November 30, 2005

Seven Suburban Haiku

Squirrel’s torn-off tail
lying by the garbage pail:
where is the squirrel?

Stray cat sits wailing
outside my bathroom window.
I’m too busy, cat.

On my lawn, brown grass
pressed flat into the shape of
something that slept here.

“Go long – what a catch!”
Sunday afternoon in the
doctor’s parking lot.

This was the last time
I’ll be mosquito-bitten
until, oh, next May.

From the neighbor’s yard
hammering nails into wood
sounds like, “Leave your home.”

Gaps in the palings
show us to the neighbors when
we’re doing nothing.

November 29, 2005

Acorn Characters

Agent 97, age eight, calls me outside to show me his acorn collection. We’ve got a slim young oak in the backyard and its acorns are small and perfectly formed, and whenever he steps on one on the lawn he picks it up and adds it to a little pile on the red paving stones.

“Do you like it?”

“Yes, I do.”

And I tell him how I have always loved to look at trees, ever since I was in the carriage half a century ago, and how in every view of leaves and branches there’s more complexity than language can encompass. And I think, without telling him, how just looking at the difference between this leaf – about a third red, the green faintly spotted with brown – and that one – redder and browner and starting to curl, but with the light shining through it more strongly – you could find, if you took the time, so much individual variation that it would put to shame any writer’s attempt to draw a character. Just the difference between one wood chip and another, lying on the mulch pile, makes our literary creations seem thin and meager. Looking at trees you go past language, you see it all at once and, simultaneously, each part in its distinct separateness.

At which moment older brother Agent 95 comes up and picks up an acorn from the collection and instinctively makes a character out of it. “The Amazing Acorn Spies! They can change form at will!” He pulls the cap off his acorn so that it’s now bald instead of hairy. He moves the cap to the side of the acorn. “Ear covers!”

Then Agent 97 takes the tiniest acorn and turns it upside down: “A baby in a cradle! Waaah!”

Just try telling them that their characterizations lack subtlety!

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November 28, 2005

Greatest Bargain in Human History


Every issue from 1925 to February 2005. Every cartoon, every article, every story, every poem, every ad, every cover, all in their original form on eight DVDs, with a 122-page companion book.

4,109 issues. Flaboyantly searchable in a multitude of modes. You can add your own stickie notes and compile reading lists of your favorites.

All Salinger's major short fiction. Almost all of Cheever's. Early Updike. Singer, Nabokov, Garcia Marquez, Munro...endless.


Pauline Kael on movies. Roger Angell on baseball. Whitney Balliett on jazz. A.J. Liebling on boxing. Joseph Mitchell on New York. Lillian Ross on Hemingway and Huston.

William Steig. Charles Addams. Peter Arno. William Hamilton. Roz Chast. Ziegler. Saul Steinberg.

All the Talk of the Town pieces, most of them with the authors identified.

$70 pre-holiday price with free shipping.

I just ordered it. I'm shaking. I've got chills all over.

Go over there and take the virtual tour. You may never come back...

Today's Earworm

"Black Coffee in Bed," The Squeeze

"There's a stain on my notebook where my coffee cup was..."

A guy in his London flat remembers nights under the covers with his girlfriend, whom I visualize as black-skinned and wearing white robes.

And how many songs are about writing in a notebook?

Download mp3 here.

(This is the first installment in an intermitently recurring series in which I tell you what song is repeating over and over in my head, in case you need inspiration for one in yours.)


Dusk, November, Central Texas

The sky was glowing pearly gray when I started this, but now it’s darkened to smoke blue as the clouds passed to the north, and the horizon shines yellow through nest-laden black branches. The wind is hard enough to ravel a pile of leaves or change a mood. Across the street only one light is on, where the owner is fixing his vacant house for sale. Through the grid of the window his wall shines bare: he’s painting with a roller, then he’s sitting on a stool and talking into his phone. I could more easily travel to the moon than know his thoughts. Next door to him, a mother and her daughter step out to string white lights on the small pine that grows outside their door. A long, low sedan passes on the street, and after it’s gone I still see the path of its headlights in the air. Then, from the opposite side, a couple passes wheeling a stroller in the street. It’s so dark now you can hardly see the outline of the stroller hood, and since I’m making this, I want to have the baby be awake, wide-eyed, taking in the trees, the sky, the lights, me, everything; I want him to grow up and remember this in forty years and not know if it was reality or dream.

From the back of my house I hear a child whimpering, and I rush in to the boy who’s doing homework at my desk.

“Everything okay?”

He’s perfectly calm, writing, no sign of distress, no eye redness, no rumpled hair.

I walk back to where I came from, and the whimpering comes again, and the boy in the study calls out, “Who’s there?” But we never find out.

The lights on the tree across the street blink like wind-shaken leaves, and the sky is cold charcoal.

November 27, 2005

Note to Self: Remove Scaffolding

I’ve come to the conclusion that one thing I need to do at this point is stop aspiring to mainstream publication. I spend decades in the grip of that striving, and while it brought good results and taught me the traditional craft of narrative fiction, I think it’s also kept me from knowing who I really am as a writer. What would I be writing if there were no commercial publishers who could say Yes or No to it? That’s what I should be writing.

The fact that, in the past several years, my work has drifted further and further from what publishers want, has caused me unnecessary turmoil and frustration. All I would have had to do was keep writing but stop striving for mainstream publication, and the pain would have gone away and the situation would have clarified.

In order to gain mainstream publication you need to be a sensor and amplifier for the zeitgeist – and I’m not. I have no interest in things of the moment. I’m only interested in things that last. That may make me a snob and it may blind me to things that are outwardly of the moment but have lasting value, but it’s a part of my makeup I don’t want to change.

In the movie ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, the main character, a video artist, is showing her video to a gallery owner. The gallery owner says (paraphrasing), “I’m looking for things that could only be done now, not things that could have been done in any era.” I don’t know if that scene was written with ironic intent or not, but it seems to me to express the standards of all mainstream art entrepreneurs I know about. And if material is only of this moment, I’m not interested enough to write about it.

Creative writing students nowadays are taught to write in acknowledgment of and in consultation with everyone around them: fellow students, teachers, critics, famous writers of today, and perhaps even the great writers of the past. I used to write in emulation of the great writers of the past. At this point it seems to me I should write in consultation with none of the above.

Doesn’t that leave me hanging in empty space? Well, yes. An interesting view.

