First stop: the largest spring-fed pool in the world. Balmohrea State Park is known for its cienega, which is Spanish for oasis. And an oasis it is in the hot, dry desert that is West Texas.

I shot this video on Vine, so please excuse the odd aspect ratio / format.

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“That’s my Georgia O’Keefe poster.”

He didn’t know what she meant until he saw it sitting there, the bright orange-red petals pluming from the stalk, sitting next to a saggy cardboard box filled with rubbish.

Last time he saw the poster it was facing the building, placed there the night before when he made one last trip to the storage unit with the most precarious selection of house wares: the young couples’ rug collection, an open bin of records, the vacuum cleaner, several power tools, a variety of knick knacks as well as the doomed painting.

A personalized code provided by Public Storage gave him access to the building where he retrieved a dolly and wheeled it to the back of their car to load it up with stuff. He pushed the cart a few yards to test the temerity of the pile and, passing the test, decided to go the rest of the way to his storage unit.

Walking backwards he pulled the cart through the motion-activated sliding doors, the mass of goods remaining steady, and nearly made it into the elevator when the last wheel caught on the threshold and sent a jolt through the cart. Most of his wares fell to the ground.

Cursing, he shoveled their possessions back onto the dolly, finding underneath all his junk the Georgia O’Keefe print. He regarded the slightly broken frame and the poster that barely hung within it before replacing them back atop the pile.

When the cart was jostled a second time by the same foil causing the delicate tower to fall, his patience cracked. The frame, now in two parts, was slammed to the ground and then thrown into a cardboard box sitting by the entryway. He then folded the poster and placed it alongside the rest of the discarded items.

Now here it was, on the side of the building, and she said it again.

“That’s my poster.”

Someone must have picked it up and inspected it before deciding they didn’t want it, only this stranger had the decency to place the piece in a way that it could be appreciated. Today, without the tension and exhaustion of moving hanging off of him, he wished he’d done the same.

Last night was supposed to be the final trip to the storage unit, but they’d found a few more things to pack and here they were and there was the print. Guilt flooded his conscience. He realized what he should have done: junk the frame and save the poster.

He looked at her but she already knew what happened.

Getting out of the car, she opened the trunk and starting unloading. Without saying a word he went and retrieved the poster, presenting it to her with an explanation.

“It happened last night, the frame broke, the circular saw fell on it, I got upset, I should have…”

She had already inspected the piece and set it on the ground.

“It’s fine, I don’t want it.”

“Honey, it’s still good. Look.” He demonstrated the poster’s resilience by reversing the fold and attempting to flatten it.

“No thank you.”

Her eyes stayed on the ground. He’d forgotten how happy she was the day they found the frame at Goodwill and the joy she took in filling the frame with the Georgia O’Keefe print and the pride she felt by hanging it in the living room.

“I’m really sorry. I know I hurt you and I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

They loaded up the last of their things and headed into the building. She held the poster in her left hand and though he knew chances were slim, he hoped maybe she’d forgiven him and would take it with them to the storage unit. There it would sit for the next 12 months. The next time she saw it all would be forgotten, and the fun of hanging it in their new home would erase the bad memories. But when he went to type his code into the keybox she walked to the rubbish pile and discarded the poster.

He wanted to protest but could feel it wasn’t his decision.

Silent all the way to the storage unit, they shared terse comments on how to fit the last of their stuff into the 10 x 10 concrete box. When it was finished they couldn’t help but share the pride of completing a difficult task.

“I feel like we should take a picture,” he said.

So he took a few snaps but was disappointed with the results.

“Doesn’t do it justice,” he said. “You can’t even make out the dining room chairs stacked on top of the couches.”

“What about a video?” she suggested.

She explained the storyboard, telling him the shots she wanted to get and the camera angles she would use. Using the dolly as a dolly, they slid past the open storage container with cameras rolling. He acted as her grip and sound tech, playing the background music while pushing the cart. They were laughing and having fun together, encouraging each other to waste time. Moving had been difficult and this was their first small victory in several days. He slid her backwards and sideways on the dolly so she could get the footage she needed.

“Okay now for this one I just need the texture of the storage units, so you can push me kind of fast if you want to.”

“Okay.”

What she intended to be a brisk walk he took as a full-out sprint. He started running and she counted down to the camera cue.

“Three…two…one…”

CRASH.

When he looked down at his phone to queue the music their cart veered to the right and collided with the wall, sending her off the flat bed and into a metal cornice. It looked bad, sounded worse and though he wanted to ask if she was alright he din’t have to, the laughter spilling out of her was proof enough that she was fine.

“What the fuck?” She asked between rubbing her shoulder and looking back at what they’d run into. “What happened?”

An explanation wasn’t necessary. She was already checking the footage and planning the next shot.

“Okay, when I told you to go faster I didn’t mean lightspeed.” She sat down on the dolly. “Let’s try it again.”

