Thursday, July 14, 2011

Cleaning House

Matt Domino discusses the Puddles of Myself hiatus, Cat Stevens, Ernest Hemingway, as well as the best way to take a shower.

(Editor's Note: If you really want to get confused about the message of this post, listen to "All I Want Is You" by Roxy Music on repeat while you are reading. Trust me, you will be emotionally baffled.)

I’ve been riding a lot of trains lately and I’ve been running a lot. When you run in the morning in the city during the summer it is as cool as it will get all day. The sun is starting to filter through the trees and the bums are waking up from their sleeping places next to tree trunks. You can almost really smell the grass. There is the faint smell of garbage and the odor of put out charcoal. Sometimes the grass is damp and that makes you feel good in your sneakers. And on your way back to your apartment it starts to get hot. Mothers walk next to their children who hop along, shaking their legs and knees next to patches of dirt and front stoops, just happy to be with their mother and not in school. I sweat in the sun on the street corner waiting for the cars to pass. When I pass the cool air of the grocery next to my apartment, I’m happy. Then, later, after I’ve showered, cleaned and had my coffee, I stop and buy fruit from the Korean woman next door. I’ve been riding and running and feeling the rhythm of summer.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about what it means to be clean. I’m not allowed to drink beer in my parents’ house anymore. Not drinking beer there is a good thing, so I drink sweet drinks instead, which I don’t usually allow myself to drink. My dad doesn’t drink anymore. Instead, he does work around the house and asks me how I am. I don’t like to talk about how I am, so we make jokes or do work or talk about work. And that is all fine because I like to talk about work since I like to watch Mad Men.

When I ride the train I drink beer and I think about all the things that have happened to me. I think about where the people I love are. I frown at my reflection as it emerges in the window among the darkening homes and straight railway lanes and backyard pools. And when I ride on the train I get lonesome. But I drink beer and remember the people I love and the girls I have loved who just didn’t understand me, just like I probably didn’t understand them. But there were lobster dinners and times I was too drunk or times they were too drunk or times we walked aimlessly and I made bad jokes or times that their father called the cops on me. That’s when I pull hard at my tall beer.

“The next station is Syosset!”

There’s a friend of mine who used to piss me off by always announcing when he was going to take a shower. I know he had a thing about being clean, but it still bothered me. It bothered me because I was fundamentally opposed to being clean, or rather to announcing being clean. I have friends who have remained far dirtier than I do. Friends who travel with tobacco residue in their pockets or who have wiped their ass with their hand in the wilderness. Friends who have been arrested or in rehab and friends who have been on the trail for months at a time. And I admire all those friends out on the trail; the ones who killed large, wild cockroaches to find a place to sleep on the ground and who huddled in ice caves to stay warm. I’ve washed in streams and lakes and in Wyoming rest stops, but I’ve never felt cleaner than after I’ve played street ball on a warm afternoon, come home, showered, drank perspiring golden Miller High Life bottles while eating Italian steak and let the day cool into an evening of promise—that is, an evening where I was expected somewhere or knew where I was going. That feeling is cleaner than taking three showers a day. That was cleaner than the first shower after three weeks on the road or three months on the mountain.

I’m not obsessive compulsive, but it is summer and it is hot. I’ve felt a certain melancholy come over myself, so I’ve tried to get clean. I’ve been listening to Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens, which is a great album. It is 1971 to me. There is plenty of great 60’s ensemble pop present in the drums and piano and there is Stevens’ fervent acoustic strumming and early 70’s earnest singing. When I feel the dirt of my melancholy or the weight of the subway and responsibility, I listen to “Miles from Nowhere” with its fantastic drums and piano. I listen to the lyrics of the song, which I don’t do for a lot of songs. Rather, the song has lyrical moments that pop out:

Lord my body has been a good friend
But I won’t need it when I reach the end

I love everything
So don’t it make you feel sad
‘Cause I’ll drink to you, my baby
I’ll think to that, I’ll think to that

When you are melancholy, this sort of song sticks out. The first set of lyrics clean you immediately because you think of the transience of your body. You remember that you are spiritual and that you won’t need your body in the end, which makes you feel free because what can anyone ever do to you anyway? Then, the second set reminds you that it is just your love of everything in the world that makes you feel sad, it is your presence among other objects and recognizing that inner light in other objects. So, you’ll drink to it and think on it. And again who is going to stop you or do anything to you on a Wednesday morning when you move through life loving everything? No one will, so you can be clean living in the material world and loving it as well as be clean knowing that you don’t need it at all when it all comes down to the end. So, then perhaps you figure out what to love and love it very much knowing that it’s going to go in the end anyway. Because only by loving something will you understand what you are without anything. When you are clean. Just remember that you can’t even take the Cat Stevens album that made you think about these things with you either. It’s going to get thrown away or lost under the front seat of a car or blow up on your iPod at some point.

