I’ve loved writing since I was able to control a pencil. In fact, I’ve always felt that I’ll probably become a writer when I grow up.
All through grade school, my teachers encouraged me to write, and I loved to read as a very young boy. Apparently I picked up reading when I sat beside one of my parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles while they read stories to me. I read voraciously, and I’m sure that the books I read gave me the writing bug, although I grew up surrounded by creativity.
My mother was an artist who had studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and my father was an engineer, draftsman, and craftsman. Being inventive and imaginative was encouraged, and I enthusiastically began drawing, painting, carving, and building even before grade school. Once there, I was fortunate to find a good art program with a teacher who introduced us to a wide variety of different media. Pen and ink quickly became my medium of choice. This is a drawing I made for a Christmas card, probably in 1956 or 1957, in the living room of our house in Fair Haven. There’s a picture of Thora, the family sailboat, over the mantle, and Schoen, our Great Dane, waits for Santa.
I developed an early love of music as well, both as a listener and a performer. I’ve already listed in a previous post some of the songs I enjoyed when I was still only 3 or 4 years old. We had a good music teacher in grade school who stimulated and expanded my knowledge and appreciation of music. I also sang in the children’s choir of the Methodist church in the next town, because I enjoyed the music and because our choir director was an outstanding musician; in fact, he later became the choral director at Harvard, which indicates the quality of musical training we were getting.
I’m not sure why, but as a young boy I wanted to play the accordion, so much so that I convinced my parents to try to find a teacher when I was still in the first or second grade. Unfortunately, the only teacher in our small town refused to teach someone as young as I was, with the excuse that I wouldn’t be physically able to hold and play the instrument.
After a couple of years, I convinced them to try again, this time with the piano. They found a good buy on a fine Melville Clark baby grand. Here’s a photo that we used for our 1958 Christmas card, showing Schoen playing the piano while we sang carols.
After a year with a very good Juilliard-trained teacher, my parents enrolled me with a superb teacher, a Polish woman, Mrs. Svet, who had studied along with Ingacy Jan Paderewski at the Warsaw Conservatory and had taught both there and at the Moscow Conservatory before coming to the States. She taught her grandson, Julius Katchen, a prodigy who performed with many of the major orchestras in the States and Europe. Unfortunately, I didn’t take as much advantage of such an outstanding opportunity for music education as I might have, but after dropping the formal instruction, I continued learning on my own to play a wide variety of instruments, and from time to time wrote music as well.
My brother and I both received Kodak Baby Brownie cameras for Christmas shortly after moving to New Jersey, and our dad soon converted a corner of the basement into a darkroom where we developed the film we shot and printed the pictures using a good-quality enlarger. By the time I got out of college, I had bought a Minolta single-lens reflex camera, and added a Nikon-F that I bought second-hand shortly after arriving in Asmara. Since then, photography has been one of my major creative outlets.
In recent years my writing muse took a sabbatical, so my creativity has been limited to photography and music. Recently, however, she has returned from her hiatus, leading to the creation of this blog.
While I was encouraged by all who read whatever I wrote as a boy, the first serious encouragement I got was after my Third Form (freshman) year at The Hill School. I can’t remember if I submitted my short story in the writing contest, or if my teacher, Mr. Tyrer, entered it for me. In any case, I was awarded the Frank Woodworth Pine Memorial Prize for Excellence in Underform English Prose.
The award-winning story was based on something I had learned in ancient history, which I wrote in a parallel style, comparing the wonder-filled paleolithic mind with the superstition-bound mind of the Medieval European. The first and second paragraphs are deceptively similar, but with subtle yet crucial differences. Here’s the story.
