“I’M LOOKING FOR AN UNUSED NOTEBOOK so I can make a grocery list,” Laura said, ruffling through a drawer in the little desk in the living room. “But all I’m finding is these old ones that are filled with stuff you wrote.”
With that, she presented me with a stack of notebooks to add to the pile already sitting on a corner of my own desk. These ones, it appeared, were pretty old – at least a dozen years, very possibly more. They were filled with cryptic comments, names and dates and places and the occasional phone number, quotations from a variety of people, jots and tittles and partial pieces of stories written or unwritten: scrawls of importance in their moment, and barely comprehensible now. Note-taking, in general, is not for the future.
Curious, I thumbed through a couple of the notebooks, finding a few things still vaguely familiar and a lot that seemed to be free-floating bits of debris ambling through the void.
And then I stumbled on the following scrawl, of which I have no memory, and yet which is unquestionably my own, written in my own hand. Was it a fleeting thought that ended where it ended? A draft for an unfinished story, or a part of a story that was published somewhere, although I have no memory of it? Curious: a little piece of entropy, or so it seems, in search of a place to call its own.
Here it is:
“If the nature of the universe is to defy cohesion and the nature of the human mind is to discover pattern even where none exists, the invention of the alphabet is a very good, and a very human, thing: It allows us to imagine beyond the abyss.
“Like lists of 10 and the binary zeroes and ones inside your computer and Mr. Dewey’s celebrated decimal system, the alphabet – 26 letters in English, although the number varies in other tongues – is like a girdle around entropy, organizing and holding together things that might not want to have anything to do with one another at all. The letters build words, of course, which build phrases and sentences and paragraphs and eventually manuscripts. But in addition, each letter is a sort of organizing sentinel on its own, a gatherer of unlike items and ideas into a commonality of sound. The ‘S’ words, so sibilant. The ‘V’ words, so very vivacious (or violent). The ‘W’s, so wavery. Sometimes stuff – esoterica, oddments, bits of information floating in the void – are fascinating just because. How do we make sense of them? We compartmentalize them. We invent a pattern.
“But enough of that. Order in the court. Alphabetical order, if you please; so sensible and ridiculous at the same time. I mean, does that just define human civilization, or what? A to Z, from dictionaries to encyclopedias to Anything for Dummies, the alphabetically organized volumes march on.”
I ripped out the quizzical page, and rustled through the rest of the notebook. Then I began to rip out all of the used pages, and took them to the recycling bin, and returned with a vastly slimmed-down book. “I’ve taken out all of the old pages,” I told Laura. “You can have the rest.”
Two blank pages, as it turned out.
Enough for two trips to the grocery store, or one very extensive trip. A list, or two, all neatly categorized, practical, and reassuringly human.
Reposted from an Oregon ArtsWatch column that ran January 7, 2021, the day after the storming of the capitol.
JANUARY 7, 2021
On Wednesday the biggest show in America broke into new territory, adding a hard-right plot twist that raged across the nation’s television screens and Twitter feeds like a renegade character actor rushing into the spotlight and brandishing a sword. America’s actual theaters have been shut down for ten months. But the metaphorical theater – the great big blustering morality play of the body politic, screeching and bleating its lines in some hyperdrive version of a medieval drama – reached a new climax in Washington, D.C.
It had seemed, in the morning hours, that the old play had settled into its dénouement and the crew was ready to clear the stage to make room for the new show in town, the one with a familiar old star making a dramatic comeback in the leading role. In the halls of Congress the thunder sheets were rattling up one final mini-storm of protest as stock characters bellowed their closing curses to the sky, insisting to the end that night was day and the world was flat and the emperor was draped in dazzling costume. A mob of rabid groundlings, caught up in the raw fiction of the plotting and egged on by the antics of the morality play’s Ravening Beast, stormed the Capitol stage and attempted to turn the tide of the battle’s choreography with a show of brute force. But surely this was only show and tell?
And then the insurrectionists broke through. It was a shocking, if not surprising, violation of the fourth wall. The performers rushed into the audience space and transformed the measured fantasy of the script into a fresh form of ugly reality, looting and vandalizing and strutting for selfies. During the storming of the Capitol a woman was shot and killed. Four others also died, making it all too plain that the passions unleashed by the cheap theatrics had very real and serious consequences.
