The Reluctant Voyeur

By Doug Elwell

But first, this note: Doug has been writing his life story for some time. He has begun revising some of his  pieces, creating the lightly fictionalized story of his alter ego “Harry.” “The Reluctant Voyeur” takes place during Harry’s military service in Alaska. You can search this blog for “Harry, Elwell” and you will find other essays chronicling Harry’s adventures. At the conclusion of this post, Doug comments on this story’s place on the nonfiction-fiction continuum. – Sarah

alaska-scenic-day-drives-4

It was a few minutes after midnight when Tommy Blackmun didn’t see the moose amble onto the road. Then it was too late. He swerved to the right, ran off the road and skidded down an embankment. His motorcycle hit a glancing blow against a large boulder that knocked him off and into the stony bed of a mountain stream.

Red Richardson was driving in the opposite direction about a half mile away—saw the headlight flash left then right then disappear. He never saw the moose. At first, he thought it was someone on foot swinging a lantern—A hell of a place to be out walking this time of night, must be car trouble. When Red drew near where he last saw the lantern gleam he eased onto the shoulder. There in his headlights was a tire mark in the gravel that ran for about fifty feet then vanished into the dark. He grabbed his flashlight and ran down to a stream. He saw a Honda tangled in a thicket—panned the light slowly—spotted Tommy twenty feet away splayed over rocks lying face up in a few inches of water. He was unconscious but breathing. Red picked him up, climbed up the embankment to his truck, wrapped him in a blanket he kept behind the seat and laid him as carefully as he could in the back. Ten minutes later he pulled up to the emergency room entrance at Elmendorf Air Force Base Hospital in Anchorage. Tommy was still breathing—still unconscious.

Doc Mitchell found a depression in the back of Tommy’s skull, about the size of a golf ball and rushed him into surgery. X-rays showed the fractured skull with several loose bone fragments. Doc drilled holes at the site to relieve the pressure from the swelling. He removed bone fragments and closed the wound. A corpsman pushed Tommy’s gurney to the intensive care unit. Harry Edwards—off duty at the time was hanging out chatting up night nurse Lieutenant Clay when Tommy arrived. He helped pull the sheet Tommy was lying on from the gurney to the bed. Clay noted the date and time and vital signs on his chart. Later in the morning Tommy would be connected to a respirator to help him breathe when it appeared he could no longer manage it on his own.

 

At six forty-five a.m. Harry got off the elevator on the third floor for the start of his twelve-hour shift in Intensive Care. The familiar sound of a compressor running in 36A was driving a respirator. He passed the room—stopped at the corpsman’s station. ‘I don’t have a good feeling about 36A.’

‘I don’t blame you, Harry,’ The duty sergeant pushed away from the desk, tilted back in the squeaky office chair, re-lit the stub of a cigar and looked up, ‘Got an airman in there what went out last night and got hisself all fucked up—motorcycle accident. He’s all yours at least for today—maybe longer—depends.’

‘Lovely. I was here last night—helped get him into bed.’

Harry put his lunch bag in the fridge in the nurse’s station, checked his watch then took the back stairs to the courtyard for a smoke before he went on duty at seven. Major Guffy was there with two airmen.

He gave a half-assed salute, ‘Mornin’ Major’ and nodded at the guys—a brief flutter of grunts and nods.

The airmen stubbed their smokes and went in. Guffy waited for Harry at the door—pulled her blue Air Force issue cardigan across her front—folded her arms against the morning chill—the firmness of her breasts. ‘Still on for tonight?’—she asked as he tossed his cigarette into the can by the door.

‘Sure.’

When he went on shift at seven he checked the dressing on Tommy’s head. He was rubbing lotion onto Tommy’s elbows and heels when Bethany came in. She took the chair at the bedside—sat straight—hands in her lap—motionless except for her eyes that darted about the room like a frightened rabbit about to flush. He thought her pretty in a plain sort of way—maybe a small town girl. That was it. She looked like a small town girl. She stared at her husband’s long body lying under the sheet in front of her and dabbed a single tear. She wondered—Was the girl worth it?—then—What difference does it make now? Harry measured Tommy’s fluid output and noted his eight o’clock vital signs on the chart at the foot of his bed. They were unchanged from the previous hour. Tommy’s brain function had fallen during the night but was still fluttering across the scope. Harry thought—Maybe.

Room 36A was small—barely large enough for the bed, a Mayo stand and chair. The metronomic kushhh of the respirator filled the room then seeped under the closed door into the hall. Morning sunlight poured through a window onto linoleum floor tiles. So close to her in that small room knowing neither of them wanted to be there he felt trapped. Thinking their shared vigil might go on for some time he thought to engage her in some way—open a connection based on something other than her husband. ‘When’s the baby due?’ He knew it was the wrong thing to ask but the words seemed to fly out on their own and he couldn’t pull them back.

Her hand moved to her abdomen, ‘December.’