Anyway, it’s only an ideal. It would be impossible for me (though not perhaps for everyone – not for Kafka) to achieve. I’ll fail to meet this ideal the first time I post something in a traditional genre such as haiku – perhaps tomorrow.

In tai chi, when we first learn a move we learn its most complicated form. We analyze it part by part: “Shift to the left, shift to the right, turn to the right, step in, step out, turn to the left, shift to the left…” Those analytical instructions are useful scaffolding for the learner. Once we’ve practiced the move, we don’t have to think about each part. Nor is it merely that the parts become habitual, unconscious. The movement itself becomes simplified, smoothed out; the separate parts disappear from outward view, and the practitioner makes the move his own, not simple a learned mechanism. He gains a higher understanding of the move’s essence. This is known in pedagogy as removing the scaffolding.

In my case one major part of the scaffolding is the desire for publication. It spurred me to keep going as a writer, but it is no longer necessary and it only gets in the way. Another part of the scaffolding is consciousness of conventional genres. Whether I’m writing a novel, a short story, or a microfiction; whether it’s science fiction or realism; even prose or verse; should be irrelevant. I need to make this art my own and feel its essence.

Another comparison from tai chi: people who studied “hard” martial arts in their youth can attain a higher level by studying this “soft” art later on. They can graft their new understanding of the power of strategic yielding onto their old skills of strength, speed, and self-defense. By doing so, practitioners can achieve a breathtakingly high level of martial skill. But there are also people who begin with tai chi, begin with softness, and don’t think of it as to be used for conquering opponents. Once in a great while, such a person can take softness to such a high level that without thinking of victory or defeat at all, he or she can spontaneously, overcome all opponents. Martial skill is merely an unplanned side effect of higher developments, and by no means the most important effect.

As a published fiction writer, I resemble the former kind of practitioner. I trained in the traditional forms and now I’m trying to add something different, something opposite, but with the ultimate hope that it might eventually help me in my mastery of those traditional forms. I’m not one who begins and ends with “softness” – with pure individual vision. Nevertheless I hope to take my art to the highest level I can. And if an ideal of pure softness helps me continue, so be it.

November 25, 2005


Sometimes I feel silly about continually thanking my commenters for the nice things they say here, but let’s face it, I like praise as much as most people do, and bowing is good exercise – so thanks again to all who wrote about my previous post, “Things A Few People Know About Me,” and also to readers who did not comment. I’m honored to know that Yehoshua Karsh has been reading me, and I’m thrilled by his comparison of my words to kinds of music that I like. (By the way, Rabbi, I’ve often wished you allowed comments on your blog, but I can see why you wouldn’t.)

Though I knew it would be a major post for me, and I gave it a lot of care, it wasn’t as painful to write as some of you might imagine, because my fiction writing has always cut pretty deeply (although in fiction I always alter and invent, not only for self-protection and protection of others but as a point of professional pride) and because the family culture I described in the post does not inhibit such confessions. If any of you suspected that I was inspired by other bloggers’ recent personal disclosures – particularly Tamar’s and Jean’s – you were right.

That post also came at a time when I feel my blog evolving. I’m not sure how it’s evolving, and I’m interested to find out. In a couple of weeks it will be a year since I’ve started. I want to keep at it but I don’t want to stagnate. I want to keep going deeper and keep opening myself up, not out of exhibitionism but because through it I hope somehow to arrive at art, and whatever wisdom art brings. My highest priority on this blog has always been to post works of fiction, and I think that will continue. But when you write a large number of stories in a relatively short period of time, a sense of diminishing returns may set in. Every writer has certain experiences and themes that he works through again and again, and while it’s mildly interesting to see how the material is reprocessed anew each time, I am not satisfied with that. Maybe I’ll need to write fewer stories in the short term in order to write better ones in the long term. We’ll see.

I want to do less topical posting and may just eliminate it altogether. There are many bloggers who know and care a great deal more than I do about current events and history, and there’s no reason why I should try to play that game instead of my own. In the past I’ve used topical posting as filler when I didn’t have anything creative to put up. From now on if I don’t have anything creative or at least nsightful to put up, I might just not post on that day. (And in an unprecedented burst of Jewish observance, I’ve decided not to post on Saturdays, since Rabbi Karsh wouldn’t be reading then anyway.)

I’d also like to resuscitate a few types of posts that I wrote when I first started out. It’s been months since I did any of the “Reading Logs” or “Viewing Logs” or “Creative Writing” commentaries that I used to enjoy. I think those kinds of posts center me within my individual culture – the choice of reading and listening and observing in which I conceive ideas – and I hope some readers get something out of my cultural recommendations.

I’ve occasionally put haiku up here, and in the future I think I might even take the daunting step of writing longer (only slightly longer!) poetry. Concise free verse, I would imagine, since I don’t have the training to handle English prosody.

I’ve never intended this blog to be a diary, but I think I’d like to give myself permission to say more about things I do and see and hear from day to day. I always enjoy reading about others’ lives, even when humdrum, so why shouldn’t some people be interested in my humdrum life?

Looking back at the above, I see that I haven’t specified any revolutionary changes in this blog. I’m an evolutionist in politics as well as most other things, not a revolutionary. I hope incremental changes, unplanned but adaptive, will lead to worthwhile developments. Maybe the changes won’t even be noticeable to readers – maybe they’ll be changes in how I feel rather than in what I do.

But as always, I’ll be grateful to those who stop by.

November 23, 2005

Things A Few People Know About Me

I inherited depression from both my parents. My father’s family was prone to anger, both silent and not, and cold intellectual rigidity. It’s the consensus among my generation of cousins that there was bipolarity running through the lineage: my father’s sister was finally diagnosed with it in her seventies. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of bipolarity whose upcurve is marked not by elation and joy but by irritability and rage.

On my mother’s side the depression was linked to anxiety in a chicken-egg relationship. The men drank to mask it, the women consumed their lives in worry over trifles and envy of every other human being. On meeting, reading of, or hearing about any person the programmed response was to seek mercilessly for something to envy, and therefore something to tear down.

The ideology of both families was pessimistic and defeatist. Nothing could be ventured, and certainly nothing gained. One reason — though not the only reason -- I decided I wanted to be a writer in my teens was because I didn’t believe I was capable of entering the normal work force. On countless occasions in my childhood it was brought to my attention, by people who occupied the niches labeled “loved ones” and “friends”, that I was too physically slight and emotionally fragile to be an effectual force in the world at large. I was lazy (the litany went), I lacked motivation, I didn’t know how to study or work, I looked like a concentration camp victim – this in a neighborhood where many of the residents actually were concentration camp victims – and most of all, I was too smart for my own good. Some of the people who gave me this information about myself lived in the same apartment as me, but they didn’t know any more about me than if they’d only heard of me through gossip.

