If you’ve received this invitation, you’re famous and therefore a fabulous individual. Each year, my wife Blech and I host a Summer Solstice Dinner Dance for Famous Persons. This coming June 21 is the inaugural event, and, since you’re famous, we’d love to have you and your famous plus one. We find that famous people are simply more interesting than rest of us, and that’s why you’re invited. You’re famous! And again, congratulations on your well-deserved fame.
Now, full disclosure, we are pre-famous, which gives you a ground-floor opportunity to get to know us before everyone else does. However, due to our famous anonymity, we never know just who is going to show up. Therefore, dinner is potluck. Bring whatever you’d like (Blech will be whipping up her indelible artisanal onions), and lots of it. Whatever doesn’t get eaten will be left for the local wildlife. There’s a fox who passes through the garden once or twice a day, and deer. Lots of deer, but I think they’re mostly vegetarian. The wolves keep them under control, fortunately, so you don’t have to worry about bringing food for them.
There will be dancing under the stars, and lots of it. However, please remember to bring at least one musician. We’re never sure who’s going to show up, or how many, so it’d be absurd for us to supply musicians when you, our famous (and rich) guest can just bring one of your struggling but talented musician friends. Check with us first. One year, we had seven alto trombonists and a triangle player. What a strange trio that was, but we made the best of it and had a great time anyway. That triangle-ist could really jam!
“What is this, a lock?” Guy, a throwaway character asked, picking it up off a shelf where it served as a dutiful bookend in the mystery section.
“Careful. Careful, it’s a time machine,” Susannah Fontaine-Williams said.
“No, really, what is this?” he demanded, picking it up. It looked like a square padlock without the latch on top. Just a dark, metal box with a numbered dial in the middle, It was simple and beautiful and he couldn’t take his eyes off it. He turned the dial one notch and it clicked.
“Did you not hear me?!?” she said. “Keep doing that and you’ll end up back in the bronze age or at an inquisition and you’re not ready. Just look at how you’re dressed.”
“Oh come on,” he said, testing the resistance of the dial. “There’s no such thing as a time machine.”
Susannah scoffed and shook her head.
“Just don’t touch that dial unless you’re sure you know what’s going to happen,” she said. “I mean, maybe some day you can use it. I have no plans to. Just…make sure you know what you’re doing first.”
“Susannah, where did you get this?”
She sat down on Big Orange, the bright orange sofa so large its pieces wouldn’t fit on the freight elevator, even with the ceiling removed. She had to enlist a small cadre of men with extreme musculature to carry it up the twelve flights of stairs. Even then, it wouldn’t fit through the doorway to the room, and it had to be widened. The doorway, I mean, not the room.
Susannah smoothed the front of her jeans. She wore her Lees high-waisted in a way that stopped being stylish long before she was born, her blouse tucked in, daring anyone to think she looked frumpy. She didn’t. She took a deep breath, then stood, and walked to the window, then back to the now wide enough doorway, then just back and forth.
“He said he was my son.” She looked to her guest for a reaction.
“As you know, I don’t have any children,” she continued. In her mind, an image of Bob and the triplets flashed, one of whom was a boy…or was it two, but then she never was certain that they were even real. She had seen the resemblance in his face – especially in the eyes and the way he’d dubiously raise an eyebrow – despite his ragged appearance. He had presented her with a photo of the two of them on the steps of the New York Public Library, Susannah an older woman than now, and he an un-weathered teen version of himself. The photo could have been doctored. It could have been real.
“Anyway, he had come back to this time to fix something,” she continued. She extended her hand palm up to him and glanced at the lock.” He handed it back to her and she returned it to the shelf, removing the book at the end of the row, Jasper Fforde’s “The Eyre Affair.”
“What did he come back to fix?” I said.
“Oh, that doesn’t matter. He told me about it, but it was just a bunch of nonsense.”
“Well, if he erased something from history, then you’d never know otherwise, would you? What did he tell you? Come on, tell me.”
She settled back onto Big Orange, running a thumb over the pages of the book. Thwip. Thwip.
