Hi, I’m Jonathan. I’m opening boxes, come join the fun.
I AM INTRIGUED by the innocuous act of opening old boxes, unleashing ghosts, memories, dreams, cries, odors and particles from the past. Will the hobgoblins help me confront the future: aging, loss, disappointment, fear and mortality?
I have just moved to a 1917 Craftsman house with an unfinished garage I’m turning into a creative studio. It is jam-packed with umpteen boxes from three continents, several residences, two marriages, four children, and forty years of writing.
I’m thinking of doing an experiment with myself as the guinea pig.
I want to find out if the objects contained in these boxes can kindle a creative fire that lights up my life, and maybe yours too.
Hypothesis: It ain’t easy to banish the blues. But maybe, just maybe, what comes of this experiment may redeem the act of living.
Method: Open a box, record the contents, hold them in hand, savor their scent, muse on them, write impressions, memories, reflections.
Test them against the reagents of my nature: depression, anxiety, anger, fear, longing, hope, desire, regret. Note any changes in color, mood, understanding, personality, and action.
Commitment: I will try not to bore you. I will be as honest as I can be.
Can box therapy offer relief from my attacks of melancholy, arouse my creative energy? Or will it unleash my demons and set me up for further disappointment?
I am suffering a motivational condition (impediment) called Roadblockitis.
Symptoms: I come up with an idea and then automatically throw up a roadblock. The origin of this malady is embedded in my cells like a dormant virus ready to break out. The most recent outbreak was triggered by disappointment.
BOUNCE fell flat. BOUNCE is the most recent incarnation of a story I’ve been writing, on and off, for thirty-five years. THE MAN WHO’D BOUNCE THE WORD was published in Philadelphia in 1979. The sequel STANLEY SCUKA BOUNCES A BEAN was published in Basel, Switzerland, in 2010. Finally, the culmination BOUNCE was published in California in 2011. (See prior BOUNCE posting far below).
With great expectations, I took it to the Los Angeles Festival of Books. Here I am all excited in the morning, with fifty books ready to sign.
By the time the sun was high in the sky, I’d only sold six books. Desperate, I climbed into a cardboard trashcan plastered with illustrations and hawked, “Read my trashy novel.” Passersby avoided me like the plague. Can you blame them?
I’m smiling outside, but inside I’m humiliated.
To my overwhelming pride, and overweening shame, my wife sold out her amazing children’s book, ANGUS MacDREAM & THE ROKTOPUS ROGUE. I have to admit is a fabulous story with gorgeous illustrations. She wrote it for our eight year-old son, Lincoln, who enthusiastically sings its praises. Kids love it, and I believe it will be a commercial as well as literary success.
So why am I competing with my wife?
I’m ashamed of myself, frankly. By admitting this to you I’m publicly flogging myself with a wet noodle.
Before BOUNCE there were countless disappointments over other books and manuscripts, dating back to the rejection of my first novel C_____________ in 1973. I began writing it by hand on blue-lined paper in high school in Denver, revised it in college with my mentor the modernist poet Michael Goldman, and won the Cornell Woolrich Writing Prize at Columbia. The experimental writing was ridiculed as incoherent gobbledygook by New York publishers. I escaped down the Pan American highway to Brazil. The moldering manuscript lies buried in one of these boxes around here somewhere.
Each new rejection calls into question my very reason for living, an existential threat, so to speak.
Why live if I… blah blah blah?
Been there too? Send in your roadblock and a map leading out of it to: email@example.com.
Three moving vans and one small miracle:
On Monday, June 20, the previous owners moved out, leaving a note, “Every house like every book needs a new chapter. Enjoy.” Liam.
On Wednesday, June 22, Norcal movers came to our rental house on Easton Drive, where we’d been living in crowded conditions since arriving from Switzerland eight months earlier. In a whirlwind, the team of four Spanish speaking gentlemen packed our possessions in ___ boxes, moved them about eight blocks, and dropped the boxes in our new digs. It took an exhausting eight hours, and this was just the beginning.
On Thursday, June 23, a moving van delivered ___ boxes and packing crates from Switzerland that had been in storage in a warehouse since the prior October.
