If you've ever dabbled in the literary arts you know how difficult it can be to surface in a field that's flooded with ambitious English majors. Our classmate James Cooper has again taken a shot at writing an essay, and again scored. This time he won second prize in the 2013 Literal Latte Essay Awards. It appears in the Spring edition of Literal Latte. It is reprinted in our august class blog with the author’s permission. You can find it at the Literal Latte Site and if you like, leave a comment.
Wood Swivel Chairs
In 1959 I was a nine-year-old freckled blond kid wearing a Red Sox little league hat just to the left of center, hungry for swings at wild pitches and the chase of impossible fly balls. On Saturdays after games, my father brought me to the newsroom where he worked as city desk editor for a small paper struggling to remain a daily. He’d sit in an oak swivel chair with no pad on it, among six other desks belonging to his reporters. He’d put his legs up on the heavy desk, with no bend in the knees, and cross his ankles so that the sole of the right shoe took the full weight of both legs. I’d sit in one of the chairs next to him and spin around in various angles of tilt while he finished his writing or editing. When he was working on something particularly potent, his whole body would freeze while clutching his coffee cup three inches above the desk, until something clicked in his mind. The building could have been on fire and he wouldn’t move until the click. He wouldn’t file confusion away for later pondering. Soon enough, he’d come back into fluid motion, but something of that sequence lives oddly in me as both reassuring and puzzling, as thunder on the horizon or a dream where I’m not me.
It’s odd to have learned both patience and impatience from the same father. At nine, I’d be standing in the batter’s box, waiting for a pitch, and sometimes the pitcher was in a kind of trance, doing his ritual or trying to read my stance. I knew the pitch would come, but not how or when. It was a little like watching my dad edit, where alertness was seduced by a mix of wills, producing a great curiosity. In another twenty years, I’d be telling my father about wanting to be a psychologist, but the original scene from the spinning chairs was the template: a scene punctuated by jars of glue, various sizes of scissors, and graphite pencils as dull as the edge of night. He’d circle words and phrases in the flash of an old-style filament photo bulb, plowing through a pile of copy with all manner of artful symbols. Then he’d cut and paste with lightning speed. For half the stories he wrote, he doubled as photographer, taking photos for news and feature stories using his beloved Graflex 4×5, with its cool bellows. When he came back from the field he’d have film plates stuffed in every jacket pocket. Someone stole the camera, but not its trace in me.
I loved to follow him as he dropped film plates off in the darkroom: a room enticing far beyond its name. All the mysterious odors, metal trays, and safe lights produced a muffled magical world. It took two minutes to adjust my eyes to the special light; some things can’t be hurried. I made sure I had a darkroom of my own for the next thirty years, owing to the fact he taught me how to see the positive image in the drying negative. He’d talk of potential space and how he’d crop the photo for maximum emphasis, then show me how to dodge and burn the image using his hand to control the light from the enlarger. He was concrete where I was given to metaphor. I heard in his comments an invitation to look for the story of a person in grey tones under a safe light. This came to me when skipping a stone in my forties. The stone went under, as all do, but why did it take so long to recognize what else he was trying to get me to be curious about? Back in the 1950′s, my father soon transitioned from the Graflex to a twin lens Rolleiflex. Journalism was changing. I remember him loving that camera too.
He said, “Some stories need photos, and some photos are ruined with words.”
I asked, “What do you mean?”
“Different ways of telling,” was his reassurance, adding, “It took me a long time.”
And typewriters: my God he knew their ways. When he died last year I found all five he used in his career. I gave one heavy monster away, along with a temperamental portable he once threw off a balcony. I kept the Royal typewriters because they still speak to me about him. They push back, demand you mean something, and insist on a heavy intention. The carriage return requires a visceral appreciation of line breaks. His world thumped along in chunks of advancing paper.
By 1979, I’d been receiving clinical supervision from a man in his seventies, who taught me that the quality of silence is at least half of what you work with in psychotherapy.
When he’d pull a piece of paper out of his Royal, it was definitive; the roller would spin a few extra rounds. I was far from definitive when I told him at twenty-nine I wanted to be a psychologist. I knew he did not trust silence in the newsroom, and he did not trust psychologists for their seeming obscurity, though he’d never been to one. He appreciated a different kind of action: a major story breaking over the newswire. When that happened, everyone rushed from their desks to huddle in front of the machine. Nobody dared speak. The machine would vibrate and even rock if the key strikes were rhythmic enough. It was a crisis if it ran out of paper when something big was coming in. His favorite greeting when answering his phone was, “Give it to me in a punchy nutshell.” I remember his initial distrust of light touches in electric typewriters.