‘Oh.’ Harry was right back where he started—ill at ease and thinking he ought to be doing something. But there wasn’t anything to do for the next hour except lean against the wall and watch the shadows of Bethany’s chair legs inch over the floor as sunlight arced across.

They held their places—inanimate as if frozen in place. Harry in his corpsman’s whites against the white wall—hands in his pockets, eyes cast downward—waiting for the hour to pass. Then take vital signs again and note them in the chart at the foot of the bed. Bethany erect—staring at the white sunlit sheet shrouding her husband. He thought the three could have been models posing for an Edward Hopper still life. Still life—the irony pleased him. A soft knock at the door. Guffy led Mr. and Mrs. Blackmun into their son’s room. They fake smiled then averted their eyes from Harry the way people do at such times—went to Tommy. Bethany sat unmoved. Harry sidled into a corner as far away as possible—watched—wished he could disappear into the sound of the compressor. But he had to stay so he watched them wish their son back to life. He hadn’t seen that before.

They wept silently—the moments of their grief marked by the thumping of the compressor and the measured kushhh of air into Tommy’s cold lungs. Mr. Blackmun took Bethany’s hand and pulled her up between him and Tommy’s mother. They wrapped her in a desperate embrace. Mrs. Blackmun kissed her son’s forehead. Harry saw them start to draw away from the bedside. He noticed Bethany held back for no more than a second or two—rested her hand as if it were a feather on Tommy’s right hand—lightly as an artist’s brush stroke on a canvas. In that thin, precise gesture Harry saw an intimate moment between them that he should not have seen but he was there and it was there and it loomed large in his mind. He wished he hadn’t seen it but he did and the image burned and became a part of him—nagged at him like a sliver in his thumb and he wanted to dig it out. He felt like an interloper and he didn’t want to be that. He saw in that small gesture—that final intimacy her release from their story—a farewell to something they perhaps once had—a last fragment of their coupleness. He didn’t want to witness it. He resented the intrusion. It crossed a line that wasn’t supposed to be crossed. Such things were the ken of the padre.

They left.

He stood staring at Tommy’s right hand she had almost caressed.

 

Late in the afternoon Mr. and Mrs. Blackmun and Bethany sat in front of Doc Mitchell’s desk. Mr. Blackmun stared at his hands clasped together in his lap. He worked his thumbs back and forth against each other in a soft—slow way—the way one might while waiting in a station for a late night train. Mrs. Blackmun sat at his right—alternately dabbed tears from her cheeks and worried a handkerchief through trembling fingers. Bethany sat a little apart and stared—clear-eyed—past Doc Mitchell—at a bird that appeared to be building a nest in the tree beyond the window behind him. Her face looked flat as if drawn by a child who hadn’t yet discovered the magic of perspective.

Doc Mitchell shifted in his seat— busily thumbed through Tommy’s paperwork. He looked at the Blackmuns, ‘I’m afraid there is no possibility that Tommy will regain consciousness. I am very sorry. We did as much as possible but his injury was too severe. He’s been slipping into a deeper and deeper coma since we admitted him last night. When I saw him a few minutes ago his brain function had finally ceased altogether.’

‘No hope?’ pleaded Mrs. Blackmun.

‘I’m afraid not. The injury was just too much.’

Mrs. Blackmun toppled onto her husband’s shoulder and sobbed deeply. He put his arm around her. Bethany watched the bird discard a tiny twig she couldn’t seem to fit into her new nest. Doc Mitchell told them they could stay in his office as long as they needed then left. A few minutes later when Mrs. Blackmun was able they returned to Tommy’s room.

 

Having thought their silent goodbyes, they walked out of Tommy’s room for the last time. Evening nurse Lieutenant Klein and Doc Mitchell went in minutes later. He put his stethoscope to Tommy’s chest—listened. He asked Harry to turn off the respirator, ‘—can’t hear with that thing running.’ Harry flipped the switch—stepped to the foot of the bed—stood next to Nurse Klein. While he listened to Tommy’s heartbeat in the silence of the room Harry watched it pulse through his abdomen. In a few moments, it was gone. He looked at Harry, ‘Get him downstairs.’

Nurse Klein and Harry disconnected Tommy from the tubes he was tethered to that failed to bring him back from wherever he had gone. They had only been aerating his heart while the rest of him slipped away. Harry removed the IV from his arm and the respirator mouthpiece—wiped adhesive tape marks from around his arm and mouth with a swab soaked in acetone. Nurse Klein started to wipe Tommy’s arms and hands with a wash cloth.

‘Don’t wash his right hand, Lieutenant.’

‘Why?’

‘Just don’t.’

She looked at him and saw something in his eyes—something she wasn’t afraid of, but knew to obey. ‘Okay, Harry I won’t.’

She went into the hall and wheeled in a gurney. They pulled Tommy’s sheet with him on it to the gurney then covered him with another. She handed Harry a manila envelope with his records. He stuck it under Tommy’s heel and wheeled him out of the room, took the freight elevator to the basement then wheeled the gurney to the morgue. He handed the envelope to the sergeant in charge who made an entry in a log book. They wheeled Tommy to the cooler and lowered him onto the steel tray—rolled it shut.