On Friday, the same team delivered ___ boxes that came from our home in La Jolla, California. They’d been stored in a musty garage there for upwards of two years while we lived in Switzerland. We’d rented out the flat above the garage in La Jolla to a madman, but that’s another story. We finally sold the 1929 Tudor-style house where we’d been married and raised from babies, a house that I dearly loved and thought I’d never abandon. But that’s what happened after Isabelle’s company closed and I lost my shirt in the stock market crash of 2008, so much for maintaining stability in a financial catastrophe. It was probably for the better, because I’d been stuck in my ways living in bliss with the sound of the waves crashing on La Jolla beach. Though it was hell on Isabelle, who hated the merciless sun on her fair Scottish skin, hated the wildfires and the falling ash. I wanted to stay, she to leave; the conflict nearly wrecked our marriage until she was offered a job in Switzerland, and I said okay let’s try life in Europe. So we did. The company paid for the move, packed the bare necessities and furniture for Switzerland, and stored the good furniture and papers and books in La Jolla. This third shipment also contained books and files that had been stored in my ex-wife’s garage since 1996. The contents dated back to high school in Denver, college in New York, travels through the Amazon, Rio de Janeiro, Washington, D.C.; Spain, Portugal, San Francisco and San Diego. From 1968 to 2008 – forty years.
This final shipment was by far the largest, most expansive and exhausting. It took four burly men and me eight hours to unload. The boxes were piled in the driveway and lugged to locations in the house and garage.
It was a bloody hot exhausting day, but by the end a small miracle had occurred.
For the first time in the last forty years or more, I had all my books, papers, and effects in one place.
Saturday, I rest about 26 seconds. Then life comes knockin’ at my door. My eldest daughter rolls in from San Diego with her husband and their merry baby, Belle. She was born in Boston the day before Valentines Day, and attended her father’s graduation from Harvard Law School, a distinguished pedigree. I haven’t seen her in ages, actually four weeks. When I bend to kiss blue-eyed Belle’s little cheek, guardian pooch Scooter barks and charges to defend her from the enemy – me.
Madigan, Belle, and Scooter in more peaceful times.
My younger duo, Viva and Lincoln, awaken to the ruckus, pound their bare heels down the oak stairs, crying, “Belle’s here!” They are a proud Aunt Viva and Uncle Lincoln, although they’re young enough to be Belle’s older siblings. I’ve been blessed with children by two marriages, two sets of older sisters and younger brothers, who share certain traits and not others. On our family’s miniature globe, they point in four directions North and South, East and West like a compass rose.
We drop everything to be with each other. Sunday morning, my eldest son with a shaggy beard blows in from Santa Cruz driving a battered pickup.
Our family is usually spread out from coast to coast, the Rockies to the Pacific. This is the first time in a long time when all four of my children, ages eight to thirty, are together in one place. A homewarming crackling with emotional lightning, thunder, and the gentle rain of affection.
We buy Belle a baby elephant just like Aunt Viva’s favorite stuffed animal, Elle. Belle reaches for Elephant. It’s just like Adam stretching his hand toward God’s finger, sparking of the creation of man in Michaelangelo’s masterpiece in the Cistine Chapel. Well, sort of.
I don’t mean to be irreligious or cynical. There’s a touch of the divine in all of us that glows in babies and new parents’ faces and then grows deeper and darker like Renaissance art.
We take time off to visit a California winery, where Belle lounges in her umbrella stroller, while her parents savor petit syrah.
Next morn, they’re off to San Diego and a couple days at Maggie’s house overlooking Sunset Cliffs. Then they fly off to Chicago: new city, new job, new digs, and a new chapter of life in the Windy City.
Back to the boxes.
Lugging the damn things up and down two flights of stairs, from the basement to the top floor attic, where Viva and Linc room under the rooftop. After a hard work week conducting clinical trials of a top-secret experimental cancer drug, my wife tackles the wardrobe boxes, puts away all the kitchen goods and utensils. The Fourth of July passes without fireworks or a parade in Burlingame. Though we do retreat to Washington Park to play family softball. It’s Isabelle’s first American softball game — she grew up Scotland where kilt-clad laddies hurl wooden poles and Celtics kick soccer balls into nets for sport. Wearing a summery print dress, stylish straw hat and jangling earrings, she kicks off her heels. We designate an oak tree for home plate, bits of rag and plastic trash for bases. Izzy picks up a plastic bat and holds it high above her red locks like an Elizabethan axman preparing to execute Queen Mary.
Lincoln pitches a high ball and
By dark, the score is 18 to 5, kids smashing grownups. Oblivious to the score, Isabelle is leaping up and down shouting in her, “Victory! Yea, yea, look at me! I’m the winner!”
If enthusiasm and guilelessness mark a victor, Izzy rocks.
I’m limping around with a painful foot. Each time my sole touches the ground it feels like a rusty nail is being driven into my heel. I’ve been diagnosed with Plantor’s Fasciatus, which I picture as a Planter’s brand peanut giving a Fascist salute. It’s a fancy word for tendonitis caused by knotted calf muscles pulling my Achilles heel. I developed these bulging the hard way, cycling up Swiss mountains in the snow, and then forgetting to do stretching exercises. I’m too young to be hobbling around like a cripple! I curse my fate to the heavens, but come off looking like a poor loser.