Writing was something I could do while hiding these frailties and hiding from these accusations.

I got off light compared to my father, who was routinely called “a failure,” “a nothing,” and “not a man,” on the grounds that he was an English teacher, and who in reply called my mother a fucking bitch – carefully enunciating the “g” because he was an English teacher.

If my parents had been in any kind of harmony I probably would have gone crazy early in life, but because they were constantly warring I always had at least two viewpoints to choose from, and any hurtful thing one of them said was contradicted by the other. By steering among the contradictions I found space to become a third force in the family, unifying my younger brothers alongside me in a spirit of desperate mockery of the powers above us.

Please keep in mind that the people who brought me up were honest, decent people who meant to do their best – except toward each other -- and who suffered from their shortcomings more than I did. Above all, honest, because anything could be uttered as long as it would hurt one’s opponent. There were no taboos except, as I later realized, on joy. Joy was dangerous because it was the top of the upcurve, it presaged a fall. Joy and related emotions – contentment, hope, faith – were also suspect because they were simple-minded, as were straightforward active emotions such as ambition. We had complicated minds. Thus when we encountered people we envied for their contentment or material success, we could disdain them for simple-mindedness.

In early adulthood I once found a library book on New York City folklore. A small chapter was devoted to the Jews of the Bronx. The author, an experienced folklorist who was probably himself Jewish, claimed that the Jews of the Bronx were unlike all others people known to him, in one intriguing respect: they had no aspiration toward transcendence. All other peoples, the authors claimed, divided life into two categories, the instrumental and the transcendent. In instrumental life you worked for pay, you built a household, you raised a family. Transcendent life was granted less time but it was no less precious. In transcendent life you pursued activities beyond the sphere of just getting along day to day. You might paint pictures or pray to a god or try to perfect your body or give your time to help the suffering. To an instrumental mind, the more casual kinds of transcendence might look like mere hobbies or distractions, but to a transcendental mind, even a hobby could lead a person to a richer form of existence, a communion with other people or with some nonhuman source of emotional vitality.

The Jews of the Bronx, however, the author said – and we’re talking about the secular variety, not the funny Hasidim in black costumes who were sprinkled among us like cinders on Bronx snow -- made no separation between the two spheres. The instrumental was the medium into which any transcendence had to be smuggled. So a housewife’s argument with a butcher became a scene of grand drama; the necessity to earn a living became (as in DEATH OF A SALESMAN) a tragedy.

This rang true with me. The people among whom I grew up had no sense of transcendence whatsoever. They were not religious, they were not political (except for voting the straight Democratic ticket), they were not artistic (except for taking us to approved cultural institutions such as museums) – they didn’t even go to taverns or commit adultery. (I grew up in a neighborhood without a neighborhood bar.) They didn’t believe in anything – not themselves, not anyone else, not their culture, and absolutely not God. Belief was looked down upon as credulity. They were completely bent over with the weight of everyday duty, a burden proclaimed by a soundtrack of ceaseless verbal aggression, which was made by the aggressors into a kind of expressionist art. People who in middle age are still enchanted by verbal aggression, and practice it as a sport, don’t impress me. I literally learned it at my mother’s breast.

From some point in childhood – age 12? age 6? age 3? – until age 34 I was chronically depressed. Since then I’ve conducted a largely successful battle using all possible weapons against depression, including medication, therapy, meditation, exercise, nutrition, and more. I took the initiative to reinvent my life and it has worked to a great extent. Nevertheless, I suspect that there is an inborn melancholy in me that no treatment can ever reach.

My interior monologue during a large part of my life, especially in adolescence and early manhood, was dominated by self-denigration and feelings of undeservingness. It sometimes reaches proportions that seem almost psychotic to me. I still don’t believe that I work for a living or that other people think I do. (“You don’t really work,” my mother told me whenever the subject came up.) For example, recently I read an article about classical music announcers. The article mentioned how much one such announcer earned, and I was favorably surprised: “That’s pretty good money,” I thought, with the old inherited envy, and wondered why I wasn’t good enough to be a classical announcer and make that salary. Then I remembered I earn three times as much.

One often sees things written about people who were born with physical handicaps but succeeded through a positive attitude. The climate in my family was exactly the opposite. We were all brilliant and in perfect physical health – except for the much-lamented slightness – but oppressed by an attitude that said everything was impossible.

Given these conditions, the fact that I became a sane, productive, constructive adult, the leader of an loving and fully functional household – did not die of alcoholism at 31 as an uncle did, did not become a psychiatric invalid at 28 as my dear elder cousin and role model did -- is an accomplishment I’m proud of, despite a recent commenter who criticized me for congratulating myself on what should be taken for granted. I also wrote books. And I looked for transcendence.

These experiences have bred an emotional fortitude in me that I often don’t myself appreciate. No wonder, then, that people who don’t know me well don’t appreciate it either. A therapist, for instance, who diagnosed me as a passive temperament until, later grasping what it meant to spend one’s life aspiring to art, he admitted he was wrong. I act indecisive about small things but I have made every major decision in my life independently and, having made them, have stuck to them. The small things aren’t worth taking a stand on: if you want to go to a different restaurant, fine, we’ll go to yours. The time is long past when I had to be right or had to have the last word.

For these reasons, people who are emotionally predatory sometimes mistake me for prey. Most of the time I don’t bother to prove them wrong. I can outrun them any time and I delight in getting them winded by staying just out of reach of their claws.

They’re people with a nose for every human weakness, unaided by any organ of empathy.

Recently on my blog I decided to start showing a little more of myself, sharing some of a writer’s struggles. I knew it was the zebra baring his neck to the lions, but that’s all right, I never know when I‘ll learn something or from whom. Most of the communications I received were intelligent and well-intentioned, but they seemed to be directed at someone else – at a writer with their caliber of mind instead of mine, in which case the advice to stop being so introspective might have been justified. They told me to get over myself and just do it – although just do what was not clear. Judging from these responses, literature was to be created by characters from some athletic shoe commercial, who roared their way automatically over any hurdle and whose mantra was, “Stop thinking.” Exquisite sensitivity and a rarefied intellect were barriers to art or, more realistically, to the HarperCollins fall list. I was apparently being mistaken for some dilettante who had always felt it in him to write a novel but had never dared to try.

