it!

Last, but not least, the one acoustic guitar that I always had a hankering for was a Martin, because of their rich, extraordinary sound. But, I was always stopped short by the $1,000-plus starting price for a decent model.

martin backpackFinally, a couple of years ago, I bought a Martin back-pack guitar – basically a Martin guitar neck on the equivalent of a shoebox body – that was advertised for taking into the woods with you for campfire entertainment.

As you might expect, the play-ability is great, but the sound is so-so. They’ve stopped making them, the last I looked. But, it’s been a fun guitar to have around the house and, for $149, it was priced just right.

So, that’s it: those are my axes. And, if you ever come by the house, chances are you’ll likely see one or more mixed in with the furniture. Because, any more, that’s pretty much what they are – display pieces to accent a lamp or fill-out a sitting nook. Such is life!

“Mist,” Lyrics Composed from the Book of James

1

Come now, you who say, today or tomorrow

“We’ll go into ‘such and such’ place and live there”

“Spend a year, trade a bit, make lots of money”

Boasting of life, with no second to spare.

 

Refrain

What is your life, oh what is your life

Little do you know where you will go.

What is your life, of what is your life

Little do you know about tomorrow.

 

Chorus

For you are a mist that appears for a little time

And then vanishes.

You are a mist that appears for a little time

And then vanishes.

 

2

What causes wars and what causes fightings

It’s our desires for what we can’t have

But asking is all that’s required for God’s tidings

Draw near to him and he’ll never flee you.

 

3

Come now, you rich and poor, howl for your misery

The pleasures of earth have you caught in a spin

“Whoever knows what’s right, but denies me,”

Christ says “can’t be free…can never win.”

 

4

Come now, you poor and rich, shout for your victory

The pleasures of life, beyond life, now begin

“Whoever knows what’s right, and’s beside me,”

Christ says “is now free…has no choice but to win.”

 

The Walk on Thanksgiving Night

dark roadBrilliance and warmth.

He stepped out into the antechamber of darkness.  Moving left, the door handle came into reach and he was outside.  Rattling the car keys from his left pocket, he walked towards the car.  Need to make it look like I’m out here for a purpose, he thought.

Reaching into the glove compartment, he fished out three tapes to listen to later. Done, he straightened and headed for the street in the night.

In a small town, it could be 6pm or 3am and it wouldn’t matter.  The same stillness greets you, the air feels the same, the world is still moving at the same pace everywhere else.

As always, he walked in the on-coming lane. Easier to see the cars as they come and be able to do something about it, just in case the driver doesn’t see you.  The course was familiar; he’d walked or run it many times before, with others and alone, at day and night.

As he approached the T intersection, the truck appeared from the right.  In the distance, seeing only the headlights, he couldn’t tell whether it was a car or a truck.  He slowed so that the truck would reach the intersection first and continue on by — as it did.

In a city at night, not your own, the fear of being a stranger walking alone being caught and prosecuted on the spot by local justice, real or vigilante, for no apparent reason, crosses one’s mind ever so briefly.  He turned left and continued walking.

On the right were mobile homes, the kind that people who can’t afford real houses use as substitutes for the real thing.  At the third home, a hound he could not see howled out at the intruder.  No attack other than the noise imminent, he continued walking, making as little sound as possible.  He waited for the yell from the master to quiet the dog.  No one stirred; the dog’s bark trailed off with one last half-volume, “all clear” howl.

He rounded the corner and headed into the darkest portion of the walk.  Here, the country reclaimed its right of sovereignty.  The field on the left was fenced in by a sparse but imposing barrier of scrub, trees and barbed wire.  The road was paved so as only to allow one vehicle on it at a time.  He was walking in the middle now.

As he walked, the lights and sounds of the town were drowned out by the silent sounds of the country and darkness.  He could only hear his steps and the rubbing of his nylon pants legs.  He couldn’t see anything and tried to remember the functions of the rods and cones and which ones were providing him the ability to determine the shapes of the road.

