Near the beginning of the second semester, snows fall and melt then freeze, capping the ground with ice. Deer appear in the front yard. Short-tailed shrews shimmy atop the ice searching for food. I stop riding my bicycle and start wearing boots carpeted with treads. Newspapers raise columns fluted with the discussions of fuel bills. Above the architrave of paragraphs run friezes decorated with tales of suffering and financial hardship. The papers’ temples are only seasonal, never rising to coffered ceilings and usually collapsing shortly after titmice and cardinals begin calling.
Once classes start, I linger around the house, the season’s big excursion the used book sale at the Mansfield Library. Vicki and I go early Saturday morning. We buy coffee and munch sweet rolls and fudge cake. This year I purchased ten books paying eight dollars. On returning home, I discovered that I had already read three of the books, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, H. E. Bates’s The Purple Plain, and Idleweeds:The Life of a Sandstone Ridge by David Rains Wallace. In fact I recognized my handwriting on some of the pages of Idleweeds. Three of four years ago I bought the book at the sale. After reading it, I donated it to the next year’s sale where someone else picked it up. After he finished it, he in turn sent it back to the library, and this year I bought it for the second time. What appealed to me at the sale lost attraction when I finished the fudge cake, and I stuffed three more books I bought into a cardboard box, telling Vicki I’d take them to Nova Scotia this summer where they would go down better, all three volumes by Gerald Durrell and so upbeat they verged on self-help: Fillets of Plaice, The Overloaded Ark, and Golden Bats & Pink Pigeons.
That night I read Roy Porter’s Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine, the next morning Scenes of Childhood by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a book I’ll probably reread, if I’m bolting down sweet rolls at the sale four years from now. What gave me as much pleasure as the books I bought, though, were the titles of books I didn’t buy, all volumes panaceas for insomnia—among others, Famous Animals and The Boy From Maine. Printed in yellow above the title of this last was “Broadway Gave.” Below appeared “Everything But the Girl He Loved.” Flying Blind, Flying Safe seemed oxymoronic, and moronic, while How To Hold a Crocodile appeared just the ticket for parents planning to vacation in Florida and who were tired of their unruly children.
Until I read the book jacket and saw that the book was a “warm and engaging story of a boy and his father,” I almost bought Little Britches thinking it sartorial, a study of smalls, jockey shorts and thongs. On the inside flap of the book jacket of Fat Emily appeared the declaration, “Anyone who doesn’t end up rooting for Fat Emily is suffering from hardening of the arteries.” “Maybe,” I thought, the puff somehow bringing to mind praise for the one-legged man “who accomplished a great foot” by swimming around Manhattan Island. Birdwatching with American Women seemed certain to give readers encephalitis, although adding “of Suspect Reputations” to the title might cause wanton lapwings to flock to malls and purchase binoculars. Reluctantly I put The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918 back upon the shelf, not before, however, copying a poem that appeared on the title page: “Mount Generator. Tighten Spark Plugs. Distributer Wire Cap. 2 Hose Clamps. 1 Bolt for Top of Head. 6 Nuts and Lock Washers for Exhaust Manifold. Rocker Arm Assembly. 4 Lock Washers for Motor Mounts. 3 Lock Washers for Exhaust Manifold Nuts.” “I am tired of free verse,” I told Vicki, “but this is a poem for our times, the lock washers being a splendid metaphor for so much that troubles modernity.”
During the first part of the semester, students’ minds are congealed. Once a week I give a short quiz, asking questions about the readings assigned in my courses. After the second quiz, a boy enrolled in my class in nature writers came to my office. “Mr. Pickering,” he said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I do the reading, but I just can’t answer any of your questions.” “Slow down and read more carefully,” I suggested. My advice did not help, and the boy made zeroes on the next two tests. At the end of the fifth week, however, he burst into my office. “Mr. Pickering,” he said. “I know what’s wrong. I picked up the wrong lesson sheet and bought the wrong book. I have been reading the assignments for your other course, the Romantics and Victorians.” “But,” I said, “you don’t cut class. For five weeks we have talked about ecology, Darwinism, gardens, Emerson and Edward Abbey, salamanders and honeybees. Didn’t you think it odd that we never discussed anything you read?” “Not really,” the boy answered. “I’m a business major. I’ve never taken a course in literature, and I assumed teaching was done differently in the English Department.” The following Thursday I described the boy’s mistake to my friend Raymond, saying, “Isn’t that the darnedest thing you have ever heard?” “No,” Raymond said. “The girl who just left my office went the boy a few days better. She is taking in my course in seventeenth-century English literature. Six weeks have passed, and only today did she realize that last spring she took the same course with me and with the identical reading list.”