The worlds of politics and the theater have always been intimately linked. Political leaders build their bases and amplify their power by playing to the crowd. You could see and hear it, during the long television run of the day, in the soliloquies of some of the major players. Mitch McConnell’s deft and calculated turning of the screw. Lindsay Graham’s folksy yarn-spinning. Chuck Schumer’s earnest prosecutorial delivery. Josh Hawley’s fresh-off-the-bus sophistry. All delivered with studied theatrical poise – and then 45’s astonishing wreck of a mea non culpa, so palpably defiant and self-serving that social media companies blocked it, and him, though the television networks played it over and over again. In the midst of all this I found myself thinking, theater is like politics, and politics is like theater, but they are not the same, and it’s dangerous to mix them up. At a time of gross cultural and economic inequities, and pandemic health crisis, and racial and religious animosity, and a world plummeting toward climate disaster, it seems a very good time for the ladies and gentlemen of the hallowed halls to leave the acting to the professionals and get down to the tough but necessary business of actually governing. I’d buy a ticket to that.
How, then, should the worlds of art and politics interact? We’ve been seeing a lot of specific artistic responses to the political world, some of them blunt, some of them provocative, some of them good for the immediate moment and some of them, no doubt, with longer reverberation. The best approach might be to make art that explores the depths and complexities of human situations – not offering answers so much as fresh ways of thinking, so that political decisions can be made taking into account broader and more lasting ways of looking at things.
Barry Lopez, the great Oregon author of Arctic Dreams and Of Wolves and Men, died on Christmas Day at age 75, of prostate cancer. Everything he wrote, “major” or “minor,” was graceful and direct and suffused with a sense of the interconnections of the physical and cultural worlds. Always, he sought the whole picture, the things in front of us that most of us most of the time just don’t see. He might have been, not a politician, but an unofficial advisor to lawmakers, quietly urging them to see the details and hidden truths that make for sound decision-making. The other day I found myself leafing through Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, a geological and geographical encyclopedia of sorts that was edited by Lopez and, as managing editor, his writer wife, Debra Gwartney. It’s a book of terms, from “alluvial fan” to “bog” to “promontory” to “salt-grass estuary,” that define and illuminate very particular physical realities.
In his introduction Lopez suggests the complexity of life on Earth, and the difficulty of truly seeing, a skill as necessary in public life as in the wild: “During a long period of field research that brought me into regular contact with wild animals on their remote home grounds, and after decades of living in a place where wild animals from deer mice and dusky shrews to Roosevelt elk and black bear are common, I’ve wondered what they see that we miss. Or what we so frequently miss because we are impatient and cursory. … Much that would be arresting to an animal’s eye is not apparent to us. How is the land we see divided and composed according to the way we see? What draws our attention?”
A little later I picked up another book by Lopez that I occasionally re-read, The Rediscovery of North America. Published in 1990, shortly before the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s incursion into the Americas, it’s essentially a long essay about that encounter, and the savagery and misunderstandings of it, and the ways in which its brutalities ripple down to our own time and influence how we think about things in our public and private lives. Calling partly on the testimony of Bartolomé de las Casas, who arrived in Hispañola in 1502 and later became a priest, Lopez relates in brutal detail the decades of “murder, rape, theft, kidnapping, vandalism, child molestation, acts of cruelty, torture, and humiliation” visited by the Spaniards on the Indigenous population.
Then he goes beyond: “I single out these episodes of depravity not so much to indict the Spanish as to make two points. First, this incursion, this harmful road into the ‘New World,’ quickly became a ruthless, angry search for wealth. It set a tone in the Americas. … The second point I wish to make is that this violent corruption needn’t define us. Looking back on the Spanish incursion, we can take the measure of the horror and assert that we will not be bound by it. We repudiate the greed. We recognize and condemn the evil. And we see how the harm has been perpetuated. But, five hundred years later, we intend to mean something else in the world.”
This might not make a sound bite for the Sunday morning news shows. It could make for a richer, more responsive and humane public policy. If the world of art can help the world of politics do that, maybe the Capitol won’t be stormed.
