Stephen King’s son has an interesting theory about a murder victim who apparently appeared as an extra in JAWS the same summer she was murdered. This is just the kind of obsessive obsessions-colliding theory that I love. Thanks to Dan Koeppel.
This shark toilet is so grotesque that I feel obligated to balance the horror with a little spirituality.
If you’re obsessed with sharks like I am, you might have wondered why they manifest in your dreams, plague your waking thoughts and perhaps even haunt your toilet.
Check out this fascinating discussion about shark symbolism.
It may inspire you to start a new religion.
There’s been a whole lot of hoopla lately about trigger warnings, those cautions about potentially traumatizing content (sexual abuse, colonialism, racism, etc.) in books or movies or on websites. Now that UCSB students have asked their professors to include trigger warnings on their syllabi.
What I find baffling about this is that for the “hypersensitive” among us, the entire world is a trigger. Advertisements, trees, the sound of church bells, the font on a candy wrapper, the particular way the sun slants on a garden wall, the sound of dead pine needles underfoot, the sound of gum ball machines, thrift store smells.Depression-prone people tend to fall easily down memory holes. They let a single melancholic moment metastasize into morose delectation. Songs are the most irresistible and potent memory spells ever conjured. Vanished pleasures, deep sorrows–even the most banal or obnoxious song can evoke a soul-altering tragedy. Case in point: Bread.
Today I was waiting for my spin class to start. As the previous class wiped down their bikes, I could hear the earnest opening of “Everything I Own,” Bread’s 1972 hit, except I guess it was NSYNC’s version. This song, like the way-more-wrenching Nilsson tear-jerker “Without You,” always reminds me of the death of my 19-year-old sister Julie in 1973. I was really young then and Top 40 helped me mourn. Love songs became larger–encompassing other forms of grief and loss. Although Julie died over 40 years ago, music always makes her loss more present than any photograph or letter. The memories aren’t just visual or aural, but physical, as if all the places and states of being live quite literally inside my body. The rising “I would give ee-very-thing I own,” makes me see again the rolling green fields around our house, the aching feeling of listening to Top 40 in the car while the New England landscape rolled by, and thinking of the childish bargains I would make if only I could have Julie back again, or re-living the last time I saw Julie when my parents drove her to the hospital and all the things that I didn’t or couldn’t say to her.
Waiting to go into spin class I felt startled by the song, but not ambushed by childhood trauma. Maybe if I was already depressed about something else, I would have been more vulnerable. Maybe if it had been Bread and not NSYNC, I would have meandered down the familiar, beautiful, wrenching path toward that deep sadness that is always there. Julie’s death can always be conjured if I so choose along with a million other sadnesses, losses, anxieties, unresolved obsessions. “The shit,” my first therapist said, “is always there.”
I know that all trauma is not created equal. The earnest, eerie refrain of nostalgia isn’t the horror of the combat vet with PTSD. Once triggered, certain traumas are immediately physical and terrifying. But even so aren’t we all ultimately responsible for our own healing whether it’s finding a shrink or a meditation practice or writing or love? The world will never cater to our particular wounds or losses. Shouldn’t a blanket warning about potentially upsetting book or movie be enough?
I used to be very vulnerable to memory. If a sad song played, I had to relive whatever it summoned. I had to feel the agony of lost love, death, lost time. It wasn’t so much a decision, as what David Foster Wallace might have called a “default setting.” Not being pulled in the direction of every thought, memory, song was something I had to learn. Unless I really want or need to remember, to renew a memory for fear of losing it or unless I am writing something and need to remember deeply, I find “catch and release” a nice motto to live by.
When I checked Songfacts for more information about “Everything I Own,” I learned that David Gates wrote the song not about a lost lover, but about the death of his father. I also noticed that beneath the usual trivia about chart positions and things like that, a few people had posted their own personal memories of the song, many of which seem pretty traumatic. Alcoholism. Sexual Abuse. A lost sister. For many the “you” in the song is God. For these people this song has become a memory about not just about the trauma itself, but a reminder of their own survival, a way of creating perspective, marking time.
I feel curmudgeonly. I want to write something about today’s kids needing to “toughen up.” Life is often brutal and the best literature is often unsparing about this truth. If Nabokov or Baldwin or Achebe or Fitzgerald evoke trauma and pain, think about what they actually might be saying about racism or pedophilia. Maybe they aren’t so much triggers of trauma as catalysts for deeper understanding. If a Bread song could initiate a contemplative exploration of childhood grief and loss, just imagine the power of Virginia Woolf.
A dance of death and digestion in the Maldives
Writers aren’t allowed to say things like “words fail,” but I am still struggling to find the language to describe this face. I cannot form a coherent sentence about this image by Andrew Fox of a white shark breaking the surface in pursuit of an albatross. My brain sputters out weird fragments: “bloody clown laugh,” or “sad dream lipstick jaw.” The otherworldly quality of this animal makes me rethink my place in the universe. Maybe that explains my enduring feeling, beyond the wonder and horror, of deep gratitude towards them.
About a month ago I was sitting in a little windowless office at school chatting with my friend and fellow adjunct, Emily.
I was blabbing to her about the end of this blog. How this year I’ve written about all kinds of things outside of sharks, I’ve written about my mother’s life fading and grieving the loss of my father. And even the activism—the petitions signed, the protests and teaching, the Jaws Benefit, all of it seems a bulwark against vanishing. Soon, and finally, I’ll be going on this trip to see the sharks in South Africa.
“I have to see how it all fits together,” I told Emily, “to make a book out of it.”
“Well, going down in the cage is your confrontation with death,” she said.