He could tell he was nearing the bridge because the time was right.  The bridge was always cause to hesitate in pace.  He had only ever noticed at night.  During the times he had come this way in the light of day, the bridge was insignificant.  Twelve feet across, from one side to the other, at the most.  It dipped down at the center by maybe three or four feet.  It was cement and therefore shone differently in the absence of light than the black asphalt road.

dark road 2And yet, he never knew exactly where it was until he was descending it.  Doing do, for those few seconds, the sounds to the side, underneath, and above, were more intense, more ominous, less natural.

On the other side, he noticed shadows.  Over by the plant, the great high security lights radiated the white bluish glare clear out here.  His shadow faintly at his side, as tall as three men, he walked on as the truck suddenly appeared again.

This time, it came from behind.  He was at the most remote point in the walk, in terms of safety or the nearness of others.  Should he walk on the right or the left?  He felt and saw the yellow light from its headlights growing on the road before him.  It carved the outline of his legs on the road, and then died, still a ways off.

He didn’t turn to see what had happened, or where it had turned, knowing instead that the next curve was approaching and he would be able to watch the road he had traversed from his right.  As he rounded the curve walking towards the plant, he was struck, as he always was, by the width of the road.  It was big enough to play football on.

He always felt a sense of almost relief when he turned to this part of the road.  It signaled civilization again.  The road was easier to see here because of the plant on the left.  The lights extended up into the sky several stories, principally illuminating their charge for the night — the plant.

The road had curbs here, the asphalt composition was smoother and easier to walk on than that of the previous stretch.  He walked down the middle of this expanse, staring to the right to see what had become of the truck.

dark road 3Nothing moved for several moments as the steps and the nylon pants kept churning.  As he watched though, the headlights reappeared in the middle of the dark stretch he had left.

The truck came quickly and rounded the corner so that once again it was immediately behind him.  This time he considered jogging, as if the appearance of purposeful action would justify his presence at this odd location and time to those driving.  Instead, as the truck neared, he stepped off the road and walked along in the field for a few moments.  It passed rapidly on the left, seeming to continue its acceleration into the night.

He stepped back into the road with the threat gone and wondered about his life.  Keeping up the pace, he clasped his hands behind his head.  Is he a prisoner, someone being led against his will in a direction over which he has no choice?  The hands drop behind his back, bound by nothing but more thoughts about what…about what?

Rounding the corner, he thought about Mike.  Why did Mike sound surprised when he mentioned he was interested in the position the other day?  He believed he had much in common with Mike.  And yet Mike was older; Mike knew.  He knew what he wanted.  How much did he make — but, does it matter, would Mike  ever be happy?  He could easily die in abjectness, without ever having found satisfaction of purpose other than the solitary, fleeting moments of business success.  (But, maybe that’s all there is?)

There are things you can’t tell anyone.

He began walking by houses now.  He watched the windows for light and for movement.  Were other families celebrating Thanksgiving too?  They must be happy being together.  Many houses were completely dark.  Either their occupants were gone or asleep or in the dark.

One of the houses on the right was larger and more modern than the others.  More questions.  Why would anyone spend a lot of money on a place like this clear out here?  What kind of people are they — ranchers, is he a doctor, a businessman, are they kind to others, or do they keep to themselves?

Again, he wondered what to do.  What is important in life?  Is achievement the most important above all else?  Or is living a good, spiritual life the most important — being an example for his child(ren) to be, his co-workers, his fellow churchgoers, and the kids in the youth group?

As he rounded the corner onto the last major stretch, the fire hydrant of the corner house stood out.  Surrounded by a circle of well-trimmed monkey grass, the hydrant was part of the landscaping, just like the miniature cubed hedges and the mimosa trees.  He tried to think of a short story about the hydrant — something along the vein of a black comedy — but nothing came to mind.

