Prelude part 2: Kent, Ohio – July, 2011
June 4, 2012 Leave a comment
“It seems to me that the problem with diaries, and the reason that most of them are so boring, is that every day we vacillate between examining our hangnails and speculating on cosmic order.” – Anne Beatie
“What is a diary as a rule? A document useful to the person who keeps it. Dull to the contemporary who reads it and invaluable to the student, centuries afterwards, who treasures it.” – Sir Walter Scott
“What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps me in a continual state of inelegance.” – Jane Austen
“This coffee falls into your stomach, and straightway there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army of the battlefield, and the battle takes place. Things remembered arrive at full gallop, ensuing to the wind. The light cavalry of comparisons deliver a magnificent deploying charge, the artillery of logic hurry up with their train and ammunition, the shafts of with start up like sharpshooters. Similes arise, the paper is covered with ink; for the struggle commences and is concluded with torrents of black water, just as a battle with powder.” – Honore de Balzac, “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee”
My maternal grandfather died in January, 2009 at age 90. He was a father and a chemistry professor, producing no less than four girls and no less than fifty chemistry treatises. He was a university professor of the sartorial old school, clad in thick glasses, his hair slicked-back, and wearing the ever-present sweater. He had the aura of intelligence and its pursuit about him, and not just because of a corduroy jacket; academic chemistry wasn’t just a profession but a way of life. Perhaps because of this, he sometimes seemed more at home as a scholar and a researcher – he was a quiet, shy, dignified man, sometimes to a degree of unintentional aloofness. He also was quietly fun – we used to love burning things with him in the fireplace and he played numerous games and sports one with us would think someone of his generation would play (backgammon, badminton, and archery).
His death was a difficult situation – this was of course the case for my family as whole but also for me because I was living abroad at the time and had no way of getting home to be with my family. I had been living in Spain for not even four months when he suddenly became sick. To make a long story short and respectful of privacy, he passed away while I was abroad. I was fortunate enough to have logged onto a computer in a cyber café literally moments after a message was sent to me to call my parents; the phone call I made was to talk to my grandpa one last time in the hospital.
I was talking over the phone with my grandma a few years later and I could tell that she was emotionally overwhelmed. She explained that she had been going through boxes of my grandfather’s files that were part of the clutter of my grandpa’s already cluttered laboratory at the university where he taught. There were decades of correspondence and professional and personal files; years of letters, resumes, lectures, lessons, drafts of papers being prepared for publication, copies of theses he advised, notebooks, studies, and programs for conferences he attended. I tried to imagine what my grandma was thinking, faced with the uncontrollable flood of memories that would have come from seeing a name of a colleague at whose house they ate dinner thirty years before or upon finding a relic from a job at a university in a different state sixty years ago – decades and decades of their lives condensed into a pile of boxes. Despite the poignant treasure, my grandma had to be pragmatic and throw away a significant portion, but she laughed as she explained how the rest could be sorted out: it would kindly be left to those of us interested in a researching our family history.
My grandma has a talent for recalling extremely obscure facts, names, and events, and she wondered if I remembered seeing the boxes in his lab. As I hadn’t been to his laboratory for many years I didn’t remember the boxes specifically, but there is a similar testament to his life that I do distinctly remember seeing. I remember a huge ream of paper sitting on the ping-pong/storage table in the basement. My memory may be dramatizing for the sake a more touching recollection, but I half-remember instantly realizing that it was my grandpa’s diary – a chronicle of probably were decades of his life, based on the size of the stack. I imagine, again perhaps fancifully, that my brother and I stopped whatever game we were playing to stare reverently for a few moments before amending our play area as to not disturb the pile. Usually, if playing with action figures or cars, the various things on the table would be integrated as part of our battlefield, but in this case, even at a young age, the atmosphere of privacy surrounding the pile was palpable and anything exuding such power has to be treated with the utmost respect. Additionally, there was the gossipy possibility that a small amount of the power radiating from the pile drew some of its power from my grandpa’s true thoughts on my family members, like the pile was a log of secret complaints. Whatever the case, I understood it was a gateway to knowing a man of few words.
