The Loss of J.D. Salinger

I think it would sound cliche to say that the literary world lost an amazing writer this week, but the cliche would make the fact nonetheless true. J.D. Salinger passed away this week at the age of 91 after decades of living as a recluse in my wife’s home town of Cornish, New Hampshire.

I, like many, knew almost nothing of Salinger’s work after Catcher in the Rye. Recently, though, I became exposed to him through the recommendation of a friend and an accident involving chocolate. Several months ago, a friend was giving me critique on a short story I was in the process of finishing. He recommended a story with which I was unfamiliar: A Perfect Day for Bananafish, which was part of a collection called Nine Stories. I went to the local Barnes & Noble, and, being interested only in that specific story, found a copy of the collection and sat down to read the story over a cup of coffee, with the intention of re-shelving the book after. My cost-saving grad student ways hadn’t completely left me.

The description that my friend had given Bananafish as being the “perfect short story” resonated with me as I marveled at the precision with which the story was written. The body language of the woman described in detail, the squirmy, uncomfortable feeling in the dialogue between the protagonist and the child on the beach, the weighty symbolism of the mythical Bananafish, the abrupt suicide at the end that was described eloquently and without gratuitous violence, leaving me stunned and staring at the last sentence. Something I was glad to have read.

A few days later, I returned to Barnes & Noble and took the book from the shelf again to read the next story, curious to experience more of Salinger’s prose. This time I accidentally stained a page with chocolate from my drink, and decided that the only ethical thing to do was purchase the book instead of re-shelving it. I’m so glad that I did so, because stories such as The Laughing Man, to which I discovered a fascinating connection to some anime I enjoyed, left me digging for the message behind the metaphor (ironically, something Salinger would likely have not wanted). Others, such as the simultaneously abrasive and poignant For Esme–with Love and Squalor, left me with profound sorrow and adoration. The underlying theme of the loss of humanity in war is difficult to miss in Salinger’s work. I’ve since read all of his published collections of the “Glass Family fiction,” save one difficult-to-find short story that I’m hoping to lay hands on soon. Watching Salinger’s search for faith through the course of these works was  riveting, although his faculties appeared to be loosening a bit by Seymour: An Introduction. Sadly, I don’t think he found the faith for which he was searching by the time these works were finished.

Salinger’s rhythm and cadence stay in your ear long after you’ve read him, and his characters, not to mention his New York,  linger like an aftertaste with all their implications to ponder. I hope there were more manuscripts, as has been rumored, and that those will find their way to publication now. I’m in even more hope that, in reading them if and when they do see daylight, I will discover that Salinger found his way to the faith he desired.


When I was in college, I decided to write a sonnet.

Perhaps I should step back for a second and say that this was a strange time in my life. I was really, really into the whole “tortured artist” image. Assuming I recall the timeline correctly (it tends to blur for a couple of years), I had just come out of a near-Goth period that was marked by an obsession with Poe, and had become quite enamored with Shakespeare’s poetry. Or, maybe I have those two events backward. In any case, I tried to write a sonnet.

As you probably know, I was a theatre major, and I was exploring some great playwrights’ other literary endeavors at the time (Shakespeare’s sonnets, Tennessee Williams’ fiction). So, it was this whole exploratory phase in which I wrote a disastrous attempt at a poem about a girl I thought I was in love with (unrequited, of course) and had this bright idea that I would write so many sonnets that I wouldn’t have names for them all, and have to entitle some of them by number. You know, like “Sonnet #3.”  Because that would just be artistic and cool.

Have you ever tried iambic pentameter? And I thought unrequited love was rough!

The point is that I was branching out my interests, and was early in a process of changing my mind. I began my college career as an applied music major. That lasted a semester before I became a music education major. Then the entire school had to go. My new school, which became my alma mater, welcomed me as a communication major. Then theatre became a second major. Then psychology became a minor, and somehow ended being how I make a living. During the process I wrote for a newspaper or two, took some print layout and technical writing courses, and eventually decided to do a master’s degree in theology.

Honestly, I just can’t seem to make up my mind. Do you see what one little innocent sonnet turned into?

Over the last year or two, I’ve decided that I’m up for a second career, and that I really need to decide on something and stick with it. Ever since that sonnet (and likely before it), however, I’ve had so many interests rolling around in my head that the only thing I can land on as being workable is to be a professor. That leads me to my current preparation to apply to PhD programs, but narrowing my interests into anything less than nebulous is just…well…more difficult than unrequited love and iambic pentameter combined.

Tonight, I was discussing a fast-approaching application deadline with a friend who’s giving me advice from the other end of the whole doctoral thing. He made a passing comment that suddenly seemed to synthesize a really fantastic research idea for this “interdisciplinary” program to which I’m going to apply. It was eureka! moment of sorts, a lightbulb-over-my-head kind of way to pull everything together…but then there was that one loose end that occurred to me that I didn’t think I could make fit…

…and then that led to another…

I’m just a little bit jealous of people like my wife, who has completed two degrees in the same field and will likely stay in that field for her third. That would make life so much simpler!  Perhaps I will at some point settle upon which of my interests are primary and which are secondary, come up with some way to triage them into a course of coherent study. But that just doesn’t seem fair when there are all of these really great things that interest me out there.

At best, I’m trying to just stay with my current interests and not pick up any more. That would just leave my brain scrambled. And as for the ones I have, I’m clinging to that magic word, “interdisciplinary,” and pondering, “how am I going to incorporate them? Let me count the ways…”

What’s Behind Door Number Two?