STACKS OF NOTEBOOKS TEETERING a foot and a half high. Scraps of paper torn from here and there, covered in cryptic and often indecipherable scrawls: old envelopes and junk mail, stray printouts, performance programs, grocery lists flipped to the other side. In our brave new electronic age, odd passages struck by thumb and stored in the Notes app of our smart phones. Strange names and phone numbers. Possibly important dates, if only you could remember what they’re for. Vital phrases and dead ends. Whole paragraphs out of the blue, scribbled in haste before they can vanish into the mist.
Writing is a messy enterprise, a stumble toward clarity through a thicket of confusion. The writer jots down notes amid the chaos, little clues to mark a path toward a destination he can’t quite see and whose appearance, if ever he discovers it, might easily arrive as an utter surprise, not at all like whatever it was he envisioned when he set out.
It’s possible, of course, that some writer somewhere sits down to keyboard or notepad at a desk of virginal cleanness and simply composes, fresh, from brain to fingers, in a smooth spontaneous stream. I have not met this person. My own writing environment is a haphazardly orchestrated disaster zone of unfinished projects, dubious side trips, and cryptic hints of ideas that, having been jotted onto paper or screen, have joined the daunting pile of faint yet hopeful possibilities. Now, where is that thing that I wrote down three weeks ago and suddenly realize might fit into the blank spot on the page I’m working on today? What was it, again? Let me just see if I can track it down. Somehow, this organizational calamity comforts me and spurs me on. Continue reading On Writing: Shards and Scraps→
It’s been only five years since I took the Small Large Smelly Boy to his first opera? It’s already been a whole five years?
During that time I’ve thought frequently about the post I wrote after I took him to Portland Opera’s double bill of Pagliacci and Carmina Burana in fall 2010, when he was 12 years old. At least a few times every year I think about writing an update: What’s he doing now? Did it take? What’s happened since then? How old is he now? Did that first opera change his life like all the ta-DUM-ing in the post?
That whole event back then seemed like just life. A night out on the town with my lad after he took out the trash. A quick documentation of a special occasion. But I had no idea how much it would resonate and grow long-long legs and, well, if not change the course of history, then at least skew its trajectory just a bit.
To say our cat died is ridiculously casual and wildly unfitting. Jack, mafia don and Facebook darling, all sass and sweetness, as demanding as a popped blister and as loyal as a lab, was our warp and our weft, our emotional ballast, our third Large Smelly Boy, more boy than the sum of the rest and more macho than a swaggering lot of pirates. He would never stand for being just a cat.
Jack. A name we didn’t give him but inherited from his kitten foster parents and decided to keep, both to honor his first family loves and because it fit. Solid. Straightforward. Nothing to duck. That was Jack, who died Monday, May 11 — days ago, but no one in the family could yet bear to make it public, perhaps because we still couldn’t believe it and saying it aloud would make it real, perhaps because we futilely willed to keep him to ourselves a little longer, and perhaps because the grief was so deep that it was silent and private. Funny, because Jack was never quiet.
He insisted on long conversations and had lots of opinions. But don’t take my word for it. Ask the neighbors. He talked to everyone about everything. He acted all lovey to every passing stranger, and promptly answered all manner of sounds – words, whistles, belches, farts. He wasn’t picky, as long as he had someone to talk to. Or not. He head-bumped with the best of ’em and knew how to rub a good leg. And he knew how to push newspapers onto the floor when they vied for his attention. If he were here now he would be digging a paw into my sleeve and pulling my hand away from the keyboard, insisting on having it to himself, persistently becoming an impossible pest until I would have to do something, perhaps give him a good long hug over my right shoulder, a favorite spot where he went limp. I started making bed nests for him near wherever I happened to be working to placate him, scrunching up soft blankets and pulling chairs closer.
On Memorial Day weekend a year ago, my nephew, Peter Joseph Hicks, a Navy veteran of the Iraqi war, died after a long battle with cancer. He was 31 years old – born March 11, 1983, died May 23, 2014. I was honored when his father, my brother Bill, asked me to give a talk at the celebration of Pete’s life, in Oak Harbor, Washington, a gathering where Pete was remembered by his family, friends, and Navy comrades. It was one of those sweet-and-sad days, a farewell and a remembrance, a telling of tales, an embracing of who Pete was, and a way to keep his essence alive in those he loved. For those who knew and loved him, and anyone else, here is what I said on that afternoon.
