Here is a typical email from a reader to me. It can be any given day in any given month of any year.
"Dear Sir. I was looking furiously through the internet for something about this cool sculpture called The Awakening and I found your article. I would like to know more about it and all its history. Are they going to tear it down? What's the current situation? What can we do?"
You know, I like to think I write about my passions, and for the most part I think I do ... the stuff of life that grabs the casual reader by the collar, slaps them about the face till their head spins like Linda Blair, and kicks a response out of them. Because of these aforementioned emails, I have the benefit of knowing that I have done that at least once, when I wrote about a little-known statue.
The proof is there in e-black and white. Every email I've received from one of my readers -- and I mean EVERY email -- has been roughly the same as what I wrote above, always about that one column four years ago in which I wrote about "The Awakening," a sculpture/statue of a giant metal man, located in East Potomoc Park in Washington, D.C. It's a pretty amazing track record, all considered. I've never heard a single thing about my other columns.
All these emails (and there have been about 20 at last count) have come from a variety of sources: casual tourists, concerned statue-saving citizens, a magazine in the United Kingdom looking to use my pictures (negative, they're in a box in my sister's house in New Jersey), and even a student doing research for a report.
The short answer I give to all of these has been, I don't have a clue . And so I'm usually forced to type the following wet blanket response.
"Thanks for your note, Mr./Ms. ____________. Yes, it's a fine piece of work, isn't it? Unfortunately, I'm living in Thailand now and haven't seen The Awakening since I moved out of D.C. in 2001. I believe it's still there. Perhaps you could contact an official in the city?"
Isn't it funny what people attach to us? After writing a dozen columns for ducts since 1999, topics ranging from the DC United soccer team to protests in the nation's capital, from expatriate blues in Thailand to life lessons from my honeymoon in Sri Lanka, the one that comes back at me, in waves, is a column I honestly have lost all sense of feeling for.
There is some frustration and a whole lot of amusement in this. It is as if I am William Shatner, trying to go boldly where few men have gone before (that is, T.J. Hooker) while the specter of Captain Kirk hangs close at hand; like Stephen King facing repeated questions about his first book in the 1970's, "Carrie," during a late-90's "Hearts in Atlantis" book tour. OK, it's not quite like these ... Ducts is, after all, a relatively small biannual literary webzine, and my writing is complimentary. You won't spot me signing off on my latest in a Manhattan Barnes & Noble.
Perhaps all this also reflects something about our national obsession with certain "trivial" items -- things, trends, places, and times that end up getting sold on e-bay or getting their own massive spread on the internet (for some reason 1980's music comes to mind with this). "The Awakening" falls into this category, a metal masterpiece hidden out of the main tourist path that's quirky enough to attract a lot of people's attention. Hell, that's partly why I wrote about the thing four years ago.
At that time, I was a frequent visitor to the statue and was looking for some history or an angle on it that I could work with. When I read in one of the guidebooks that the authorities were thinking about ripping "The Awakening" out and putting a Peace Park in its place, I knew I had my column. I loved the thing, and hey, the Peace Park sounded stupid. But I wouldn't have chained myself to "The Awakening" in defiance of the bulldozers. It raised more intellectual passion than actual visceral anger, and I wrote it in that spirit.
The years have passed and I have moved on to another place, another time, twelve time zones away on another continent. Now, as the emails pile up, I look at amazement at every subject line, hoping and praying for a reaction to anything I've written that wasn't about a statue. Still, every note from a reader has "The Awakening" somewhere in the subject line, and every one of these makes me feel like I'm facing a lobbyist for a cause that I haven't given money to for years.
As writers, we don't choose what we will be remembered for or what readers will respond to. We simply throw the stuff out there and watch what floats back to us. The only artistic venue with instant feedback is theater. They can see the audience yawn, hear them laugh and dodge the incoming tomatoes. Writers have to depend on people to take action to respond. I can only assume that people have read other things than "The Awakening," and the fact that I haven't received any hate mail makes me chalk a mental plus sign into the karmic scheme of things. I am also honestly quite happy knowing that at least one of my columns is being read avidly. And, perhaps I could look on it as a new line of work for me. I could be the ducts statue correspondent, spreading the word of artistic, historical metalwork everywhere.
It worked before, so maybe I should try it again.
Who wants to hear more about the local statue of King Mengrai and a giant metal scorpion I saw the other day (which sits on a hill overlooking Burma)? There's also a giant stone teapot up in the Chinese town of Mae Salong. Send me your emails now and I'll tell you all about them.