How We Spend Our Days: Michael Martone

Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Michael Martone:

It takes a whole day, thirteen, fourteen hours, to drive from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Fort Wayne, Indiana. The first hour of the trip is spent on I-20/59 and the last two hours on I-69 but most of the time, a good ten hours, will be spent on I-65. Not all of that is driving, of course. I take breaks, fill the tank twice. There is always road construction. In the last fifteen years, I have made this trip, maybe, forty times, not all of them round trips. Over the years, I have bought three cars in Indiana (Alabama has binding arbitration rules and no lemon law) and driven the highway one-way. I am from Fort Wayne, and my family lives there still. There have been birthday trips, hospitalizations, Thanksgivings, deaths. Six hundred and sixty miles, my door to my parents’ door, 480 of those on I-65.

The purpose of today’s drive is unlike any other. I am driving to Fort Wayne to see a play, Alive and Dead in Indiana. I didn’t write the play. Doug Long adapted my stories. The Fort Wayne Civic Theater is staging the play in its Playwright Festival, and my parents are excited as there are characters in the play named Michael Martone’s Mother and Michael Martone’s Father. Doug calls it a chamber theater piece. Not much narrative in the series of vignettes. The narrative point-of-view has pivoted to a character named Michael Martone who will do a lot of talking directly to the audience, an audience (if I make it) that will include me, Michael Martone.

Most of the vignettes, I will soon discover, have to do with cars and driving. James Dean in a car. Colonel Sanders touring. Building cars in Fort Wayne. The race at Indianapolis. I will be surprised that I have written so much on the subject. I guess I think about driving when I am driving. Or perhaps I think about thinking about driving when I am driving and then, later, I write about it.

But that is a ways away for now. I am traveling with my wife, Theresa, and my son, Nick. We are in a rental car, a gold Toyota Camry with 35,000 some miles.

You enter onto I-65 in downtown Birmingham at a place known as Malfunction Junction, the exit ramp from I-20/59 descending from overhead into the northbound passing lane of I-65 at a point where it leans into an ascending grade, the semis over your right shoulder down-shifting with laboring cars speeding by the stalling trucks into a truncated, quickly narrowing acceleration lane, attempting to merge into a three-laned occluded pack of very grumpy and territorially sensitive vehicles. Nick’s head is in the way. He is reading one of the George R.R. Martin books on his Kindle. It is at this moment too that the NPR station in Tuscaloosa gets swallowed up in distant wooded static, and Theresa seeks the burbling Birmingham feed. The highway is elevated here, the concrete flexing, booming at the seams, and here is the tail-end of the Appalachian chain, so we are climbing into some clear channel, green foothills all around, the statue of Vulcan on Red Mountain in the rearview, going 80 in a 65 mile per hour zone.

I-65 is an archipelago of such interchanges, three more islands in the chain—Nashville, Louisville, Indianapolis—each with its own multi-laned double-helixes, mutations of interchanges, beltways, loops, bypasses. Occasions of orchestrated panic—the slalom across six lanes in Nashville as I-24 unbraids from I-65, the hair-pin turn onto the bridge over the Ohio with the hilarious hieroglyphic warning diamond of a truck rolling over, the very unlucky cloverleaf on the south side of Prozac-enriched Indianapolis.

But most of the time will be spent relentlessly driving, driving, driving. Cruise control fools you into thinking you can think, find the groove in the grooved highway.

Kentucky seems close to triple-laneing its whole stretch of I-65. Over the years, I’ve crept through the cautious summers of construction there. Blast zones, disappearing shoulders, detours, paved and Jersey-bermed medium strips. This trip, there is work around the Cave and the Lincoln Birthplace exits near where the giant T-Rex points, with its tiny hands, to the sign that says I have missed Dinosaur World.

Where was I?

I was writing about grooves and thinking about the grooved roadbed, the endless corduroy fabric of it on the three lanes slouching into Louisville, micro-gutters to squeegee the rainwater away and, when dry, set up, at a certain speed, a humming harmonic of Radiohead on the radio.

We packed no snacks in order to force ourselves to stop every couple of hours. At Athens, a Starbucks. In winter, I’d get a hot chocolate, but instead, I grab a can of Sun Drop, my current preferred caffeine delivery device. Theresa ratchets around the iPod. We have been listening to Fresh Air podcasts, interviews with the casts of Porgy and Bess and the writers of The Book of Mormon. Sendak, recently dead. Terry mashes up all the interviews with him. He stopped signing his books for children, he says, because it was a terrifying experience for children—this strange stranger marking up a book your parents told you you can’t write in.

We rush through the haze of electro-magnetic soup we live in—cell towers everywhere. On the previous trip, a call caught up to us informing me that, Janine, my high school girlfriend, had died. I spent the long cedar-lined trip through southern Tennessee, detailing to Nick, in high school then, my own high-school journey. That, too, took place in cars, driving. Field trips, speech meets, mindless cruising, dating, driving into drive-ins.