 

At the same time Mr. Blackmun was driving through the last of the Anchorage rush hour traffic to their hotel. Mrs. Blackmun sobbed—railed at her God the unfairness of it all. Bethany sat in the back seat—passed her hands gently over the growing presence in her—Least he’ll never know you aren’t his.

 

Harry waited for the freight elevator—looked at his watch—wondered what they were serving in the mess hall.

 

© 2016 Doug Elwell

About this piece of creative nonfiction, Doug tells me:

“I confess to stretching the limits of creative non-fiction with the narrator’s pov in this piece. But other than the omniscience of the narrator, the piece is about a 99% true story. The names are made up of course, but there was a real Tommy and Bethany. Of course the doctor and nurses Harry worked with were real people. Even the back story of Tommy’s infidelity with his wife was based on some things his buddies said when they came to see him. I have no doubt it was true. Harry resented having to be in the room with the wife and family because he was forced to play a part in a bit of Kabuki theater for the benefit of the lad’s parents and wife. Tommy was kept artificially ‘alive’ until his parents could arrive. He was essentially brain dead almost from the beginning. Only the respirator kept his heart aerated. Finally, although the wife was noticeably pregnant, I have no idea if the child was or was not Tommy’s. Her last thought on the way to the hotel was a bit of an O-Henry twist I threw in because it fit.”

 

Doug writes short stories and memoir that feature characters, lore, and culture of the rural Midwest. His work has occasionally appeared in his hometown newspaper, The Oakland Independent, two editions of Ignite Your Passion: Kindle Your Inner Spark, True Stories Well Told, Every Writer’s Resource and Midwestern Gothic. He can be contacted via email at: djelwell@mchsi.com.

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Join me in January at Pinney Library for 4 weeks of “Share the Life Lessons Write-In”

Last summer I saw an article in the New York Times titled, “The Money Letter That Every Parent Should Write.” It got me thinking about how we pass on lessons from one generation to the next. When do we take the time to put life lessons on paper? Not often enough. This prompted me to develop my upcoming workshop, “Share the Life Lessons” Write-In at Pinney Library starting January 4. Sharpen your pencils and your intentions to start the year off right/write, and join us! Details follow at the end of this post.

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The ethical will is an ancient Judeo-Christian tradition, one practiced mainly by Jewish rabbis and laypeople, but now being used more widely by people of all faiths who want to think through what is really important and pass those personal values and beliefs along. Legacy letter is another term used for these written documents. In a blog post written as the anniversary of 9/11 approached, Rachel Freed said,

…none of us know when our time is up. I am writing to remind you of your love for the people in your life: your spouse or partner, your children and grandchildren, your extended families, your work colleagues, and your friends. I am writing to urge you to take time now to express that love. Tomorrow may be too late! While you have time, awareness, and access to your mind and heart, write a legacy letter telling your people of your love for them, what matters in your relationship with them, and what matters most to you in this world.

She suggests that you start by choosing the person or persons who will receive your letter, then imagine you are leaving for a time and you’ve not told them everything you want them to know. She then suggests you structure the letter:

  • Context
  • Story
  • Learning
  • Blessing

You can choose to share the letter now, or  keep it in a safe place in an addressed envelope or digital file. (But don’t forget to tell loved ones of its existence, so they can find it if/when they need to.)

In the Times article, Ron Lieber profiles Kimberly Palmer, author of Smart Mom, Rich Mom: How to Build Wealth While Raising a Family. Kimberly’s mom wrote her and her sisters a money letter 13 years ago. In her book, she offers a template for passing on money wisdom as her mother did. “A good letter, according to Ms. Palmer, should include at least one story about a large financial challenge and another one about a big money triumph. Then, include a list of crucial habits and the tangible things they have helped the family achieve,” wrote Lieber.

Upcoming workshop: “Share the Life Lessons” Write-In at Pinney Library

Stimulated by thoughts like these, I offered a “write-in” at Pinney Library last fall. I’m bringing it back in an expanded format this January. Each week for three weeks, we’ll   spend time together writing personal and family stories that share values and life lessons. Then we’ll give each other feedback. The final session will be an open mic to share our work with others.

Each hour-long session starts with  about 20 minutes discussing writing prompts on a theme, followed by 20 minutes of quiet time writing together, with a final 20 minutes for sharing and feedback.

Themes: What I wish someone had told me about…

  • Week 1: Money and Working
  • Week 2: Getting an Education
  • Week 3: Finding Love, Keeping Love Alive

The details–

  • Where: Pinney Library, 204 Cottage Grove Rd
  • When: 4 Wednesdays, 1/4, 1/11, 1/18, and 1/25, 6:30 pm. Three 1-hour “write-in” sessions will be followed by a 2-hour Open Mic where we share our writing.
  • Cost: free
  • To register: follow this link
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Have a happy Thanksgiving, one and all!