Ice does not conduct thought efficiently, and across Connecticut minds are numb. The first week in March I drove to Bradley Field to fetch a job candidate flying in from Missouri. As is habitual with me, I arrived an hour before the man’s flight landed. I passed the time talking to a docent manning an information desk near the baggage claim area. Two days ago, the man recounted, a woman with two small, wormy children waited for an hour in the baggage room. She kept looking at her wristwatch. Eventually she called someone on her cell phone after which she got up and dragging the children behind wandered off. Thirty minutes later she returned and spoke to the docent, telling him that her husband said he was sitting in the baggage area in Terminal E. “And I can’t find Terminal E,” she said, sounding desperate as her children tugged at her. “I told her,” the docent said, “there was no Terminal E at Bradley and advised her to call her husband again. She phoned him right away. ‘He says,’ she reported holding the telephone, ‘that he is in Terminal E. Right across the street is a Dunkin’ Donuts shop.’” “The poor woman,” the docent said, shaking his head and almost laughing. “She was in Hartford, and her husband was at Logan Airport in Boston.”
During the rest of the year, my friend Josh strides outward and roams New England. In February he snuggles inward and makes closeted and peculiar observations, many of which he shares with me. At a book fair on campus he button-holed the representative of Bedford/St. Martin’s, the publisher of a textbook entitled Ways of Reading. Josh told the man that he only read one way. “I start at the top of the first page,” he said. “I begin with the first line and I read left to right. When I reach the end of the line, I return to the left side of the page and start line two. Slowly I work my way down the page reading left to right across lines two then three then four and so on until I reach the bottom of page one. After I finish the first page, I read page two in the same way, left to right, top to bottom. Eventually I finish the book. That way of reading has sufficed so far, but I like to keep up with the latest critical doings. I don’t want to fall behind the times and be condemned to spend all my library hours in some sort of pedagogical missionary posture. What are some of the other ways of reading? I know that in the Arab world people read right to left, back to front, and I imagine that in some places people start at the bottom of the page and work up, or perhaps in the middle and go both ways at once. I’d appreciate it if you would describe a handful of these other ways.” “What did the man say?” I asked. “Nothing,” Josh answered. “He just stared. What could he do?”
At the end of February, Josh attended a symposium sponsored by the university medical school. A “health practitioner” told people who wanted to lose weight “to watch what you eat.” “How the hell else can a person eat?” Josh asked. “If he doesn’t watch what he eats, he’ll miss his mouth. He’ll stab himself in the eye with his fork or toss food over his shoulder and make the floor so greasy that he’ll slip when he stands up and fall down, wham, smashing his coccyx into grape nuts.” “Of course,” Josh continued, “if a person really wants to lose weight he won’t watch what he eats. He will toss his meals here, there, and everywhere. He may starve to death, but he’ll lose weight.”
In the icy clavicle of the new year, the conventional and the young, the two often being the same, probably think Josh a “grey-beard loon.” Of course the truth is that confinement focuses attention on the minute and immediate, almost as if a person is looking the wrong way through binoculars, from the big end to the small. In February Vicki bought two boxes of Twinings Lapsang Souchong Tea, the first time the tea had been sold in Storrs. Lapsang Souchong and Russian Caravan are my favorite teas, and I handled the Twinings box almost lovingly, reading the writing on the box carefully. “The unique flavour of Lapsang Souchong is produced,” I read, alas, “by lying the leaves out on bamboo trays and allowing smoke from pinewood to penetrate through them.” The English spelling of flavor, fatty with the decorative u, was passable, especially since the tea was packed in London. But “lying the leaves out” was an illiteracy, scrofulous even by British standards, or so I wrote Twinings. Their not knowing the difference between the forms of lie and lay, I wrote, had curdled my tongue, almost souring the taste of the Lapsang Souchong. Twinings did not answer my letter, its managers, I assume, like my student, unfamiliar with the English language.
