Flight from the Enchanter

Posted August 24, 2015 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

Tags: , , ,

So as you know since you read this humble blog so avidly, I have embarked on re-reading the entire canon of Iris Murdoch fiction. (Her nonfiction, mostly discussing moral philosophy, is so deep that it is over my head, which is a mixed metaphor if ever there was one, right?) I’m now on her second novel, The Flight from the Enchanter, which was originally published in 1956 (and which makes it even older than I am).

In addition to re-reading the novels, I am hoping to rebuild my collection of them (don’t ask me why — I don’t know), having donated most of my first set to a small town library, which actually added them to their collection. Alas, it appears that hardback copies of Murdoch novels are being collected; they are hard to find, and when I do come across them in a store or online, they are expensive. So I settled for a broken-spined paperback edition of Enchanter when I came across it at Powell’s Books on my last visit to Portland. Tattered cover. Tiny print. Brown, brittle pages. Spine barely holding it all together.

And a surprise inside.

The edition I found was printed in 1973. When I reached page 50, still sorting out all of the characters and their relationships and trying to keep the pages from falling onto the floor, I came across a small cash register receipt from the original purchase, back in July of 1973. The receipt was from the Honolulu Book Store. What a find! Someone bought this paperback when it was newly issued, perhaps hoping for some light beach reading during a summer vacation to Hawai’i. And found out that Iris Murdoch ain’t light reading. Apparently the person got as far as page 50 and gave it up.

And had no one opened this particular copy of the novel since that time? Had the receipt lay in wait for my discovery forty years later? It’s tempting to think so; little surprises/mysteries like this hold a fascination for me. (See my guerilla marketing post for something like this.) More likely, this copy has passed through many hands over the decades, in some cases never having been begun and so traded away, or in others started and given up. Or, I like to think, treated as I have. The receipt found during a reading and lovingly preserved in situ for the next reader.

I suspect I will be the last reader of this copy. I intend to keep it on my shelf indefinitely. And should it ever be taken to a bookstore or donated to a small-town library, I think it will probably be rejected as too broken down. It may be that this particular copy never falls into another reader’s hands again, and so the little surprise inside won’t delight anyone else.

Life is full of these little mysteries, I think, and the trick is to be open and on the watch for them.


running in the dark: an update

Posted August 19, 2015 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Running

If you read my faux-harrowing post of last week, “running in the dark,” you know that I rise at an insane hour and go running to beat the summer heat. You’ll also know that I was not accosted, molested, bested, or arrested from that “incident.”

But the frisson lingered, and I have done a little “research” since then.

Two days later, I ran much of that same route, passing through the same park and stopping at the shelter for water and a few minutes of rest. This second time through was in the late afternoon, with plenty of light and people all around. There was no hulking, humanish mass at the picnic table this time, but the bathrooms were closed and locked. In the winter they are locked because, I imagine, the water is shut off due to the freezing cold. But in the summer this park is used by runners and cyclists on the trail, families with young children who use the playground, and dozens and dozens of tennis players who pack the many courts laid out there. All of them might have use for the bathrooms on a Monday afternoon. Yet they were locked tight.

Had an incident occurred there two days before perhaps? Had that hulking, humanish mass caused some kind of trouble? I don’t know, and perhaps I don’t want to know.

But I ran the same route again last Saturday morning, coming to the shelter in the pre-dawn dark just as I had the week before. This time, however, I scanned the picnic tables as well as I could in the twilight for any masses that didn’t belong there. (Technically, I didn’t belong there either since the park officially opens at dawn.) I saw no one and was able not only to get a drink and take a few moments of rest but to use the bathroom that was unlocked and open again.

It was when I was leaving the shelter to finish the latter part of my run (another 3.5 miles or so) that I saw something else unnerving. On the sidewalk outside the shelter was a fresh, wet pool of liquid that in the pale light looked blood red. Yikes! Part of me wanted to take off running, and not on the trail but on the lighted, street-side sidewalk. But another part of me wanted to know what that blood-red liquid was. (And if it turned out to be blood, to call the police, of course.)

My phone happens to have a powerful light in it, and while I didn’t want to draw attention to myself with a bright light if I was in a freshly minted crime scene (there was a dark van parked in the lot nearby), I told myself I was being silly and that it surely wasn’t blood.

So I figured out how to use the light on my phone, and I bent over the liquid to see if I could make out what it was. And I could.

It was pasta sauce.

