Canned Duck (or “Optimism”)
Hem’s Bulletin N°7
By Hem | Copyright 2011 CityRoom, Inc., first published on CulturalBook.com
It’s Hem here with good news from Paris! The title of this newsletter, some or most of you will realize, is playing on the title of Voltaire’s ‘book’ Candide, ou l’Optimisme (I put the word book in quotes because nobody’s ever been able to prove whether Candide is a novel, a novella, or something else). If you haven’t read Candide, or Optimism and you prefer reading in English rather than the original French, I recommend the 1975 Rockwell Kent edition published by Random House.
My sister’s eyes were almost terrifying, she was so happy, as she entered my Paris flat with the largest tin-coated steel container she or I had ever seen. The contents of this huge hermetically-sealed preserving container was a duck.
“I’m bringing this back to America with me!”
“Good,” I replied.
You see, my grown-up baby sister was collecting every kind of snail and frog, as well as European games and weapons she could find on her short trip to bring back as souvenirs. She lives in Baltimore and flew over to see me in Paris, as well as to take care of some business in the south of France; and I’ll tell you right now – as you’re still curious – that only the weapons made it through US customs. The food items and Petanque balls were confiscated at the airport when she left two weeks after the duck find.
The day of the find, the duck went into my refrigerator and our lives went on. I had been experiencing one crisis after another in the last few weeks and I felt that the exploding bombs of life were hitting me just like in the Candide story, one after another, after another. If it wasn’t bad luck, it was food poisoning. If it wasn’t nuclear radiation it was typhoid fever, lice or chicken pox. Only CulturalBook and my sister’s visits were keeping my spirits up.
She went to Cannes, and I was in the middle of the greatest newsletter of all-time to send to you, dear members, when all of a sudden my laptop PC experienced sudden death syndrome. “One more strike hits Hem in the head,” I thought. I was beyond despair, I was beyond Candide. I knew what I had lost with that computer. It was worse than losing one’s head. I knew what I had lost because for a few days prior to the computer’s expiration I had been unable to find my USB key which contained the only backup of the ingenious novel I was finishing up and getting ready for the final edit. You all can imagine the pain I felt as my brain began putting the facts together in a slow, but methodical order. If my USB key was gone and my computer was broken, then my almost-finished novel existed in no place or in any time, neither in pixel form or paper. I had thought my computer sturdy enough to keep my novel safe. And I kept the USB key on my person as an emergency back-up should my apartment on the Boulevard Saint Germain be blown up by the start of yet another war. If one should die or be lost, I would back-up the other, I had thought when planning the living conditions of my novel-in-progress. But the delay in time between the first loss and the second was too short, and the other problems in my life were too distracting to make my reaction time quit. It was only a day or so after I’d lost my USB key that my computer lost its life. This, dear CulturalBook members, is the reason I haven’t been keeping in touch these last few days. Alas! I, old grey-haired Hem, just like Candide, was experiencing two mortal strikes at once.
Those among you who are writers and have permanently lost a novel, or a short story or poem, can understand my despair. I fell like a rotten plum into the chair, and there remained in grief for several days.
The window washed itself with a golden warm morning light and spread through the room. That cool and bright sunlight of autumn. I heard footsteps in the hallway. The knock at the door.
“I’m back!” said the visitor. It was my sister. She had just returned from Cannes and was full of energy as she pulled her luggage into my flat. “I’m glad to be back in Paris!” she said through rows of white gleaming teeth. I lurched from my chair and crossed the shadows to meet her by the door and make my presence known. We were two beings living in different worlds. I stood with my hunched back, my growing beard like Walt Whitman. I said nothing. “I’m starved!” she said, digging around in the kitchen. She looked as fresh and lovely as springtime itself. I, like Walt Whitman, was looking at life from the depths of the tomb. There were two lights in the kitchen–the light coming through the window, and the light in the refrigerator where my sister was digging around looking for something to eat. She was laughing to herself. She was happy.
“Why did you put a USB key under my canned duck?” she asked.
The room lit up. I approached her.
“Why is there a USB key under my duck?!”
I was stunned with joy. Hope and optimism blew through my skeleton and I turned back into a living being.
“What did you say?” I ran over to her, to the refrigerator, and received from her hands the divine key that held the backup of my novel.
[One month later...]
A month after my dear sister left me in Paris, I remain a very happy writer in possession of a very big check from my publisher. The day after the canned duck find, I overnighted my USB key to my publishers in New York and he said that my book was the only fresh piece of literature that he received that week, he then left me then a bit of advice that I’d wished he had told me years ago:
“Don’t treat your books like saltines, they are living beings. Like edible flowers. Keep them fresh, deliver them on time, and know when it’s time to throw them and start with new ingredients. The only rule more important than this… be nice to your little sister.”
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