Over the years, the idea that it was my notion to know more about my grandparents’ history stuck with me and I knew there was no better place to start than the diary. I didn’t presume that I would have access and for that matter I didn’t even presume it was a real document – I could have been remembering a large pile of scrap paper. Fashioning myself some sort of researcher wasn’t enough to give me license; it was an intensely personal document whose privacy I had every intention of respecting. Whatever my grandma deemed appropriate to see I would accept gratefully and solemnly, and if she decided that its contents were off limits I would completely understand. In fact, I was expecting this reaction.
I knew that arranging a viewing would be difficult. I felt guilty asking my mom and even more so my grandma about the collection. I wasn’t sure what I should aim for – to view it, to borrow it, to have it given to me because of my self-styled position as some sort of curator of family letters? My mom’s reply was cautious uncertainty, and not just because of the magnitude of the object in question; she said that from what she understood, it was merely a record of my grandparents’ day to day activities.
I considered the diary further, trying to imagine what my grandma would be thinking when her grandson asked her about it. Had she read it? Was reading a spouse’s diary something to be avoided? Maybe she wasn’t interested – perhaps she didn’t want to augment her memories with forgotten details that the diary would bring home. I’m certainly not implying that my grandpa may have lead a lubricious, vindictive, and/or satanic double-life, and it’s likely that after having been married for sixty years, my grandma couldn’t have known him any better than she did. Maybe she had even collaborated with him when writing in it. Did she look at it as a way to keep in contact with him?
I made sure that my own motives were subject to much inspection – it would be tremendously disrespectful if my underlying curiosity was one of base nosiness. My interests needed to be free of this prurient characteristic. I had to rationalize this risk by coloring any curiosity as that of innocent human interest, but I should note that the discovery of a random diary would be an event not taken lightly at all. I’m not going to kid myself and say I wouldn’t read it – I would – but I will attempt to excuse this weakness by saying that such a perusal would be treated with the utmost solemnity and respect. (In an attempt to salvage my reputation, I will say that the case above refers only to the theoretical finding of a stranger’s diary; the diary of someone known to me would in all honesty be effectively glued shut.) Those more respectable than me would never think of such a thing, for a diary is universally regarded as one of the purest looks into another’s soul. Less mystically I had to keep in mind is that diaries aren’t written with the intent of becoming future publications. A diary’s author may not have his or her sights on it becoming a literary relic – it is for his or her own personal use, a way of making sense of the life that only he or she has lived.
People-watching, documentaries, biographies, reality TV, and televised court cases are all accepted pastimes that are nothing short of completely voyeuristic, not to mention the fact that you can go to any bookstore and buy the complete correspondence, diaries, and sketches, of almost anyone of artistic renown or social importance. Dying creates new parameters for approaching the deceased’s life. Death allows us to trample whatever boundaries of privacy the deceased elected to construct with the assumption that we have a right to better understand the deceased’s madness/genius. Optimists may claim that publishing private letters keeps the subject from being relegated to the past tense – his or her memory and accomplishments are kept alive, and his or her life can be studied and celebrated in a new light. Maybe it’s simply a matter of the deceased’s life suddenly becoming more interesting after death, actions considered inconsequential while alive becoming much more significant when dead. Or maybe it is a chance to solidify the deceased into the ideal version he never quite realized in life, like the constant refrains of a widow that her dead spouse was “such a saint!”
My grandma and I determined a convenient time for me to visit, and I was shortly thereafter on my way. It was a family trip because my mom was returning to her home town for her high school’s forty year reunion.
The quest wasn’t as serious as I thought it would be I imagined being weighed down with an intense sense of purpose on the drive up and self-conscious about seeming to have ulterior motives. I like to think I’m not that sleazy; I like spending time with all of my family. I appreciated the visit for what it was and my historian’s intentions wouldn’t be at the forefront, just a possible aside. Nevertheless, I still perceived it as an emotional trip: the melodramatic preliminary sketches I had written in my notebook reveal what I was imagining/dramatizing:
“The light rain pelting the windshield and my travels through bleak industrial areas were made more forlorn by the grim day – grey and dark at 1pm – and this lent an appropriate seriousness to the thoughts I found myself engaged in. My mind was analyzing relentlessly, and although distracted by them, I was otherwise focused and alert. It was a strange mix; breathless and anxious but calm and rational, like that weird hypnagogic state where a strange scene or idea is nonetheless considered with due focus.”