1960-ish-thanksgiving-flosh-betsy

That’s me circa 1960, being served by my Aunt Flosh (Florence) White. My godmother and honorary “other aunt” Ruth Chin is in the background at the stove–she was the gourmet chef whose culinary successes informed and inspired us. She grew up under the tablecloths of her parents’ Chinese restaurant in Muncie, Indiana, and excelled at preparing Chinese dishes, but I’m inclined to think that here, she was involved in the preparation of a traditional Thanksgiving feast. My mother no doubt was behind the camera lens. We’re located at 107 Audubon Drive, Carmel, Indiana, and in the background you can see that rough redwood paneling in the living room that stabbed splinters into anyone who ventured too near.

A picture is worth a thousand words–IF you know the story.

Tomorrow is StoryCorps’ #TheGreatListen 2016, which competes with Black Friday shopping to remind us of the real point of life–not to collect stuff, but to share wisdom. Visit the site, download the app, record a loved one’s story, share with the world! You’ll be glad you did.

–Sarah White

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Auto Loyalty

By Paul Ketterer

Just yesterday I had an Ove (pronounced Oooo veh) moment.  For those not getting the reference, I refer you to the recent movie A Man Called Ove,  a gourmet meal or better, the book a weeklong feast of tears and laughter.

The moment occurred as I was driving down Femrite Avenue in front of our residence.  A car pulled out from a side street in front of me, barely slowing down at a stop sign.  It sped away up the hill far above the limit.  Stopped by cross traffic, I was able to pull up behind and note that it was a Volvo.  I couldn’t hold my laughter.  Ove would have gotten out to harangue the driver about rules and respect.  As he would have said, the fact that the man was an idiot was already proven by his choice to own a Volvo in the first place.  Ove had a passionate loyalty to SAAB. Though this is not a story about Ove, I highly recommend the book as one of the finest I have ever read.

Auto-loyalty is a strange phenomenon.  My birth family owned in my memory: a 1949 Chev, 1954 Chev, 1956 Chev, 1959 Chev, then switch to 1964 AMC, 1965 AMC and 1968 AMC.  I remember, as a ten-year-old, crying when we traded the 1954.  The old psych classic GAMES PEOPLE PLAY described a relational game “General Motors” where men (not women) compare models at length.  It is disturbingly common to have such emotional attachment to a hunk of metal.

This is a story about automotive loyalty, if not as over-the-top as Ove (I will consider drivers of other brands as friends).  Exactly half of the vehicles I have owned have been Volkswagons, including the last seven purchased.  The last five have been from Zimbrick here in Madison, where we have developed friendships with everyone from sales to maintenance.  We swap personal as well as motorized information, and we look forward to the happy hello when we arrive.  The two vehicles we currently own have been the best.  They are comfortable, high-performing, giving excellent mileage, and having low impact on the environment.  Riiight.

This love affair came to a crashing halt in July 2015.  Our automotive-studying son sent us an article about a scam the VW had been running since 2009.  They had been marketing “clean diesel” cars that met the strictest of emission requirements while maintaining mileage and performance.  Care for the environment is central to  our value system from thermostat setting to food choices.  They had us, especially after owning and liking three other not-so-clean diesels.  The Jetta was bought in 2009 and has carried us to weekly visits to Sparta while Kaye’s mother needed us, multiple visits to New Orleans and Washington, DC, and a long trip west.  It has been a truck carrying lumber for home remodeling and a shuttle to pick us up at O’Hare.  We have listened to books, carried on deep conversations, and included it in some of the great enjoyments of our life.

When our 1999 diesel hit 190,000 miles and developed needs, we sold it and bought a 2013 Golf, reminding us of fun days in our two Rabbit models.  The performance and mileage are over the top.  It is maybe the most fun car ever.

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The promise of “clean diesel” was a lie.  The vehicles are far from conforming to emission standards, spewing out as much as 40 times the limit on some materials.  Engineers had rigged the computer system so the car could detect when it was undergoing an emissions test and feed inaccurate information to the testers.  In other words, VW is a cheat.

Early days, there was speculation that the problem would be solved with a computer modification and treated as a recall.  All would be well in a few months.  Our contacts at Zimbrick were equally optimistic.  They felt as betrayed as we did.  One employee is a descendant of the original VW dealers in Madison, Bruns, with over 60 years of ethical heritage.  He was almost tearful.

The news got worse and worse, as executives resigned, with very golden parachutes.  To date, only one lower-level engineer has been prosecuted, accepting a plea-bargain.  We are left to wonder how many knew of the scam, who ordered it, and how could profit be put ahead of the well-being of the world?  (Isn’t that a naive question?)  Class-action lawsuits proliferated, and several states joined in a common action adjudicated in California courts.  Where is the justice.

