Sorry it’s been over a week since I last wrote to you. I’ve had a conference with a book editor about my new work, Ferment: Wine, Vineyard, and Manic Depression. He’s read the manuscript and is very excited about the project. He read Canoeing the Great Plains and thinks it’s a classic. He wants to see the same level of intensity in this new manuscript that he saw in Canoeing. It’s almost there but not quite. He had a few suggestions for another draft before he takes it to his editorial committee. If it gets that far, it may just get shot down, but I will have done everything I could to make it the best book I can write.
I agree with most of what the book editor says. I think most of his suggestions will make this a stronger text, and I’m grateful to have the input.
As I go along, I find there are places where I can delete whole paragraphs. When I do this, I usually save my deletions in another file and then go back to see if they are important enough to put back into the text. I want to give you some of these nuggets. They are worth reading and they are good writing. They were just a little off the path the manuscript was taking. But you be the judge. They read like captions for pictures in a book. Take a look and see what you think. This isn’t all of what I’ve cut from the text so far, just those gems from the first chapter.
Underneath all the grand schemes I hatched as a drunk, and beneath the idea of a European trip, I’d only ever wanted to be a writer. When level-headed or jacked on mania, I filled notebooks with ideas and stories. Depression led me to write poems in those same notebooks. I’d even taken to an old typewriter to put many of those stories and poems to paper. But I didn’t know what to do with them. I didn’t know what it took to be a writer and feared that if I tried, I’d fail.
and Nick had been packing and repacking for days. Only one evening remained for me to get my things together between the semester’s end and our appointment with United Airlines. No problem. Virginia had passports and tickets. As I worked through student exams, I worried more about getting together my medications than packing underwear. Always medications.
We tried to order water from a waiter dressed in a starched white shirt and a dark apron. He stood over us, back straight and shoulders square, with his order book open and pen in hand. He didn’t know what we were saying in my English. “Grosses Wasser,” Larry said in German. The waiter shrugged his shoulders and brought us each a tankard of white wine. Larry was going to make a point of getting water, but I told him this was good enough. At first, I hesitated to drink because I wanted my head to clear. After more translational problems, I drank the wine anyway. It slaked my thirst, evened my nerves, and brightened my mood.
That bratwurst was my first taste of German food, and it tasted wonderful. The dinner at the Fricks didn’t really signify German food to me, at least as I imagined it (though soon it would). I’m sure that hunger had a lot to do with the way that tiny loaf and sausage tasted. I ate it with joy and brushed the bread crumbs from my jacket.
I watched them wander the store counters and fuss with items that intrigued them. I was more worried about getting on the train than putting food in my mouth, understanding that in a half an hour, we’d be eating well anyway.
At home, drinking had assumed the status of a sacred ritual, a ceremony practiced daily. I wanted to be like my dad and drinking constituted part of his identity.
I planned to take a train with Larry from Luxemburg City to Trier and then to the village of Wawern, where we would stay with his friends.
I’d been raised on the idea of a dynamic American contrasted with a stolid Europe groaning under the weight of its many rules. I would learn the noise of so many rules provides cover for a friendly bureaucrat to shrug, wink, or simply stamp you past such hurdles.
On one hand, he had only a thumb and forefinger, and the rest of his fingers just stubs. He was known in Trier as Drei-Finger Joe, Three-Finger Joe, something I never called him. But it didn’t seem to hinder his work, as he served customer after customer.
I had visited Germany many times now. This was the second time I’d brought my family. Sydney had come with us in 2000, when she was nine. Nick had often heard of my experiences in Germany and had met Ivo and Udo. We were now bringing him to see my friends’ homeland and, perhaps, pieces of my past. Right now, I could hear him joshing around with Ivo downstairs.
In the first thing I wrote, I acknowledged that many young Americans strike out on European quests. Most of them have a home to come back to. They prove their bravery and pluck. Many make great discoveries for themselves, revelations that inform their maturity and growth. They find new energy and reasons to continue school or work. On the other hand, I only accidentally and under the influence of fear, alcoholism, and untreated manic depression took off for Germany.
I gazed on the ramblings of a young man and found myself an old man sifting through his life, considering decisions he’d made, jobs he’d worked, people he’d come to know. I thought about where things had gone wrong, and how those mistakes, with the benefit of years and hindsight, were less errors than changes in direction. Three decades and the thought that all of us might only have twenty swift years left weighed on me. Some of the journals’ content was difficult to read. They were legible, but the content disturbed me. There were still aspects about myself and ways I acted and reacted that I didn’t want to admit. I took a deep breath. I put aside my reservations and read without judgment, accepting what the journals told me about myself.
These thirty-year-old notebooks that letters home at the time had thinned to wafers of paper on rusting spirals revealed how I’d once looked at the world. I paged through them, eager to see what the person I was had to say about the time. I’d written those initial journals both with excitement and trepidation. They showed that I was at times elated and at others depressed and despairing.
After my friend drove away, I stood on the sidewalk outside the terminal, completely on my own now. I watched the traffic and the people, burning the scene in my mind. An older woman and little girl got out of a car at the curb. Her son gave them hugs and carried her rollaway case to the curb. “Mind grandma,” he said to the girl. “She knows what she’s doing.” The woman turned and looked at me with ice-blue eyes and said in a friendly way, “Going someplace for a while I see.”
“I’m going to Germany,” I said.
“What will you do there?”
“I’m going to work in a winery,” I said, doubt heavy inside.
“Well, I’m sure you’ll have a fine time,” she said as she snapped the handle of her case in place. “It’s been years since I’ve been there. You’ll come back a different person. I know I did. It’s beautiful.” I wanted to tell her I wasn’t coming back but she took the little girl in hand and disappeared through the automatic sliding doors.
Virginia sat across the aisle. Nick and I sat at a table with an older couple. They were proper, well dressed, and quiet. She wore a print dress and sensible shoes. He was in a well-worn but pressed suit. He wore no tie at his unbuttoned collar. They held hands and looked out the window at the landscape speeding by. I couldn’t help but imagine Virginia and me in our late sixties taking a trip or maybe just sitting in a coffeehouse, silent, happy with our own company. Maybe in Europe we really were living in the future.