I blush when I read this, but its poetry is not entirely divorced from the truth. The bleak industrial areas exist and it had happened before that we traveled on grey days – was it out of the question to expect differently? I like how I expected the universe to so obviously reflect my emotional state by making the weather appropriately rainy and dismal, but aside from my inability to control the weather, I suppose these musings were not too far from the truth.
I was given a respite from the imagined intensity thanks to the facilities of a rest-stop. I pushed my dad and tripped my brother on the way to the bathroom, inside of which I very happily noted that a stall bore my favorite bathroom apothegm: “Flush twice – it’s a long way to the kitchen.” Ha! I sincerely love that phrase – clean and classic and I think insults directed at someone’s cooking are hilarious. While there was no kitchen to speak of, I still marveled at both the simple, surface-level humor of the message and whatever it was that compelled someone to leave this anonymous mark. As old Qwfwq might have said in Calvino’s Cosmicomics, “I drew a sign…just so I could find it again two hundred million years later.” It’s like the scribbler is desperate to leave some sign of his existence, leaving a choice phrase but grappling with the possibility that no sign can accurately represent the enthusiasm for life that compelled them to write it in the first place. Whatever the case, the boisterous scrawls always fall into one of two categories: crude or slightly less crude. I would estimate the overwhelming majority as the former, with my current wall no exception: mockery of sexuality, geographic location, and/or race are the norm, here and everywhere: the man-made symbols ‘FAH-Q’ capture the intricacies and intentions of intangible ideas.
A reassuring thought: what if the graffiti is an example of no more than the most basic instinct to make others laugh, to unconsciously revel in the human community by mutually enjoy something? But, alas, a distressing thought: disturbing possibilities are raised if it is some sort of biocosmic manifestation of what the real human condition may be: insulting, territorial, competitive. The urge to insult stems from the same instinct that drives men to war – that same FAH-Q in an obscure restroom proves we are hopeless!
I poked my head into the next two stalls to uncover any other literary gems, much to the dismay of the other people in the bathroom who didn’t know why I was snooping around. Finding nothing of note, I left the bathroom amidst a chorus of mellifluous grunts, wondering if the authors of the graffiti ever stopped to analyze what they were doing; not to recognize that they are “defacing” something but to stop and examine exactly why they are doing it.
The pre-writing again: “Back outside and surrounded by the hum of anonymous cars on the highway, I realized that sometimes you can almost forget where you are. Odd to do so on a clearly marked highway with a city in the distance you’ve ridden through countless times in your life, but maybe the completely transitory nature of everyone’s visit to an anonymous rest stop is far enough removed from the predictable hustle and bustle of work and regular life that any journey away from it, the sensation of travelling and being on a quest, engenders a sort of nobility to the journey being undertaken. It makes you look at everything with a traveler’s wide open eyes; everything seems just slightly yet monumentally different from the sights and smells of wherever you are from, but these differences, no matter how mundane or seemingly irrelevant, are pondered and digested and give themselves and the journey they are part of a sense of purpose and discovery different from the journey’s actual purpose.
Walking out into the air and seeing people come and go was evidently puzzling enough to also apply to the insolence of the bathroom scribes; though I wouldn’t go as far as to say the feeling was powerful enough to have turned into cosmic poetry the juvenilia etched into the stalls but that isn’t to say that I wasn’t at this time given to one of the occasional bouts of marveling at the spontaneity of man and the hilarity that can sometimes result. I thought the continuing shining sun (as opposed to the drizzle I had imagined) appropriate for this atmosphere of rumination. In my defense I wasn’t considering myself a dramatic figure standing in the breeze, puzzling over the vagaries of life – I simply had a lot to think about and was enjoying the sensation of doing so.
