Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"'Earl' - The Historical Novel"

I am currently listening (on CD, as I exercise on the treadmill) to “The Smoke At Dawn” by Jeff Shaara, a 546-page (or 16-disc) historical novel concerning the events surrounding a pivotal Civil War encounter close to Chattanooga, Tennessee.  I have reservations about the historical novel.   Although meticulously researched, the included impressions and suppositions are entirely manufactured, giving us 546 pages (or 16 discs) of educated conjecture.

Today, I imagine what a similar undertaking focused on my life might look like.  (Note:  For this exercise to succeed – and there is a chance it might not – you have to pretend that today’s writer is not me, but is instead, someone who knows me inside and out, and feels no hesitation about putting thoughts in my head and motivations to my behavior.

And now, “Earl” – The Historical Novel.”  Today’s Excerpt:  “Earl Eats Breakfast And Reads the Paper.”  Factually, that is the sum total of my activity.  I ate breakfast and I read the paper – that’s all there was to it.  It is the writer’s research-driven imagination that fills in the specifics.

“Earl’s Santa Monica Bungalow – Living Room – Seven A.M.”

Earl descends gingerly to the bottom of the stairs, mindful of the gnawing callus marring the bottom of his left foot.  Earl looks absently down at his sports socks.  He notices they are from two different pairs.

Earl wonders if he should go back upstairs and change them.  He decides not to bother.  He will wear the other two mismatched socks tomorrow.  Which will immediately even things out. 

Earl smiles secretly to himself.  He has made his first decision of the day, and he is content with his determination.

Earl moves to the living room couch, to kiss wife – who as is usual, has arisen before him – and to retrieve the newspaper, which he will read while he eats his breakfast.  He collects the entire paper excepting the “Calendar” Section, which contains the daily crossword puzzle, whose completion is a favored pastime of his beloved, and whose furrowed intensity reveals that she is still working on it.  Earl will peruse the “Calendar” Section when she is done with it, hopefully before he has completed breakfast.  Though he knows better than to hurry her along.

Earl heads into the kitchen.  He sets the newspaper down on the table.  Almost trancelike, as the procedure is habitual, he goes about gathering the necessary accoutrements.

Obtaining a bowl and a cereal spoon and placing them on the table, Earl goes to the refrigerator for the almond milk and the blueberries. 

Earl notices two containers of blueberries.  He strains mightily to remember which container was purchased first, so he can polish them off before initiating the fresher batch.  He snatches the larger of the two containers, his confidence belying the uncertainty of his selection.

Earl opens the pantry, extracting the box of gluten free flax cereal that has become the centerpiece of his breakfast.  He has sampled the gluten free Chex cereals– the Rice Chex and the Corn Chex – as well as the gluten free Puffed Rice – but has settled on the sturdy flax kernels, relishing their resiliency in milk.

On top of this flax-and-blueberries concoction, Earl sprinkles a handful of roasted almonds – not a specifically-counted but an experientially eyeballed amount, though it varies day-to-day by no more than a single almond.  He pours in a never-varying inundation of almond milk, sits down to at the table, and he considers the newspaper, his mind abuzz with trepidation and concern.

Earl’s decisions concerning which newspaper stories to avoid are no trivial calculation, as they can affect his temperamental demeanor for the rest of the day.  Earl’s delicate sensibilities must be protected at all costs.  A strategic misstep can trigger a debilitating funk.

Earl’s decisions concerning which newspaper stories to avoid are no trivial calculation, as they can affect his temperamental demeanor for the rest of the day.  Earl’s delicate sensibilities must be protected at all costs.  A strategic misstep can trigger a debilitating funk.

The Dodgers won the night before, so it is emotionally safe to peruse the game’s coverage. 

An unguarded glance at the death announcement of a notable football player reveals that the deceased was exactly Earl’s age. 

That one is going to be costly.

Earl’s eye is caught by an editorial about Donald Trump, a man whose self-aggrandizement, Earl believes, reflects an egregious insufficiency of maternal hugging.  What comes to Earl’s mind is director Cecil B. DeMille, who made biblical epics decrying sexual licentiousness, while offering graphic scenes of the precise licentiousness of which he claimed to disapprove.  A reminder of the media’s claiming that Donald Trump is unworthy to talk about, while expending unlimited airtime and newspaper ink talking about him. 

Earl looks up at the clock.  “Better get a move on”, he thinks.  It is almost time for the treadmill, and that credulity-challenging historical novel he cannot wait to get back to.

Seeing the time, Earl steps up his eating and newspaper reading, wondering, “What blog post I shall write today?”

In the back of his mind, an idea is beginning to take shape.

Okay, so I got everything right.  But I have a distinct advantage.  I’m me.  And even then, I am not sure I was totally correct.

Jeff Shaara? 

I have no idea how he does it.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Many years ago, I founded a small magazine (www.skeptic.org.uk for the curious) for the UK skeptical movement. About 15 years ago, someone wrote a book in which they summarized the history of skepticism in the UK - without interviewing anyone, AFAIAA. They came up with wholly imaginary, conspiracy-oriented explanations for things that, in real life, were basically coincidences.

So, having had this happen to me: I'd say your blog posting is too close to factual. Where are the fanciful explanations? For example: you took the large container of blueberries, not because of concern about which expired first, but because you and your wife disagree about the importance of eating organic foods and the small one was hers (organic) and the large one was yours (GMO). Your ability to take a consistently-sized handful of almonds is not because you have long-instilled habits but is further evidence of your lack of interest in the health of the earth - there are huge drought issues in California right now - yet you show here that you neither know nor care how much water it takes to produce one almond (1.1 gallons, if you can believe Mother Jones). Your treadmill requires electricity - whereas you could walk outside with far less environmental impact, completing the picture of the devil-may-care, energy-burning, water-wasting anti-conservationist. You probably give all your money to the Republican Party.

You see? *This* is how it's done. Well, by bad historians. (The writer about the skeptic imagined that I am committed to "industrial science".)


Pidge said...

RE: The socks...my Dad would have mentioned that you had another pair, just like them, in your drawer!
Those were the days....

JED said...

I guess I'm just a sucker but I really enjoyed this. I see the point you were making about how difficult it would be for a writer to know these sorts of details about the people they are writing about, but at the same time if you just stick to corroborated facts then how much would there really be to write and who would read it? I don't know Earl very well but when the story got to the part about his being able to read the write-up of the baseball game because he knew the Dodgers had won, I felt it fit in with things you've shared with us before. It may have been an embellishment but, given what the "writer" knew about Earl's personality, it was a fair thing (and an "I know just how he feels" moment for this reader) to put in the story.

Another thing I got out of this post has nothing to do with your point. What I thought about was how exciting our lives would seem if we had someone writing about them. And in a lot of ways, we do lead exciting lives. If my mother read this, she'd think how exciting it would be to be able to move effortlessly from room to room and to have such selections of things to eat. Someone in a war-torn country or a crime-ridden city might think how amazing it would be for such peace and quiet. Some 64-year-old guy who probably won't be able to retire until the day he dies read this thinking how exciting it would be to have a leisurely breakfast that included blueberries - old or not. And that 64-year-old's life would possibly be exciting to someone who doesn't own a house near the seashore where he can take his family when he gets home from work.

I'm sorry to get so sappy but this little piece got me thinking again what an incredible gift we are given every day. Everyone's story is a novel in waiting.

Jim Dodd