He paused. “Darling, I don’t want to stunt your artistic vision but we just put a serious dent in that storage unit and almost your skull. Maybe we should flee the scene of the crime?”

After looking around a little bit and glancing at her phone with a long, wanting stare she agreed. On the elevator they joked and stood side-by-side watching what had survived the crash and laughing over the incident.

“You were more worried about the dent in the wall than you were about me.”

“Oh come on, you were fine.”

“Mmmm hmmmm. You didn’t know that.”

They purposefully bumped into each other on the way out and shared a brief kiss before getting back into the car.

But when they sat down and he looked in the rear-view mirror the painting was still there, like a solar flare amongst the garbage. He didn’t say a word, nor did he look at her, hoping she hadn’t seen the print and remembered what he’d done. But he knew then no matter how much laughter they shared or good times he put between them and this incident the hurt would still be there. It was something they’d both have to cope with.

Ben MarcusNot sure what I was thinking when I booked a flight from Austin to Denver that turned a two-hour flight into a tour of airports and time zones that took me from Austin (Central) to El Paso (Mountain) then the Vegas (Pacific) before arriving at my final destination, Denver (Mountain), seven hours later at 12:20 a.m. But it did afford me the opportunity to read a book in one sitting. Which got me thinking: does the way the reader consumes the book affect his opinion of it? Or vice versa; does the reader’s opinion of the book affect the way he consumes it?

Think about all the other art you imbibe: movies, magazine articles, concerts, blog posts, television shows, etc. You’d be pretty frustrated if it took you more than one sitting to finish any one of those things. Books are different. It’s expected that a book take multiple attempts to complete, it’s one of literature’s greatest assets, making the effort of reading a book more of a collaboration between the author and the reader and has created idioms such as “The book was so good I couldn’t put it down.”

Some author’s don’t give you a choice, Infinite Jest can take an entire summer to complete. But even shorter works such as The Old Man and the Sea or The Great Gatsby, which can easily be read in an afternoon, may be more enjoyable when each line of prose is savored and cherished. It’s entirely up to the reader’s whimsy.

The first third of The Flame Alphabet lent itself to a quick pace. The protagonist lives in a world where the sound of a child’s voice is enough to kill an adult, however, this power can only take her so far because once a child turns 18 she too is vulnerable. Author Ben Marcus does a great job of creating this dystopian world and setting up questions the reader wants answered. In any setting I would have burned through these chapters. The second third of the novel lost me, Marcus does a good job of asking “what’s the point of living if we can’t communicate with loved ones?” but gets caught up in the protagonist’s struggle to survive rather than tackle the monumental philosophical elephant in the room. The last third was a complete piece of trash, as if Marcus had a deadline and threw the ending together at the last minute. I was grateful to be on a plane with nothing to do but read, otherwise I would have put the book down and had a hard time picking it back up. The final image Marcus left the reader with was really nice, but it took a lot of work to get there.

Somewhat related: The universe has a way of weaving together similar threads and after I wrote this post I happened upon this video describing a publishing company that prints books with disappearing ink. Readers have two months to read the book before the words disappear forever. Good timing, universe.

Juan RulfoPedro Paramo is the kind of book you could get stranded on a train with for three days and not get bored. The moment I finished it I wanted to read it again. For such a short work there are so many characters, all of them intertwined and all of them trying to tell their story at the same time. So that reading Pedro Paramo is like being at somebody else’s family reunion. Oh, and did I mention Juan Rulfo is widely celebrated as the inventor of Latin American magical realism, and Pedro Paramo is credited with inspiring Gabriel Garcia Marquez to write 100 Years of Solitude. Yeah. That’s some heavy credentials.

The fun part was seeing magical mechanisms used by Rulfo that were repeated in Marquez’s work: church bells that tolled for three days straight and could be heard in every town in the region, two characters mistakenly buried in the same grave whispering to each other inside their coffin, undying devotion towards a troubled woman, etc. I noticed the same similarities with Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace. It makes me feel better about blatantly ripping off authors I admire in my own work.

Speaking of which, I stopped myself from re-reading Pedro Paramo because I’m dedicated to finishing my own novel by the end of August. So I better not dwell on it here. I’ll have plenty more to say later.

julio cortazarOne cannot speak of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch without mentioning the ‘Table of Instructions’ that prefaces the novel. The unique structure is somewhat difficult to explain and so I’ll let Cortazar do the work. The following is lifted directly from his forward:

In its own way, this book consists of many books, but two books above all.

The first can be read in a normal fashion and it ends with Chapter 56, at the close of which there are three garish little stars which stand for the words The End. Consequently, the reader may ignore what follows with a clean conscience.

The second should be read by beginning with Chapter 73 and then following the sequence indicated at the end of each chapter.