What pasta sauce was doing looking so freshly spilled on that bit of sidewalk at that unholy hour of the morning, I couldn’t say. It was quite liquid, and it hadn’t been discovered by the local fauna yet (no lap marks, no red paw prints nearby). But it wasn’t blood.

As the weather cools, I won’t have to start my morning runs so early. That means I probably won’t be running most of my miles in the dark and certainly, by the time I reach this park on the trail, I won’t be coming in without being able to see everything clearly.

They say runners find the bodies. I hope that never happens to me.

writing is rewriting

Posted August 17, 2015 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons, Humble efforts, Rants and ruminations

Tags: , , ,

“I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.”

Gustave Flaubert

“I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie on the sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.”

E.I. Lonoff in Roth’s The Ghost Writer

So, writing is rewriting. That was a hard lesson for me to learn when I was just a pup starting on this adventure. The stories I wrote then demanded so much of me, so thoroughly exhausted my life experience and the shallows of my musings, that when I finished one, there was nothing more I could do with it. It was finished. Complete. Perfect just the way it was. And behind me.

And undoubtedly dreadful. I’ve not whipped up the courage to go back and read any of those from the early days. I know now that they were my apprentice work, my crawling before stumbling before walking before running. And I know even more, know with well-deserved humility, that no first draft is complete or perfect just the way it is. Certainly not one of mine anyway.

This has not been a good writing year for me. I know many people are dismissive of the idea of “writer’s block.” And perhaps that is not what is afflicting me. Ideas for new stories, ideas for developing partially written stories, even ideas for stories that are finished and published, flood into my chaotic brain just as much as they ever did. But sitting before the laptop in the wee small hours of the morning and making myself enter that creative place where the writing flows (or trickles or sometimes dams up) has just not been happening. Yes, I did manage to put together two short stories in the last few months, but they were completions of work I had started long before, and I’m not sure they’re actually complete. Two stories in eight months ain’t much in the realm of productivity.

But if you can’t write, you can always rewrite, and that’s what I’ve been doing more of lately.

One of my “completed” Fathers and Sons stories (one? more like a half dozen!) had always felt forced and more than a little schmaltzy. Despite those misgivings, I had submitted it to several magazines and duly received rejections. Fine. That’s the nature of this biz. Knowing that it wasn’t right, I’d revisit it and tinker with this or that, and maybe I’d improve it in increments, but I wasn’t getting it where it needed to be. It was flawed in some deep way that I couldn’t identify.

But then the epiphany came. One of the fathers in the stories succumbs to dementia in his old age. Much of the sons’ legacy is lost (or trapped) inside his mind. And what is gleaned from there is suspect. What I realized, as I reflected on the many stories in their many states of completion, is that memory is a recurring theme throughout them. I hadn’t set out to make this a touchstone. (I hadn’t even set out to write a cycle of stories; I just wrote one, liked it, set it aside, then found I had more to say about the characters.) Memory recalled, memory mistrusted, and, in the case of this story, memory manufactured and whether true or not, cherished.

The story is titled “Comfortable in his skin” and it deals with a pivotal day in the life of one of the sons. Yet as he remembers the day, he can’t be sure it happened they way his imagines. But he decides he’s going to accept the memory as true.

The problem with the story was that I’d had the wrong narrator. I had the father telling the story, lovingly, about his son and this important day in his young life. And while that would make it true in the universe of the cycle, it was just too saccharine and “final” for my liking. To have the son “remember” the day decades later, to have him fill in the missing parts as he wanted them to be, allowed the schmaltziness to become sweetness. It’s still a sentimental story, but it is the story as well told as my skills can do.

Discovering the theme of the story is what allowed me to salvage it. That same thing happened in a big way in my story “When we were young and life was full in us,” which I still think is the story I’ve written with the best control; every word in it was considered and weighed. Every sentence was turned around. I think I did get that one exactly right. (And there is a motif in “Comfortable” that recurs in the later-in-the-cycle “When we were young” that I’m pleased with.)

Is “Comfortable in his skin” finished? Probably not. I’ve sent it to a writing friend for his opinion. (Note: he told me I was always welcome to send him stuff.) I’m not good at taking advice, but he is good at seeing through the fog, so I’ll give his words consideration.

I’m not sure I’m past whatever has bottled up my creativity this year, but it is gratifying to get another story in better shape. I’ll take that much until something better comes along.

running in the dark

Posted August 10, 2015 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Running

Portland photo

Two times in my life I was certain I was about to die.

