Friday, September 4, 2015

On Writer's Block

“When are you going to write something,” said Lady, who’s becoming impatient with my extended writer’s block.

When, indeed? Because the world has been spinning faster and faster, and anyway, my own house has been turned not upside down but rather sideways, since everything that was in the back of the house is now in the front of the house, all the better so that Lord—who is logically Lady’s brother—can scale scaffolds and ladders in order to drip paint on the floor.

OK—be fair. The paint dripped is a wonderful near Norwegian blue (actually, in my mind it’s a Finnish blue) but also very runny, or maybe it’s just that it dislikes being put on the cornice and wants the limelight of being lower down. Anyway, it’s running, which is unfortunate, since neither Lord nor I had the sense to realize that we should probably paint the ceiling first, then the cornice, and then the rest of the wall. No, we went the other way, which would have been fine if we had remembered to get the paint that falls up. But the great thing about Lord is that he’s very clean, which means that the floor is looking far cleaner than it ever has. He also has fallen for Mauricio, who is supposed to be a cat but is instead a genetically modified skunk (they removed the stripes) and whose other name is Monsanto. So Lord has provided Monsanto with a roller hanging from a string, and the cat / skunk has been happy ever since. See? Service you don’t get from ordinary painters!

So for years we had been living with mold, we are now living with dust and the cement scrapings and scraps of paint. Not that we didn’t escape once or twice, first to go to Walmart to buy a mattress, and second to go to the largest shopping mall in the Caribbean, since someone had crashed through to the very nadir of nefariousness and robbed my phone.

It’s my fault, of course, though I still think that the current thief was in his last life Joseph Mengele. But the point is that I succumbed to a salesman who told me that I would never get a date—or what might come after it—if I continued to have the phone that Radio Shack had actually paid me to take off their shelves. That phone, which was red but nameless, I could leave in a prison lunchroom, and would anyone steal it? Of course not, but the sleek little Galaxy s5?

I realized it in a flash, that it was gone, that it was stolen, that I was defenseless. True, I had most of my contacts in a little black notebook—yes, you have that honor, you out there—and I had most of the three hundred CDs that I had collected gathering dust—and paint—next to the piano. But I was faced with the horrifying possibility of reentering all those contacts, and playing all that music back into the computer so that it could play it back into the phone.

Curiously enough, the phone did it all by itself, even without the SIMS card, so now I have my contacts and my music, and this little Asus zenphone is a Galaxy manqué or maybe a faux Galaxy but whatever it is, it is not a Galaxy. Which means that I could throw it into a den of thieves and they would throw it right back. Yes, it’s that bad.

So that’s why my mood had been rather sour, of late, plus of course the fact that I’m a news junkie and living in Puerto Rico, which in the current moment is spiraling through a vortex of crises. So what could I possibly write about? After all, I had been compulsively reading articles entitled, “Puerto Rico Debt Crisis: Yes, Western Civilization Soon to End!” Could I help myself? Of course not, but neither did it seem like I should inflict it on anyone else.

So I haven’t been writing, since what is there to write about? Would anyone really be interested in the interesting relations between Lord and his niece Naïa? Or that she had dragged him all the way to the other side of the mall, so that he could pay six dollars for a Godiva ice cream cone, which she declined to allow either of us to sample? Or that I had told her that I was 9,6423,0974,987 seconds old, when she asked how old I am.

“What’s that in years?” she asked.

“Who knows,” I told her, “anyway, at my age, you have to start counting in seconds…. Years just don’t make sense anymore.”

The daughter of a poet and a Frenchman, Naïa completely gets this. So we go home, and I sit down to write, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing to write about, which is depressing because—in those smug days when I could write—I had declared that writer’s block was entirely fictitious. And haven’t I proved it? 842 words, one and a half pages, and have I said anything at all? Of course not!

So since I couldn’t write, I devoted myself to watching videos, which meant that I had to listen to every word John Oliver has ever uttered publically, since I had long since consumed the entire oeuvre of Rachel Maddow and John Stewart. So that was a problem, since where could I turn after that?

The odd thing about a blogging life—let’s call it la vie del bloguer—is that things sort of enter into your head, and you find yourself thinking or more likely obsessing about them. But what made me think of prairie chickens? Right—it was The New York Times, reporting on the near extirpation of the Attwater Prairie Chickens, and that put me in mind of the prairie chickens that I had seen, way back in the 60’s, in central Wisconsin.