By 1979, I’d been receiving clinical supervision from a man in his seventies, who taught me that the quality of silence is at least half of what you work with in psychotherapy. He called silence a privilege and a curse, sometimes a refuge, or pure creative space, refusing to clarify. He said if you cure the madness of needing to cure something, value is found in nuance and self-observation. He said a hundred things like that, telling me how progress requires immersion, suspension of conclusion, appreciation of difference. The well-timed observation. The acceptance of bottomless gulfs. The bridges yet sought.
Here’s the setting for me telling my father about my career choice; we’re in the family room. I’ve got long hair in a ponytail. He’s got a crew cut like when he was still in the Marines. This was going to be a hard sell to an ex-marine Lt. Colonel and a journalist. His every instinct was to get the story and move on to the next. He was also a master of unexpected comments my whole life, this time saying, “Look over there in the bookshelf: The Harvard Classics and my personal favorites, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Service. Give me an Irish song. I’ve memorized dozens of poems on the great themes of being alive just because they moved me. But in my generation nobody told me what a psychologist does. When I was growing up people didn’t go to them unless they needed to be in the hospital or were rich and could afford psychoanalysis. Analysts back then were loathe to speak to journalists, like we were going to reduce what they said into something stupid, but actually that’s what they thought of us, and, seemingly, the rest of the world. What got me was the bastards didn’t even try to explain what they did. It’s like they guarded a secret world and I had the impression they wouldn’t even tell their patients what they were trying to do. In my world, you interview someone and get to the point, and you don’t put up with evasive answers. The story either makes the news or gets killed, or gets the shit edited out of it. I got to a point where I’d rather see my stories get killed than edited, so my solution was to become an editor. Then the bad thing didn’t happen so much.”
While hearing his words, I regressed to feeling nine again, to the mix of excitement and fear when he’d take me to the room where lead chunks from linotype machines were melted down in a giant open cylinder to be recycled for the next edition. The furnace was always burning. He’d lift me up seven feet in the air to look down and see the melting words for myself. Every single man working a linotype machine was a chain smoker, filling his lungs with unfiltered cigarettes, carbon dust and the stench of melted lead. They loved the sweaty action as much as I’ve ever seen anyone love their work. The machines were as magnificent as the men running them. Everything was clicking and roaring towards deadlines. Everything was urgent. I remember the day when my father paused and spoke, over the din of pre-electric typewriters, “The fate of words is hot lead, unless you remember the words yourself.”
I asked him, “How will I know which words to remember?” He smiled, but wouldn’t linger, saying, “You’ll know. You’ll feel a pull that won’t let go,” then he’d be off to seeing how one of his reporters was doing. When he came back to his desk, I’d be spinning again, doodling with one of his graphite pencils, wondering about unknowable things. It remains a mystery how I suddenly remembered the melting words, then came back to the moment in the family room to hear him say, “So you want to be a psychologist. Can you explain what a psychologist does in a punchy nutshell?”
I said it wouldn’t be so easy to talk about psychotherapy like it could be explained in a punchy nutshell. But he had a fundamental distrust of lengthy reasoning, and persisted in this vein because that was the vein he knew. Here comes his impatient side. He set the stage, saying, “OK, my father sold cosmetics. My own father didn’t believe in the value of college so he didn’t pay for it or show up at my graduation. Otherwise he didn’t oppose my going. That’s the deal I got. Grudgingly, he became proud of me, or if he was proud all along, I was the last to know. His father was a foreman in a coal mine. Son of a bitch to work for, I’m told. Our descendents came from Ireland and Wales. I’m here because I didn’t get shot down when I was a pilot in two wars. My best friend was killed in WWII. I love your mother, you, and your sister, and I love journalism, every part of it except selling classified ads. Punchy Nutshell. Now, what about you?”
It’s easy for an enthusiastic young man to feel doomed right when he wants his father to appreciate something he has to say. But knowing a bit of his language, I said, “I try to help people make sense of the lives they find themselves living, and when they step out of a script they feel trapped in, I’m both catalyst and witness, but never in ways I’m fully aware of. I try to figure out the template of how someone uses the word ‘I,’ but it’s not like a dentist who fixes a tooth and everybody is happy. I love every bit of it so far, except the prospect of working with insurance companies.” He perked up, but I could see he was skeptical by his lowered tone, plus he hated passive references.
I kept on. “You know how the human psyche likes simple explanations on one level, but doesn’t trust them on another? I get people to elaborate, to tell their story. It’s incredible to think everyone is telling an amazing story without even knowing it. Somewhere in there, my way of listening becomes part of the mix, and the plot has legs that carry a theme forward, like a good newspaper story. There is no tidy resolution.” He asked, “Is this like rats going through the maze quicker to find the cheese?” I said, bluntly, “No.”