My goal in life is to be thankful for all of this.

November 21, 2005

Lost Package

A package arrived at my door, and inside was a box labeled “The Past.” The packing slip said, “1 of 3.”

I opened the box and spent all day poring over the contents. Oddly, the more familiar and threadbare it all was, the more fascinating I found it. After I put the box on a shelf, I kept returning to it and taking little peeks, although I was looking at things I’d looked at countless times.

Next day a package came to my door, and inside was a box labeled “The Future.” The packing slip said “3 of 3.” I thought, “Funny, the third package arrived before the second.”

I itched to look inside this box but somehow I couldn’t make myself do it, even though I had reason to hope that the contents would be pleasing. Superstitiously, I felt that by looking I would spoil what was inside. I put this box on the shelf underneath the first box, and daydreamed about what might be in it.

Next day I waited at my door but no package came. I called the shipping company and they said it was on its way, but it didn’t arrive the next day either, or the day after that. I’ve called every day since then and they keep telling me the same thing: it was mislabeled but they’ve got track of it now and it should be delivered shortly. They’ve told me that so often, I don’t believe them anymore.

It’s not so bad, though, because every time I look at that first package, it’s got more stuff inside to play with.

November 18, 2005

Approach, Avoid

My close friend Lhombre -- Dan Ramirez -- minimalist painter, emeritus professor, impetuous commenter, and apprentice poet -- has decided to take his blog down a new road. He has posted a long personal discourse containing an intimate disclosure. Those of you who have come to care about him through his blog -- Luz -- will want to read this.

And a new blogfriend arrives this morning from Kerala, India -- Tom Mangatt, a journalist who has honored me by posting my rain haiku along with some by good and great writers past and present. Thank you, Tom, and welcome to the blogosphere. I'm hoping to read a great many interesting things on your site.

And now, people, I'm going to take the weekend off from blogging. I won't be posting tomorrow or Sunday, though I'll probably be reading blogs (so write good posts!). I've got some living to catch up on -- or at least some thinking about living.

November 16, 2005

“Never Trust Revelations, They Are Always False”

It’s a great line, and it was written today by Natalie D’Arbeloff (Blaugustine) in her blog post "Seriously Considering Giving Up" (I can't find a permalink). My immediate reaction was, “Yes, that’s so true!” At least two of my unpublished, misconceived novels began as revelatory inspirations which so enthralled me that I felt compelled to follow them up through two or three hundred floundering pages. In one case it was a cryptic opening paragraph that enticed me to find out what it meant; in another, a suddenly imagined plot premise that turned out to be tawdry.

And how many of our decisions in life are prompted by great realizations that wake us up in the middle of the night, or by mirages of the one perfect person, or by anxiety attacks disguised as urgings to take immediate action?

Not to mention the public revelations – the intolerant beliefs, the crazes of prejudice, the mass paranoias – that lead to wars and pogroms and genocides.

Yet I needed to pause and calm down about this latest revelation, too. Those treacherous words “always” and “never”. I must have had some sudden realizations that have helped me, haven’t I? Finding out that I could do things I never thought I could, like jumping off a high dive or throwing someone bigger than me. Looking at an autumn tree and seeing something beyond language. Smaller revelations, perhaps, are the more trustworthy ones.

In the end I guess revelations turn out to be true or false at the same rate as our other judgments and intuitions and conclusions and decisions. Probably about fifty-fifty. But we get seduced by the emotional charge of the revelation, and follow it, and that’s where the trouble begins. Experience tells me that the emotional charge attached to a decision says nothing about its value.

Reply to a Critic

"Note just what it is about your work the critics don't like -- then cultivate it. That's the part of your work that's individual and worth keeping." -- Jean Cocteau

November 15, 2005

A Reply to Someone Who Thinks My Blog Is Too Complacent and Self-Celebratory

"Unhappiness is taking the easy way out--being satisfied with the low-hanging bitter fruit." Robert Godwin, commenting on Dilys (scroll down to sixth comment).

November 14, 2005

Quotations I Kept

In a recent post I mentioned that I’ve been rereading my old notebooks lately. It’s something I do every few years, when I feel it’s time to summon and survey my powers, using the past as fuel for the future.

These were a writer’s occasional journals, intended to supply material for fiction. Mostly undated, they weren’t diaries – I rarely wrote down what I had done on any given day unless I was either traveling or going through a crisis, and in the latter case I sometimes cloaked it in fiction. The main categories of entries were:

• nature and city descriptions
• character sketches, some of people close to me and others of colorful individuals I barely knew, or had only heard of
• ideas for stories, novels, titles, character names
• philosophical, cultural, and psychological generalizations: they provided intellectual ballast for works of fiction, though they couldn’t have supported a real philosophical system
• adorable or wise things my two preschool sons said
• quotations from things I read

The fIrst four categories are just for my own use and the fifth deserves separate treatment, but for now I thought I’d share with you some quotations – a selection of a selection – that a young writer picked up and piled together to try to rebuild himself in 1986 and 1987.

…continued intimacy, familiarity, and love can result in falsehood…being thrown on the world may be a very desirable even if sad thing…in any true life you must go and be exposed outside the small circle that encompasses two or three heads in the same history of love. Try and stay, though, inside. See how long you can.

Life goes beyond the conscience of nice well-bred people. A good upbringing stops them from knowing what they think even.

One has to take so much, to be happy, out of the lives of others, and…one isn’t happy even then.

And she showed me how life withers when there are things we cannot share.
--Virginia Woolf, THE WAVES

Our friends – how distant, how mute, how seldom visited and little known.

Separation is normal.
--a peanut butter jar

There is time, still time/ for one who can groan/ to sing,/ for one who can sing to be healed.
--Galway Kinnell, THE STILL TIME

I was never shy, and that may be the reason I have never amounted to anything.
--Isaac Bashevis Singer, A FRIEND OF KAFKA

Man’s powers are not intended to be like an orchestra. Here, on the contrary, all the instruments must play, all the time, without stopping, and with all their might. After all, it is not intended for human ears, and the time a concert lasts, during which each instrument can hope to assert itself, is not available.

There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in rapture it will writhe before you.

“I no longer want love,” he said, supplying the word.

“No more do I. My experiences here have cured me. But I want others to want it.”

There are many ways of being a man; mine is to express what is deepest in my heart.