The first time was in Nairobi, when I was making a desperate dash from the hinterlands, trying to get to the airport to change my flight so I could get home to my wife, who had just had emergency heart surgery. I had taken an all-day ride in a matatu and was the last passenger left. The driver asked if I would mind if he gave a lift to some of his friends. I didn’t feel that I could object, and so in poured a half dozen young men who joked and laughed about I-don’t-know-what since they weren’t speaking English. It might have been about me. As we drove into the night, presumably toward the airport, I realized how easy it would be for the driver to stop, the men to overpower me, and for them to help themselves to my luggage (which wasn’t much since the airline had lost my other bag and hadn’t found it yet) and the money in my wallet (which was substantial), leaving my corpse in a ditch outside of the city. None of that happened, and I was dropped off at the airport without incident (where I did feel I was being robbed as I helplessly paid the rapacious fee to change my flight).

The second time was this past Saturday morning when I was out on my morning run.

I do my weekend runs early in the morning mostly to beat the heat this time of year. But this last Saturday, a monstrous storm was massing to the west of Kansas City, and it looked as though I had an hour or so of running time before it hit. I took off a little earlier than I might otherwise to get my miles in before the worst part of the storm hit.

It’s easy to get dehydrated on a run this time of year, but I really hate carrying a water bottle, even the one I have that straps to my hand and becomes part of my body. I don’t like that I have one more thing to manage on my run (along with the screaming in my head to STOP THIS NONSENSE RIGHT NOW!). So I picked a route along the paved Indian Creek Trail that I knew had a water fountain at a small park I would pass through.

I saw no one on the trail in the pre-dawn (in the darkest parts, I didn’t even see the trail itself and had to trust to foot memory), and I reached the small park without incident. This was about two miles from home, and I was still on my outward stretch. The water fountain is under a large shelter there, which includes bathrooms (with flushing toilets), a fire pit, and a dozen picnic tables.

But as I trotted in under the roof of the shelter, I saw a human-shaped figure slumped at one of the tables. Remember it was still dark, and all I had was the light of the faraway street lamps to help me see. The shape didn’t quite look human in the darkness, and I thought that maybe it was a mannequin placed there as a joke or such. I did say “hello” but the figure did not move. This was eerie, and if my skin hadn’t been dripping with sweat, I might have felt my hairs raise in alarm.

I quickly made my way to the water fountain on the other side of the shelter. A little distance between me and whatever it was meant I would at least get a running start if it rose and came for me. I took my sips at the fountain, turning back repeatedly to look at the human-like shape in the darkness.

Normally at this point in my Saturday run I allow myself a few minutes of rest, but I was uncomfortable enuf with the creepy situation that I decided to push on despite my fatigue and find a break a little farther down the trail, preferably within view of the public road (though no cars were about at that unholy hour).

As I passed through the shelter again, the figure raised its head and said “Howya doin’, my man?”


And alive.

And aware of my presence.

I grunted some response and took off, into the darkness that seemed a much safer shelter than the shelter.

I didn’t set a personal speed record as I left, but I did go at least a half mile before I allowed myself to stop again.

In retrospect, I doubt I was in any real danger. I suspect the poor man had spent the night slumped at that picnic table and was probably more rightfully alarmed by a stinking, panting shape approaching him than I needed to be by his inert presence. And in truth, I was actually in more danger a couple of miles later when I was atop a bridge over the interstate highway, lightning and thunder crashing all around me.

I completed my run without further incident (eluding the lightning and even most of the rain) and devoured my customary bagels at the shop that is my regular Saturday morning destination.


The photo above is of me approaching the finish line at the Portland Marathon last fall. I may look together in the photo, but I was in about as much pain as I have ever been in my life, both knees stabbing me with little knives, and my right thigh cramping up tight. I don’t look like that any longer, having shaved off the beard and mustache that had adorned my wretched face for twenty-five years.

my haul at Powell’s

Posted July 21, 2015 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Uncategorized

I was instructed to report on the books I gifted to myself after visiting Powell’s in Portland. We had a busy agenda for the day, but the bookstore was only blocks from where the day started, so we managed to get one of my two goals for the week checked off. (The other is a visit to the Nike Factory store with the remote hope that I can find a new hooded jacket to supplement the one I mostly wear non-stop right now — yes, even in the summer since I am always cold.)

I tried to restrain myself some at Powell’s since I still haven’t worked through some of the books I bought there last fall when I was in Portland. There were certainly a lot more books I had my hands on today and then put back on the shelf.