It amuses me now—I live in the tropics, and the national bird, our Puerto Rican parrot, is—in addition to well past extirpation and just to the east of extinction—a very handsome bird indeed. Magnificent, with vibrant green and striking red, and no little call, either. But for all that, I’d rather be of a place that has the prairie chicken, and especially of a place that had the likes of the Hamerstroms, who were the ardent champions of the bird.

My father knew them, or maybe just knew of them, since we were friends with the Schorgers—the foremost authority on the wild turkey—and they were friends with everybody including Roger Tory Peterson, which is why I can tell you that Peterson was utterly puzzled when somebody told him he really should buy a suit, since the President was giving him some medal or other.

“But why,” he said, “I already have a suit.”

And so he did, which he had been wearing every day since his teens….

(News flash—page 3, 1170 words, and absolutely nothing substantive yet!)

Now where was I?

Right, the Hamerstroms, a wonderful old couple who lived in an 1850’s stagecoach inn that hadn’t been painted since the Civil War but did have a ballroom on the second floor. The ballroom housed the ornithological books, and the first floor housed everything else, including a great horned owl, who took what I felt was an unhealthy—for me, at least—interest in a small, tow-headed boy. I sat down, the bird immediately flew behind me, and perched on the cornice. I changed seats, the bird did as well. The Hamerstroms and my parents found this funny; I, like the Queen, was not amused.

So we slept in this house which had, as Fran Hamerstrom once said, “all of the luxuries, such as a first-class ornithological library, but none of the necessities.” Which is to say it had no running water and only wood-burning stoves for heat. Which was no problem for Mrs. Hamerstrom, because she had been batty all her life. She was born into wealth in Massachusetts, but instantly took to the wild, so much so that her parents tried to tame her. She retreated even further, and took to planting poison ivy on the path between her and her parents. Typically, she was naturally immune to the plant, though she may have caused it to itch.

Well, she proudly flunked out of Smith, and then met her husband, whom everybody called Hammy, and they both became students of another Wisconsin legend, Aldo Leopold, who wrote Sand County Almanac, a book I have lied about reading for years. So Leopold sold them on the idea of saving the prairie chickens, and the Hamerstroms set to work, and have done so well that there is now a Central Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival. Yes, we take our prairie chickens seriously, we of Wisconsin.

As do the prairie chickens, though I did not, that next morning at five AM when we had to get up and sit in a freezing blind, since it was my father’s professional duty to report on the doings of the prairie chicken. And what were they doing? Well, you can see below, but it’s sort of the ornithological equivalent of break dancing—very enticing, to the mesdames prairie chickens, or las poules de prairie.

Yes, the male does all the elaborate footwork of a manic ballerina on cocaine, and then, after puffing his orange sack out from his neck, soars up and bops his competitor, and that’s pretty important, since I can now tell you that the top dog…err, chicken…gets to impregnate 90% percent of the chicks.

At last, exhausted from not having slept in a freezing house, and having woken up at before anyone even thought of cracking the dawn, we went away. Fran Hamerstrom stirred around, writing books, writing articles, and venturing down to Peru to observe native Amazon hunting customs. She broke her hip there, and had to be canoed out down the river, which was an annoyance but anyway, she went back the next year. She was only 87 at the time, so it was no big deal….

She had been a little off all her life, but always in the best way, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see her on the Letterman show, in the clip below. If you can, skip to about minute 23 of the clip. Letterman is painfully not funny for the first ten minutes, the comedian who follows him is hardly better. But then Doctor Hamerstrom comes in, with the news that all violets are edible, and with a dead fox snake, which she is proposing to cook in—now burnt—butter. She’s taken an interest in cooking wild things, and has become a sort of Julia Child of the Wisconsin woods.

They are, in fact, quite similar—Brahmin ladies who are completely sincere and utterly funny without in the least meaning to be. So it’s no surprise when Hamerstrom pulls out a small grass snake—her pet Matilda—from a coin purse where she carries it. She then plops the snake into her brassiere.

So now its four pages and 1868 words and I still have writer’s block but…

…at least you know about prairie chickens!