There are 155 chapters in total, 1-56 providing a linear plot and chapters 57-155 presenting supplementary material. These additional chapters vacillate between relevance and non-sequiturism. One chapter might provide insight into a character’s motivations, while the next is a reprinting of a newspaper clipping that has nothing to do with the story. Thus, these vignettes were the novel’s biggest strength and it’s biggest weakness. I chose to follow Cortazar’s instructions because, come on, when else am I going to get such an opportunity, and found the supplemental material more distracting than helpful. However, I loved the way Cortazar used the additional chapters to manufacture suspense. After an especially climactic scene Cortazar sent the diligent reader on a goose chase through 22 supplemental chapters before returning to the main plot. At any point I could have stopped following his instructions, which made me feel like I was a reading a Choose Your Own Adventure for adults.

Cortazar’s penchant for experimenting is evident throughout his writing. One chapter described a scene from two different vantage points using alternating lines of the page. It’s difficult to describe without seeing in action so here’s an example I wrote:

The frog bounded up the path towards his favorite pond where he liked to
Here he comes, said the dragonfly who was the lookout. The ladybug was the  hang out and croak with his amphibian friends when he was distracted by a
mastermind behind the operation and he checked to make sure each bug was in  buzzing sound that could only mean one thing: lunch. The frog followed the
place before he gave the signal to start flapping their wings and buzz as loud noise around a bush and found himself ambushed. Lying in wait were brothers
as they could. When the frog turned the corner the lady bug smiled with  and sisters of the insects he’d eaten over the years and they wanted revenge.
satisfaction, knowing that his wife’s death would be avenged.

All these ‘gimmicks’ overshadow what is a sometimes entertaining/sometimes boring-as-hell story about an Argentinian writer living in Paris with his lover and hanging out with his bohemian friends. I appreciate the effort that went into writing Hopscotch and the delicate way in which it is structured, but the story itself wasn’t compelling and the characters too introspective for me to fully enjoy it. An adventurous James Joyce fan would find great pleasure in Hopscotch.

cormacmccarthy

Check out this picture of Cormac McCarthy hanging out with the Healey Sisters in 1972. At this point in his career McCarthy was 39 years old, he’d published two novels, one of which (The Orchard Keeper) won the Faulkner prize, and he had recently been awarded the  Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing. At the time of this picture he’d divorced and remarried, and had one child, a boy named Cullen. Nine years after this photo was taken he would be awarded the MacArthur Fellowship (commonly known as the genius grant) and 20 years after this pic was snapped he would win the National Book Award for his novel All the Pretty Horses and nearly 35 years after this moment was caught on film, at the age of 73, McCarthy would receive the Pulitzer Prize for literature for The Road. He is still alive and reportedly at work on three new novels.

I have a friend who works at a bank. He doesn’t particularly care for his job but he does it, not only because he collects a paycheck every two weeks but also because he appreciates the value of a day’s labor and the sense of order that is instilled in him as a member of society because of it. When he returns to his quaint home he sits at his desk and he writes. Not to become rich, not to catapult himself into stardom, no, he writes because there are constantly words at the tip of his tongue he can only express with his fingers, because there are things that have to be said that nobody will listen to, he writes because he must. And regardless of where his work is published, or not published, he will write until the day he dies.

Analysts say basketball players reach their peak around the age of 28, after that their bodies start breaking down. Professional tennis players are washed up at the age of 20. Quarterbacks last longer in professional football than running backs. Surgeons are at their best between their 40th and 50th birthdays – when they’ve experienced enough complications to stay calm under pressure, yet still have the physical aptitude to suture a straight line. We can look at a human specimen and know without a shadow of a doubt that his best days are behind him.

Which is why writing and the arts is so magical to me – there is no shelf life. Some writers get better with age, others get worse. Some writing is great when first published but ages poorly, other writing goes completely unread. Writing is an unparalleled capturing of a time and place that lives on forever. Doesn’t matter if it’s a personal letter, a blog post, a novel or a newspaper article – that exact combination of words will never be created again.

If McCarthy had grown up wanting to be an Olympic gymnast his dreams would have been smashed approximately 70 years ago. Instead, as a writer, he’s able to continue producing, just like we all will. Bukowski published his first book at the age of 51. My bank friend is nearly 30 and has a blogs worth of outstanding essays. McCarthy won the Pulitzer at 73. I’m 28 and have a burgeoning novel hidden under my bed. And when we’re all dead and buried those words will still be there.

Father time has met his match.

HemingwayBlackDogStop right there. No point in continuing with your diatribe on Hemingway the misogynist because I’m already yawning. Carrying A Moveable Feast over the past seven days to coffee shops and to a wedding in Mexico has opened the door to more “Why I hate Hemingway stories” than I can handle. I’m not angry, just bored. I’m not here to excuse his actions, nor celebrate them; I’m not going to dwell on Hemingway’s personal life at all.

However, I am still open to talking about his writing if you’re interested (a crazy idea, if I’ve ever heard one).

Photo borrowed without permission from the LIFE magazine photo gallery “Rare photos of Hemingway in Cuba