Only love can quiet the fear of love.
--Wendell Berry, THE FEAR OF LOVE

If a man has any greatness in him, it comes to light, not in one flamboyant hour, but in the ledger of his daily work.
--Beryl Markham, WEST WITH THE NIGHT

You must never run from anything immortal; it attracts their attention.
--Peter S. Beagle, THE LAST UNICORN

The sense of ‘self’ appears to be based on a continuous inference from the stability of body-image, the stability of outward perceptions, and the stability of time-perception. Feelings of ego dissolution readily and promptly occur if there is serious disorder or instability of [any of the three].
--Oliver Sacks, MIGRAINE

…what is prison-like about prisons is found in institutions whose members have broken no laws.
Erving Goffman, ASYLUMS

To be myself (I note) I need the illumination of other people’s eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self.
--Virginia Woolf, THE WAVES

To give style to one’s character, to organize the chaos of one’s passions, and to create a world of beauty here and now.
--paraphrased from Walter Kaufmann, NIETZSCHE, describing Nietzsche’s vision of the most powerful man

The whole process of life is due to life’s violation of our logical axioms…

What really exists is not things made but things in the making…
--William James, A PLURALISTIC UNIVERSE, ch. 6

Every smallest state of consciousness…overflows its own definition. Only concepts are self-identical; only “reason” deals with closed equations; nature is but a name for excess…

The sole condition of our having anything, no matter what, is that we should have so much of it, that we are fortunate if we do not grow sick of the sight and sound of it altogether. Everything is smothered in the litter that is fated to accompany it. Without too much you cannot have enough, of anything. Lots of inferior books…of tenth-rate men and women, as a condition of the few precious specimens…the gold-dust comes to birth with the quartz-sand all around it.

The only real marriage is of man to his powers of vision.
--Alfred Kazin, NEW YORK JEW, paraphrasing William Blake, THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL

Sing out – because no one can almost sing.
--Odetta, to the audience at a concert, July 12, 1987

November 12, 2005

NYT Understands Blaming Israel for the Amman Attacks

Aptly named Times reporter Michael Slackman writes, "Blaming Israel is not just a knee jerk...; for many Arabs, it is their reality."

Is rationalizing their severe cognitive distortions a way of bringing people into the community of advanced nations?

Several of the Muslim observers Slackman quotes have a more levelheaded view of the situation than he apparently does.

November 10, 2005

Fill in Name of Holiday

'Tis that season again -- Halloween is over, which means it's time once more to indulge in Ameria's favorite winter-break tradition. I'm referring of course to the annual debate about whether it's okay to use the word "Christmas" in public. I expressed my opinion last year, in one of my earliest posts and a followup. This year, guess who's weighing in on the anti-Christmas side? Yes, Wal-Mart.

The evil megastore has replaced "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays," and when a customer complained, an employee named Kirby wrote her as follows:

Walmart is a world wide organization and must remain conscious of this. The majority of the world still has different practices other than ‘christmas’ which is an ancient tradition that has its roots in Siberian shamanism. The colors associated with ‘christmas’ red and white are actually a representation of of the aminita mascera mushroom. Santa is also borrowed from the Caucuses[sic], mistletoe from the Celts, yule log from the Goths, the time from the Visigoth and the tree from the worship of Baal. It is a wide wide world.

Kirby has been attracting open-mouthed attention for his little display of erudition. Blogger Relapsed Catholic calls him "Dumbest PR Flack, 2005: We Have a Winner!" I found the story in a Good and Happy link where Dilys carves up Kirby like a "holiday" goose.

Season's greetings, Kirby, wherever you end up in your next job!


A link to this has been posted by Good and Happy.

I was sort of hoping that Kirby would rise to become a Wal-Mart vice president and get them really screwed up.

Agent 97's Gift

A couple of days ago I began reading over my old notebooks, begun a quarter-century ago when I was on the brink of becoming both a published novelist and a father. A dangerous business, reading old notebooks. I’ve been feeling dissatisfied with myself lately and I was looking for some evidence of who I am and who I had been and to what extent we were the same. As I expected, the evidence was equivocal. It gave me no clear sign as to what I had done right or wrong, what direction I might have taken differently or might take now. What should the writer of those notebooks have expected from life? The line connecting him to me seemed surreal, both impossibly long and distressingly short: as a writer I seemed to have peaked in the 1980s, though as a person I’d thought I’d grown so much since. And most importantly, what about the line from here to the future? Did I need to change, or continue exactly as I am – and how could I know?

I told no one I was reading the notebooks. Then, last night, when I came home from a tai chi class, I saw a small handwritten sign, red ink on cardboard, on the kitchen table: “Dad, you win!!!!” The sign invited me to Agent 97’s room to pick up a prize.

He had, with no external prompting and purely on impulse, conducted a family lottery, and my prize was a new notebook he had made for me by stapling blank pages into a zebra-striped folder. On the cover he had written, “Work Thoughts.”

It was for me to do my writing in, he told me.

How did he know, when I didn’t, exactly what I needed?

November 09, 2005

I Get Defensive

The past couple of weeks have been notable for a flurry of wonderful posts by several blogfriends (as Nappy40 has also noticed) on basic questions of identity and how we feel about ourselves and how we got that way. These posts aren't ephemera (from the Greek meaning "things of a day"). I keep rereading them, and I'm sure many others do too.

They're by Danny and by Jean and by Tamar and most recently by Adriana.

I love these personal essays, and in a sense -- that much-debated, ill-defined sense in which we wonder about blog friendships -- I love these people. And I'm uncomfortably struck, almost shocked, by the extent to which the women in the group tell of being emotionally scarred by their mothers, although it rings true to my own experience as well.

Despite this, the myth remains that women are gentler, kinder, and more loving than men. I know many wonderful women, but I've not noticed a difference in how kind or loving the two sexes are. I've noticed that women talk more about how kind and loving they are, and that women usually have softer voices than men.

A good many years ago there was a survey -- I wish I could track it down -- that asked men and women whether they ever lied. 47% of men said they never lied. 57% of women said they never lied. What do we conclude from this?

A few days ago I wrote a post, one of my fantasy reflections, describing a male-pronouned god who was disssatisfied with human accompishments. Tamar commented, "Ah, but if God was a "she," she'd gather us into her large embrace and keep us all for trying ..."

Really, Tamar?

We all, all our lives, keep looking for a good mother, and that's why we believe things like that.

Do Our Kids Bother You?