I was talking with my brother Bill, Peter’s dad, on the phone the other day, and Bill said, “I think Peter packed ninety years of life into the thirty-one he had.”
No kidding. I can’t count the number of things Pete’s been and done. Some of you who knew him more closely or in other aspects of his life could surprise me with your stories, and after we’re done here I hope you will.
A few things I remember clearly. Pete liked bows and arrows and other things of velocity and impact. He liked to cook. He was a tinkerer and a builder and a grower. As I discovered in the last couple of years, he was a writer, although I’m not sure he really thought of himself that way: he was just expressing what he believed.
He was a Navy guy, and not just a Navy guy but a Navy guy who went to war and took on one of the most dangerous jobs around, defusing bombs that threatened soldiers and civilians alike. He was a good friend and a good brother. He was fierce and he was gentle, and he loved a good joke, even when it was on himself.
Maybe most important of all, he was a dad and a husband and a devoted family man. His wife, Sasha, and their five kids from the family they blended together – Bell, Abby, Lucas, Caden, and Kali – have lost a part of themselves with his death, and will need time and compassion to grieve and move on. It’s hard. I wish grace and good memories for you. Pete was a determined warrior against this cancer thing, but it was a sneaky devil, and it took a 10-year head start before it let him know there was even a battle going on.
So by Bill’s reckoning of ninety years in thirty-one, if Pete had made it to ninety-three, the way his grandmother Charlotte did before she died last fall, he’d have had two hundred seventy years of life experience under his belt, and any of us who were still around would be absolutely gobsmacked by his accumulated wisdom.
Which I’m sure he would have been more than willing to share.
This morning I discovered via Facebook feed that the great American literary sensation Nancy Drew is 85 years old, making her quite possibly the oldest 16-year-old super sleuth in history. That got me to searching for this story, which ran originally in The Oregonian on October 12, 1997. A revised version later ran in the late, lamented magazine Biblio.
Here’s to you, Nancy Drew. You were my first true love. My first safe true love.
Sure, there were others. Freckled Norwegian girls with hair like hay and eyes as swift as mountain streams. Lipsticked, rounded girls in cashmere sweaters that clung to peach-soft skin. Porcelain dolls of unapproachable sophistication. But they were dangerous, because they were real, and liable to utterly destroy the hesitant intentions of an awkward boy.
Ah, but you, you forthright, striding, titian-haired marvel. You, you crime-busting beauty in your little blue roadster.
You were a flash, an action. A wonderful blank, waiting to be filled in. Made of printer’s ink and imagination, you were the speeding American vision of a bright future. An ideal, a fantasy, a goal. You were not for attaining. You were for setting the standard. You were the New American Woman.
Thank heavens for the printed page. With real girls, I was pretty much doomed to be tongue-tied and star-struck. With you, I had a relationship. And it was about all sorts of things, perhaps the least of which was puppy love (you were not, essentially, romantic, though you were a creature of romance). It was about literature and the secrets of writing. It was about boldness and courage and the declaration of self. It was about waking to the possibilities of a bigger world. It was about laughter and embracing the ability to enjoy. It was about doing right and fighting wrong. It was, in several pertinent senses, about growing up.
Not, of course, that I realized it at the time. At the time you were just a darned good read, a queen of the cliffhanger. How, in The Secret of the Old Clock (the very first Nancy Drew mystery, published in 1930), would you get out of the closet where the vicious thief Sid had locked you so he could make his getaway? Why, in The Hidden Window Mystery (No. 34), does Luke cry out in terror when you start to pull the lever to the trap door in the haunted house?
My sister Melinda Louise Lee, born Melinda Louise Hicks on June 7, 1942, in Richmond, California, died on Thanksgiving morning, November 28, 2013, at her Seattle home, while lying in bed and holding her Kindle: as her kids and our sister Barb noted, Lindy loved to read. She died quickly, apparently of a heart attack, and unexpectedly, just six weeks after our mother, Charlotte Lucille Baldwin Hicks, had died at age 93. Mom’s death was a shock but no surprise. Lindy’s was out of the blue, one that no one was prepared for: she was filled with vitality to the end.