The road was now a street.  There were houses on both sides, neatly lined as in every other place on earth.  The last house on the left, before the field, had its garage door open.  Several half-elliptical shaped objects appeared to be hanging from the ceiling all along the width of the garage.  They were irregular and of an interesting texture and mixed color.  He felt he must concentrate on them to learn what they were, to know what it might be that could be of any interest in such a small town.

They were the curtains of the garage door.  They hung down from the horizontal door, billowing down in dirty and abstract splendor.  Their usual job taken away, they now doubled as separate objects of interest, totally devoid of any use in their current state.

And now, the walk was ending.  It had served its purpose.  He had gotten some exercise.  The heavy unsettled feeling he had had in his stomach was gone for the most part.  The crispness of the air had felt good on his face and clothes.

He looked toward the house as he neared it.  He slowed down and observed the family within.  The big window worked as an opening into a fishbowl of human activity.  The world was in there.  Warmth and brilliance.

Walking up the driveway, he reached for the doorknob and entered.

My Affairs with Stairs

stairs-do-ho-suhnote: inspiration for this post comes from the contemporary austin’s do ho suh exhibit, opening to the public today, ee Cummings, and john updike’s story museum’s and women.

the first stairs i can recollect were those of the back porch at the first home i can remember.  the home was the apartment that my parents had in wichita, kansas.  the memories coincide with the photos in my parents’ picture albums.  the shots are of the back of the building with one or more of our immediate family sitting, standing, or laying on the stairs.

i remember the coarse, grainy gray of the stair (for it was only one step) — made of the concrete that composed the remainder of the rows of apartments’ foundations.  the steps were cool in the fall and winter and warm in the spring and summer.

the next stairs i remember are those of my dad’s parents in iowa, before they sold their farmhouse.  memories are faint, but i can still remember (“remember” more than “see”) the ill-lighted back staircase that we would take up to my guest room.

i also remember the stairs at our next home in wichita — on hillside drive.  the house we lived in then brings me close to bradbury’s dandelion wine and his childhood self, douglas.  the house was rather stately and large, as i remember, reminding one of a southern home from the ’40s.

at that time, hillside drive was on the verge of being in the black part of town.  we had a big porch — the only real porch i can ever remember — and the steps up to it were wooden and wide.

i can remember looking out the front door at night and seeing a police motorcade speed by the night the monkees rock group played in town at the height of their 60s popularity.

stairs-Escheri can also remember looking out and standing on the porch during a few nights of curfew during the year the race riots were aflame.  at the time, it was on parallel with the biggest of other events, because the police were out in force and the night and town had quiet power and tension to them.

the back stairs of the hillside house were higher and only led to a landing for the back door, without a porch.

my greatest single memory of those stairs is seeing my uncle keith (husband of my dad’s sister judy) leaping down the stairs ahead of my parents one day when i faked being hurt. i don’t remember the exact details, but i talked my brother frank into going in to the adults and telling them i was in trouble.

i layed down on the ground and acted as if i couldn’t get up.  frank must have been only a few years old at the time, so although he was doubtful at first (we had been playing normally before i layed down on a whim), he “went for the bait.” (i guess i must have been exerting my dramatic juices.)

however, seeing keith rushing down scared me out of my wits and i immediately leaped to my feet telling them everything was okay.  i think i was firmly but gently reprimanded and was left with a genuine impression of concern from keith that i remember to this day.

we moved to amarillo, texas in the middle of my third grade year and i attended Wilson elementary.  in texas, i found most things were very flat. (in junior high and high school, the halls were dominated by long wide ramps that led up to one floor of school and down to the other.)

stairs-hogwartswilson was an old school though and, being somewhat in the style and probably the period of its namesake president, it had sheer brick facades, lots of stairs, and the look and feel of rock solid history.

at wilson, i was a patrol guard  primary duty of this honored position was stair monitoring.  principally, keeping an eye on the manner in which other children walked the stairs between classes and making sure that no unorthodox techniques were employed.

