Writing in a Paris Café

My wife and I are still planning to leave Paradelle and jet to France this summer for a vacation that was pandemic-postponed in 2021 and 2020. Of course, a positive COVID test in the 72 hours before we leave will cancel it again. (I did note this morning that they have lifted the testing requirement for now when I return from France.)

Though I hope not to be an American cliché, I will undoubtedly fall into some Romantic traps set by years of reading literature and watching films. I have never been there but my wife studied there and taught French for many years so I feel less conspicuous – though perhaps her skills will make me more conspicuous.

How can I sit in a Paris cafe and not think about Hemingway and all those American ex-patriates who sat there drinking, talking, and writing?

Never write in a café, especially in Europe. Ever since Hemingway, this has been the literary equivalent of what in mountain climbing is called the “tech weenie” (that is, someone who cannot get a foot off the ground but is weighed down with $10,000’s worth of equipment). Literary skill, much less greatness, cannot be had with a pose, and exhibitionism extorts the price of failure. Also, have pity on the weary Parisians who have wanted only a citron pressé but have been unable to find a café where every single seat is not occupied by an American publicly carrying on a torrid affair with his Moleskine. – Mark Helprin

Helprin’s advice for European touring is not unlike my own thoughts here about thinking that an isolated cabin in the woods might prove the inspiration to write that Great American Novel or at least some poems. I don’t plan any serious writing while in France, but I will have a little travel notebook to record places and things we do to supplement my photos. A picture may sometimes speak a thousand words, but I often look at a travel photo and think “Now where was I when I took this one?”

The Yellow House (The Street) in Arles by Vincent

I don’t plan to create any great art when traveling either but I do sometimes do some sketching in the journal, and when we get to Arles I will fall into a van Gogh romance. The yellow house where Vincent lived while he worked there is gone now but I do plan to do some painting there. No fabulous Impressionist canvases but something.

Though I am not a fan of traveling – the getting there and getting home parts – I will always give in to the Romance of being in a new place.

This Jest Seems Infinite

I finished Infinite Jest. It took me five years. I’m proud that I kept at it and didn’t quit, but I am not happy that it took that long or that I am in a minority of readers who didn’t enjoy it.

The novel is David Foster Wallace’s most famous work. It was published in 1996 and was a best-seller and widely praised. It is more than 1,000 pages long. It has 100 pages of footnotes.

The only thing I had read by Wallace before was his collection of essays, Consider the Lobster, which I liked.  Infinite Jest is nothing like those essays.

hatI have a few friends who rate it as one of their favorites and a few more people I know who were unable to finish reading it.  I’m not alone as shown by the fact that you can buy hats and t-shirts stating that you’re in that group (seen above). 

I never got past page 100 in the book and had to return it to the library. I might not have ever picked it up again but I was gifted some Audible books and so I figured I can certainly make it through the other 900 pages as an audiobook.  Sadly, the Audible version didn’t make things much easier.

I started reading in January 2017 and finished in January 2022. Now, that it was a solid five years of reading and listening. According to my Goodreads account, there were more than 200 other books I read during that time period. 

I didn’t enjoy the story or footnotes at all, so what compelleded me to keep going?  I’m not sure. I wrote earlier about the same situation with a John Irving novel and Irving is an author I very much enjoy reading. But it is very rare for me to walk out on a movie or give up on a book once I start reading.

The novel’s structure is unconventional and it includes endnotes (388, including some that have their own footnotes). The novel’s primary locations are the Enfield Tennis Academy (E.T.A.) and the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House which are near each other in suburban Boston, Massachusetts.

I am hard-pressed to summarize a plot. The multiple narratives are somewhat connected via a film, also called Infinite Jest, and sometimes known as “the Entertainment.”

I suppose I kept picking up on the novel because some friends liked it so much and the very positive reviews. It made TIME magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.  

The novel’s title is from Hamlet in that famous scene when Hamlet holds the skull of the court jester, Yorick, and says, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!” 

Hamlet is a sad man. Lots of death in that play. Not a lot of joy in Infinite Jest or Wallace either. David Foster Wallace battled devastating depression his whole life and committed suicide in 2008. His unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011. I don’t think I’ll start that one.

Places That Aren’t There

wessex map
Map showing the Wessex of Thomas Hardy’s novels.

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
– Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

There are places that we have heard of, read about, and perhaps even seen on a map, but they don’t exist. Or, at least, they don’t exist in the world we walk through today.

These places appeal to me. You are reading now about a place called Paradelle that exists online but cannot be found (yet!) on maps. Maps and imaginary places have fascinated me since I was a kid. It started with places in novels (like Treasure Island) which led me to love maps, which led me to draw maps and write about my own imaginary places.