The most cynical move was a gift from VW of $1,000 to the owners of each car.  Half of it could only be spent at VW, and had to be used within a year.  It didn’t do much to make us like the situation any better.  And we keep violating our values and hurting the world.

It also became clearer and clearer that there was no easy fix, and no hard fix either.  Clean diesel will not be achieved.  A half-million cars go on and puking into our air.

In June 2016, a year into the process, a tentative agreement was reached with the courts in California.  VW will pay the state many millions in fines for violating emissions laws.  Other states are still negotiating penalties.  VW will give each owner $3,000 plus a percentage of the value of their vehicle.  If they want to keep their car, VW will additionally fix the emissions WHEN A FIX IS APPROVED. For those not wishing to wait, VW will buy their car back, at the book value at the time the scam was revealed, plus the penalty and percentage.  This turns out to be a generous amount.

So, ready to go?  Not so fast.  The agreement has to be commented on by owners for a month.  Send thoughts by email.  Then the court has to think about it some more, but allows owners to go online to get their cars in the queue for buyback.  So, wait to hear from VW later.  October 18 the agreement is finalized and last steps in registering documents can move ahead.  A week later, we have received six copies of a letter inviting us to go on the website to register.  What amazing inefficiency!  We have done the paperwork, bought a car to replace the two, pay insurance on all of them, and wait some more.  VW in some future time will offer an appointment to return our cars and receive a check.

It has been a surprise to experience this great depth of emotion.  Loyalty betrayed feels very hurtful.  Very hurtful.  Grief has emerged as we took our last trip in the Jetta, and parked it till the buyback.  There could have been more enjoyable journeys.  The Golf has less than 25,000 miles.  What a waste to turn into junk.  We now just want it to be over.

We did not buy a gas VW.  But many have.  Eventually, 480,000 vehicles will have to be replaced, and people have been anticipating and accepting deals offered in advance by VW.  Zimbrick ran out of 2016 models in August, and can’t keep up with demand for 2017s.  Irony, VW has record sales in 2016.

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This is a story a long way from the end.

(c) 2016 Paul Ketterer.

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Reflecting on writing the “Tuscany” stories

In the last golden light of a lingering warm fall, I conclude my suite of stories about a trip to Tuscany in 1997. Today I reflect on what I learned from writing this second-person experiment.

tvilla

It was just this time of year–early November–that I slid back into my cruddy life after two golden weeks in Italy. The first was spent in Tuscany (the stories presented here), and then we moved on to Sardinia and Sicily, following our friend Scott to visit friends from when he had lived in Italy some years before. I only wrote one story worthy of publishing about that phase of the trip, The Cave of the Witches, and for that story, I let go of  the second-person experiment.

So, when it comes to this second-person voice, WHAT WAS I THINKING?

Here’s what was going on in my life:

  • I had published one business book and completed another, with a promise to myself that if I made it across that finish line without spending the advance, I would go to Italy for as long as the money lasts.
  • I had begun taking Italian Conversation classes, eager to expand the basics I had mastered during my time with the Rotary International Group Study Exchange program in 1991.
  • In the previous year I had turned 40, sold my graphic design business, and was now an employee of the purchaser. I started with the title of Production Manager but by the time of this trip (my first paid vacation ever) my position was morphing to one of more responsibility but less defined role authority.
  • I had begun to write for my own pleasure and seen a story I’d written about my childhood in Winona Lake published on a website for autobiographical narrative hosted by the Indiana Humanities Council.

During the winter of ’97-’98 I spent a few hours each Saturday morning writing about the Tuscan experience, hoping to produce more stories worthy of publication on that website. As I started, I immediately faced the question: who would care? How could I possibly make anyone care about this one woman and her privileged little trip to Italy with her friends?

I decided my answer would be to make the trip my readers’ trip. By offering “you” the gift of my memory, I could give “you” that escape, that beginning of a healing, that I found in our jaunts into the Italian countryside.

Once started, it was impossible  to back away from that choice. As I found the story growing, I soldiered on in the second person. As a writer, I found it forced me into being more observant, just to get away from using “you” (I) too repetitively. Even though I couldn’t articulate it yet, I was working with the truism of memoir writing: “more eye, less I.”

Would I choose a different voice, knowing what I know now, having gained so much more experience with writing and teaching creative nonfiction? In fact, I think I would. As Kalyanii proved in her novel Om Nayam, there is a time and place for “you.” My original motivation still stands. I want YOU to wake up in the land of cafe latte and good red wines as cheap as two-buck-chuck with only one responsibility: to rebuild your faith that a life outside work exists.

The funny thing is, when I tried to write about the next thing that happened–after we handed back the keys to the villa to the housekeeper and pulled away in our little red Fiat Punto headed for Livorno and the ferry to Sardinia, I fell out of the “you” voice and back into myself with a startling jolt.

