Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Birthday Sentences

On and around my 69th birthday recently, I had three birthday thoughts.

 The first was on the day, when I hiked up Trinidad Head. Unless you know the Head (in Trinidad Bay, far northern California), the thought may not mean anything, so I've included some photos from a subsequent walk, on a sunnier day. On my birthday there was considerable fog blowing in from the sea. Still, I wish I'd taken my camera that day.

 The thought was simple: my birthday present was that I hiked Trinidad Head--the experience itself (I even got quite close to a young rabbit on the trail) and the fact that at 69, I could still hike up Trinidad Head. That's the best gift.

It's not a climb in any mountain-climbing sense, it doesn't require equipment or training--it's not that kind of accomplishment. It's an ordinary climb--rigorous enough especially at the start, and a workout as the trail winds up. I've been hiking it for about 19 years, though not often enough. And I still can.

 It overlooks the Pacific on one side, and Trinidad Bay on the other. It's quiet and beautiful, and for now, it's available to me.

 That was first thought. The second thought, which came the next day or so, was more complicated. It had to do with success and failure.

 "One must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake," Anton Chekhov wrote in a letter. Maybe, but for an American man the basic criteria for success are pretty clear.

You're a success if in your life you make a sufficient living to raise a family, or if you produce work that receives honors and earns you a recognized place among peers as well as some more general community, or preferably both. You can be a success in your life, or a success in your work, or both. You are failure if you accomplish neither.

 I have accomplished neither. The failure is not absolute, I did accomplish something in each area. But not enough really to count me a success by these criteria.

Yet looking back, I have some satisfactions. So the second thought was: if I failed, at least I failed big. That is, the failure (however complete) was not spectacular, but my aspirations were big.

 I was remembering an acquaintance I'd once worked with who I last saw a long time ago in southern California. He showed me a script he'd written for a sitcom then on TV. I never saw him again. Though it appears he had some achievements in the movies and TV, it wasn't as a writer. There are other similar cases I know.

 I made compromises in my working life. But at least I did not try to write scripts for sad sitcoms or pathetic or loathsome movies, and failed. I failed trying to write the most ambitious works, the best works I could dream up, in whatever form. What I failed at was big.

The third thought is perhaps a corollary. If I were to describe, as simply as possible, what I did all my life, I might say, "I made sentences." (Nobody has asked me that question, nor any like it for quite awhile, but at least I have the answer ready.) I also made music, and dreamed up images, wrote dialogue and so on. But basically, in the range of work I did for love, a larger duty and for hire, I made sentences.

 John Banville began his review of books on Emerson this way:"Surely mankind's greatest invention is the sentence." Of course in addition to sentences, I made paragraphs and pages and so on. I thought about and worked at all these forms, but they are basically built with sentences. So I'll make my stand with the sentence.

 And if it is indeed humankind's greatest invention, it matters less what those sentences were about than the fact that I worked at making them the best sentences I could. While trying to lead an honorable life. It was not a bad way to use a life. So I think I'll keep doing it.