Farewell, Poppleton.

My dog's name is Finn.  The pound we adopted him from named him Huckleberry.  He was this tiny thing, all white with gray spots and blue eyes.  And we just felt Huckleberry was too much name for him.  An albatross of a name, it was.  I'd always named my pets after literary characters, though, so we knew it was something we could work with.  We considered Huck but decided that might not make the best of impressions if ever we yelled it from the back porch.  Our neighbors might mishear, you see.  Finally, we decided he'd be one of those snooty kids with a fancy first name that goes by his middle name, and Huckleberry Finn Coffman came home with us that day.  He turns 11 this month.  He is my first-born and is strictly forbidden to die.

The fish we just brought home for the kids two days ago are a different story.  I explained on the way home from the fish store (what a killjoy, right?) that fish often die sooner than you want them to.  They knew Poppleton and Fillmore (thank you, Cynthia Rylant!) might not last too long.  The first day was all joy.  The fish were happy, if a little freaked out by the new environment.  Success!  They survived the first day.  Yesterday, though, Poppleton started listing.  It is not a hopeful thing for a fish to list.  Today, he fought hard to stay alive but finally succumbed right after dinner.  We flushed him, my girl cried just a bit, and then we resolved to let Fillmore enjoy the bowl by himself for a few days before getting a replacement Poppleton.

I have no idea why I felt the need to share that.  Except, actually, maybe I do.  See, with classes starting in a mere 10 days, I am in full-fledged planning mode: working on syllabi, reading old texts, trying new short stories, pondering first day ideas.  I work from The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by Updike for one of my classes, but I started dipping into The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories edited by Tobias Wolff and thoroughly enjoyed his introduction.  Among other underlinable bits, he writes:

Jack Yeats described writing as "the social act of a solitary man."  The same is true of reading.  It requires isolation as the price of the best society.  Writers can never be sure, in the act of writing, if anyone will pay that price for the company of their words.  We proceed on faith but in doubt, dreaming uncertainly of readers who will justify this lonely work by passion equal to our own.  It's a gracious moment when you meet one.

And even though what we do here in our blogs is not the same as what Dorothy Allison or Raymond Carver or Andre Dubus (or Tobias Wolff!) does, this sentiment is true for us all the same.  We write and are never sure if anyone will pay that price.  And it is a lovely moment, full of grace, to hear from that reader who justifies this quiet work.  The book blogging world is not a lonely one; if anything, it can feel a bit too bustling and crowded for my solitary taste.  However, it is still a community of people performing a social act in isolation and dreaming of that ideal reader, "perfect stranger and perfect intimate" as Wolff goes on to describe it. 

So, what does this have to do with my fish?  (I mean, my kids' fish.  It's not like I just sit and watch him bat his little nose against the glass like he is an addict and the bowl his meth.  Or that I chose to stay in the living room while my husband and brave kids flushed Poppleton.  Really.  It's their fish.)  Well, I'm less sure now.  But there is the obvious fact: a fish in a bowl is a really interesting existence to observe.  He knows you're there.  He puts on quite a show at times, but he's just not sure if he likes you looking at him.  It's not unlike writing.  You put yourself out there all naked-like and hope no one is actually looking at you even though that might be exactly what you'd like them to do. 

So, here is my call to you.  If you are a reader, a follower, a lurker, or even if this is your first visit to the site, say hi.  Leave a comment.  Or choose to follow the blog publicly.  In the past, I've followed blogs anonymously, but I realized that it is somehow ridiculously important to know people are out there, watching you put on this crazy show.  So, I try to let people know I'm out there.  And I'm wondering if there's anyone else out there.  Wondering if anyone else is paying that price.


  1. I'm here. I've linked to you from my blog and I have you in my google reader as well. I've never "followed" anyone, however; I got turned off to that by people hosting giveaways in order to build their lists of followers.

    I like your taste in books and enjoy your voice.

    And I'm sorry about the fish. We lost our main cat last month and I haven't managed to write about it yet.

  2. Great post - So sorry though to hear about Poppleton. I am more and more convinced I am like Poppleton - I think I might die if I knew who and when people where watching me. Blogging continually challenges me on this point - why do I do it?

  3. Hey, I'm one of your Google Reader subscribers. I'm fairly new to reading your blog, so hi!

  4. I've been thinking quite a bit about the isolation/social aspect of reading and blogging lately, and your summary is much more eloquent than any of my thoughts on the topic would have been. I'm a very solitary person, both online and off, and I find it strange that I am so often frustrated by the social aspects of the "blogosphere" and lit culture here in Melbourne Australia.

    Anyway, I'm here. I found your blog through the BBAW longlists and really loved it. I've just signed in as a follower (only started doing so on other blogs recently, I'm a bit baffled by the whole concept really!)

    Uh, in summary: hello!

  5. SFP - I'm so glad you're here. Thank you! I, too, REALLY don't like the idea of intentionally trying to build a stack of relatively unknown "followers." I almost deleted that part of the post, in fact. However, I do appreciate building a relationship with someone who wants to be known. Following can be just one way to do that.

    So sorry to hear about the loss of your cat; I handled the fish, but I'm serious about the dog. If he dies, I might just kill him.

  6. Tamara - Thanks for the comment and the fishy condolences. The public/private element of blogging is clearly something I struggle with as well. I even hesitated to post this at all. I suppose we'll all keep working our way through it in our own ways, huh?

  7. Christy - Hi! Thanks for introducing yourself. I just popped over to your blog, and I love the name! I'll give it a better look in a bit. Again, thanks. It does mean so much to hear from a kindred spirit.

  8. Jess - Thanks so much for your comments and your presence. I live, it seems, in constant transition between my public, performance-oriented external persona (I am a professor and have a naturally gregarious nature in that setting) and my introverted, solitary nature that refuels me. It is a weird balance to try to strike.

  9. What a lovely post. And such a brave mother to deal with the fishy funeral issue dead on. I am the wimpy sort to replace the fish when they are not looking and then they get to be twelve (the child not the fish) and think they have the world's longest living fish. And in an odd way that might relate to blogging too. Do we as bloggers bare all our failings or do we disguise ups and downs for appearance sake? Or maybe not. :)
    Happy reading!

  10. Well, I'm no surprise to you, but hi! :-)

    I know what you mean about the bustle of the book-blogging community, and striking a balance between one's social and inward-looking lives. It's a tough nut to crack.

  11. Frances and Emily - Thanks for all you do (and have done) just by showing up every now and again. It does mean a lot. Now, I must go post about Marilynne Robinson! Joy!