Printed below is the text of what I said at Lindy’s memorial service on Friday, December 6, in Ferndale, Washington, where we grew up. Three of Lindy’s children, Melissa Doll, Fernzwood (Bud) Lee Jr., and Kelli Harrell, also spoke. Lindy’s fourth child, Alicia Gudgel, sang. Their messages were beautiful and from the heart. I mentioned before I began my prepared talk that Lindy’s death was devastating, not just because it was unexpected but also because she was in so many ways the heart of our large extended family. And I noted that there were many Lindys lodged in our memories and imaginations, a different Lindy for each of us who knew her. She was the oldest of seven siblings, and four years older than the next-oldest, Laurel. She was five and a half years older than I am, and 11 years older than the next in line, Barb, 12 years older than Chuck, more than 13 older than Bill, and 15 years older than the youngest of us, John. Four years or even 15 in the adult world isn’t a lot: it’s an easy bridge to gap. But in childhood, that’s a chasm, and it can make for vastly different relationships. One of the many wonders about Lindy is that in later life she so easily embraced all of us: it was a reflection of her warmth and generosity of spirit.
The first thing I want to say is, hardly anyone was more alive than our friend and sister and aunt and mother and grandmother Lindy, and that’s what makes this thing so difficult to understand. It’s like she just disappeared in mid-laugh or mid-sentence, just dropped away, or went into the kitchen to get a glass of water, and hold that thought because she’ll be right back. Except she won’t, and although our minds know that, our hearts can’t quite believe. So now it’s good to remember, because by remembering we keep the warmth and conversations flowing.
This is the talk I gave at my mother’s memorial celebration on Saturday, November 9, 2013, at the First Baptist Church of Ferndale, Washington, where Mom had been a member for many years. She was born in Holtville California, near the Mexican border, and grew up in Richmond, California, across the bay from San Francisco, and moved with her young family to Ferndale, Washington, in 1952. The written talk is a little bit longer than what I delivered on Saturday; I had cut a few passages to keep the talk from getting too long. – Bob Hicks
When I got the phone call from my sister telling me that Mom had died, I was shocked. Oh, no: the moment’s come! It’s always a shock, of course, that moment of passing, even when you know that it might happen at any time. But only the night before, Mom had had a little crisis, and was taken to the emergency room, where she spent several hours, and after the doctors announced that her vitals were fine and she was in good shape, she went home again. So when she died in her bed a few hours later, yes: it was like a piercing of the heart, or a punch on the chin.
Mom was 93 years old, and she died in her sleep, which was a blessing, and as I was driving north later that morning from Portland to Ferndale, thinking and remembering and feeling, I remembered the last crisis Mom had had, just about a year ago, when it seemed that she might die. She was so close to it that the doctors told us to be thinking about end-of-life questions, including the big one: Should we pull the plug? Mom had long ago made sure we knew she didn’t want to be maintained artificially in a vegetative state. But knowing when that time’s arrived isn’t always easy. She was conscious enough that we talked with her, and asked her. Do you feel like you’re ready to go and see Daddy again, or do you feel like you still want to be here? Mom replied without hesitating, emphatically and with what sounded to me, at least, like surprise that there would be any question about it: “Well, I want to LIVE!”
Yesterday I learned the awful truth: Classical Millennium, Portland’s wonderful and staunchly provocative classical music store, has given in to the realities of the marketplace and will close up shop in September. It’s yet another blow to the texture of a small city that likes to think it plays bigger than its population.
This is a major bummer. I wrote about it for Oregon ArtsWatch in this piece, A sad day in the life: Classical Millennium, farewell. The essay talks not only about the abstract loss to the city and its cultural life, but more personally about the loss to me and to my teenage son, who’s developed a close and lovely relationship with a store that’s now going away. I know, I know: Progress, and all that rot. Life will go on. But not all change is good.
Here’s an excerpt:
(F)rom its beginning in 1977, CM has been more than just a shop. It’s been a place of discovery, a crucible of learning, a home away from home. Like Pioneer Courthouse Square and Powell’s City of Books, it’s helped define the sort of place we’d like to think we want Portland to be. People grow up in a place like this, and expand their capacities, and reinvent themselves. People discover what the world feels and thinks and sounds like, and where they want to be inside that great globe of intellect and emotion.