What I Did Today Chapbooks

Dan Waber is a terrific poet, and he owns a bookstore in Pennsylvania: Paper Kite Books on 443 Main Street, in Kingston. He also publishes several lines of chapbooks, but the one we’re interested in here is put out under the ‘imprint’ chapbookpublisher.com – his What I Did Today series.  It’s a wonderful idea – the first ‘book’ had four different people talking about one day in their lives in two-thousand word essays.  Then each of those folks become inviters; asking three new people to participate.  So the first chapbook spawned four, then those four, sixteen, and so on.  In a perfect world, if all the participants were serious, you’d eventually have a flood of books – or more like a tree of books, with branches growing ever smaller and more numerous twigs.  I was lucky that a good friend of mine, Mike Lindgren, was in the initial group.  He asked me to be a part of his book, and that eventually led me to being able to invite three writers to join me in mine.  I wanted an Unbearables cast, and I wanted to give some very busy people a chance to show the world how hooked up they were, and how hard they worked at what they did – so I chose Jim Feast, Susan Scutti and Carl Watson.  What I would like to do here is run their two-thousand word bits, but only one at a time, starting with Jim Feast.

Here goes:

(Tuesday, February 15, 2011)

Jim Feast

More honored in the breach because of oversleeping, etc., I have a morning schedule based on years of working as a copy editor on the 11 am to 7 pm shift, and of using the lower part of my day to get things done before clocking in.

First, two glasses of water and a bowl of oatmeal, thoughtfully cooked by my wife, Nhi, who leaves for work at 7, right when I get up. As I eat, I study Sidney Lau’s Elementary Cantonese. (Bit of embarrassment that I don’t speak my wife’s native language after 23 years together.) You might say that learning this language, at least grammar wise, should be easy since Cantonese has no verb tenses, no third person pronoun differentiation (one word for “he,” “she” and “it”), and so on; but that’s overlooking its articles, 14 of them, assigned to nouns via an unfathomable logic: gin sam (the coat), jerk gow (the dog), ji but (the pen). Get the idea?

After 20 minutes, I go on to my next task, one hour of serious reading. The book I’m paging through now is Woolf’s The Waves, pressed on me by a friend who raved about it.  Again, I’m ashamed, in that I have to admit my college professors, who I often clashed with, were right. To them, Dalloway and Lighthouse were the Woolf books to read, The Waves, not important. The former books are held together by dominant if unobtrusive women who attempt to maneuver their friends through life as best they can via dinner parties or holiday outings, enveloping them within the mundane details of the events. In Waves, both organizing principles are dropped – there’s no central woman and few details. The novel describes the inner life of six friends through a very thin veneer of specifics, with a series of mental monologues that verge on the monotonous since they are of only
two types: Taking stock, moment of truth.

Even so, it’s stylistically breath-taking and I enjoy the 25 pages I get through in my time slot. I put it down to fire up my computer for an hour’s work on an on-again, off-again project, a look at Hong Kong remakes of Hollywood films from ’81 to ’95. One problem; the Internet connection is down, because of ongoing problems with our computer. There are also a couple of emails I want to send this morning, but I’ll have to wait on everything until I get to the community college where I teach and where I can use the computer in the adjunct’s office.  Unless there’s another interruption.

The phone rings. “Hello, this is Ralph Nader.”

Not totally, but somewhat unexpected. Last year, Nader published his first novel, an 800-page blockbuster of sorts, Only the Super-rich…   The publisher called me in to condense it for the paperback version. I worked with Nader’s aide, not the man himself, to do this. That’s standard procedure.

So, why is he calling me directly about this new job? Short staffed? It turns out the publisher didn’t much like this book because many parts of it are long quotes from the Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other mainstream papers, interspersed with Nader’s commentary. Since it would be prohibitively expensive to buy the rights to reprint this material, Nader had come up with a cost-effective measure: simply ignore the copyright law and print the book without paying the fees. As you can guess, the publisher, afraid of being sued, balked. Nader decided to self-publish it, and he needed a copy editor.

“I’m your man,” I tell him.

Off to work and to check my emails where I find an urgent message to call Richard G, Gary Null’s producer. I’ve been editing and occasionally rewriting for Null (a health expert with a syndicated radio show) for the past eight/nine years, so friends often ask me, “What’s Gary really like?” My answer: “Darned if I know.” See, they don’t grasp standard procedure. In those eight/nine years, I’d never met Null; only talked to him once on the phone. I worked through his publisher.

That is, till now, nine years of health books later and suddenly they are making a switch, asking me to work with him on a self empowerment text. To do this, I will need to have frequent chats with Null to discuss his ideas for this project, which is to be based on his interviews with various life coaches combined with his thoughts on same. Reaching Rich, I set up a get-together for
tomorrow.

It is time to give the final exam for the class I teach on writing. This, at least, is uncomplicated; hand out the booklets and sit back.  Everyone is ready except Tahir (not her real name). She hadn’t turned in one paper all semester — granted it was Kingsborough’s short, 6-week winter term — and now she comes in late with only one of three that are due. She says she didn’t have time to print the others out but will do so in the library after she completes the final. She gets her test done quickly and leaves. Time drags on but in another 90 minutes everyone is finished.  Tahir never comes back.