walking out of single-file, backwards, or taking more than one stair at a time were not to be tolerated by a patrol guard.  a person flagrantly violating stairs rules was to be turned in by the observing patrol guard to receive appropriate punishment.

stairs-rockyi suppose that the patrol guard was a position of responsibility given to children assumed to be the elite — preparing them earlier than their peers for the other responsibilities that would soon be pressing from around the corner of years.

as a regular guard in fifth grade and a captain in sixth grade, i relished my responsibility and the respectability that came from the associated authority.  the only time i can ever remember crying in grade school, though, came from this stairs duty.

a friend had been walking back to class after morning recess up the stairs in the usual single file.  as he passed me at the halfway point, which was a landing where i took up position, i believe he grinned.  the next thing i knew, he skipped some stairs right there in front of me!

i later told my teacher of the incident, making her pull the details out of me.  i remember her comforting me because i was troubled with the idea of having to turn in a friend.  duty versus friendship.  she listened and i felt better and i can’t recall if my friend was ever punished.

stairs-steve-zissouthe job I had before and during junior college was at a hotel. as a bellman, i was basically an all-around, do-everything person. two memories of stairs there remain.

the first memory is a fond one.  the lobby of the hotel was a large two-story affair with a great carpeted wooden stairway coming down from the top. i remember learning how and then repeatedly sliding down the great rail of the stair every chance i got, when customers weren’t around.

although it must have looked perilous, I found it easy and enjoyed the little gasps and wide eyes i would get from other staff who hadn’t seen me when i would come zipping down and land in a full trot at the bottom.

the second recollection is less fond.  as i said, the hotel was two stories and half of the rooms faced out while the other half were inside. during the summer, when things got really busy, we had a lot of guests request roll-away beds for their rooms.

we had a limited supply of roll-aways, which we tried to keep evenly distributed between the first and second floors. however, invariably, the weekend would find me needing to take a bed from below to above, or vice versa.

let me paint the picture for you:

  • there were no elevators in the hotel — this was pre-ada
  • our roll-aways were full-size single beds that folded up in half and had wheels — they were not smaller cots or day beds
  • i worked by myself

IMG_0426if the picture isn’t clear, suffice it to say that i gained a bit of strength during those summer days and evenings, hauling beds up and down those stairs.

i believe that it was during this job that i first began a practice of counting the stairs i frequented. particularly on some of the heavier beds i remember lifting upwards, it was either know how many stairs there were and rush up as fast as possible with faith, or struggle step-by-step, peering down at your feet for the last four or five before taking them to make sure you didn’t anticipate one that wasn’t there and break your neck, or vice versa.

the next stairs are from college, and i see them more vividly than any others, perhaps because i walked them more times. i attended a very small, private church-sponsored university in the middle of texas to which i had won a full academic scholarship.

there were only two men’s dormitories. the one on campus was the jock dorm, where all the athletes lived. it always seemed dimly lit, even during a bright day, peppered with loud music and an odor of sweat, i think i went in there to visit someone once during my two years at the school.

the other dorm was an early 1900s converted hotel. besides being the tallest structure in the city, it also housed the remainder of the college’s men — and the majority of its eligible bachelors. because of its age, the dorm only had two elevators, even though it was 12 stories high.

and because of their age, these elevators were in a constant state of repair. every week, it seemed, the maintenance men were hovering over one or the other of the shafts, while lowering a comrade down to service one of the units — looking like the coal-black workers in a diamond mine.

stairs-liu-bolini lived on the 9th floor of this dorm-hotel throughout my stay. because of their lack of dependability, general overuse when they were operating, and overall untrustworthiness (i was trapped in one of the vators on my way to an important lecture one afternoon; even though i yelled for help, it was about 20 minutes before anyone noticed anything wrong), i soon learned that the preferred method for getting up and down was going to be the stairs.