The Work of the Devil
He was a flint miner. He went down into the mine that day, as he did every day, with his pick of reindeer horn, to loosen the flint from the surrounding chalk. He and his companions dug out the flint; then it was taken to the surface, and other workers picked and chipped and flaked at it, until they had made arrowheads, spearheads, axes, knives, and even tools for scraping hides. He was working as he always worked. He would pry at the ceiling or walls to loosen a piece of flint, pull it out, and throw it into the leather bag he had hung at his side. Then he would wipe away the chalk dust from his face, and start again. He worked and worked and worked, and his body got more and more covered with chalk dust. Then he saw a huge lump of flint, that would make many tools. He pried away, harder and harder. The lump was stubborn, but he was a man, and he could win over a lump of flint. It began to come loose. He could hear it grumbling, as if it were angry. The grumbling got louder and louder. Suddenly, the lump, and the ceiling, and all above the ceiling, fell, and his body was covered with chalk dust.
* * *
He was a flint miner. He went down into the mine that day, as he did every day, with his pick of iron, to loosen the flint from the surrounding chalk. He and his companions dug out the flint; then it was taken to the surface, and other workers picked and chipped and flaked at it, until they had made musket flints for the constant wars. He was working as he had always worked. He would chip at the ceiling or walls to loosen a piece of flint, pull it out, and throw it into the leather bag he had hung at his side. Then he would wipe away the chalk dust from his face, and start again. He worked and worked and worked, and his body got more and more covered with chalk dust. Then his son, who worked with him, cried, “Papa, look at this!” He went over to his son, and saw that the son had uncovered a skull, a few other human bones, and a funny-shaped piece of reindeer horn. He said to his son, “Destroy it, and bury it, and come away fast. It is the work of the devil, come to tempt us.” And they destroyed it and went away, troubled.
I was hooked. I was enthralled by writing, and all the things that were possible with writing and imagination. Not surprisingly, I also discovered an ability with languages. During my two years at Hill, I took regular schoolboy Latin, taught from books, grammatically, but not as a living language, and I didn’t do well with it. Of course, it wasn’t a living language. In fact, this bit of doggerel was universally spoken by schoolboy Latin students:
Latin is a language, It’s dead as dead can be.
Latin killed the Romans, and now it’s killing me.
My move to The Pingry School gave me the chance to participate in a pilot program at one of 12 schools nationwide in an audio-lingual Russian class, with a native speaker for a teacher. I loved it, and absorbed it.
I don’t recall if it was for a class assignment, or just for enjoyment, but I wrote a Russian poem as a sophomore, in my second year of college Russian. At that time, I was very absorbed with the beat poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and had been writing in a style similar to his since my first year at Pingry, when Ferlinghetti’s book of poems A Coney Island Of The Mind had been assigned to us. Naturally, my Russian poem was written in that style.
For those who don’t read Russian, a transliteration follows. As with my English poetry, I was using alliteration and word play. For example, голубка (golubka – dove) and не любит (ne lyubit – doesn’t love) are alliterative, while воркует (vorkuyet – she coos) puns ironically with ворчит (vorchit – she grumbles).
oo menya krasivaya golubka
kotoraya menya ne lyubit
ya vizhu yeyo kazhdi dyen
ya dayu yei podarki
ya popravlyayu yeyo operyenniye
no ona ne vorkuyet
kogda ya priblizhayus
I originally wrote this poem, which I called Голубка (Golubka, the diminutive or affectionate word for Dove or Pigeon), in the winter of 1963. In 2000, I modified it, adding a few words and an extra line.
The changes to the verse are few, mostly a matter of emphasis. The first line now begins with the more definitive есть у меня (yest oo menya – there is with me, or I have) rather than у меня (oo menya – with me, or I have). The last line begins with the somewhat more indefinite когданибудь (kogdanibud – whenever) instead of когда (kogda – when). In addition, I added one line: я говорю сней мягко (ya govoryu snyei myagko – I speak with her gently, or I speak softly to her).
yest oo menya krasivaya golubka
kotoraya menya ne lyubit
ya vizhu yeyo kazhdi dyen
ya govoryu snyei myagko
ya dayu yei podarki
ya popravlyayu yeyo operyenniye
no ona ne vorkuyet
kogdanibud ya priblizhayus
Having written a poem in Russian, I was primed to do more creative writing in other languages. An opportunity came in my junior year, during my first year of French. We were assigned to write a theme or something descriptive. I took liberties with the assignment and handed in this short story.