So many days in automobiles. I move through the familiar, the bland, the planned and maintained corridors of normal. Interstated. Innerstated. Sated. Here is what I look forward to as I  I-65:

The railroad siding near Vinemont, Alabama, seen from an overpass, where a little pusher locomotive rests waiting to help the next freight train over Sand Mountain.

The Saturn Five rocket hulk dwarfing the welcome center.

The racking and walking horse signs.

The Polk Hotel billboard.

The spire of the Corvette Museum and the pilgrimage of Stingrays on the road. This trip I count five.

How soon it is, once in Indiana, for John Mellencamp to sing on the radio.

That massive yard of lawn ornaments for sale where I always say to myself I have to stop there on the way back.

~

AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…

1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?

  • The last book I read was As Common as Air by Lewis Hyde. I chose to read it—and this was the second time I read it—because it had been chosen by my reading group to read. I had suggested it to the group. I had read it first when I was teaching a graduate forms class called Plagiarism 101. I would have read it anyway as I have always admired and have reread several times Hyde’s other books in the series—The Gift and Trickster Makes This World. I have been thinking for a long time about how art and the art of writing are shared property not commodity and how one makes art and also lives in the commodified world. Funny, the other work I am reading now are books I have been asked to blurb, books I am reviewing for publication, books I am reviewing for tenure and promotion cases. All of this reading, for me, is not critical reading even though the people who send me the books to read ask in many ways to rank and sort and judge. I just continue to read, to try to read “erotically” (Hyde’s wording) allowing the books to stay in motion, to inspire me in many different ways and then for me to do many different kinds of writing generated by the reading. The notion of what is best or worse is very far from my mind. I read everything I can, yes, even little interviews on the internet, because all of it is valuable, nothing is, in my mind, a waste of time. “Reading” is the important act. “Besting” does not interest me very much.

2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?

  • Following from the above thought, I would have to advise one to write to write. That is to suppress, as much as possible, the demarcation while one is writing that this writing is the “good” writing and this the “bad.” Advice does imply that we are using information to, what?, become better writers. But that assumes we know what that better and best is. I am a big fan of junk sequencing in our DNA. When the genome was mapped one thing that was discovered was all of this code that actually does nothing for us. Having found it, we can’t dismiss it. It has to be there, but it is there in the role of junk, of waste. No, that is not quite right. All of this code that does nothing its nothingness is what it does well. The junk sequence is best at being junk sequence. And we need, our essential architecture needs, the nothingness as much as that crucial gene that animates the heart. Sound and silence. Both sound and silence have to be made. Saturn is more Saturn for its rings, those highways of junk rocks. The Rings of Saturn may be more Saturn than Saturn.

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • Trying to resist habit.

.

Some–but not all–of the books by Michael Martone:

17 thoughts on “How We Spend Our Days: Michael Martone

  1. I’ve read that Bill Gates had the radio removed from his car to force his mind into quiet time while driving alone. Creative energy springing forth when the mind is less distracted. I had the opportunity to test his theory when my sound system snagged on Paul Simon’s Graceland. Found I very much missed music, and hearing “Car Talk” and “All Things Considered,” but I noticed more of the small details of the passing landscape. The eagles nest at the tip of the lake.

    Treasure many conversations that occurred in the forced time and space of a car trip. Conversations that never would have occurred without the nudge of those two constraints. Thanks for the reminding me of those precious conversations.

  2. The details of a car ride like the greater trip through life is always being converted by our own biological apparatus. We gloss. Art should be baffling that is should slow us down even as we are going faster and faster. As the Russians say, “Make the stone stoney again.” we either gloss experience or get stoned.

  3. Michael,

    I have driven the I-65 route many times from Indiana on our way to Florida to visit my mother and Grandma’s ocean which always inluded a stop-over in Douglasville, GA, via I-20, before my oldest sister moved to Florida. The welcome center with the Saturn Five rocket hulk was always a high point for my kids and me.

    I preferred this route because of less traffic and the open road through Alabama versus the road construction and traffic congestion of Nashsville, Chattanooga and Atlanta. I was once convinced that this took too long and conceded to give up the drive through Alabama via I-65. Due to a wreck and miles of backed-up traffic outside of Chattanooga we had to drive ‘over the mountain’ in the dark. This is not for the faint of heart.

    My mother has since died and my sister moved but I never again abandoned the Alabama route to Florida. Unless, of course, I can fly. Thanks for the memories–except for pointing out Camp Crescendo in Kentucky where my sisters and I attended band camp each August (hot, humid, no air conditioning) to learn our band’s marching routines for football season, which my children were reminded of each year. But, then, this was your travel story and not mine.

    On another note. I didn’t realize ”Alive and Dead in Indiana” had been adapted into a play. How did I miss that? Did you try out for the part of Michael Martone? Were you afraid of being typecast? What was it like seeing someone else playing you? I have a million questions but will stop with these four.