As usual, I was cosseted by my grandma upon arrival, in a manner that evolved as I aged: instead of popsicles, we sat down with coffee (albeit in the same tan mugs we have used since I can remember). A large lunch was assembled and we caught up on anything that had been missed in the interim and reminisced about various family affairs.
I felt kind of bad because in the back of my mind it was like I was waiting for the perfect opening to bring up the papers. I delayed because the opportunity didn’t present itself, and it was thankful for it.
As we sat talking, I mentioned in a non-pretentious and roundabout way that my mental approach to the day was one of circumspect observation, as I was considering spinning the trip into a kind of comico-reflective essay loosely related to the book-travel project on which I was to presently embark. My cousin considerately mentioned an appropriate place in Kent not more than a few minutes away. She suggested that we take a trip downtown to check out a bookstore called Last Exit Books, the name of which is a reference to something I can’t remember. My brother and I made sure that we took our leave politely from the rest of the family lest we be deemed ‘family quitters,’ a title ignominiously bestowed on someone who, perhaps through no fault of their own, cannot attend a family function and thus appears to the rest of the family nothing more than a selfish self-focuser.
Family-quitting we did not, and the name is given in good fun anyway. Regardless, like the strange parenthetical experience at the rest stop, the trip with my cousin and my brother to downtown Kent was also a weird aside. Walking around outside, up and down hills on baking sidewalks not populated by anyone, the sun seemed extraordinarily bright, like I had been in a dim room all day even when I hadn’t. It was also really, really hot – it was one of those days where you don’t feel bad for staying inside and your feelings on the matter are triumphantly validated because the radio is actually advising people to stay indoors.
I was walking around with my compatriots, sort of hungry, sort of tired, unsettlingly vertiginous under the sun. We walked into this toy/novelty store on the way to the bookstore that sold things like pickle-flavored dental floss and fart powders, and I was happy to see stores like this still exist. The three of us were laughing at the various knick-knacks, much to the annoyance of the college student working behind the counter whose amusement at the store’s stock had expired months ago, probably in her first week of the job.
I had been carrying around this piece of chocolate with me that I took from the house in anticipation of getting a cup of coffee, and it was now completely liquefied. Do I always carry a little sweet with me with the assumption that I’ll be getting coffee soon? No, not necessarily, but as I’ll doubtlessly mention many, many times throughout the course of this book, I love coffee, to an illicit degree. And if it is some coffee with a little pastry or sweet of some sort to accompany it, please don’t try to pretend there are any two things in the world that better complement one another better. However, in this state, I had to question whether a hot beverage was really what my body needed, even if it meant effectively turning my back on my best friend coffee.
I was reassured in my decision to hold off on the coffee upon walking back outside. The bookstore wasn’t more than a block away and I’m not a wimp when it comes to the summer, but I unleashed a torrent of swears when faced again with the heat.
Inside the bookstore my already precarious mental and physical state was pushed further towards the edge of implosion by the trance-inducing music playing over the speakers. It was some sort of repetitive tribal drumming done at a frantic pace. It was highly syncopated with each drummer playing one step behind the others, making for a ritualistic but oddly off-kilter sound; being that I was kind of dizzy anyway, I felt like I was on my way to an out-of-body experience.
I was able to keep my consciousness from running away at the behest of the music and I checked out the dollar book racks in the front of the store, in this weird foyer that may have been a separate shop at one time. Last Exit Books is in a store from the 1950s – there are large display windows in the front and the door to enter is set back between them further into the façade of the building. Inside there is little in the way of decoration (not that it matters to me!) aside from the shelves of books, and the walls are still the grey paint of whatever occupied the place previously. The ceilings are relatively high and the lighting industrial and one doesn’t get the same (pleasantly) oppressive impression as is possible in a cramped closet-store; in fact, because the shelves don’t reach the ceiling and the whole store is pretty open, it has the feeling of a temporary specialty sale, like the temporary holiday-specific stores that show up in empty spaces in a shopping center and whose product is the only reason for the store to briefly exist – not much is done to take advantage of the actual nuances of the rooms. Such a comparison may sound insulting but everything is clean and organized and navigable – there are books for sale, no more and no less.