In winter when the ground is frozen solid, corporate entrepreneurs rummage through back files hunting the aged and soft-minded. The only other time I rose to words was after Health Net twice invited my mother to a seminar on Medicare to be held at Angellino’s, a local restaurant. Mother died in Nashville in 1988. I did not think, I told Clarence on the telephone, that she would be curious “why over 30,000 Connecticut residents are enrolled in a Health Net Medicare Advantage plan.” Saving “hundreds of dollars a year” was unlikely to be high on her list of “must do’s.” Moreover I suggested that her presence at the seminar might put a pall over the meal. “But,” I concluded, “if Health Net wishes to exhume her and cart her from Tennessee to the seminar, worms, beauty spots, and all, then do so. But if Health Net does not plan to fly her to Mansfield, and fly her first class so that she can stretch out in comfort and keep all her bones about her, then erase her name from the sonofabitching mailing list.” My reply was unseasonably warm. Oddly hot weather cools prose, and behavior. In February people roll their hands into knots for warmth, and from a fist, as the old saying puts it, nothing good can go out or come in. In spring fingers open like petals, and, as people become givers and receivers, life blossoms.
At the start of the semester, mail is often gloomy. From Alabama a woman wrote describing her eighth wedding anniversary. Her mother babysat her three children, and she and her husband spent the night in the Confederate Suite at a hotel in Birmingham. On the wall was a full-length portrait of Robert E. Lee. “He stared at us while we made out,” the woman wrote, “and I didn’t like it.” Also in the suite were a hot tub and a giant bed, “supposedly heart-shaped but really resembling a teardrop, nothing at all like the real thing, a satchel with pipes running in and out.” On a table beside the bed was a leather-bound guest book. Two nights earlier another couple spent a night in the suite, and the next morning the wife wrote in the book, “My husband and I have been married thirty years, and we are still as much in love as we were thirty years ago.” “That made me sad,” my correspondent recounted. “When we left, I didn’t write anything. My love flickers like a tired light bulb. One day it will go out, and I will be alone in the dark.”
Some correspondents try to force the season. Reading between lines blights their optimism like a late freeze burning buds that open too soon. “I have moved back to Massachusetts,” a man wrote, “and I feel like my life is just beginning. I am looking forward to what is coming next. I know that as the chapters unfold my life will get better.”
Still, March has arrived, and mental and physical landscapes are changing. Ice is breaking in the Fenton River, not howling like the ice in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” but sloughing off the main and jumbling into piles in coves. Robins scour bare spots on the lawn, and titmice sing while I eat breakfast. “Enough about cold,” Vicki said four days ago. “Why don’t you write a story about Bartholomew Pilgibutton. He is the cousin of Hornaby Burrwagon, collects toy guillotines, sells Dr. Jesus ceramics, and the second i in his last name is pronounced like a long e.” On Saturday a student wrote me from London, his letter hearty with youthful enthusiasm and appetite. “Lots of eating. It’s incredible,” he wrote. “I found a stunning restaurant with real English food like bone marrow and pig face and other stuff that just makes you feel really alive when you’re eating it because it is so bad for you.” Yesterday students went to the university museum and wrote a paragraph about their favorite paintings. “I love this snow scene of a winding lane leading to a small farm because it makes me think about home,” Zachary wrote. “Life is best when it is simple. This painting reminds me that days don’t have to be as complicated as we make them. Before all the snow melts, I would love to go home, shovel the walk, fill the grain buckets for the horses, and stock the woodstove. What a good time that would be. Actually all that any of us really wants is to feel at home.”
Sam Pickering is a professor of English at the University of Connecticut. The author of fifteen books of essays, he was also the inspiration for the teacher in the film The Dead Poets Society. In spring 2004, the University of Michigan Press will publish two more of his books, one an account of a year he spent in Australia, the other his selected essays. (updated 5/2003)