Walt walked in, jumped on the couch, put his head on her lap and looked up at her.
“Yes, you’re right,” she said to Walt, her eyes on Guy. “Just a bunch of gibberish.”
Walt jumped down and wagging his tail, came over to Guy.
“Walt, good boy. Who’s a good boy?”
Susannah’s phone rang. “Yes?” she answered, walking out of the room.
Guy quickly went back over to the book shelf. He picked up the lock. “What do you think, Walt? Is this a time machine? Is your mom just yanking my chain?”
He turned the lock over and etched on the back in tiny print, was a list. Fortunately, there was an onyx-handled magnifying glass one shelf down. The first line read:
Til að hreinsa skífuna skaltu snúa til vinstri þriggja snúninga.
“It’s Icelandic,” Susannah said, leaning on the doorway. It says, “To clear the dial, spin it left three full revolutions.”
“I suppose because it was made in Iceland some time far into the future. Now, put it back, please.”
“Now, that was the studio calling. I have to run.” She hooked her arm in his and led him to the door. She leaned in and kissed him, ruffling his hair. “I’ll call you later?”
Guy gasped, “yes, please,” as she pushed him through the door. He took a step to the elevator, turned and said, “Wait. Kills who?” Guy said. “Was I killed?”
Susannah opened The Eyre Affair to where the photo bookmarked it. She and her son, on the library steps, sometime in the future. The other Susannah sat down next to her on Big Orange. “I love that photo,” she said. “Which one of us do you think it is?”
“Oh, it’s got to be you. You’re much more the marrying type.” They laughed, each thinking how much they liked having the other around.
Ed. note. Check in next time for the transcripts of a panel discussion by famous authors: Is using the crowd-pleasing device of time travel to fix narrative a cop out or a best practice?
I went for breakfast one morning to find that the Shining Star, a greasy spoon on Amsterdam and 78th had closed. It was Saturday morning and the people I shared my life with were still in their pajamas. Signs taped in the window said goodbye and thanked everyone for being loyal customers and we’ll miss you. Businesses up and down the avenues were closing because of high rents. And on the cross streets, too. The empty restaurant stayed vacant a long time, until after we left New York I think, but I can’t be sure any more. Maybe a bank moved in, or a drug store.
Now it’s winter in a different city. It’s on days like today I want to get lost in the city, to get on the subway, transfer to a line I’ve hardly ever taken, get off at a strange stop, and then walk, camera in hand like a tourist. There aren’t subways in this town, though. I could Uber, I guess, but it’s harder to get somewhere by accident in a car.
What is a day like this? Cold, but not bitter, the sun sharp enough to make your eyes ache, but not bleed. A day with unallotted time, where you’re itchy and your legs twitch, eager to pound unfamiliar sidewalk where whole sections are swallowed up in the long shadows cast by the winter sun.
“It made me feel sprung upon,” is a sentence near the beginning of Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, a New York novel of the late 1930s, and it’s New York I wish was outside my window, like it was every day for the first fifteen years of this century. I’m re-reading Rules, comparing it structurally with a story I’ve been working on for nearly forever called the New Palace Hotel.Hotel is decent enough, but needs work under the hood. For stretches, it just rolls along the highway, like the old Toyota on the first page, purring as it disappears around a mountain bend. And then chokes and coughs out some white smoke. It’s needs work to turn into something reliable. Anyway, I really like that sentence, “It made me feel sprung upon.” If I could tap out a few sentences like that, well, that would set things right.
Note: for best results, listen to Elmer Bernstein’s The Great Escape while reading this document.