I got a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories edited by Vincent Price(!) with a cool, low-budget, pulp-style cover, a Freddy the Detective 3-in-1 novel collection for my mom, Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux, and True Crime, a crime novel by Michael Mewshaw that involves a crime novelist being involved in an actual crime. The store didn’t have James Hawes’ controversial Excavating Kafka as I’d hoped (I’ve been meaning to read and disparage it for years), but I did unexpectedly find Kafka’s Last Love by Kathi Diamant. The author is the founder of the Kafka Project and a woman initially drawn to Kafka’s last love Dora Diamant by their identical last names and family backgrounds. Whether or not she is actually related to Dora is still genealogically unconfirmed, but the relationship is obviously one of those ineffable, trans-temporal spiritual connections whereby you can’t help but be obsessed with someone you’ve never met. It was interesting that this was the only Kafka-related book; usually there is at least a novel or a copy of collected stories. My cousin picked up a copy of The Invisible Man by HG Wells and I related to her how surprised I was when I read it that the titular character is, to quote myself exactly, “such a complete asshole.”
I also found a copy of An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser for $1.50 and I became immediately dismayed and deeply uncertain of my own abilities. It is daunting to think about authors like him, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov – serious novelist’s novelists whose lofty works ruined fledgling-authordom for everyone. These are guys who were born to write serious novels; guys of such extreme intelligence whose title of ‘novelist’ was a threatening show of perception. Anything not approaching the loftiness of their works is excoriated by crusty critics as being completely unworthy of being called literature and by academia as being unworthy of the application of abstruse analysis.
They are impressive and intimidating, and I believe I have a love/hate relationship with them for relegating literature (and moreover the ability to call oneself a ‘writer’ and really mean it) as something only doable by the elite. Having a fan of their work analyze your own is more than a little nerve-wracking; I feel like all that can result is derision and mockery, like a small-town artist whose intent is pure and talent decent but is nonetheless totally laughed at by a hip New York gallery. Your passion is there, your hard work is there, but you can’t help but feel greatly inferior. Reading their books is awe-inspiring and discouraging; you feel bolstered by praise from your friends and family but find out it is for naught in the literary world at large.
It’s like you come to a point where you realize that in most cases the desire to tell a story isn’t enough. Writing is a finely-honed craft where if you aren’t a mass-market paperbackist you have to be a legitimate literary genius. Even though good writing takes different forms and can be ostensively recognized as such, if you don’t intuitively, truly know you fall into this category, you probably don’t. It’s not just a pastime when some people can articulate exactly what the collective human soul is expressing.
I shrugged. This is no reason to not write. There really is no reason not to write, it’s almost an impossibility really; to quote Kafka again:
“Life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come.“
Besides, my face felt swollen and An American Tragedy is a wonderful book – I’m (usually) not driven to despair at my own inefficacy when I read it. Snapping out of my crisis of faith and happy with my finds, I made my purchases with my exodus slightly delayed to accommodate my cousin trouncing my brother in a quick game of chess.
We started the drive back, joshing each other all the while. My brother and I were fortunate to grow up with a trio of cousins all within two years of our ages, which is why it was perfectly appropriate for my brother, agent provocateur, to yell “Book depository!” as he flung The Invisible Man out of the moving car and into my grandma’s yard. My cousin yelped and I began laughing uncontrollably, both at its suddenness and the fact that the non-sequitar exclamation was also [sic]. We cousins are used to hilarious affronts like this and so the event was thoroughly enjoyable.
Still reeling, the house got louder as we barged back in. Back in the relative cool of my grandma’s house, my senses returned approximately to normal; I was no longer rendered useless by the sun. We showed off our finds, my mom delighted at the book I bought her, and I noticed that a pot of coffee had been brewed. I felt well enough to indulge myself and I realized that the bag from which I had taken the melted chocolate was still there, with all of its contents still in solid form. I traded my little bag of liquid for its more solid cousin: the perfect accompaniment to the black gold still steaming in its pot.