I was looking for common ground, irritated and losing steam. He said, “Sometimes I get a story from a reporter and he makes an interesting story look as dull as gum on the bottom of your shoe. I’m not so good fixing that. How do you help someone who doesn’t believe life is even interesting?”
“Psychologists get desperate just like journalists. We lose the thread, look in the wrong places, miss the clues, and get stuck in the wish for a different plot. The story of a life is not told willingly. I try not to get bogged down in anyone’s bitterness, anger, depression. I don’t much trust a summary. I’ve read too many medical notes that don’t capture anything meaningful about a person. I love it when someone finds a way to describe things that are impossible to know. That’s art, and that’s why psychotherapy is not about giving answers and going home with a warm feeling.”
None of this took flight with him. Way too abstract.
I stood there remembering the first thing he did before writing or editing was to sweep aside the mess of yesterday’s stories to the newsroom floor. He’d set his broad elbow down, open the palm of his hand and sweep every piece of paper off his desk. There wasn’t one hint of anger in this motion. It was a deliberate, meditative cleansing: a moment of centering. After clearing his desk he’d sit quietly for a maximum of one minute before orienting himself to the sounds of the teletype machine and the ringing of phones. Then he’d gather yesterday’s papers from the floor and chuck it all to a wide-rimmed can. I never discovered where he learned this trick of living, since his father warned him constantly to live in anticipation of an insecure world, plus never to throw anything away.
Maybe it’s really that simple, he didn’t want to be much like his father. I wanted to pick and choose traits I admired from both parents, but of course it never works that way. Not in the slightest. As a family, we were huge fans of the original Twilight Zone series on TV, and the plot twists pointed toward our fondness for unexpected endings. My father was fond of saying the trick was to figure out why a story needs to be told. My sister and I learned we had permission to create a story worthy of its ending, as much of life is bracing for the twist at the end. It was my mother who knew this intuitively. She was the wise one, remote too, always seeing more than I knew.
When I turned twenty, the Vietnam War had escalated beyond belief. It seemed like it wouldn’t end, and worse, it was tearing families apart with ease. The nation too. Looking back, I had a bit of envy for my father’s generation. All the phases of his journalism career, the general life plan after WWII, the sense of right, unfolded like the elegant movements of a Brahms symphony for him. But my life was feeling more like Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.
“Do you remember the story you covered when a whole family died on Christmas Eve of carbon monoxide poisoning?”
A train comes off the tracks going too fast around a curve, and ours was already tilting. Provocation touches the edges of things generational, refusing to be named. I told him how I came to love good stories because of his way of telling, in first person, in unexpected ways. I added, “You know, good people evade stuff all the time, leave out the main part, mostly without knowing it. Everybody edits their own story, or sometimes kill it themselves. That’s my world as a psychologist much as anything else.” Then he got upset, and I felt the cauldron of hot lead separating us.
He said, “What do you mean by those words? People don’t kill their own stories. Why would they?” I was reminded of his uncanny way of staying at the cutting edge of his own life. He was the opposite of an anxious guy. My father pondered great questions when pruning his grapefruit tree, but kept any hint of personal doubt from me. “All right,” he said, “Maybe we’re talking about what’s important to get at. There’s an art to a brief interview. I might have one minute with a person in the news. It doesn’t matter if they just won the Nobel Prize or a Pulitzer, got elected Senator, or witnessed a warehouse fire. I go to their turf, their laboratory, the capitol, a street corner, and make it my business to draw them out. The camera and the notepad come out, and I’ll ask them to say what they did or were trying to do. Jonas Salk got right down to it, telling me in an interview, ‘I found a way to prevent polio.’ That’s how an interview should go. I loved it. The best people are always direct. The details are fillers. Armand Hammer was sitting with Dr. Salk at the time, and handed him a check for a million dollars to support his research. That was a lot of money in those days. He said something like, ‘I want to support this great cause.’ See. Straight to the point. I talked to Walt Disney when he was planning Disneyland. He told me he wanted to fill the space of an orange grove with a dream he had in his mind, and that’s just what he did. James Cash Penney shook my hand in a way I’ll never forget; formal and gracious at the same time. Impeccably dressed man. He wanted to upgrade the common man, and he did. Boom, he stated his credo. I don’t forget the essence of a person even if I just have a one minute interview. A lot of people don’t do the thing they want to accomplish, but my part is to ask something vital, to get it out in the open. Now tell me again about psychotherapy.”