When I was teaching middle school, I had my students create maps of the fictional settings of novels they read. Even if the setting was a “real” place or based on a real place, the maps needed things that you wouldn’t find on existing maps – the empty lot or the church that burns down in The Outsiders; the roads and ranches in Of Mice and Men; Scout Finch’s hometown and Boo’s tree in To Kill a Mockingbird or where Romeo, Juliet, Benvolio or Friar Lawrence lived in Shakespeare’s play.

I started a novel years ago that was set in Camptown, New Jersey. That is a town that did exist on maps at one time. It changed its name to Irvington. But my Camptown is a blended town that mixed my hometown of Irvington with other places I have lived along with things I wish were included in the place where I live. The river that runs through the town is all the rivers and creeks and streams I have known. It is the Elizabeth River that I knew as a boy, the Peckman River that runs through where I now live and the Passaic River. That river cuts across New Jersey and is sourced from a now-swampy glacial lake that dinosaurs edged up to for a drink. It spills spectacularly over the Great Falls in Paterson and on to Newark Bay, New York Harbor, the Hudson River and out to the Atlantic Ocean.  As I wandered along riverbanks and paths such as the Lenape trails around me as a child and adult, stories were always coming to me from the past.

All this came to mind back in 2015 when I saw ads for the film Paper Towns which is based on a novel by John Green.  You’ll see the novel and maybe even the film labeled as for “young adults” but that is a term I never liked. Are Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird young adult novels just because they are often read by young adults? Green is a very popular novelist among teenagers, but a lot of adults know his writing either from his book, The Fault in Our Stars, or the film version of his bookJohn Green tweetedCelebrating the release of #papertowns with a road trip to a place that wasn’t, then was, then wasn’t, and now…is?”

In that novel, the character Quentin loves, loses and searches for Margo.  Clues lead Q to believe that Margo may be possibly hiding out (or buried) in one of the many abandoned subdivision projects (also known as “pseudovisions”) around Orlando, Florida. Those turn out to be dead ends, but he does find a map in an abandoned strip mall which he then connects with another map he made in an attempt to locate her. He matches up the holes from the pushpins in the mall map to his map and this leads him to believe that she is hiding in Agloe, New York.  He and some friends skip graduation and head to Agloe to find her.

I read the novel and since I first wrote this post in 2015, I have seen the film. I liked both of them and it led me to dig deeper into these imagined towns.

map
Fictional “copyright trap” showing Agloe, New York. This is a real 1998 Esso state map of New York, United States.

The Agloe in the novel is/was a fictional place in Delaware County, New York, that became an actual landmark, if not a real town.

In the 1930s, two mapmakers (Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers) made an anagram of their initials and placed it as a town at the intersection of NY 206 and Morton Hill Road, north of the real town of Roscoe, New York.

Were they merry pranksters? No. The town was meant as a “copyright trap.” It turns out that mapmakers sometimes place a fictitious place on their maps so that if someone plagiarizes it, they have a way to easily check.

However, in the 1950s, a general store was built at that intersection and was named the Agloe General Store.

agloe store-001

The fictional town appeared on Esso (now Exxon) gas station road maps that were widely distributed. Agloe appeared on a Rand McNally map and Esso threatened to sue Rand McNally for copyright infringement. But that never happened because Rand McNally pointed out that the place had now become “real” and therefore no infringement could be established.

That store went out of business, but Agloe continued to appear on maps until about 25 years ago when it was deleted.

But – update –  it appears in Google Maps and the very official United States Geological Survey which added “Agloe (Not Official)” to the Geographic Names Information System database in February 2014.

Places that aren’t there are nothing new and there are lots of examples.  There are the ones created by writers, such as Stephen King’s Castle Rock and Derry, Maine, and Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. In my abandoned novel, I considered placing Camptown in the county of Wessex in New Jersey as the western portion of the real county of Essex.

There are also places created by mapmakers.  Besides the paper towns, another copyright-protection technique is to include a “trap street” on a map. This fictitious street on a map, often outside the area the map nominally covers, has also been used as a way of trapping copyright violators. Alternatives are nonexistent towns, rivers or perhaps a mountain with the intentionally wrong elevation inserted for the same purpose. Of course, you don’t want to add something that confuses users or just looks like an unintentional mistake. The mapmaker may add nonexistent bends to a street, or depict a major street as a narrow lane, without changing its location or its connections to other streets.

Phantom settlements are settlements that appear on maps but do not actually exist. They can be accidents or copyright traps. Some examples are Argleton, Lancashire, UK and Beatosu and Goblu, Ohio, USA.

map
The Zeno map of 1558 shows Frisland – a phantom island in the North Atlantic

As a lover of islands, I have always had an interest in “phantom islands.”  They are islands that appeared on maps for a period of time (sometimes centuries) during recorded history, but were later removed after it was proven not to exist.