i have several impressions of these stairs. first, they were steep, but not unmanageable — just the right height. this characteristic is as opposed to the lack of height of stairs at many modern facilities, including sports arenas and churches, where each step is only a few inches in elevation above the previous, confusing the climber as to whether to go the slow and awkward way of taking each step or stretching for every other step, which makes it almost too steep.

i also noticed a characteristic ( which i have since concluded is a feature ( or perhaps a common engineering principle) of most staircases) such that the majority of flights of stairs from landing to landing are numbered in odd sets. therefore, i developed a technique of always taking the first step by itself and then skipping every other stair therein, which i practice today.

this seemed the most logical way to take the stairs when running up or down them, which is what i was usually doing. i was usually running because walking 9 flights of stairs (yes, i lived on the 9th floor) got to be rather trudging work — particularly when you walked up and down them several times each day.

the stairs were an ugly, but not unfriendly, yellow color sprinkled with green. (no doubt this gave them a modern look when first built. today, most builders ignore painting and just leave the concrete or steel steps barren to absorb the dirt, trash, and wear of their users.) i don’t think I had ever considered walking stairs a preference or habit until after my college career. since then, given a choice, with all things being equal, i go with taking the stairs.

stairs-tower-babelin graduate school, the stairs were less memorable, but by this time, as i said, habitual. i worked as a a graduate assistant for a non-profit, quasi-academic group that promoted free enterprise ideals. my duties evolved into what some might observe as a curious mix of brain and brawn work.

i did a lot of hauling of the center’s propaganda from place to place but also took care of the center’s financial records — which included transactions, both donations and disbursements, of tens of thousands of dollars.

we were on the 6th floor and, although the elevator service was vastly improved over my old dorm, i took the stairs up and down. they were concrete, not very wide, and harshly lighted. during my time there,

i practiced trying to walk noiselessly. i wanted to walk like indians and the fox, to develop a stealthy quality, for whatever reason at the time. as i went up or down, i would listen for the volume and length of the sound made by my step. i worked on different ways to place my feet, different combinations of shifting body weight, and even the most deliberate of slow speeds.

after achieving only marginal success, i gave it up to go back to just walking as a means of getting from one point in a vertical space to another, and not a skill to be cultivated.

stairs-houses of the holyi was hired by a big eight accounting firm to do consulting work coming out of graduate school. in houston, the building our offices occupied was one of the older of the modern building era. our offices were spread across a dozen or more floors of the building. there were three banks of elevators serving logical partitions of the tower, with six elevators in each bank. the elevators were dependable, fast, and pretty convenient.

by contrast, the stairs of the building were practically inaccessible. from the ground floor, they could only be exited, not entered (except, i presume, with a special janitor’s or guard’s key).

on the regular office floors, the stairwells were locked from the inside. this meant that entering the stairwell without your office key left you with 3 options: knocking on the stair doors in hopes that someone would hear and come rescue you (an embarrassing option); waiting for someone else to enter the stairs to go one way or the other (a fifty/fifty shot); or, walk all of the way down to the ground floor and come back up in the elevators (an unexpected interruption in the tasks you were performing before being trapped).

stairs-lincolnat first, i actually used the stairs a lot. i did most of my work between 2 or 3 floors and the convenience factor was in my favor. however, the equal convenience of elevators for distances greater than my 2 or 3 floor  world broke me of my habitual use of stairs. during college, it had become quite uncomfortable (and disconcerting, for some strange reason) to use the vators.

but, in the professional, business world, using the stairs had a sense of being vaguely unnatural — as if the person using the stairs had some unusual quirk that motivated them to do so, like a distaste for waiting for anything (i.e., the vators) or a propensity for being a loner.

i began to use the stairs less, eventually taking them only at night as part exercise and part avoidance of the five o’clock rush.

my affairs with stairs are infrequent today. my occasion to resort to them is rare — mostly in practice of mock fire drills or when the elevators are broken. since joining my new company and moving to our new building, i can’t say i even know where they are. i wonder if anyone does?