L’homme etait sur le pont, en se préparant de se jeter. Personne ne sut pas comment il atteignit sa place, mais il fut là-haut, et il voulut se jeter, sans doute. Naturellement, ce spectacle attira une foule, qui le railla et moqua. “Précipitez-vous! Précipitez-vous!” elle cria. “Élancez-vous! Sautez! Envolez!” Le pauvre homme regarda la foule; il ne sut pas comment réagir à ce bruit. Il n’avait pas imaginé que la foule serait là du tout. Le tableau dans sa tête montra un seul homme, balancé au-dessus de la fleuve, en glissant tranquillement en éternité. Mais ici il fut un clown, qui répondit aux applaudissements de la racaille vulgare. Ici, il fut une prostituée homme qui venda son corps à la canaille pour un spectacle bon marché.
Pourquois voulut-il se jeter, il se demanda? Il ne fut pas tourmenté par un grand chagrin, ou une affaire d’amour infortunée. Il ne mourrut mystérieusement d’une maladie rare ou exotique. Non, il y eut une cause différente. Il avait vu la maladie de la société, la maladie qui se montra clairement là-bas. Il avait vu clairement le désir pour mort dans la racaille, et le suicide du monde qui approchait rapidement. Voilà se qu’il voulut s’échapper. Mais maintenent! En face de cette cohue! Il serait comme les autres, comme les gens vulgaires qu’il voulut eluder, pas jointre! Il se décida à descendre encore. Il essayera encore se jeter quand il n’y avait pas une foule ici.
Mais, la foule est malheureuse. Elle veut le sang d’une victime. Elle lapide l’homme. Elle le saisit. Elle le déchire…
After submitting the story, I decided to write an English version. It’s a fairly precise translation, and the rather formal, impersonal English matches the style I used in the French original.
The man stood on the bridge, getting ready to jump. No one knew how he got up there, but there he was, and he was going to jump, without a doubt. Of course, the spectacle attracted a crowd, who taunted and jeered him. “Jump! Jump!” the crowd shouted. “Spring! Leap! Fly off!” The poor man looked at the crowd; he didn’t know how to react to all the noise. He hadn’t imagined that there would be a crowd below at all. The picture in his mind showed a lone man, balanced high above the river, gliding quietly into eternity. But here he was a clown, who responded to the applause of the vulgar rabble. Here, he was a prostitute who sold his body to the riffraff for a cheap spectacle.
Why did he want to throw himself off, he wondered? He wasn’t tormented by a great sorrow, or an unfortunate love affair. He was not dying mysteriously from a rare or exotic affliction. No, there was a different reason. He had seen society’s sickness, the sickness which showed itself so clearly there below. He had seen clearly the desire for death in the rabble, and the world suicide which rapidly approached. Here was what he wanted to escape. But now! In front of this mob! He would be like the others, like those vulgar people whom he wished to elude, not join! He decided to descend again. He would try to throw himself off again when there was no crowd here.
But, the crowd is unhappy. It wants the blood of a victim. It stones the man. It seizes him. It tears him…
From time to time, I’ll release more of my writings in this blog, as well as some of my art work, and of course photography. I’ll finish for now with a design entitled Modern Man that I made either in eighth grade or the first year of secondary school. The inspiration for the design was an anthology of fiction with mathematical twists that I had been given as a present. Called Fantasia Mathematica, it was edited by Clifton Fadiman. Several of the stories involved the famous Möbius strip and Klein bottle. My design, like the Klein bottle which takes a twist into the fourth dimension, is twisted into itself. It has always been my intention to sculpt it, but up to now I’ve only made a few abortive attempts. Like a true Klein bottle, its deceptively simple design on a two-dimensional surface takes on surprising complexity when converted to a three-dimensional form.