As a parent of rowdy and formerly rowdy children, I've often tried to make them sit in their seats and keeps their voices down in restaurants and cafes -- with mixed success. Thankfully, it's no longer a problem; at age 8 and 10, Agents 95 and 97 are sophisticates who love nothing more than to sit in a cafe over a good book or a sheet of homework or (somewhat more dangerously because it raises the level of excited interaction) a video game with the sound turned off. Much credit is due to their elder models and periodic cafe companions, Agents 81 and 83.

According to the NYT, a nationwide conflict is developing between the childed and the unchilded. Cafe owners have posted signs advising parents to control their little ones. (The signs' wording tends to be classically false-friendly.) Parents have responded with boycotts. A Chicago mother says of a complaining cafe owner, "I'd love for him to be responsible for three children for the next year and see if he can control the volume of their voices every minute of the day."" The cafe owner replies that the mothers among his clientele are "former cheerleaders and beauty queens" who "have a very strong sense of entitlement."

It's one of those right-versus-right situations, it seems to me. I can understand an adult's not wanting his leisure hours disturbed by a stranger's child's cranky voice. Most offensive, though, are the places that claim to be friendly to mothers and children but that disprove it by their behavior -- like the feminist bookstore, Women and Children First, where a male clerk asked a woman to stop breastfeeding. "'[T]he neighborhood set him straight real fast,' said Mary Ann Smith, the area's alderwoman."

Read all about it here.

November 08, 2005

Self-Portrait with Photons

Good and Happy relays the news that our hands, foreheads, and the bottoms of our feet emit photons -- a "light around the body."

Good new for us introverts? Maybe there really is something in here worth encountering, instead of, "Stop thinking about yourself and go out and play," like we're always being told.

And today, Jean at This Too ruminates (what else?) on the value of self-portraits:

"The steely, sometimes sidelong, sometimes straight-on look. The deep, defiant, shifty look we only give ourselves. How unusually quiet the rather crowded gallery was, people murmuring at most in their companions’ ears, more often wrapped in their own trance of staring, catching, looking back....

"So self-portrait paintings, the ultimate in self-obsession, reach out by compelling attention and empathy. Does the same apply to self-portraits in words? Which brings me back to qualms about self-exposing blog-posts...."

I'm all for them -- the bloggers, and their posts.

A Meeting of the Minds

My wife, Agent 61, returned from a weekend in Palm Springs and told me, "I took a photograph in Joshua Tree just for you."

Me: "What is it, a road sign saying 'Chopped Liver 1/4 Mile Ahead'"?

Agent 61: "Close! Let me get my camera and show you."

Scroll down to see what the camera disclosed:

"Wash" is a regional term for a dry creek bed that floods in heavy rain.

November 07, 2005

Too Much to Set Aside

We wish God had commanded us to do something, but He hasn’t.

I once knew a man who commanded himself to write a sonnet every day for a year. He liked to say that God told him to. For a long time he wouldn’t show his sacred verses to anyone. At last he put them in a book and gave a reading, and I bought a copy.

The poems were skillfully done and showed a hard-earned knowledge of technique. They were full of smart soundplay and allusion and showed great sensitivity to the insensitivity of being male. He wrote about how strong his father was and how his wife had hurt him and how weak his father was and what a coarse, innocent teenager he had been. He wrote about eBay and iPod in meters Dryden had known. Every poem made me feel I had to tell him how good it was.

But of course there was something missing and he knew it. No need for anyone to say it. It wasn’t anything I could advise him to put in. To do that, I would have had to know where to find it. It was – let me try to think – it was that these were the poems any American man our age would have written if he could write poems. And while it was nice to see those things said with assonance and alliteration and half-rhyme and flexible rhythm, none of the lines was more beautiful than we had a right to ask. Which is, of course, what we have a right to ask.

He had been given just enough of a gift so that he couldn’t set it aside.

It turned out he was a character, not a writer – a creature, not a creator -- and reading his poems made me feel ashamed, as if I’d glanced at someone standing naked in a window and in the process, standing on the street corner, been stripped bare myself.

So if God discards most of us in the end and keeps only the choicest few, it’s not because we’ve touched something He’s told us to leave alone or haven’t paid Him tribute in the prescribed words. He’s put us here to see what we can come up with, and most of us haven’t come up with enough.

November 05, 2005

My Straight Flush

A gusty, overcast morning, but take a shower and get some clothes on and it’s already clearing, not a storm front but just the usual overnight deception. I woke up in a suddenly wider bed, my spouse, Agent 61, having flown to Palm Springs to give a presentation at a conference, the groves of Academe in this case consisting of palm trees amid an archipelago of golf courses. She’s already zipped off to Joshua Tree National Park, which she reports looks a lot like our Big Bend, then checked in to the spa hotel resort where she’s staying, ate at an endless seafood buffet which also included steak and prime rib, and promenaded downstairs to the casino to watch three-card poker, cocktail in hand. Such is the life of a scholar! The old geezer sitting beside her burst out in a cry of celebration, holding up his cards: “I was looking at this pretty lady’s face and look what I got!” A straight flush.

That’s the way I feel too.

Meanwhile the boys and I – Agents 95 and 97 and me – spent the evening laughing and laughing and laughing over the rarest of treats -- Hungry Man TV dinners -- because we rented a volume of FAMILY GUY and watched four episodes in unbroken succession. That series is our new retrospective passion: last week we rented the movie STEWIE GRIFFIN: THE UNTOLD STORY, which apparently was never released in theaters and is unrated, for good reason. It’s highly recommended for parents of mature preteens, who don’t mind their kids’ being exposed to the most hilarious uninhibited filth. Ever since, all three of us have been going around imitating Stewie, the diaper-clad infant prodigy who speaks in a British accent as he plots world domination. Unaccountably finding himself born into a family of dorks in Rhode Island who are owned by a martini-drinking, barroom-philosopher pet dog, Stewie possesses a perfect repertoire of stage Britishisms: “Blast! What the deuce!” The episode CHITTY CHITTY DEATH BANG (Season 1, Disc 1, Episode 3) is notable for its long flashback of Stewie in the womb, map in hand, planning his escape – and of his earlier assault on the egg, staged as a STAR WARS fighter-plane sequence.

Later today we might go to the park where, if my intuition is correct, Agent 97 and I will toss a football back and forth while Agent 95 rides circles around us and then reads a book, all the while actually inhabiting a science-fiction universe of superpowered combat. We might eat dinner at Culver’s, the Wisconsin-born burger chain that surprisingly has two outlets in Austin, the kids getting root beer floats and me filling up with memories of eating at the original Culver’s on Highway 12 in Sauk City in the mid-80s, a time when I held a different straight flush, clumsily lost the pot, and then miraculously came up with an almost identical hand.