    Your Hoosier friend,

    Margot

    • Hello Margot, how is your retirement going? Your note made me remember my own family trips as a boy to Florida–Treasure Island, near St. Pete’s. We stayed in the Jolly Roger Motel. Turned out that Susan Neville stayed in the same hotel back then too. The place was crawling with Hoosiers. It took days to get there before the interstates. We stayed at Elizabethtown–traveled US 31 and not I-65. Then various towns in south Georgia. Yes, we Saw Rock City. I loved the Cyclorama in Grant Park in Atlanta too. We would get to the Florida border and still be a day away from Tampa Bay.

      Doug Long, from Anderson, who teaches up in Chicago now adapted the Jimmy Dean story a few years ago and then expanded it a year ago. it.inchachamber piece

    • I didn’t try out for the part. But the woman who played Michael Martone’s Mother borrowed a pair of my mom’s famous Chuck’s and lacy socks. It is very strange seeing someone else play you. But having written Michael Martone, I had gotten used to many different Michael Martones. Four! A good number. Thanks for writing.

    • That makes me so happy to hear, Darrelyn. I was very happy to realize I could make I-65 into a verb in the piece. I have got to get me some of those emoticons. I am so old I remember when the first time I saw one–the summer of 72 in Bloomington, Indiana, on a gray t-shirt. I think they were first a bank promotion but then got adopted. Or you can go with the version in Forest Gump. Thanks for reading!

  4. Wowwee. I loved this and the feeling that I fell into your car. I am sat in my bed in North West France and suddenly I am riding the I-65 and battling with junctions and cruise control and thinking about journeys and the paths we make across landscapes. Yes, slowing down, yes reading everything – I believe in found language – like Dadaist collage fished from a bin and the junk- hhmmm, I am thinking about that one and your advice to not demarcate, because your writing is streamlined, so you separate, edit? Is the idea to let it flow first, like Schiller and the Watcher at the gate of the mind? Explain more please. And thanks, merci beaucoup. C’est beau.

    • Thanks, Susanna! So happy you “found” something here. I love the found and the accident. I think, as I get older, I become more and more in the school of “first word, best word.” Whatever memory or the subconscious or unconscious gives me. Now, if I were in France, I would be out of the car and on the train or next to the tracks, waiting for the next very fast train go by. What will it bring me? What will it leave in its wake?

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  6. Michael, what a lovely man you are to take something so mundane as a long road trip and turn it into art. I confess that I was cured of road trips as a very young girl, stuffed into the back of a bronze Gremlin and seated on “the hump” with my older sister crammed into me on one side, my older brother squashing me on the other, a giant puke bowl balanced on my knees. Not such good times.

    Re your comments about “bests” and doing our utmost to avoid trying to produce something GOOD when writing, thank you for these reminders just when I really needed them. I started my Daily Shorty project May 1–I’ve committed to drafting a short story every day for a year–and when I read your piece, I happened to be selecting my “best” shorties from the month of May so I could post the first paragraph of each on my site tracking the project (dailyshorty.com). Throughout May I had gloried in how the pressure to write a complete story every day was forcing my Inner Critic to stop hectoring me so much. I’m free, I’m free! Yet when I go back through my blog posts, I see that I reflexively comment very frequently on whether I wrote a “keeper” that day or a “clunker.” Wow. Think what a shrew my Inner Critic must have been if I’m calling that freedom!

    So great about the play. Must have been such a lark.

    • Hey Claire! The AMC Gemlin. I took a long road trip in that car. From Indiana out to the east coast to see grad programs I would apply to–UMass, Yale, Columbia. Ended up not applying to last two. Yale wanted me to have two foreign languages and a dead one. At UMass the famous library had just started popping it brick facade. I was with Mike Wilkerson, his car. We stopped off at Indiana University in PA. Everyone said to us–we get your mail. And Michael said–that’s why we came, to pick up the mail. The Gremlin was black and white and looked like an expressionist’s nightmare of a saddle shoe. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Are you in Maine now or visiting Vermont? Remember to look both ways!

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  8. Michael,
    I like that line: we either gloss or we get stoned. I can’t count the miles I’ve spent in the car soaking up the details then leaving them behind. Every now and then I have this eternal recurrence moment: there’s a scene I must have driven by once that struck me and now shows up in dreams. A brick city of some by-gone industrial age. A brickscape, only now its abandoned: empty windows and empty streets to drive by; a turn-off into town I don’t take, instead continuing the drive up hill into the mountains. Then the other week, driving my daughter to a dance competition in Lancaster, PA, I took a detour off the highway and drove through Pottsville (which I had never visited before), and there it was: my brick city, with the turn-off I didn’t take, driving instead up the hill into the mountains. The details, including the rusted guard rail along the road up the mountain, were perfect. It was uncanny, and I raved to Joan about it almost the rest of the way to Lancaster. That definitely made me feel very stoned. (I should say in all fairness that Pottsville is far from abandoned). I should go back to see where that dream wants to take me.

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