There is a character in my recent manuscript that likes riding the train. This character asks his sister at one point if she ever wants anything simple, which is something I’ve thought about quite a bit. So, perhaps what all this postulating about what it means to be clean is really about what it means to want something simple. In the story, the sister (Liza) asks the brother (Tom) about riding the train:

“I’ve always wanted to ask you why you like riding the trains so much.  Why do you?”

He takes his hand off my shoulder and puts it back in his right pocket.  He scuffs his shoes on the wet stones.

“There’s something about it.  Something about that moment of travel. Even though I’ll always bounce back out here from the city, when the train is moving I feel good.  Having a beer and riding a train.  Its very simple in a way.”

I nod my head.  He’s very stern now.  I decide to put my hand up on his shoulder.

“I think I understand.”

He turns down at me. “Do you ever think about anything simple?”

Tom later tells Liza, who is picking blackberries, to enjoy it because it is something simple. When you learn to enjoy something simple, the rest of the messy things in life don’t seem to matter. You can lose the melancholy and focus on the motion of the train or the action of picking a berry.

I’ve been reading Ernest Hemingway as well. Ernest Hemingway and The Great Gatsby. Gatsby just because it is summer, but Hemingway because his writing just clears the deck—cleans your palette. Sometimes his dialogue can be a bit ridiculous, especially Catherine Barkley’s early dialogue in A Farewell to Arms. But when Hemingway is rolling and his narrators are telling you things were “nice” or that it was “hot” or that there was “wine,” you can’t help but be enthralled with the simplicity. You know what wine being there is like, so you can approximate your own experience. You don’t need the narrator to create it all. It has been said plenty of times, but when you are in the midst of great Hemingway dialogue, there is quite simply nothing like it. Rapid conversation on a page. Few stage directions. The perfect circular and dead-end logic of actual conversation. The weight of something unsaid suddenly punctured by a direct statement that further pressurizes the situation, which is what happens in life.

A Farewell to Arms is far from clean. It is full of injury, failed love and procreation. It is tragic. The Sun Also Rises is a mess as well. But the fact that the actions are so defined in each novel and that the prose is so sharp, makes the whole thing seem clean and neat. Characters sit down at tables, order bottles of liquor and plates of food like no one else in literature; it is almost something you want to strive towards. “If only I could sit down at a table like Jake Barnes or Frederic Henri.” There is something about reading a Hemingway novel, so simple and meaningful, in the summer that has made me feel clean, has made me feel more aerodynamic moving through the thronging crowds of the day.

I’m taking a break from the blog for a few weeks. I’m going to clean the site up, but I’m not taking the hiatus for any purpose of cleansing myself. I’m not going to stop drinking either. I’ve just been thinking about what it means to be clean for moments in a world that is filled with dirt; a world where everything we do has some repercussion or meaning. In the end, it will all come to nothing, because we won’t need our dirt. The world will. The world will need to remember us by something, but we won’t need the dirt and, in actuality, the people we love won’t need it either when they reach the end. But this is a world about enjoying yourself and taking what you have and making the best of it. If you drink too much, you try to stop. If you feel dirty, you take a shower and try not to announce it. And, if you’re like me, you revel in those small moments or epiphanies you get from books or music where you can make tangible what it actually means to be “clean.” Hemingway and Cat Stevens have managed to do that for me so far this summer.

So, my Puddlers, I’m going to keep on running in the morning. I’m going to watch the sunlight and try to smell grass the best I can and enjoy that well-timed gust of wind walking along the evening streets. And I’m going to understand why watching the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, hearing the phrase “Midsummer Night Classic,” and drinking beer on a 90 degree night with the fan droning is something simple, clean and good. I hope you take the time to do the same.


  1. Great writing, man. Or, if you prefer. Great, writing man.

  2. It is often an internal struggle to accept satisfaction of one's self, or, gasp, raw happiness; it feels comfortable to reject, familiar to believe its arrival was incorrect and meant for another.

    But it is a fight worth one's participation.

    It is a fight worth mine.

    Good read.

  3. Hey Niko,

    Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I've seen you comment on the blog before and I appreciate you coming back to read and comment more. Thanks again.

  4. Wonderful. Come back now. Summer's over. Ya hear?

  5. Puddles comin', Troy. Puddles comin'.

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