I know she didn’t just mean I was off on some “extreme” adventure, some chance to stick my head in the maw of oblivion, but my confrontation with all of it.
I knew this. It seemed both revelatory and obvious. I must have said or written or voiced it before. But why when I heard Emily say it did I feel a weird hush inside me—the kind of sea silence I imagine myself descending into?
P.S. I stole this title from a fantastic poem about the Vietnam Veterans Wall by Yusef Komunyakaa.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how certain books become inseparable from the places we are when we read them.
When I think of Keats, I remember sitting on a train speeding through the green blur of Long Island, and a deep blue collected poems from the 1920s with toast-colored pages that fell apart as I read it. First his name flaked off the spine, then the covers dangled by a few desiccated threads. I kept trying to glue the little book together, tape it and make it whole. But each time I tried, I thought of Keats’ epitaph, still my favorite of all time:
Here Lies One Whose Name was Writ in Water.
Peanuts. Mad. “Lennon Remembers.” “The JAWS Log.” All the beloved books of childhood I read while reclining on a scratchy green couch with an errant spring that used to burrow into my spine. I kept having to shift my body to get comfortable, to stay in the book. In those moments when I briefly surfaced from the page, I noticed how having read seemed to have changed the world slightly. I could see a new sharpness in old things, in furniture and wallpaper. I noticed how the old colored bottles on the fireplace, the colonial figurines, seemed to become more “themselves” somehow, to assert their thing-ness with greater authority.
Baudelaire Selected Poems: First read summer 1985 Plum Island Massachusetts. I remember putting a star next to “The Albatross” in the table of contents. Sand in the pages. Book held against the blinding, magnetic sun. Every so often I’d stop reading and stare at the cover: two sea deities joined in salty, tentacled union in the midst of a crashing wave. I’d watch the calm, dark Atlantic. No sea gods. No crashing. No ecstasy. Just a guy with a mullet and a metal detector silhouetted at the surf’s edge.
So many times I loved a book so much I couldn’t bear to part with it. Equal parts passion and sloth. Okay, I told myself, you have to go for a walk. Bring the book if you have to, but you’re going outside. All the way up the mountain trail to the Hollywood sign, I held the fat paperback (The Collected Stories of John Cheever), but didn’t open it. Then finally, on the long way down, I couldn’t wait. I read as I walked down the trail. I knew I looked stupid, but I had no idea it would anger anyone. “Look at you,” the hiker said as he passed me, “you can’t even appreciate nature. Pathetic.” Was this true? Was reading while one walked a sign of moral weakness–a declaration: I need a constant filter, an intermediary to block or translate the world? I wondered about my innate inability to relate to nature on its own terms. Even though I grew up in the country, I still can’t identify many trees. The present always reminded me of the past. The actual seemed an echo of the fictional. New Hampshire was Narnia. When I smelled the lilacs, I loved them. When I found a cellar hole in the woods, I felt fascinated and afraid. But Frost’s line about the abandoned house that had become a “belilaced cellar hole” is more vivid to me now than either the smell of those flowers, or that dark empty place in the earth.
In 1986, I went with my father to Walpole State Prison in Massachusetts. Dad was interviewing William Douglas, a former Tufts anatomy professor who’d become obsessed with a prostitute named Robin Benedict and eventually bludgeoned her to death with a sledge-hammer in 1983. He threw her body in a dumpster in a Rhode Island shopping mall. My father was going to interview Douglas for the Boston Herald. In the news, the story sounded like a weird fable: “The Professor and the Prostitute.” The papers used words like “obsession” and I remember thinking it was so strange that Robin Benedict had been a graphic designer and a prostitute.
I brought a copy of “Dracula” to the prison with me. I remember watching my father disappear with a prison guard behind sliding metal doors. I had to sit in the waiting room with “Dracula.” I kept trying to concentrate on the book, but all I wanted was to watch my father ask a murderer a series of questions. I remember returning over and over to a description of a carriage on a rocky road and Lucy, pale and vampiric on her deathbed, but her pale face kept giving way to William Douglas, his big professor glasses, and how rodent-like and sweaty he looked in the newspaper photos. The contempt I felt for him as a teenager seemed an indictment of his ugliness as much as his evil. At 19, the silver-fanged monsters of imagination were more sympathetic to me—or at least more beautiful.
Waiting for the Dead
Once the fortune-teller shut the black curtain
wound the ticking clock and set the alarm,
assuring no revelation
spilled past the allotted hour.
He held my right wrist and traced
two broadly divergent lines on the edges of my palm.
“You have the ability to transgress boundaries
and enter the world of the dead.”
This I already knew.
The paths inscribed in the body
mirror those I walk in the wooded past—
trails marked with faded red ribbons
blurred by rotting and growing.
I pass the serenity of beaver ponds,
the crude warnings nailed to trees,
the collapsed wedding altar.
But where are the dead?
Should I watch for them
or feel them
rise and fall in every step?
I hear that the dead often appear
just beyond the borders.
So I follow the cold stone walls
up and down the leaf-strewn hills.
Once I dreamed that they wait for us
at places of transition—the parting of two roads
or the benches of lonely depots.
I remain alert when traveling alone.
They’re attracted to still, late hours
and fragments of their bright voices can be heard
in moments of our greatest joy.
But most often the dead enter through sorrow
that old forgotten gate, past the whorled trees
in a forest of undeciphered lines,
of startled clearings and ever-widening paths.
(I wrote this poem to explore the idea of having a “gift” whatever that might be, and the inescapable burdens that come with it.)
This is a poem by Robert Frost called “Directive.”
Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry—
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods’ excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.