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the Texas winter

This is what it is to travel: you’re at home, checking on the weather, as it is wise to do. You learn that in Austin Texas, where you will be going, it will be extremely hot, feeling like more than a hundred degrees, it tells you. So you pack tank tops and sunscreen and hope for the best in that ferocious heat.

And then the day comes, in Austin Texas, when you are standing frozen, huddled against a bitter, icy wind as the rain lashes, and you think – what the @#$#? “This is our winter,” my landlady exclaimed. “It’s the schizophrenic season.” And sure enough, it’s predicted to get hot again in a few days. But in the meantime, I went out wearing a sweater and light jacket under my rain poncho – because this is hot old Austin – not the lined hooded coat I’d brought for Washington but was sure I would not need here. Because Austin would be very hot. When in fact, today, Austin was very very cold. And wet.

But I do not mind. It was a fine day otherwise. Because she was on her way somewhere and it was dark and pouring, my kind landlady dropped me off at Lynn’s. I did my homework – read the Grace Paley and Henry James stories Lynn had assigned as relating to the issue of fiction and non-fiction, before going in to speak to her university short story class. And then I left, several hours before my date with Lynn, to get the bus to the university, which meant a 20 minute wait shivering in the icy wind. Incidentally, my landlady, Jade, pointed out that there are no sidewalks here and life revolves around the car, “because we have 9 months of summer, and there are months at a time when it’s too hot to move, let alone walk.” Point taken. As a Canadian, this had not occurred to me.

Then, heaven, or as I call it, geek heaven. I went to the Ransom Centre for research on campus, which is the home of the papers of many important people, writers especially. I’d read that Spalding Gray’s papers were there. Gray interests me, because he turned his personal stories – very personal stories, in some cases – into performance art. He sat at a table with a glass of water and a spiral notebook in front of him, a screen with projections behind, and he told stories – “Swimming to Cambodia,” for example, his best known perhaps, about being in the movie “The Killing Fields.” “Gray’s Anatomy,” about his eye problems. I never saw him live but I’ve seen DVD’s of his work. He was charming, funny, mesmerizing, as he faced the audience and related, without pause, his tale.

What I wanted to know was – WHAT’S IN THE NOTEBOOK? He never refers to it, at least in the films, and yet he carries it in when he comes on stage and places it carefully on the desk in front of him. So I went to the Ransom Centre to find out. Went through a process of registering and watching a video to find out how to use the materials, and finally, once I’d been admitted to the special hushed room, two boxes of S.G.’s works were brought out.

AAAh – a kindred spirit, was my first thought. This man scribbled all the time; included were his notes on all kinds of scraps – bills, imploring letters from producers, little cardboard bits. Mostly, yes, notebooks. But not a performance script, just stories flowing along in his slanting, incomprehensible writing.

But then – I found them, his performance notebooks for Gray’s Anatomy. So what I think is this: he wrote countless thoughts and ideas on bits of paper, fiddled with them until they gelled into scripts he wrote longhand in notebooks, and then he wrote performance notebooks with chunks of stuff he’d say highlighted. The notebooks were there in case. At the end, always, he wrote notes to himself on how to do things better. Mixed, in one, with a heartbreaking letter to Kathie, who I realized must have been his former partner, mother of his child. From Wikipedia:

Describing the uniqueness of the film-play monologue, theatre director Mark Russell wrote:

“He broke it all down to a table, a glass of water, a spiral notebook and a mic. Poor theatre—a man and an audience and a story. Spalding sitting at that table, speaking into the mic, calling forth the script of his life from his memory and those notebooks. A simple ritual: part news report, part confessional, part American raconteur. One man piecing his life back together, one memory, one true thing at a time. Like all genius things, it was a simple idea turned on its axis to become absolutely fresh and radical.”[7]

He committed suicide, Spalding. Jumped off the Staten Island ferry. From the stories, I learned that his mother committed suicide too, so his is much less of a mystery. Anyway, two hours in a quiet room communing with an inspiring writer – my idea of heaven. As for the others there, including the man next to me who was communing with Walt Whitman. There, beside me, the handwritten manuscripts of Walt Whitman.

On to Lynn’s class, a large group of undergraduates – how old, 18, 19? Interesting, lively young Texans who want to learn about the short story and today met a Canadian writer pushing the joys of non-fiction. They asked good questions, we had a great talk, I laid out my case, Lynn asked piercing questions, they seemed to enjoy it. What must have been fascinating for them was the spectacle of these two women who were very old friends working side by side. Lynn called me Professor Kaplan and it sounded so silly coming from her, I almost laughed. But did not. I hope they were left with a sense of the power and importance of true stories, as well as made up ones.

To the free shuttle bus in the freezing dusk, to the grocery store near her house for wine – so cheap, unbelievable, even the best bottles – and take-out Mexican food, burritos and dirty rice. At home, we ate and gabbled, as we always do, on topics, fuelled by a glass or two, from Does God exist? to Should I dye my hair? That’s our range.

In Lynn’s kitchen, tonight, there was a huge water bug on the wall. Like a big brown beetle. Neither of us wanted to tackle it. This is where men are invaluable. Yes, there are many other things men are invaluable for, but particularly dealing with HUGE WATER BUGS ON THE WALL. MAN WANTED!

P.S. Just got a note from Cousin George in Washington where, as you may recall, it was surprisingly cold. Weather gorgeous today–90 degrees and beautifully sunny.

Everything in full bloom in a way that few places in N Amer
can match – everything suddenly boomed into bloom. It should have happened while you were here,but Mother Nature delayed it til now,out of pure spite,no doubt.



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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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