Sunday night, I hit bottom, complaining aloud that my life has come down to drudgery. My life is over!
“You’re creating roadblocks everywhere,” Isabelle replies, turning away from the spectacle that she’s heard a hundred times before.
Today, Monday, I drop Izzy at work and kids at camp in South San Francisco. Coastal fog is blowing wraithlike hobgoblins onto Highway 101, the gloom of a wintry summer in San Francisco is spreading down the peninsula. I drive fast trying to outrun the doom and gloom, but its seeping into my body.
I have a childlike horror of being alone in a suburban home during the middle of the day when working people are working. I am terrified of coming face to face with my demons. I dread lifting the garage door and entering the haunted studio where the boxes with mouths taped shut give me the evil eye. I’ve home offices before, but always feel lonely and uncomfortable. So, I flee to the closest cafe, which in Switzerland was ten kilometers away, a hard bicycle ride through fields and farms before descending to cobblestone streets and dodging street cars and traffic to arrive at the No Fumar Cafe, in the walled Old Town of Basel. I risked life and limb to avoid working in a home office, and nearly broke my back carrying a heavy pack laden with my laptop, heavy chain bike lock, sundry notebooks, paperbacks, Swiss francs, a second change of clothes and parka, you name it. I set up my portable office on a tippy cafe table, superstitiously keeping my espresso off the tabletop to avoid frying my laptop and deep-sixing my writings. I was surrounded by strangers in the commotion of a crowded cafe, people confiding secrets, gossiping, reading newspapers, speaking mysterious foreign languages that I barely understood, nor cared to. I no longer felt isolated or exiled. To be with people, but not to have to deal with them, I was able to focus on my work. For the price of one coffee, I stayed for several hours and used the free wifi.
Then the alarm would ring and I would pack up my things, jump on my bike, and pedal like a demon dodging Euro cars and trolley tracks, pumping uphill, sweating under winter sweaters, and race against myself to arrive at the International School in time to pick up my kids at school. I wrote Confessions of a Hausmann and Stanley Scuka Bounces a Bean at that cafe, and thanked the Tibetan and Turkish waiters by putting their names in the dedication page.
It worked for me then, but not without . My papers were strewn across , or lost in boxes. Without my papers nearby I lost my direct connection to my life story, and skated on thin ice. What I couldn’t carry in my pack would melt before my eyes. I lived on the surface like Richard Maverick who work up in a strange land and fell “hopelessly in love with the surface of things.” It was a great first line, even the novelist John Gardner remarked on it in a letter he sent to me, via my mother, in Brazil. But the rest of the novel failed to live up to the first line, and it too may lie in one of these boxes.
To get back to the point, writing in cafes isolated me from my own history. Small and insignificant as it was to the world, it meant a lot to me. Yet I couldn’t get access to it, couldn’t search the web for newspaper writings published before the advent of the Internet, and so lost and forgotten as if they never existed in the Digital Age. I’d left the boxes in dank garages and musty store rooms where they were probably rotting, being eaten by rats or ground to dust by termites, for all I knew. And I missed them, wondered what lay inside them, a yearning deep down in my loins like the yearning of my younger self for my first love far away in France. I fantasized about the boxes yet couldn’t touch, smell, rattle, rip open and plunge my deep inside them.
Yet, now that they were all in one place, safe at last, waiting for me within the garage, I stand outside the garage door with trepidation. Finally, I punch in the code. Open sesame, the door rises on its rails. Bare concrete floor littered with debris, dusty boxes, unpainted walls, painted-shut windows, cobwebs in the rafter.
Will I be able to work here alone?
I sit tentatively in my old rolling desk chair that Maggie gave me for my twenty-eighth birthday in Washington, D.C. I gently run my hands over the round leather seat, carved oak armrests, scrolled legs, and a rattan back you can really sink into. Which I do, leaning the back of my head against the sturdy wood, hearing the oak creaking under my weight, the rusty casters rolling on the cracked concrete, I dig in my toes and thrust myself across the floor, swiveling my hips, spinning on my axis, touching the cool satiny finish of the green marble slab quarried in Italy with the marks of dynamite on the rough unfinished edge. I spin watching the boxes revolve around me like moons around a planet, the chaotic debris brought into orbit around the center of gravity.
I’m still terrified of being alone.
But I’m really not alone, am I?
|—||Rave review of my new novel, BOUNCE, debuting at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Published by A Word With You Press. Available at fine bookstores, on Amazon.com, and AWordWithYouPress.com.|
But what can a nutty watermelon man, a spurned she-lawyer, a frustrated carioca journalist and a misanthropic parrot do against the power of the Brazilian coffee cartel?