Monday night, I was retreating into good conversation with a friend in the corner of a local coffee shop. My friend was telling me a story about his daughter, who is currently in her freshman year of college. He said his daughter was recently interviewed at a chain coffee shop (not the one of which you might immediately think), and was asked the question upon which he claimed the interview likely hung, which he paraphrased this way:  Which is more important: a good product, friendly service, or fast service?

He then asked me which answer I would give. I immediately responded with “a quality product.”

Apparently, the correct answer for the interviewing coffee shop was friendly service. I should have guessed, since the interview took place in North Carolina. Don’t you just love the South? I was amazed. I’ve seen this principle in action, but have never been a believer. Producing the best quality product is by far the most important concern in my eyes. I immediately write off the “fast” answer, because almost nothing worthwhile is done quickly, be it coffee or friendships. I simply cannot comprehend the “friendly” view.

Take, for example, the coffee shop in which my friend and I were sitting. You see, my friend agrees with his daughter’s interviewers: friendly service is paramount to such an establishment. My friend knows the proprietor of the coffee shop we visited last night by name, as do I. He feels welcome  in that shop, and this is what brings my friend back. I feel just as welcome in that shop. However, frequently, of late, they have not been able to offer me the coffee I wanted from their selection. I would rather pay a local business for my coffee than a national chain. However, if I can’t find what I want, I tend to go where I can get what I want: high quality coffee (in this case of a specific brew). I don’t care about how friendly the service is if I can’t get great quality coffee.

Now, let me insert a caveat. I have left restaurants and not returned (at least not for a long time) because of someone being needlessly rude to me. I’m not saying that treating an individual with respect isn’t important. I’m just saying its not as important as the product you’re serving, be it food or coffee or action figures or tomatoes.

(I have no idea where those last two came from, either)

Why is my perspective different from my friend’s? My feeling on this, at first blush, is that it is part of the creative instinct: whatever one is making must be as near to perfection as one can make it. Perhaps, though, I’m suffering from consumerism: I feel entitled to exercise my choice of products, thus placing the value on what I purchase instead of the human beings involved. There’s a third option, also: perhaps I’m again experiencing the angst of being a Northerner transplanted into Southern culture. We don’t waste so much time being polite up there. Its simply too cold. And, moreover, we don’t engage in false politeness (as in saying anything you want about someone as long as you end it with “bless their little heart”).

So, I pose a question to you, dear reader. Which of those three do you think my perspective is? Or is there something at play here I haven’t seen?

And, perhaps most importantly, which would you choose: service, or quality?


I did something uncharacteristic just after Christmas. I spent gift money on slippers.

You know, slippers that one wears around the house. I’ve always sort of held the opinion that real men didn’t use them, but apparently I’ve been in error all these years. So, I finally gave in to Karen’s promptings, and ordered a pair that turned out to be very warm and comfortable. I almost find myself looking forward to coming home and getting comfortable in them, staying in from the cold weather and enjoying a fire and a good book.

“Who’s writing this, and what have you done with Dave?” you might ask. And, your question is well-founded. I assure you, though, I’m in as sound a mind as I’ve ever been since starting this blog (albeit that’s questionable at best). And read on, because this is going to get stranger.

Shortly after returning from Christmas travels, I found myself in the local Lowe’s searching for a new snow shovel. Now, ever since leaving home, I’ve always lived in apartments, so there’s not a great deal of home improvement I find myself in need of. Aside from the occasional minor project, I typically only see the insides of these establishments when I’m working on set construction or some other stage-related venture. I still succumb to the male impulse of browsing through this-and-that and thinking about what I could get into while I’m there, however, and as I  worked my way through the “seasonal” section looking for my shovel, I found myself actually enjoying the fact that it was winter.

Go ahead. Go back and re-read the sentence. Your eyes are fine. I actually wrote that.

Anyone who’s read this blog for longer than a year or so as been exposed to the less-than-flattering terms I use to describe this season which I have tolerated at best and barely survived at worst through my life. Phrases like “making it through the cold is hell” and “if I never see snow again I’ll die happy” have long permeated my conversations through the years. And while it is true that I physiologically continue to tolerate the cold poorly, I’ve come to a psychological…and perhaps even a spiritual…epiphany about the season of which we are in the middle.

The epiphany began with my realization that snow in the South East of the U.S. is seen as an unscheduled chance to decompress and slow down from the daily rush of life. Then, a friend recently emailed Karen a reflection on the seasons. Her thought was basically that winter is necessary, because it is a period of dormancy that permits rest and better growth in the Spring. The spiritual metaphor here is obvious…winter is perfect for enjoying a fire and a good book because it affords us the opportunity to do exactly what snow forces to happen in the South East: to move more slowly, to sometimes even stop altogether for a period of time to re-charge. Call it dormancy, call it rest, call it a Sabbath…whatever your terminology or perspective, it is something that I’m realizing is necessary, yet sorely lacking for us.

One of the things that has always frustrated me the most about winter is the fact that it is more difficult and time consuming to accomplish the things I feel I need to complete during my day. What if, however, I accepted winter as the period of dormancy it may be intended for, and permitted myself to slow down and be less productive for a month or two? Or to be productive in different ways? Who knows? I might just find myself enjoying the season I’ve always claimed to have no use for.

Or, at least to tolerate it more effectively.

You realize I may have to deny writing this later…right?

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