Here’s what I wrote that winter–

Waking up, the first thing you are aware of is me. Your reflection, that is, in the shiny underside of the bunk above, in a cabin aboard the “Moby Fantasy” bound for Sardinia. Jim is lying next to you/me in that reflection, very close in the single bed, and with the blanket pulled up to our shoulders we look like a cozy advertisement for ferry accommodations.

It’s disorienting, though, and it snaps me back into myself. it’s no longer you, waking up under Tuscan tiles and beams. It’s me at sea, on the way to attend someone else’s reunions…. the myth of Guido, Hercule, and the Principessa will cease to be told. The triangle will be reassembled into a larger structure.

~ ~ ~

Thank you for indulging me in revisiting these stories from almost two decades ago. It is exciting for me to realize that in the intervening years, I actually have grown into the person I caught a glimpse of there, slipping between the towers of San Gimignano, flitting among the snow-flecked trees of the Camaldoli, singing along to the notes of the anthemic “Noi Siamo di Noi” in Florence with Gianni the PFM fan…

You too can come alive, invented fresh without sin or history. We all can.

 

(c) 11/9/2016, Sarah White, written on the morning after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. 

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Sarah’s Tuscany: Camaldoli

This is the final story in my suite about a trip to Tuscany in 1997. It began as an experiment in writing in the second person, just to see if I could sustain it through one story…then two, then more. You decide if I was successful. Next week, I will reflect on what I’ve learned from writing this second-person experiment.

By Sarah White

Not knowing its name makes it difficult to ask for.

If it’s a place, you might be right there in the midst of it, and yet not be able to tell. The Camaldoli–even if you do pronounce it properly, like a Japanese stereotype saying “camaraderie,” (Ca-MAL-dol-li)–you will still likely earn blank stares. The Italians apparently do not go there.

Not that you and your companions failed to arrive–You did make it to the parking lot of the hermitage, a journey of some three hours down from your Chianti hills, across the Valdarno, and up into the Apennine Mountains. For an intense half-hour, you stood on the fringe of something deep and amazing and otherworldly as a cathedral.

But whistling out of that dark expanse came an ill wind. It suddenly seemed much wiser not to stay. What was it that scared you? Why, when you went into the little souvenir shop, did you not ask questions of the barrista? “Excuse me, what is there to see and do here?” As if you had finished your sightseeing, you bought postcards and pounded down warming espressos, then backed nervously out of the steamy realm and into the snow.

Perhaps it was the snow.

camaldo

Back in the Valdarno it had been sunny, brightly normal, a modern industrial string of towns along the river. But it is possible to drive right through fall and into winter. The sun gave way to clouds as the road wound up and up, more than 1000 meters gained from the villa’s doorstep. Spits of rain hit the windshield. You became aware: no picnic today. But it is beautiful, dramatic- vistas quickly opening and, just as quickly, lost in

The sun gave way to clouds as the road wound up and up, more than 1000 meters gained from the villa’s doorstep. Spits of rain hit the windshield. You became aware: no picnic today. But it is beautiful, dramatic–vistas quickly opening and, just as quickly, lost in mist. Rock-strewn meadows, tiny villages of somber gray stone, slate roofs, wood shutters, woodsmoke.

Just as you ascend from rain toward snow, you cross an invisible threshold. Now you begin to suspect–you must be in the Camaldoli. You feel that sensation from childhood when the family car finally swung into the entrance of the state park, the national forest, the nature preserve. A hush, an urge to cover your head, or kneel.

Maybe the feeling was first created here, eight centuries ago, when the vast forest tracts of the Camaldoli came under the care of Benedictine monks. Entering this forest you know instantly you are under a new authority. This forest is holy. Its acolytes are the hermits, the religious colony whose purpose is the care and feeding of this forest. Across the invisible threshold, the road seems uncomfortably temporary. It has only been borrowed from the mountain that slopes up to the left and drops away dramatically on the right. You find eerie beauty in every direction: on one hand the close-up understory and on the other the valley view.

Across the invisible threshold, the road seems uncomfortably temporary. It has only been borrowed from the mountain that slopes up to the left and drops away dramatically on the right. You find eerie beauty in every direction: on one hand the close-up understory and on the other the valley view.

 

Now the snow is beginning to accumulate. Something strange is happening to the beauty. There is a painters’ trick to make colors seem more vivid: a boundary of white or black is placed between each area, which keeps the colors from dulling each other by blurring with their complements. The white snow and the wet-black hemlock trunks are working that same trick now. The beech trees are as bright as candles lighting up the dark pine tunnel. Their rusty leaves litter the roadway, phosphorescent in the gloom.

The colors are liquid, nourishing as hot broth, but their warmth is too ephemeral. You need action.

Your pack can’t resist the call of the forest. Like satyrs, you leap down a pine-needle carpeted path beside a tumbling stream. The sound around you is the voice of God: high wind, loud water.

But you are a little afraid of God. When you burst out on the road again, Scott turns back to fetch the car, and suddenly you become frightened. Isn’t it taking him too long? No sound of the engine. But he must be coming! If he’d slid off the road you would have heard a crash. Suddenly an alien stand of trees threatens. Like God’s gatekeepers, they are eager to repel you–unnecessary interlopers that you are–not of their kind.