So here they are:

  • The Flight from the Enchanter by Iris Murdoch – I am slowly rebuilding my Murdoch collection, and I am hoping to re-read her entire output (fiction) in order. This was her second novel, and it’s not commonly found, so I grabbed the one copy Powell’s had and will read it soon.
  • Iris Murdoch by Richard Todd – Essays about her earlier novels. I can use any enlightenment I can get. (I actually already have a shelf of books like these, and some are much too scholarly for me to get through.)
  • Thoreau: the Complete Individualist by Robert Dickens – Because Thoreau!
  • Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick by George Cotkin – Because Moby-Dick!

I had deliberately saved some space in my luggage to have room for the books I hoped to bring back with me. (The last time I was here, my son had to lend me a bag.)


Posted July 20, 2015 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

Of course I’m still around, not doing much but hanging out and wishing I was doing some work or something or anything. The thoughts keep coming, ideas for developing my stories, for news stories, for old stories. But the mental discipline to sit before the blank screen to struggle and strive has abandoned me,  I hope for only a while.

I found that one of my published Fathers and Sons stories, “Men at Work and Play,” has disappeared from the internet. The site is completely gone. I realize this happens all of the time, but I wouldn’t have expected it from this site; it was one of the few that have taken my stories that had me complete and sign a contract. Seemed professional to me, and I guess it was. But all things must pass, as George Harrison has said.

In other news, I am currently in Portland where my doctor son and doctor daughter-in-law live. We’re here to see them and my grandson from New York (also, his mom and dad) who are here this week for Dad’s work. On Thursday of last week, my youngest son (he’s the twin on the doctor son, so he’s youngest by five minutes) and his wife announced that they are expecting and due in March. That was great (and unexpected) news. Then, two days later in Portland my doctor son and his doctor wife announced that they are expecting and due in January! By next year at this time, I will have three grandchildren. I honestly had given up hope that I would ever have any, so life is good. (Both couples have not made a general announcement of their pregnancies, so if you see any of my family, please don’t bring it up.)

open road before me

Posted June 29, 2015 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons, Finnegans

I devoted my weekend writing time to reading the notes I have been compiling for a while toward a new Finnegans novel. (12,000+ words of notes!) I’m making that lane change I discussed in my last post, moving from the Fathers and Sons stories and into something completely different: a Finnegans novel.

I began this humble blog in part as a way to discuss my fledgling efforts on my Finnegans novels. They are cozy mysteries, but they are unique within that genre because they don’t include a murder. I’ve always said that there is plenty of evil that people can do that doesn’t involve murder and often not even crime. (Doyle once calculated that a little more than half of the Sherlock Holmes tales didn’t include a murder and that many weren’t even about crimes, so I feel like I have a literary leg to stand on.)

I had read extensively in the cozy mystery genre, and nearly all of the novels had a murder that the sleuth eventually solved. I have to say, most of this felt contrived, even over the top. And I really don’t think, as some have asserted, that a reader needs something as startling as murder to stay interested in a mystery story. Or rather, I think readers of the cozy mystery genre might welcome a little variation in the formula. Thus my murderless mysteries with a husband and wife team of sleuths who stumble upon whatever is wrong, often not even knowing that something is wrong, and resolving it all in the end.

I’ve written four Finnegans novels (none published though one had some bites when I was shopping it around). They are early efforts, and while I think I can probably salvage a couple of them, I’m eager to get going on this new one to have a fresh start. I have my two central characters well sorted out (from having written the four existing novels), so all I need to do is plunk them down in my plot and let the words flow. (Unlike my “literary” Fathers and Sons stories, I’m not trying to be any more “meaningful” or “lofty” than to tell a good story that can be appreciated on that level alone. I don’t have to anguish over each word and bit of punctuation as I do with the F&S stories. Thus, I think the words can flow on the Finnegans stories.)

As I was reading the 12,000+ words of my notes, I came upon little devices and developments that I had forgotten about and am eager to get into the novel. I also came upon some dead ends that I can discard without a problem. This story happens to involve the wonderful sport of running, and my personal experience with that in recent years will inform the writing in a pleasing and fruitful way, I hope. (I had conceived this plot device for the story before I had taken up running. Kind of handy how my life interests took the turn they did then.)

Whatever the fog has been that has kept me from writing seems to be lifting. In recent weeks I have “finished” two short stories and even submitted some to magazines (!). I’m making my lane change and taking up the Finnegans novel. Things seem to be moving again. I hope it sustains.


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