These are not copyright traps. They often came from reports of early sailors exploring new waters. Some were purely mythical, such as the Isle of Demons or Atlantis. Sometimes actual islands were mislocated or just a plain old mistake. The Baja California Peninsula appears on some early maps as an island but was later discovered to be attached to the mainland of North America. Some phantom islands were probably due to navigational errors, misidentification of icebergs, or optical illusions due to fog or poor conditions.

An interesting subset are islands that existed and were destroyed by volcanic explosions, earthquakes, submarine landslides, or rising waters and erosion. Pactolus Bank, visited by Sir Francis Drake, may fit into this category. It was discovered by Captain W.D. Burnham on the American ship Pactolus on November 6, 1885.

It has been postulated that this was the sunken location of Elizabeth Island, discovered by Sir Francis Drake’s ship the Golden Hinde in 1578. Drake anchored off an island which he named “Elizabeth Island,” (for Queen Elizabeth I) where wood and water were collected and seals and penguins were captured for food, along with “herbs of great virtue.” According to Drake’s pilot, their position at the anchorage was 57°S. However, no island has been confirmed at that latitude. A map was drawn by a priest that accompanied Drake, Francis Fletcher.

Elizabeth Island might be a good setting for another novel – or for my Paradelle.

Francis Fletcher’s map of Elizabeth Island

In this video, John Green talks about finding Agloe on an old Esso road map

Commonplace Books

I read a piece this weekend by Charley Locke about what he calls a “commonplace book.” (Sometimes simply known as “commonplaces.”) That’s a term new to me. His is a collection of quotes, lines from songs, poetry, and other things that are not his own thoughts. It’s not a diary or journal but he says it is a kind of diary but without the risk of “annoying yourself.” His criteria for inclusion is just that the things struck him as meaningful when he wrote them down.

By that definition, I have been keeping a set of commonplace books for decades. Mine have been more collage than words. I clip things that appeal to me from magazines, newspapers, advertisements, brochures. I add stickers, some photographs, ticket stubs, and sometimes I write some words on the pages. (Some fragments from over the years illustrate this post.)

I thought of these books as scrapbooks because that is what I bought to use for them. I started this in college and I have an entire shelf of them now. If I page back through them, they are records of where I was at that time. The college volume is full of actresses and movie stills, articles, and photos from the college newspaper (the Rutgers Targum is a daily, so there was a lot to clip). I filled the pages, collage-style. Some things are just nice images, patterns, backgrounds. As far as words, there are headlines that sometimes act as titles, a clipped poem, a good paragraph, or line.

Looking through them this weekend to grab a few images, I notice that they have less writing and are more visual as the years pass. Perhaps because my writing goes into other places – like online.

I also have a book that is full of quotes I like. And a travel journal that records some notes from my trips, those we have taken as a family and as a couple.

Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts.

In the article, Locke says he was never a journal person, though he tried and has elementary school diaries and like-new Moleskine notebooks with a few sad entries. His commonplace book is one he writes in, so it’s not like my scrapbooks, though it might serve the same purpose.

It turns out that commonplace books go back to the Renaissance. People would mix fragments of published writing classical and contemporary with their own writing.

Jonathan Swift said: “A common-place book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that ‘great wits have short memories;’ and whereas, on the other hand, poets being liars by profession, ought to have good memories. To reconcile these, a book of this sort is in the nature of a supplemental memory; or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own by entering them there. For take this for a rule, when an author is in your books, you have the same demand upon him for his wit, as a merchant has for your money, when you are in his.”

Some of these books are records of famous folks’ reading. John Milton did one in 1642 after his wife dumped him and he went on a binge of reading about bad marriages. Arthur Conan Doyle copied out criminology theories in one. I like that he gave fictional Sherlock his own book.

E. M. Forster wrote in his commonplace book from 1925 through 1968, stopping 18 months before his death. It has quotations from his reading, musings on his life and times, and random odds and ends (such as the plan of a large garden he kept.)

Wikipedia’s entry says “Commonplace books (or commonplaces) are a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. They have been kept from antiquity and were kept particularly during the Renaissance and in the nineteenth century. Such books are similar to scrapbooks filled with items of many kinds: sententiae (often with the compiler’s responses), notes, proverbs, adages, aphorisms, maxims, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, prayers, legal formulas, and recipes. Entries are most often organized under subject headings and differ functionally from journals or diaries, which are chronological and introspective. They became significant in Early Modern Europe.”

Why are they “commonplace”? It’s not the commonplace that means “ordinary” today. It is a translation of the Latin term locus communis which means “a general or common topic,” such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. I think of my commonplace books as where I collect things in one common place. I’ve used notecards too, but there is something satisfying about having it all in one place where it is easy to find, re-read, and perhaps use somewhere else.

