Wednesday, May 21, 2014

“what do you do on sea days?”

The people I know seem to have an inordinate fear (to crib an unfortunate phrase from the tragic Jimmy Carter) of boredom.

At least, that is my take.  The same people who ask me what I “do” in retirement also ask me what I “do” on sea days -- those days when the ship is not in port.  More surprisingly, my fellow beach bums in Melaque, the people who should have the “do” down to an art form, ask me the same question.

The obvious answer to both questions is: Whatever I like.  But that is too glib.  I know the fear that lurks in the sea days question: I don’t want to be stuck inside a small vessel with no escape from boredom.  (To me, that sounds like the definition of “having a job.”)

The joy of sea days is you can create your own entertainment (or, if you are really desperate, join in some of the ship activities).  For me, it is the perfect opportunity to read what I want to read.  With no interruption.

Let me share a bit from the three books on my plate this trip.

The first was pressed on me by a fellow blogger.  And a good suggestion it was.  Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out.

When I started reading it, I had no idea whether I was reading a novel told from the narrator’s perspective -- or whether it was an engaging memoir of a writer’s encounter with a character who all Americans would soon meet.  It is the latter. 

About half way through the first chapter I realized I was reading the background to a murder trial we all know.  Christian Gerhartsreiter, who was charged with the murder and dismemberment of his landlady's son in southern California.  You probably know him better as Clark Rockefeller.

The book is a great analysis of how we all create our personalities and then use our masks to manipulate one another.  Some of us with far more grandiose screenplays.

Of course, it turns out that Kirn, educated at Princeton but never part of the Ivy League crowd, was absolutely besotted with Gerhartsreiter’s masquerade as a ruling class Rockefeller.  The irony, of course, is that Kirn had a more authentic power pedigree than the faux Rockefeller, but Kirn continued to draw psychological nourishment -- even when he had a cornucopia of clues that something other than eccentricity was driving “Clark.”

For me, the best moments in the book are when Kirn drops his writer’s mask and lets us inside his own artifice.  Like this gem.

A writer is someone who tells you one thing so someday he can tell his readers another thing: what he was thinking but declined to say, or what he would have thought had he been wiser.  A writer turns his life into material, and if you’re in his life, he uses yours, too.
More than once people have told me at dinner: “You can’t use any of this in any of your stories.”  I always nod my assurance.  But we both know it is a lie.

Or this dandy bit of confession that comes right off the couch:

Instead of patiently working to get to know people, I’d decide that they were who I wanted them to be and discard them when they proved otherwise.
When Gerhartsreiter is finally convicted, Kirn visits him in prison thinking that he had the upper hand in the conversation until “Clark” begins manipulating him in the same manner that he sees other prisoners manipulating visitor’s from the free world.
I understand now prison walls aren’t solid.  They’re penetrable by persuasion, by attraction, which passes through them like gamma rays.  The inmates beam their wills into the world, adjusting the intensities and wavelengths, turning the dial until they get results.
That brought to mind a former client of mine.  Brad.  I started representing him when he was 18.  He is now 50, and he has spent a majority of his life, not only his adult life, but his full life, in jails or prisons.

Following three of his releases, I allowed him to stay at my house for a week or two to get his feet on the ground.  The previous paragraph tells you he never managed to land where he thought he would.

He is the only person to whom I send hand-written letters these days.  There is no email behind bars.  For good reason.  The letters he sends me are classic works of manipulation.  He has tried almost every possible ploy to convince me that I do not need money in my billfold as much as he needs it in prison.  Because he has learned his lesson.  Because he paid his debt to society.  Because he has polished every rehabilitation cliché known to imprisoned man.

I have felt the personally-programmed gamma rays being dialed up just for me.  And, like Kirn, I have learned to ignore them.  On the other hand, I have manipulated him, as well.  And you are accomplices by reading the tale. 

“A writer turns his life into material, and if you’re in his life, he uses yours, too.”  True words, indeed.

If you love a good crime read and want to know a bit more about the human condition, I join my fellow blogger (whose name I have managed not to mention) in recommending Blood Will Out.

Note:  I told you I was going to discuss three books.  I obviously lied.  And I am not going to re-edit this piece.  Instead, you get this note as a promise that I may or may not get around to writing anything about Margaret MacMillan’s Paris:1919 (which I have finished reading on this trip) and The War that Ended Peace (which I am in the midst of reading).  Whether I share any with you or not, I liked the one and am enjoying the other.

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