November 04, 2005

Riots in France

The American media have paid almost no attention to the rioting in France until today, after seven nights of it (eight according to the London Times Online). Violence has now spread to Dijon, Rouen, and the outskirts of Marseille, according to a London Times online article linked to by Roger L. Simon. And The Glittering Eye links to Le Figaro (in French), whcih asserts than more than 500 cars were destroyed in Paris and that the rioters may be coordinating their actions online. Glittering Eye also posts links to bloggers near the scene.

I don't know what to make of it, except to note that France is a nation that has a Minister of Social Cohesion. And we are a nation that has a Department of Homeland Security.

November 03, 2005

A Wikipedian Amongst Us

Hey, Ann has her own Wikipedia entry! Now there is a single handy compendious source for those who want to find out what year she got her law degree or what judge she clerked for.

With all her op-ed writing and podcasting and radio discussanting, she's poised to make the leap to bigger media. Go get 'em, former central person! Who knew that mere blogging would lead to such apotheosis?

Query from a member of my household: "So do you wish you were still married to her now that she's a star?"

Response: "It depends how much money she makes."

November 02, 2005

Paradoxes Are For Digging

“…It’s what I call the Law of Conservation of Time,” said Professor Blisham, pointing to a forest of algebraic formulas on the chalkboard. “Time that is past has not vanished; time that is future already exists. You see, I simply refuse to believe that the universe possesses one anomalous fundamental property. When we burn a stick of wood, the matter and energy in the wood is not subtracted from the universal total. When we traverse space, the space we came from does not cease to exist. Space is relativistically curved, yes, and multidimensional, but it is nevertheless there, it is not a figment of our perception. Time as we perceive it is a nothingness: past and future are nonexistent, and the present is an infinitesimal dot, with no more duration than a point in space has extent. We feel ourselves to be running along a track that vanishes as soon as we pass and that does not come into existence until we arrive. Isn’t it more sensible to assume that the track is permanent?”

“That’s right, Prof,” said a strangely familiar voice, as the laboratory door pushed open to reveal someone who looked exactly like Professor Blisham, but a bit stouter, a bit grayer, and wearing a suit and tie of startlingly narrow cut. “Time travel is possible – technically, though not pragmatically – and here I am to prove it.”

“Why, it’s me!” cried Professor Blisham.

“Crazy, man, huh?” said the new, older Blisham, looking around in nostalgic amusement. “Wow, look at this cool pad you had here. It’s bringing back, like, memories. What a swinging time this was.” He strode up and shook the old, younger Blisham warmly by the hand. “Man, it’s wild to see you after all these years.”

Blisham moved back in horror. “But – but if I meet myself – if we meet ourselves – won’t the universe implode because of the paradox? Aren’t you breaking the laws of conservation of matter and energy by entering this timeframe?””

The later, more sophisticated Blisham laughed indulgently. “Cool it, man, when did a paradox ever blow anything up? Paradoxes are for digging. As for laws, who passed those laws? What jail do you go to for breaking them? A law of nature is just a description of what’s happened in the past, daddio. If you break it, well, there are ways to get away with it.”

The more innocent Blisham sank into a chair and wiped his brow. “But – but – I still feel I’m myself. My consciousness resides inside this brain in this cranium. We can’t have two consciousness, can we? What, then, is inside your brain?”

More laughter, like that of a parent at a child’s cuteness. “Man, you are too much. Continuous personal identity is an illusion, man, like didn’t you know that? It’s just narrative point of view. A so-called individual is just a first-person POV, that’s all, and there are countless numbers of them but each of them thinks it’s the only one. Baby, you still got your POV and I got mine, and that’s how it goes, right?”

“Oh, my,” said the sweat-bathed antecedent Blisham in a fluttery tone. “Well, I suppose it could – “

“Yeah, well, it’s been swinging talking to you, babe, but I gotta split, you know? Before the whole thing does. The whole show, know what I mean? The whole –“

“Universe?” the pale and trembling Blisham finished in alarm.

The visitor snapped his fingers. “That’s the word I was looking for. Thanks, man. Yeah, like, time travel is theoretically possible but it’s not downright advisable, know what I mean? Look, let me give it to you straight. Every traveler who goes back into the past upsets the chain of causation that would have been established. I come back here, I know stuff you don’t, see? And by acting on it, talking about it, for chrissake even thinking about it for all I know, we undo the links and cause new links to have to be formed. Like, I know who’s gonna win the election next month, Dewey or Truman. But if I go blabbing about it, and thousands and then millions of people hear it, don’t you think that might swing the election? So then we’ve gotta have two universes, one with Old Man D. as the prez and one with Old Man T. Well, multiply that by all the things I know from your future. And multiply that by the number of time travelers there would be if this thing ever really got into production. (I’m just sneaking here from my lab before I let anyone else know, ya dig?) It’s like” – he pressed his fingers to his brow with a Brando-esque grimace of anguished thought – “it’s like if a car comes to a fork in the road, you know? Ya gotta go one way or the other, buddy, you can’t swing both ways, if you know what I mean, ha ha. But with this time travel gig, that doesn’t work: the car tries to go on umpteen roads at once, and what happens? The car splits up into tiny parts, one axle going on this road, the carburetor rolling down another – crazy, huh? Presto, man: no more car! A universe full of time-travel action wouldn’t stay in one piece long, you catch my drift?”

“I say, I fear I do,” the host Blisham murmured in distress.

“That’s why travel into the future’s like safer than into the past. The past, you like screw around with the very chains of causation. The future, you’re just tinkering with things that haven’t happened yet, so causation isn’t broken – you’re just leaving someone a hell of a mess to clean up. I gotta tell you, man, this thing makes the butterfly effect look like a slight change of breeze. Hey, you don’t know what the butterfly effect is, do you, ‘cause like Ray Bradbury hasn’t written ‘A Sound of Thunder’ yet. Ooh, man, that’s another piece of like top-secret info I just let slip. Two in one visit, that’s like pushing it, you know? Man, if I don’t watch out, the whole thing could like melt into jello while I’m standing here.”