I was closer to my father’s mind than ever. There was no going back, so I said, “In my world, you draw out that exact thought, carrying something in the open as far as you can, but it’s the other person who needs to hear themselves, not so much me. I have this idea that tension can be held by two people and good things can come from it, but I don’t get to know for quite a while what form it will take or what I must witness before anything meaningful gets said. Often the tension ruptures, resisting any form at all. When things go well, awareness is expanded, made safe, and a person is free to explore again. Nobody becomes a different person, but the different version is what I’m curious about. Numb compulsion no longer runs the show. There is meaning and direction where there used to be dull complaints.”
But I lost him again, and suddenly realized that talking to fathers in grad school language should be outlawed, like smoking was finally banned in restaurants. I was too full of theory, brimming with thoughts of changing the world, like he once did, so I refused to apologize for passion. He declared, “What the hell kinds of concepts are those?”
So I countered, “Let’s say you don’t have just a minute, and no camera is exposing this for the world to see. Let’s say you have done a decent job of neutralizing shame and anxiety and other qualities that stifle a human voice, and you can hear directly from the person trying to express something really difficult. They may not even know what they’re struggling with at first. I keep an ear out for that part. You showed me what to look for in negatives in the darkroom. That’s what I’m doing. I’m not going to fix the root causes of emotional suffering. By the way, I’ve been wondering, what else did you want to ask Richard Nixon when you interviewed him early in his political career?”
He liked the question. “A lot, I wanted to know a hell of a lot, like what he was thinking between words. He was a brilliant man, regardless of what became of him. He took wrong turns, sure. I wanted to know whether he was one step ahead of questions, whether he was shy or suspicious of double meanings, but I had to be direct. A journalist doesn’t ask, ‘How are you doing?’ He asks, ‘What’s your stand on Proposition so-and-so?’ I don’t think I’d be a psychologist.” At this point he was conducting the air with his hands, using his deep resonant speaking voice to tell me, “The thing about news reporting is to realize you are not writing for the editorial page at that moment. The ethic is an attempt to be objective, even if there is no such thing.”
Hearing this was the equivalent to finding a bridge. “I have the same deal. Nobody is objective, especially therapists, but if I look at myself, the impulses and the way I lean into a life story or away from it, and what that evokes in me, it helps me stay present and bring out some unexpected key to the story. I wonder what your life as a journalist would have been like without the different phases, like if you had stayed on as a reporter in the Midwest, and that was all she wrote?” He looked at his bookshelf, “Why in God’s heaven would I want to know that hypothetical thing? I’ve done what made sense.” He was bitter for about five seconds, ok, more like ten, close to fuming, but I told him I was in awe of his answer, and it broke another logjam.
He wasn’t a man given to speculation, so he didn’t try to respond further. Then it came to me, “In my work, I’m asking about the parts that aren’t for the camera. I get to meet the person without the exposure of flash bulbs.” Then he told me about the time he took Psych 101 in college. They were talking about experiments with rats in overcrowded cages. He said some rats started behaving in a bizarre manner, eating each other and all, and the researchers extrapolated to humans in metropolitan areas, crime rates, etc., using ideas that didn’t call for a degree in anything other than common sense. It turned him off because he was well aware of bizarre human behavior in rural parts, where there was no crowding problem to explain a damn thing. That spelled the end of his interest in psychological explanations, tipping him even more toward storytelling in journalism. He was a fine creative writer too. I searched for him in me and equally for myself in him. None of it came easily. Too close, I suppose.
Taking a step back, mid-sentence, a breeze came into the family room, blowing past the futile things I was tempted to say. I stopped arguing and was able to appreciate he was simply telling his truth, and could see him in his grand pause, as a man given to profound moments of recognition. To him, the coming of a thought was pure drama.
He looked with immense curiosity toward the future, almost daring it to reveal its intentions. He’d freeze in the middle of a forward step, loving the dramatic energy concentrated in gazes he summoned. He had the rare skill of finding a Shakespearian theme within a boring City Council meeting. He’d elevate the characters he interviewed so they would have to say something unexpected, or reveal a motive they had hidden even from themselves. People being interviewed by him had no choice but to offer some nuance of unexpected personal truth. He wouldn’t pounce or gloat. He’d be humble, defer to the thing he found as being some version of truth or nonsense, but was never a friend of in-between. He’d summarize his interview in a context that forced human striving into a humanitarian quest.
After his work day, he’d come home and recite one of the poems he memorized. I learned to tell his mood by the ones he chose, whether he recited it with a twinkle or a tear. I got flashes of him being a reluctant psychologist, holding a flood of need at bay. I saw his father in him, distrusting to the end, and the father before him, who worked the coal-mines of Pennsylvania and supported eight children.