My parents, my cousins, and my grandma all sat around and talked for a while longer. Ultimately the diary’s mysteries weren’t uncovered. In fact, I didn’t even inquire any more about it other than bringing it up briefly in conversation, despite all of the previous hand-wringing and excitement. I don’t know if it was the case that I wimped out in the last minute, but I know that I also wasn’t interested in hounding my grandmother like I was a probing investigative journalist. I feel that she was a little guarded without wanting to show it, and even the slightest hint of this reticence gave me my answer. It seemed not a little invasive to root around in it, and my reasons for doing so didn’t warrant any of the possible guilt or emotional turbulence that may have resulted for anyone. That sentimental version of myself that had gotten a jump-start on the trip with the emotional writings in the notebook may have been surprised at how the quest was resolved, but he would have understood perfectly.
This isn’t to say that the visit was bereft of emotional depth or discovery; far from it, and it was very entertaining to boot. My family laughed, ate, and helped with yard-work, and my grandma did her usual duty of trying to foist onto us various things that she has around the house. This time one of those things was a box of chemistry books that were presumably my grandpa’s, and next to this box was another that contained numerous copies of a number of the papers my grandpa had published. She was happy that I was interested in not only looking at them but taking some copies as well; there are only so many things you can do with thirty-five copies of an obscure text. The papers were fortunately in more or less coherent stacks, and thumbing through them was like a mini-history of printing – there were mimeographed copies of papers published in the 50s and 60s, paper of varying quality and composition; even the fonts used reflected the era in which the papers were written. There were also very nicely bound copies of theses for which my grandpa served as adviser, some of them dating back almost fifty years as well. The printing on these was a purplish ink and almost illegibly blurry due to old age. I was offered some of these theses for posterity as well, but due to the desire to reduce the amount of clutter in my life, I respectfully declined.
My grandpa’s published papers are remarkably impossible essays with titles like “The Iron (III)-Catalyzed Oxidation of Cysteine by a Molecular Oxygen in the Aqueous Phase. An Example of a Two-Thirds-Order Reaction” and “Catalytic cis to trans Conversions; Dihydroxybicyclo[2.2.1]- heptane and 1,2-Dihydroxyindane.” I noticed that the latter was published by Georg Thieme Verlag – the name stuck out to me in conjunction with Kafka; it turns out that I was thinking of S. Fischer Verlag. (Georg Thieme publishes strictly medical texts.) In any case “verlag” is not a surname – it just means ‘publishing house’! Humiliated by my assumed perspicacity! My grandma presented me with the box of extremely musty chemistry tomes, one example of which dates from 1940 and is called Advanced Readings in Chemical and Technical German. I declined her entreaties to take them, much to her dismay. Fortunately my cousin was a better candidate to receive the treasure: she is studying to be a chemical engineer and was then doing an internship at a major chemical manufacturer; my grandma kept trying to convince her to take the box for its value as reference material. My cousin could only refuse so many different ways – I’m not sure what specific advances in chemistry have been made in the last fifty years but no matter what they were, the books in the box predated them.
My grandparents never ceased to amaze me with the tales of their travels and their encouragement of my own adventures. I remember once looking at an atlas with them at island nations of which I’d never even heard; my grandma casually mentioned that they had been there thirty years before; later mentioning they had been to an obscure corner of South America fifteen years ago. They had artifacts and trinkets and art and baubles and gewgaws from all of their trips – perhaps too many, in fact – and they travelled internationally well into my grandpa’s ninth decade. Their house was like a museum without the tactile prohibitions. They always traveled not for bragging rights or because they were following a dictum of needing to be ‘cultured’ but because they were sincerely interested in seeing what else was out there.
It was fitting, then, that I had gone to see my grandma before I was to leave. I returned from the trip chastened and with a head full of reflections on my grandparents’ world, apparently knowing this before: “The two hour drive seemed to provide ample time to consider my thoughts on the matter but simultaneously not enough to explore them fully, as if such thoughts were bottled up and pressurized within my car and would diffuse out into the world when I opened the door, chased away by the distractions of reality.”
