In the front yard of the home in Londonderry where I grew up, there was a large tree with a hollow at the base between protruding roots. As small as I was then, I wanted to be smaller – Lilliputian – so the hollow would become a cave. Maybe a pirate cave. There was plenty of magic on that land but not the kind that could be harnessed, and so I settled for reaching in as deep as my arm would go and exploring with my fingertips. These days, I would be afraid of getting bitten by something that might have made a home of the old tree, but a child’s fear is often subjugated by curiosity. And so I reached, and reached.
Eventually I withdrew my empty hand – no treasure, no map, no magic.
Maybe that’s where it began, the feeling that neither I nor the world were enough. That there should be, must be more.
Daniel Okrent, a writer and editor who also happened to invent rotisserie fantasy baseball, has referred to himself as a “serial obsessive.” I’ve always liked that term and found it does a pretty good job of explaining away my need to always be filling the void, although I don’t think Okrent would necessarily endorse my interpretation.
When I was an older kid, and imagination alone ceased to be enough, it was baseball cards. I couldn’t buy enough of them, couldn’t spend enough time with them. Sometimes I would organize them by team, and then alphabetically by player. Other times I would stack them by position and then in order of how many home runs they hit or errors they made.
In my teens, I thought it was vitally important that I collect every Jimmy Buffett CD and organize them in order of release date. Physically the CDs are lost, damaged, or in a box in the barn. Mentally, they’re still pristine and chronological.
I own more than 100 film noirs on DVD (bought slowly and on the cheap) from the classic period, 1941-1957, and several companion books, including “A Panorama of American Film Noir” by French film critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, who were the first to use that term to describe the cruel, dreamlike films coming out of America during and after World War II. I fantasized about eventually replacing Eddie Muller as the preeminent expert on the topic. I haven’t watched any of the films in years.
An offshoot of my film noir obsession was a desire to write a definitive biography of Veronica Lake, which led me to a brief email exchange with Donald Bain, the writer of many “Murder, She Wrote” books and the ghostwriter of Lake’s 1969 autobiography, “Veronica.” I asked if we could meet up near his home in Connecticut, but he declined, in part because he was in talks with filmmakers about a Lake documentary. He had also heard that one of Lake’s daughters was working on a book. He suggested, gently, that I move on. I did. I think it was jazz music next – Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus. Would anybody like to borrow my copy of “A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album” by Ashley Kahn?
All of my research, such as it is, on Veronica Lake is in a black accordion folder. There’s a paperback copy of “Veronica” and some articles I printed from websites. I even paid a few dollars for an academic transcript from Miami High School, covering 1936 through 1938, when the star of 1942’s “This Gun for Hire” was an average student named Constance Keane.
I found something else in the folder too, something I didn’t know was there until I opened it to write the paragraph you just read.
There’s a pink plastic bag, the kind my wife and I would put party favors in for the girls’ birthdays, with the word “Princess” in purple and a picture of a gem-studded crown. “Dad” and “Love” and my daughters’ signatures are scrawled on the plastic in black pen. It was a gift they made together, for me. Inside the bag are dozens of drawings on small pieces of paper torn from the recycled notepads I would bring home from work when they were little. The first drawing is of two little girls standing in a boat, each holding an oar, with a serpent in pursuit. Magic.
On the bottom of the pile, after all of the wonderful drawings of characters they invented and scenes they imagined, there are pieces of construction paper with stickers and glitter and glued-on puff balls, and a bookmark made out of a “Littlest Pet Shop” box. It’s as if they thought the perfect drawings alone wouldn’t be enough.
Why, I wonder, would they ever think that?