The last turn in the road brings you to a little chapel. It looks like a state park guardhouse, and like one it stands at an entrance to the Camaldoli. Carved over the arched door are these words: Santa Maria della Neve. Our Lady of the Snow.

You understand perfectly why someone felt inclined to build a chapel here, an urge unchanged by centuries. Grazie, Maria, deliver us from evil.

There will be no Camaldoli picnic for you, no tour of the monastery’s library, sanctuary, or typical hermit’s cell. Just the long drive back to the twentieth century, and benign autumn already in progress in the Tuscan vineyards.

Welcome home.

 

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Sarah’s Tuscany: Florence

For the next two weeks, I will continue to publish a suite of stories I wrote about a trip to Tuscany in 1997. It began as an experiment in writing in the second person, just to see if I could sustain it through one story…then two, then more. You decide if I was successful.

By Sarah White

Do not most people who are worth knowing care about music?
And, for them, is it not as necessary as food or sleep? And why?

I think it must be because music carves memories deeper. It gives a signature to a moment in time: a love affair or its end, a dance craze, a road trip, a decade. Who can answer the question, “What is the music you like?” The only honest answer is: “the best.”

The previous summer–during the planning stages of our trip–Scott was communicating with an Italian rock band via the Internet and had made a friend in Florence. He brought over the latest album from P.F.M. (always P.F.M., never Premiata Forneria Marconi).

A quick listen left you with mixed impressions: agile stylists, some licks reminiscent of everyone from Gentle Giant to Jethro Tull, XTC to Peter Gabriel. The vocals featured a light tenor, and backing the voice was a lush instrumentation. You heard synthesized Moog noodlings, the retro sound of a Farfisa organ, soaring violins and flutes, sibilant cymbal-brushes. Not exactly ordinary listening, but interesting, full of layers, complex.

And what a beautiful language Italian is for singing! Try this, the first line from the record: “M’innamorai di un canto”–Even spoken, it seems a song.

Thus, it is with an open mind and open expectations that you find yourself under the replica of David in front of the Uffizi Gallery. Scott is to wear his baseball cap for identification. Never mind about all those rapist Internet weirdoes in America. How can it be dangerous to confront a music fan in the heart of the Renaissance?

florence

A disheveled little man approaches you. Introductions all around–Gianni, Jim, Scott, Sarah.

“I’m sorry, I’m not well. I’m getting over a cold. It’s very windy today. I’m sorry for the weather.”

He is pulling his little scarf tighter around his neck, wrapping his open coat against the wind. How friendly his English sounds! What a relief to hear it! He puts you in mind of an otter, or a mink, with his short brown fur about his face, his brown coat, his sparkling eyes.
Your generation has defined itself by its own music. Ever since your first Close-n-Play turntable chomped down on Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, music has been the banner you’ve rallied under. Now you admit Gianni to your friendship as quickly as in those Close-n-Play dance party days.

“Would you like to go to the museums? Shop for jewelry? I know some people on the Ponto Vecchio. Just tell me what you would like to do.”

He’s eager to be the perfect host, but you are not interested in museums today. Another time you were marched through the Uffizi, three hours for three hundred masterpieces. You know the futility of a half-day in Paradise.

“I’d like to visit a record store,” Scott volunteers.

And so you’re off through the winding streets, two by two–Scott and Gianni picking up their conversation where the last e-mails left off, you and Jim in tow like the tail of a kite.

First stop: modern music. Second: a used CD store. Third: older still, a musical instrument shop. Bongos call out for beatniks. An accordion wants to play its village music one more time. An old signed photograph stares from a wall. Sheets of dust lie over the sheet music, spooky and friendly at the same time.

You must know someone to get into the back room. Gianni does, and, once inside the collection, it is amazing. You are in a room full of vintage American vinyl, 45s and LPs, psychedelic era and 50s rock ‘n’ roll, Sinatra and Surrealistic Pillow, Yardbirds and Yes, Leonard Cohen and Laura Nyro–all in archival plastic sleeves. Gianni explains this is the collection of an expatriate, recently come on the market. Scott finds something missing from his collection and buys it; for the rest of the trip he will be babying that 13″ cardboard sleeve.

Out on the street again, Gianni and Scott pause in their band-related babble. Are you hungry? Tired? Of course, there’s a cafe nearby. Gianni leads you down streets lined with artisans’ shops. They are grouped by trade, the music street, the printers’ row. No street is straight but the line of shadow is, where the late afternoon sun breaks over the westerly buildings and comes to rest on the facing walls. You hurry along in the cold below that warm stripe of light.

Gianni stops at the entrance to a cafe where the cold street is replaced by steam and bright lights. Terazzo floors bounce back cheerful sounds, oak walls absorb them. Your focus sails about the room, circles back to the table. Gianni and Scott are slowing in their talk.