Summoning up a burst of energy, the pre-time-travel Blishman stood up, pointing a sweating finger at his antagonist. “Do you mean to say that by traveling here you have endangered the very fabric of – “

“Well, it’s not that bad, at least I don’t think. Theoretically, just one visit may not be enough to do it. It’s like – the universe isn’t exactly like a house of cards where one card pulled out brings the whole thing down. It’s more like one of those games where you build a tower of sticks, and then you take away one stick at a time and see who makes the tower fall. Or, like, here’s another cool way to look at it: if one cat drops in to your pad for dinner, that doesn’t mess up your plans much, does it? But if a thousand cats dropped in, you’d probably have to move, you know? Or at least throw them out.”

“And that is precisely what I’m about to do with you, sir,” said the younger and more prudent Blisham, grabbing his guest by the inch-wide lapels. “You can go back to your time machine, or whatever it is you use, right now, and take your…consciousness, if you call it that… with you.”

“Cool, baby, I dig what you’re saying, but” – the traveler looked at his wristwatch – “oh man, you know? I’m always doing this. Like losing track of time. I start blowing and I forget where I’m supposed to be. I hope I haven’t overstayed, man, really. Because I had it like all calibrated and all that jazz, but – I mean, look how much you know already about cool threads and hip jive that you never knew before. That’s messing up the program, dad, that’s adding more forks to the road. Now I gotta split, you know? ‘Cause if we’re not careful, I could be standing here shooting the breeze with you, man, and the whole thing could just disap–“

November 01, 2005

My Last Word on Alito

For those interested in the current controversy about the nomination of conservative judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, see this incisive op-ed piece in today's NYT by Ann Althouse, a/k/a my longtime ex-wife. She looks at his record of opinions, finding that equating him with arch-reactionary Justice Scalia may not be appropriate. More to the point, Ann as always analyzes the nomination from a legal perspective, not a political one, and this is a viewpoint that is unfortunately absent in most journalistic discussions.

The heart of the matter, according to this view, is not "Is he conservative or liberal?" but "Is he qualified to interpret the Constitution on the highest level?"

Commending Bush for nominating someone with a long judicial record to examine, Ann writes:

In the decades since the defeat of Robert Bork's nomination, presidents have unfortunately tended toward "stealth" nominees out of fear that actual evidence of the person's jurisprudence would only give ammunition to his opponents. Mr. Bush had followed that pattern: his thwarted nominee Harriet Miers had no serious constitutional law writings, and even Chief Justice John Roberts had only a handful of constitutional law cases from his two years on the bench.

Those Democrats who are already insisting that Judge Alito's record on the bench makes him unacceptable should keep in mind that someday they, too, will have a president with a Supreme Court seat to fill, and it would serve the country well if that president wasn't forced to choose only among candidates with no paper trail. To oppose Judge Alito because his record is conservative is to condemn us to a succession of bland nominees and to deprive future presidents of the opportunity to choose from the men and women who have dedicated long years to judicial work.

I have a lot of respect for this viewpoint, and you'll find it well-expressed from a layman's standpoint on this Ambivablog post today.

The Ghouls All Came from their Humble Abodes

We woke to the stale chocolate and peanut smell of opened candy wrappers coming from big brown shopping bags on the kitchen floor. “I got a Starburst Chewies and a Tootsie Roll!” “Let’s sort the lollipops first and the chocolate later.” The morning after Halloween: dreaded by teachers everywhere, their classrooms filled with kids dosed on sugar after staying up late the night before, homework half-unfinished from the rush to go trick or treating.

Our neighborhood is somehow dark and obscure although centrally located, so we walk a quarter-mile to the more well-endowed precincts of the historic district – Jekyll and Hyde Park, I’ll call it -- which is Trick or Treat Central in this town. Cars come from all over the city, parking up the side streets, for this is where you find big old houses strung with orange and red lights – gravestones with funny epitaphs sprouting on the lawns --- skulls adorning windowsills – corpses dangling from branches – sprayed-on cobwebs draping the bushes – kid-sized funhouses issuing smoke for trick or treaters to walk through -- stereo speakers moved onto porches to play “The Monster Mash” – skeletons sitting in beach chairs, their red eyes blinking. There are patio parties for the grownups, and some of the parents stroll their rounds with a glass of wine or can of beer in one hand and a child in the other.

A three-year-old boy, escorted by a tall dad in a Bozo the Clown costume, runs up to a light-strung home and says, “It’s Christmastime!”

A mother calls into the crowd of candy-seekers, “Nick!”

“Which Nick are you referring to?” I reply, since there's likely to be three of them in any sizable crowd of contemporary kids.

I stop to look admiringly at a house I’ve always liked: it’s tasteful and modest and pretty and it’s lit up inside to reveal bookshelves and a nice dinner table… My ten-year-old, Agent 95, returns from it with a cry of disgust: “I knew I’d find him around here somewhere. That’s __________’s house, from camp. Every day he’d tell us how perfect he was, and every day his parents would have to stay for a half hour with the counselors to talk about his behavior problems. He’s in there watching TV.”

“Well that’s the perfect thing for a kid to do on Halloween, I guess.”

We stay out a long time – two hours -- because the pickings are so good and the decor so alluring. Soon the unprecedented happens: the kids are saying they’ve had enough and want to go home, while I want to keep trick or treating to see more houses.

“I’m thirsty,” Agent 97 says. “Let’s go to a restaurant.”

“We’re two blocks from home,” I say, exaggerating slightly. “It’s possible to remain alive for several minutes with a dry throat.”

Agent 95 says, “The city ought to put in water fountains every four or five blocks.”

“You can order that when you achieve world domination,” I tell him.

Agent 95 keeps taking off his big, furry werewolf mask, which has elicited many compliments and one toddler’s frightened howl, because it’s too stuffy.

“Come on, haven’t you ever heard of suffering for your art?” I ask him.

Eventually he gives the mask to me to hold while he treat or treats as himself. It’s really a fine, scary mask, and I put it on and nonchalantly stand around, no one noticing the werewolf in jeans and sweater loitering on the curb with his eye on the children. When was the last time I wore a mask? Decades ago -- how many is a subject better left unexamined. It’s interesting in here. You get to observe unseen. What’s seen of you is a disguise, an artifice, a red herring. No wonder people invent personae for themselves – ancient Greek actors’ masks were called personae – and keep them on for so long they ultimately can’t take them off. It never occurred to me before.

But this mask really is stuffy. There’s a strap that’s supposed to go around the back of your head, but it’s hanging down in front of my eyes. The eyeholes are in the wrong places so I either see double or see a fraction of what’s in front of me, and the hard plastic of the werewolf nose is pressing uncomfortably on my flesh and blood nose. Forget this – after a couple of minutes I take it off.

Never criticize someone until you’ve walked a block in his mask.