The last two done are Marlene and Ayeola. They act as informal class monitors (almost teacher’s pets, if I canuse that term without negative connotations). They kept our class running smoothly. Marlene, a demure Hispanic, is soft-spoken but outspoken, always making a pertinent remark when class discussion flagged. She ran the three microwaves we commandeered in the student cafeteria to make popcorn for the in-class films.  Ayeola, a quietly helpful Guyanese, took care of setting up the AV equipment as well as doing anything else that needed to be done. The minute the last student leaves, the two bubble over with news.

Ayeola: “Loudmouth was cheating.”

Me: “Huh?”

Marlene: “She calls that girl who always sits in the corner Loudmouth.”

Ayeola: “I noticed she kept looking to see if you were watching and then she started copying things from her iPhone.”

Marlene: “Professor, how could you miss that?”

Ayeola: “Give she an F.”

Marlene: “She might get a good grade if she cheated, but she never learned anything. Bird brain.”

We say our end-of-semester goodbyes. They are lively, spirited young women whose contributions had made the class a joy, and I am sorry to be losing them as students.

I usually go swimming with my wife after work Tuesdays, but if I have to meet Null tomorrow morning, I figure I better grade the exams now and simply meet Nhi for dinner at the XO Kitchen on Hester Street off Bowery.  When we get there, I order the “usual,” pineapple/vegetable rice (“baw law chop choy chow fun”).

Nhi, sitting down, asks me why I’m not wearing gloves. I left them in my other coat, I tell her. She is peeved. “Always like that. I need to buy you one gloves for each jacket. I have to. You understand? You need one gloves for each coat and one wife for each city to look after you. One forNew York, one forHong Kong. You can get clones of me.”

I start laughing over her spiel, not just the free associations but the charmingly imprecise use of words. Nhi didn’t learn English until she was in her twenties, when she already spoke three other languages, so her conversation is laden with strange proverbs,
directly translated from Chinese (“Speaking with you is like chicken and duck talking”) and slightly bent words. Recently, after seeing the sci-fi movie Moon,  she kept asking, “Do they really have cyclones?” I couldn’t make that out till I realized she meant “clones.” Now “clones” are coming up again.

The complaint ends when the waitress comes over and they chat in Cantonese while Nhi gives me a running commentary in English. It’s absorbing to listen as she fluidly switches between these language frames: from the lilting, bouncy, melody-filled Oriental one to the less volatile, more demarcated Romance one.

Soon enough, her stream of volubility flows totally in Chinese and I eat my rice looking at the people and the down-market, garish, cramped, pop wilderness in which I eat. The small front portion of the restaurant, crammed with sushi bar, large hanging altar to Lord Guan, numerous statues of waving cats, a TV, and year-round Santa Claus decorations, is put in the shade (as far as classic Chicago-style tackiness, something I deeply appreciate), by the mini-bridge (!), passing a wall with bas relief, artificial trees and tropical plants and  faux wood railings, that leads to the back dining room. Maybe not up to the standard of the entrance of the Congee Village, near Delancey, where, in the lobby, one can see goldfish flitting beneath one’s feet in a tank under the glass floor, but still impressive. We’ve eaten at XO Kitchen once a week for years and it holds many good memories.

Suddenly, Nhi gets very animated talking to the boss, who stops by our table. She used to use a phrase when we first started going out, which I thought was from Chinese, “Love is bright.” Actually, I was mishearing the word “blind” as “bright.” Maybe they mean the same thing. Nhi is nearly 60, but with a line of white down the middle part of her black, brightly dyed hair, which palms out around her prominent ears. Her face seems gracefully young, with a loveliness that is renewed with every glance.

Eventually, we eat and extricate ourselves from this network of acquaintances, memories and jaunty foods, and take the train back home. Nhi regales me with a story she is reading in the Sing Tao Chinese paper, a rags-to-riches story about Rupert Murdoch’s wife, Deng Wan, a woman from the lowest rung of Chinese society, who, in Nhi’s words, “went to Harvard school and used her clever brain to attract men.”

We get home, feed the cat, clean up a little and prepare for tomorrow’s work. I call Astrid, Barney Rosset’s wife, to schedule a visit. I’ve been helping Barney on his autobiography for seven years. Originally, I was hired by Thunder’s Mouth Press, since defunct, but they stopped paying me after nothing was written in the first two years. I decided to keep working, once a week, without pay.  We finished the text about a year ago, but now we are doing the picture layout and the design. For 11 months, we’ve been finding and inserting pictures in the layout, then studying the pages, and often pulling out and replacing images and captions. We’d been working on the Beckett chapter last week and I saw some fine pictures of Beckett arguing with Keaton on the set of Film. I reach
Astrid and set a time to visit.

Now my wife and I settle into our winding down routine. Nhi goes online to mysoju.com, to watch an episode of a Korean TV serial, Cinderella’s Sister. I usually watch the first few episodes of a serial with her, and occasionally stay for the duration if I get hooked, as I did with, for instance, Something Happened in Bali, where the social climbing hero keeps quoting Gramsci, or with Inside the White Tower, a story of a cut-throat competition to become the head of surgery in a large hospital. But Cinderella is not that engaging to me, an endless rags-to-riches teleplay, so I go in the bedroom and sit on the rolled-up futon with Woolf.

Our cat Oreo walks in, licking his chops. Since his decades-long companion, our other cat, died last year, he has become very chummy, often curling up next to me. Sometimes I think I can read his thoughts, but now, when he stops in the center of the room and stares blankly at the wall, I’m hard put to say whether he is taking stock or experiencing a moment of truth.