The larger picture allowed me to pick up the thread, or it might be more accurate to say I made one because I needed one, telling him, “In anthropology I learned about cultures in the South Pacific where they practiced cannibalism even though there was plenty of food and water for everybody. European diseases and imported religions weren’t even part of the equation yet. I’m still wondering about that. I agree with you that not much is explained in college.” Our talk narrowed to the land of credos. He summarized, “I like deadlines,” and I replied, “I like mysteries,” and when full sentences seemed unimportant, we shared a whiskey, toasting the fact we could talk and it didn’t need to go anywhere in particular. But he still wanted more. A journalist always wants more.
A memory came over me like fog drifting over a redwood grove. “Do you remember the story you covered when a whole family died on Christmas Eve of carbon monoxide poisoning. The gifts were under the lighted tree and everyone was tucked in bed on a freezing night. They tried heating the house with the stove burner, but nobody cracked a window. You told me how the firefighters came on the scene and found everyone in their beds in a state of unbelievable peace, like they would wake up and have their Christmas, but they were all gone. You told me privately how the seasoned, gruff firefighters realized there was nothing for them to do, so they came outside, collapsed in their heavy suits on the lawn, and wept. You told me when the seasoned, gruff reporters came on the scene they were so disturbed witnessing the firefighters they froze as they were getting out of their cars. Out of respect, no journalist mentioned the anguish of the firefighters in their stories. Nobody could pull their cameras to their eyes to include the firefighters, who were first witnesses to the tragedy. Somebody whispered about the family inside, but it was the scene on the lawn that haunted the reporters, and extended to everyone they told. A reporter took a picture of the front of the house, with a meaning only he would know. The story was somehow stupidly reduced to the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning. But the image on the lawn rippled to paperboys, bartenders, families, and me. Something pissed you off in ways you couldn’t talk about. I remember the day you couldn’t talk. I was about twelve. It’s strange how I can’t even remember whether you were one of the reporters that day, the photographer, or an editor. Maybe you were all three, as you used to do it all back then. It was one of those rare times when you spoke in the third person. That’s one thing I remember clearly. That’s the kind of conundrum psychologists try to unravel: the aftermath, the carrying of unspeakable burden, the re-enactments large and unseen. Dad, I’m the first to admit, our tools are as dull as the edge of night.”
He said he remembered the story, and hundreds like it, and was able to settle one piece of it, saying he tried to write the human tragedy part, and he wanted it to be about the firefighters as much as the family. His story was killed for unknown reasons by an editor, and for once I got him to speculate about himself. He thought that’s probably why he was angry, that his story was killed. He wanted to interview the firefighters, but they weren’t talking, and the clock was running on the deadline. Then I asked him if he was the editor, and he offered the highest honesty I have known from a man, saying he was pretty sure it wasn’t him; that some things you can tell about, but can’t really write about. Or maybe sometimes it’s the other way around. Then he paused, couldn’t cut and paste the exact sequence of events of that day. Too much going on. It was a long time ago. Everyone withdrew from each other in the newsroom, upset about how the story should be told. The deadline passed. It just flat out passed, and the carbon monoxide story ran.
He collected himself in the space of two breaths and a single gulp of whisky, telling me he always intended to shield his family from the things that upset him, wars and murders being prominent in his mind. Then, I had the rare privilege of reassuring him, saying that being a psychologist or a journalist earns you zero immunity. We choose these ways. No fatherly answer came, just two guys talking. I came his way about the pitfalls of lengthy reasoning, then we lifted our glasses to the firefighters, and the mystery of where stories go in us. We looked over at his corner desk at exactly the same moment. Sure enough, there was his wood swivel chair from his newsroom days: always our best witness.
Looking back a notch, we kept the chair in the family for three decades after our talk. The chair broke one day in a dangerous way, most likely due to the cumulative effect of my spinning combined with his using it to lean back so far. I blocked the memory of who was sitting in it when it broke. I don’t want to know. I don’t want a psychologist to help me remember. I prefer to remember the way my father summarized our conversation in the family room, in a punchy nutshell of course, saying he wanted to hear from me what I wanted to do with my life, adding he had a rough time telling his own father what he wanted to do, and he wasn’t sure why.
He just left the newsroom, so to speak, at 91. His name was Jim. I’ll have another drink to him and his era, when a newspaper went to bed properly, and the reporters all left at the same time, headed for bars or families after the giant linotypes fell silent. The floor was full of scraps, and a fan was left on with a rhythmic clicking sound, its breeze rustling a blank yellow notepad. The words from yesterday were melted and ready for morning. That is all. That is all.