A letter from my old acquaintance Petrovsky arrived just the other day. Until two years ago, I hadn’t seen P since the old days and thought P had disappeared from the face of the earth. But recently P’d resurfaced and we’ve met periodically at highway service stops halfway between our towns for the last two years. We mostly talk about old times but I suspect he wants to enlist my help in solving Ptarmigan’s Riddle. When P’s letter arrived. I wanted to post the actual letter, handwritten in the old style, however, it disintegrated shortly after I read it. Luckily, I have a photographic memory…
My Dear DS, With the holidays coming up, I wanted to let you know that traditionally, I don’t give presents, however I expect that you’ll want to give me something. Which is very thoughtful of you. Please do not spend more than $800 because that’s too much, unless you feel as if you must. Since you and I have never exchanged holiday gifts in the 40 years we’ve known each other, and assuming that starting from our time at The Delinquency School, you probably would have spent $10, and that over the course of four decades, that amount might have crept up to, say, $35 per annum, then $800 seems reasonable (which is crazy because no on in their right mind would spend $800), however, you’ve had that money available to earn interest, to invest, or to blow on Betamax tapes, so the $800 not spent over the years on a trinket for me would be worth many thousands by now. Knowing you and your market savvy, you bought Apple in 1976, and that’s worth a fortune, so why would you gripe about $800? I would not be at all hurt if you needed to save up and you put off your holiday present til next year, but it will likely run you closer to $835. It’s up to you. Again, I do not give presents. Everyone knows that, so please don’t expect anything in return.
By the way, I have big birthday coming up next year and you’re way behind on birthday presents, too. No need to sweat that now…we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I do give birthday presents – birthdays are important and meaningful – but I never remember birthdays, so you probably won’t get one from me.
It was definitely Steve Jobs. Sure, Steve Jobs has been dead for years, but the person in the body was Jobs. Lean build with casual clothes loosely hanging on him. He sounded like that actor, not Peter Coyote, the other guy, who was in that movie with Russell Crowe and Guy…what’s his name. Pierce Patchett was the character. It will come to me.
Jobs had twin boys with the exact same face, the face of this guy pretending not pretending to be Jobs. Round, flat, moon faces, tanned, with prominent noses. Faces of character that looked older than they were, and except for the boy bodies and boyish exuberance, you’d think they were adults.
They were playing ping pong on a long table, 2/3 the width of a regulation table with rounded ends. The net in the middle rose and fell, sometimes regularly, other times staying in place. The whole setup was on a turntable that slowly rotated, occasionally stopping and reversing.
My wife knew I’d want to play, and Jobs took note. “When the boys are finished, well have a go,” he said. “Do you play well? Are you good?” I play hard bat, an old school form of spongeless ping pong, from ping pong’s golden age. Before I could answer, another set of twins, these older, and less Jobs-like, came into the room carrying a telephoto lens about 8 feet in length and gave it to a woman, a doctor. I said something about the enormity of the lens and she said, “why shouldn’t I, it’s my vacation.”
While the boys played ping pong, Jobs showed us around. “What brings you to Atlanta,” he asked. Then, “Wait, don’t tell me, you’re here to bicycle the rivers. Of course you are.” Which was how we arrived here. His sprawling house complex crossed the river and the bike paths on either side went straight through the house. We were just pedaling past, admiring the furniture when he waved us over. “Have lunch with me,” he said. “We’re having grilled asparagus and some other things. Chips, maybe.”
Periodically, things, the furniture, tall, deep shelf drawers would automatically open, and Jobs would react, either removing an item, or putting something away. “If I miss it, I have to wait another day for an opening. Crazy system works,” he said. David Strathairn, that’s the voice Steve Jobs used. Really good choice.
A Jobs nephew, climbed on to his rotating bed as shelves were opening and removed some clothes, tossing off and throwing the old ones in a just opened chute. The doctor with the camera watched. “Why shouldn’t I watch? I like to see naked people especially when they look good. It’s my vacation.”
The boys came running up, each holding a ping pong paddle. “We’re finished,” they said. “You can play now.” Jobs looked exasperated. “No, no, NO,” he said. “It’s not the right time.” He patted his chest. “What do you think of this body? It works, but the design isn’t as user friendly as it should be. Look at these hands. Let’s play ping pong.”
We went to the table and slid it out, away from a couch. “Which side do you want?” he said, taking the side he wanted. “Grab yourself an iPaddle. They’re all the same.”