Despite being an avowedly irreligious myself, the trip taken to visit my grandma was like a quiet benediction before I embarked on the larger journey. It was a moment of reflection, a paean to my grandparents, the invocation of a protective essence, as if we were asking the blessing of some pervasive Thing. But then again, perhaps this is giving to much credit to the Beyond; I had never operated under the auspices of the aether and didn’t really feel like I suddenly had to: the company of friends and the prospect of adventure was substance enough to actualize my own perception of paradise.
I’m not a believer in fate (I usually just enjoy small coincidences) but the shining sun and the sober sense of peace closing that particular journey were not lost on me. Perhaps it was anticipated – no specifics but a satisfying resolution no matter which way it would have gone. In any case, it was a pleasant, personal affair that served as not only reassurance that I had a cool family but as a quiet, reflective prelude to a series of larger, longer trips that I would imagine as being anything but quiet; I could imagine “rollicking,” “whirlwind,” and “obnoxious” being positive understatements.
All I had left to do was throw my stuff in a couple of duffle bags, roll up the blankets, grab some spare boxes, and jump in the car – if we forgot the GPS it was like a pat on the back and a gentle shove in the (hopefully) right direction.
 Balzac was said to have drunk like forty cups of coffee per day. Not drip coffee, mind you, but strong, gut-stripping espressos. Forty. Per day.
 ‘Another favorite is: ‘if you shake more than twice you are playing with yourself.’’
 Gore Vidal, Calvino’s Novels: “the story ‘A Sign in Space’ comes perilously close to being altogether too reverent an obeisance to semiology…”
 Literally, there was nobody outside.
 For a similarly terrifying though entirely real account of a crime author being thrust into what seems like one of his own novels, check out Douglas Preston’s account in The Monster of Florence of being questioned and almost arrested as more or less an accessory to unsolved serial killings in Italy (not to mention the strange and terrifying nature of the killings themselves). The story involves a conspiracy-theorizing Christian webmistress, a judge who crowbars into the case the spurious involvement of satanic sectsª, a modern-day count in whose castle the movie Hannibal was filmed, and a gang of smooth-talking, violent Sardinian thugs.
ªThe same judge tried this tabloidian bullshit when he presided over the Amanda Knox case, claiming that she had killed her British roommate as part of some sort of marijuana-fueled blood/sex rite. He had been censured for misconduct in the Monster of Florence case; Amanda Knox was eventually exonerated for the murder after spending four years in an Italian prison.
 It turns out it hasn’t yet been licensed to theUS. I had to order it online – it is discussed in a later chapter. The book itself isn’t disparaged, just the lame carnival-barking of its author.
 “The Kafka Project is the official international search on behalf of the Kafka Estate for the writer Franz Kafka’s lost papers, confiscated from Kafka’s last companion, Dora Diamant, by the Nazis inBerlin in 1933. Begun in 1997, the Kafka Project is a non-profit volunteer organization, under the umbrella of the San Diego State University Research Foundation, and is funded by donations, grants and generous sharing of resources, skills and knowledge.” – http://www.kafkaproject.org
 Holding the bound theses in my hand, I wondered how many copies were ever printed. Were the volumes in this box one of two extant copies? (The second copy was presumably in some obscure corner of the university’s stacks.) I was also well aware of the fact that this thesis was one of the 130 million books published by modern man. There were likely less than five copies of this one title but they were nonetheless a testament to one person’s achievements, and through him or her, the rest of man’s, totally worthy of being included in the annals of the human library.
 My grandma is eight years younger than my grandpa. They met while he was getting his doctorate degree and she was working in the university library. After they got married, she audited a couple of his classes. She explained that she sat in the back and tried not to draw any attention to herself as the professor’s wife. She even asked the guy sitting next to her to ask aloud the questions she had, as she didn’t know if it would seem inappropriate for her to do so herself.
 Though one of its epigraphs did provide me with an epigraph-worthy quote for my own purposes: ‘“The true university is a collection of books.” – Carlyle.’