What We Leave Behind

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child, or a book, or a painting, or a house or a wall built, or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.”  –  Ray Bradbury

When I think about “what we leave behind” I don’t mean things abandoned or discarded. I think of things we intentionally leave after we are gone. Some of those things are far less tangible than a book or a painting.

milky way
Photo by Mohan Reddy

I wrote a poem about this idea. “The Light We Leave Behind” was featured on The Writer’s Almanac and read by host Garrison Keillor in 2020. It got some attention and has been reposted frequently (see bottom) so I’ll post it myself here.

The Light We Leave Behind
by Kenneth Ronkowitz

A star chart tells me
that the star I am seeing tonight
is 500 light-years away.
It may have died 499 years ago,
and I am still seeing its last light.
Stars are born, they live, and they die.

What is the light that remains when we leave?
If I die after writing this poem, is this my light,
and how long might that light remain and be seen?

I wondered last night and still this morning
about these questions, and still now,
standing again outside
under a mackerel sky dappled, rippled with clouds
and the sun, our family star,
which will also die.
Then, there will be no light remaining.
Perhaps, this is not what you believed.
When it dies, the Earth dies with it.
No last light to come after it.
In its end, the sun will expand
into a red giant
and will vaporize the Earth.

My son rises
and joins me outside
his coffee steaming a small cloud
into the December air.
In this enormous moment,
we look into the sky and universe.
We are a fortnight from the year ending
and hopeful for many more circles
around the sun. We are expanding,
gathering our light, and sharing it
while we can still see it reflected
in those constellating nearby.

Recently, I saw a prompt from Joy Juliet Bullen titled “What We Leave Behind” about legacy. Bullen has written about grief, divorce, and parenting in the New York Times‘ “Modern Love” column. She begins her prompt by saying:

“After my husband and I separated, I sorted through my things to choose what to take and what to leave behind. In the back of my closet, I found a shoebox full of old photos—all the ones that weren’t good enough to frame or terrible enough to throw away.”

Certainly, photos are something we leave behind. They are fixed moments in time, but they change in the ways we see them.

In my poem, I use light to represent all we leave behind. Like the light from distant stars, some of which have died, the light can take quite a bit of time to reach us.

The Vanity Search

search
Image by Tumisu via Pixabay

I recommend that you do a vanity search. Actually, many privacy experts also recommend it. A vanity search means to search one’s own name on Internet search engines. Yes, engines plural. On Google and even the ones you might not use (Bing, Baidu, Yahoo!, Yandex, Ask.com, and DuckDuckGo. Put your name in quotes and search. Try variations on your name.

Why? Well, the vanity part is to see that you have an online presence. Sometimes a nice ego boost. But there is also the bad side, such as finding out things you don’t want online are online, including photos (yes, image searches are part of this as well as blogs, news, etc.) comments and reviews you left on sites.

I do this regularly. I find little things – a comment about a T.S. Eliot poem on a blog and one about inner journeys.

Sometimes I find that someone has legitimately reposted something I wrote. With this one, I found a new virtual friend with similar interests. (We even share a mantra.) I have also found reposts that I don’t endorse – like someone who duplicates this entire blog on another site in Russia.

Image searches also turn up photos of mine being reused – with proper attribution – like my little Buddha on the tricycle.org website, and one of my beach photos, a little bit of Miss America in Atlantic City, and one of my many photos of windows – this one is of Edgar Allen Poe’s dorm room (probably) at UVA.

Poe's room
Room No. 13 on West Range of UVA’s main campus. I doubt that Ed had a raven statue in his room.

I even discovered that several sad little “blogs” that I started back in the day still exist. The Internet never forgets. Maybe I should delete it? Instead, I added something new to this little poetry thing.

I don’t use guest posts by other people on my blogs but I have been asked to write or add content to other people’s blogs.  I forgot about this guest post I did in 2016 where I was asked to write about Skills That Will Help You Find Life After Teaching.

I think I may have too much of an online presence. I don’t remember doing this webinar on podcasting but apparently, I even got paid for doing it.

I found a bunch of legitimate articles I have written. This was for a journal in 2013 when I was working at NJIT and really doing a lot with MOOCs. (those are Massive Open Online Courses) I found another presentation I did on “MOOCs For Pre-College Career Exploration.”

I found lots of people simply linking to things I’ve done, like this research guide at a university linking to my Endangered New Jersey blog.

I find an assortment of photos and bios of me. Here is one from the Tiferet journal that has published several of my poems.

I don’t count the things I find in a search that I already know are there. I have been posting poetry writing prompts and poems that poets have submitted on my Poets Online website. What is more interesting is when I find that someone has reused one of the prompts and one of my poems. In this case, they didn’t ask to use it (not that I recall) but at least there is a link back to my website.

I always find something new about myself when I do a vanity search. I haven’t shared any bad or unpleasant ones, but that is out there too for all of us. Make sure you check out yourself.