I picked up a paddle. Wood handle, rounded striking surface made from maybe cork. Slightly tacky. No rubber. Jobs hit me a ball and I returned it. The tack on the surface allowed me to get a little topspin and the ball dove nicely for me. My first shot landed deep, and high-bounced Jobs. He said,”whoa!”
He hit short balls, hard ones, angled ones and I returned them, each time eliciting a loud exclamation of praise from Jobs. A crowd gathered and I hit the ball back and forth with Steve Jobs, occasionally slamming one just to let him know I could do whatever I wanted, that I was in complete control.
Do it as long as I have and you’ll see a lot of PowerPoint. Bad PowerPoint. Slide after slide crammed with words, bullets, charts, and clip art. That’s right. Clip art. And a presenter reading every word you see on the screen in glorious 1024 x 768 high fuzz resolution. Sometimes they get creative and the words bounce in, or fade in, or drop in, or look like they’re written with lasers. All that does is draw attention to what amounts to a waste of time. My time. Your time.
Call me an evangelist. Call me an agent of change. Call me a disrupter. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I set about showing the world how to use PowerPoint for good, not evil. It’s all about restraint. Don’t use words. Don’t use PowerPoint’s features. Just images. Not just any image, but an image that perfectly accompanies the words that are coming out of the presenter’s mouth. That’s it. No words. Just images.
The steps are simple. Maybe a little bit too simple. And that’s where the trouble started.
Does what you have to say need to be said? If not, maybe send an email or put your feet up on your desk and take a nap. If so, OK. Go to the next step.
Understand that few people really care, so just invite those who have something at stake to your little presentation.
If you make a slide show, use only images. You can have a title for each slide, but use few words. Don’t make people read your slides. If they’re reading, they’re not listening.
Make it snappy. Just make your point, answer some questions, and let them out as quickly as you can. Don’t be boring or self-indulgent. Or boring.
This radical concept got me banned from the League of PowerPoint Presenters. They revoked my license. For months, Traditionalist PowerPointilists sent my family harassing, wordy slideshows. Eventually they forced me to recant my doctrine in a very public and humiliating slideshow with slide after slide of bullet-point lists and stock clip art. They made me use charts with incomprehensible metrics based on irrelevant data. I lost the audience after 3 slides… I was ruined.
The lesson here? The PowerPoint fundamentalist faction governs the slideshow community. Presentations are the currency of power and the world is a cruel, cruel place.
In 1987, the world’s human population reached 5 billion and the last of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō(Moho braccatus) died. According to the bird’s Wikipedia entry, “The last Kauaʻi ʻōʻō was male, and his song was recorded for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The male was recorded singing a mating call, to a female that would never come. He died in 1987.”
Back in those days when there was still wan hope for the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, I took a creative writing class for what I hoped would be an easy few credits on the road to a long-delayed undergraduate degree. A guy wrote a short story called “Fear of Falling,” about a man who managed to fall into holes in the ground. I don’t remember much about the story, but the writer impressed me. He was lean, wore John Lennon glasses, and always had a scarf on and some kind of tweedy long coat. He looked like I imagined someone starting out as a writer did, and he used his adjectives to great advantage.
The story receded from memory until recently and has resurfaced as a brand new fear. In these days, there are lots of things to fear, but, a month into the news blackout, I’m left to my imagination, a place darker than the combined output of all media, fake and real.
This is the dog’s fault. Several times a day, the dog must be released into the back yard so that she might pee, poop, sniff and chase things. I stand watch, plastic bag in hand. Recently, on a windy day, a branch fell from the old sugar maple, landing a few feet from me, but ever since, I’m convinced that this will happen:
On a brutally cold day, a branch falls, striking me and knocking me out. As my blood leaks out, I slowly freeze to death. The dog, heroic and well-meaning, but barely 40 pounds, tries to drag my dying body to the door and to get the attention of my family. Alas, she is too small and my body is discovered hours later, only moments after dying.
Now, whenever I leave the house, I scan the trees, looking for telltale signs of imminent branch failure, ever vigilant, ever fearful that something will fall on me. I also check for a Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, ’cause even though this isn’t Hawaii, you never know. You just don’t.