You squeeze a question into the pause. “Why is P.F.M. so popular? What is it that’s different about them?”

Your question is fuel on Gianni’s fire. Imagine modern music without rock ‘n’ roll. No rock-a-billy, no British Invasion, no acid rock. When you lay in your teenage bedroom, your radio reaching out for waves of sound, you found a mix that was mixing it up. But imagine–at the same time, over the ocean and up the boot–little Gianni reaching out with his radio. He didn’t find Elvis, The Beatles, the Grateful Dead. He found the state-run radio station playing romantic ballad singers, and finally–as the 1960s became the 1970s– he found one of a few strange groups breaking the rules. P.F.M.

“Until then there was only one theme for popular songs–love. Only one style–big band,” Gianni explains.

From the start, P.F.M. played music of a different type–electrified as King Crimson, psychedelic as Yes. Their subject matter strayed as widely as their sound. The mainstream music world ignored them. But a lot of little Giannis had found the band’s banner and battle cry.

P.F.M. became immensely popular even though the radio rarely aired their songs.

Live concerts created P.F.M. as a phenomenon. The shows were paid for by the Socialists. To make allies of the youth, they gave bands like P.F.M. opportunities to perform.

“But even that was a problem,” Gianni tells you, leaning back and lighting up another branch of the story.

Socialist principles dictated that concerts should be free. Riots ensued if a promoter tried to charge even a small amount for a ticket. Popular as they were, P.F.M. had no way to make a living. Follow the money: After spending the 1970s touring, they left for England and, eventually, California. The group disbanded in 1982. Without them, popular music in Italy sank into Disco and never emerged.

Gianni and his brethren kept hoping for a reunion. This year–1997–it has finally come to pass.

P.F.M. releases its first album in fifteen years. And a concert tour!

Gianni arrives abruptly at the end of his story. Outside, the street has gotten dark. The old men are bundling up to go home. Stylish young ragazzi are just gathering for the evening. Vespas are buzzing in the street, like the wasps they’re named for.

Gianni stands up.

“Come to my house, you must. I have P.F.M. videos to show you, rare stuff,” he says. “Come meet my family.”

And so again you are hurrying through the winding windy streets, sprinting past buildings out of guidebooks, their profiles glimpsed like acquaintances hurrying by.

Across the Arno is Gianni’s apartment. His wife, his toddler, his mother-in-law, and his new baby are sharing it with his obsession. It is a strange warren of hallways connecting little rooms, of big wooden cupboards dominating small high-ceiling spaces.

After introductions, he takes you up to his den. Music magazines are stacked everywhere. Shallow shelves hold cassette tapes in ranks that line wall after wall, their labels neatly typed. A bathroom opens off the hall–unusable, because of fifteen guitar cases layered into it in ranks. They fill the bathtub at the end, spill over onto the floor. “I bought one of them from Franco, P.F.M.’s base player,” Gianni says reverently.

A little stairway brings you back down to the living room. The women and children have cleared out during the tour. Gianni rummages through his videos of P.F.M. performances. Now he’s whipping videotapes into the player: this interview, that historic performance, a reunion tour. Every other moment he leaps up to show Scott something else–a rare album cover, a vintage magazine.

In each video clip, you hear identical opening chords. The same roar of applause swells as each audience recognizes the tune. The recurring refrain comes around in its four-four time–

 “Noi siamo di noi.”

The audience sings along. Is this the 1974 San Remo performance? The 1978 tour? The 1991 reunion? It doesn’t matter: “Noi siamo di noi.” You might translate it “United We stand.” It’s an anthem. You could march to it.

“Why always the same song?” you ask Gianni.

“It’s the only one that’s under three minutes,” he answers, and you laugh at the harsh realities of the sound bite.

Then you begin to consider at length . . . How is it that Italian men can forever remain boys like this? Surely the wife is going to say, “Gianni, now that the second baby has come, you must sell your guitars and collections! We need the room, we need the money!” There is something here you can never hope to understand. Much as you love Italy, it would take a sex change operation for you to be able to live here.

 

After the music you leave the Italian wife and children, you four, and all go for a little passeggiata up to the Piazza Michelangelo, to admire the city by night. And afterward, to a modest tavern for simple dinners served in an old, barrel-vaulted crypt.

Finally the boys let P.F.M. rest and you talk about other things. Your jobs. Your lives.

Music has made a bridge for you–new friends who will never meet again. You’ve stitched a narrative into each others’ lives.

With dinner finished, Gianni points you back across the Arno. Somehow your car is discovered just a few blocks away. The drive back to the Chianti hills is easy, with few other cars about in the star-studded night. Soon you are back at the villa and the fire that ends each day.

And ringing in your ears, that anthem:

“Noi siamo di noi.”

And you miss … for a moment … your home, your music, and the friends of your youth.

(c) 1997 Sarah White. Tune in next week for the next installment…the enchanted forest of the Camaldoli!

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