March 30, 2007

Leaving the Middle Way

I want to write some of these posts more carefully, taking more time for thought and revision, and also I want to toss some of them off more quickly, just seeing where my instantaneous thoughts lead my fingers over the keyboard -– a sort of literary ouija board exercise.

I want to do both. I want to leave the comfort of my usual way of working, which is a middle way, a way of doing enough to clean up the immediately painful failings but not enough to be a protractedly painful effort. Pain avoidance all around. The old one-draft-plus-a-whisk-through method.

I want to expand in both directions along the continuum.

What would my writing be like if I dug all the way down, unstintingly, without sparing myself, trusting that the way to refill the tank was to empty it with each use? What would it be like if I breezed along laughingly, tumbling past the obsessively surveyed, endlessly repaced and recalibrated border of what the map calls "me"?

My quick sketches often please me more than my careful layering. For a long time much of my best writing has been in personal letters (what your people call “emails”). I let loose in them, I feel a flash and sizzle in my prose and a fire in my perceptions. I like the twitchy, transitionless shifts from subject to subject; it makes me feel sparks –- makes me feel like I’m writing to someone. I like anacolutha, I like asyndeton. (And parentheses -- and dashes.)

This post, for instance… Well, I won’t tell you how hard I worked on it.

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March 28, 2007

Stately Homes of Austin: The Conjoined Twins

I believe these to be a single multi-unit rental.

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March 27, 2007

My Real Age... 7.8 years younger than my chronological age! All you 47.3-year-old eligible women out there, take note.

I took an online quiz at RealAge ("as seen on Oprah"). It takes a few minutes and you get the result by email about an hour later. They ask for your birth date and zip code but no other personal information aside from health info: diseases, prescription drugs, diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol, blood pressure, pulse, socioeconomic circumstances.

If you take the test, you will probably want to make sure to AVOID ALLOWING THEM TO EMAIL YOU OR HAVE OTHER COMPANIES EMAIL YOU. During the test, there are buttons to click that are deceptively positive in tone: Would you like to learn more about health? And so forth. They prompt the company to send you alll kinds of stuff. Make sure to click "No" for those. And when you receive your test results, there's a link you can click to suppress emails from them, but it's hard to spot: it's underlined, but not highlighted in blue like the links that serve their company interests.

I wonder how accurate the test is. On one hand, most people today are biologically younger than in the past, so I might deduct for that. On the other hand, the company probably wants to scare potential customers into buying their products, so I'll add back what I deducted.

It's great to be back in my forties again. I liked that decade. Actually, I like this one too, despite everything.

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March 26, 2007

Don't dream and drive at the same time.

Getting up bleary to take the kids to school: cranky mottled clouds smoky purple, cars starting up exhaust smells, gray of sleep over everything and thousands of dreams flying upwards, flocking in the sky, fleeing from the heads of their owners like bats scattering at nightfall. Only a few cars yet, and with headlights still on. Big decisions: radio on or off? Crosstown first or downtown? A Lay’s potato chip truck rushes through a yellow light: I can almost smell the chips, in the side mirror I notice the comical lean of a vehicle that’s too high for its width, and I remember how in Manhattan at this hour the delivery trucks own the streets. Though in the outer boroughs you might hear one of those immense streetsweeper trucks churning by slothslow, waking everyone as they unconsciously plead for five extra minutes, merciless rotating brushes kicking up asthma dust and leaving behind if your nose strains for it a sprinkle of fresh water. Like a hippopotamus paying for penny candy out of a tiny purse.

Delivery trucks doubleparked on the bumpy streets with ropedoff manholes and the scent of summer garbage, the stockboys barking parking instructions, steam rising from a subway grate and from cardboard cups of lousy coffee the object not to spill it on your suit as you hurry to the office, jostled against others at the crosswalk hurrying with the same goal in mind like you’re in a gameshow but what’s the prize, most everybody looking down glum silent shabby shlumpy but somehow once in a while there’s a tall close-shaven man in an expensive suit, or a woman dressed like a million bucks with not a molecule too much makeup, who stands tall and looks straight ahead as if they know exactly where they’re going. They seem to come from another planet.

Out of college I worked in the diamond district, though I worked on the opposite of diamonds, and there were guys who rode the commuter train home at five o’clock with millions of dollars in gems hidden in secret belts under their pants, and there were patient, fatigued craftsmen whose jeweler’s monocles were as much part of them as if they dentures. At lunchtime I wandered through Rockefeller Center looking at the people lunching at the outdoor tables amid lilac bushes, or the ice skaters in front of the big Christmas tree depending on the season. I’d stop in the Librairie Française bookstore and try to see what I could get out of Simenon or Balzac in French in those foreignscented paperbacks with the crazy upsidedown covers, or Jaws or Agatha Christie in translation, and there were green Michelin guides on a display rack and blue packs of sweetstinky Gauloises on the wall behind the counter. I’d take out lunch from a sandwich shop, big wonderful sandwiches of chopped liver or roast pork or homemade turkey salad with big chunk of mayonnaise-slathered dark meat from the same turkeys whose breasts they carved into slices. Walking back to the office where I’d eat gabbing and gossiping and satirizing with a couple of other bewildered graduates in a supply closet amid steel shelves stacked with typewriter ribbons shipping envelopes staples whiteout and esoteric varieties of tape. On the mezzanine of the office building there were wholesale outlets for engagement rings and silverware and china, riding up in the elevator I knew people could smell my chopped liver sandwich in its white takeout bag, and I would be wearing a navy blazer with square padded shoulders a light pink shirt a squarebottomed knit tie chino pants my hair curling at the collar the hip office underling 1974.

Going home at five the throngs flowing down the subway entrance stairs as if never to be seen again, the strangely fresh tunnel breeze as if blown in from some polluted beach resort, the air lashing out in the trainwake, the electric shriek of braking metal wheels, the crowd shoulder to shoulder how do they keep from pushing each other into the path of the monster, sniffing each other’s breath coverups, purple Sen-Sen, pink hygienic cinnamon Dentyne gum bought in individually wrapped paperclip-size slivers (this the age before supersizing) from a mirrored vending machine for a nickel, or can it really be a penny? Pressing into the car, standing swaying using other people as your leaning posts, testing yourself can you go the whole way without grasping a handrail. Your personal space constricted to where it doesn’t even include your outer epidermal layer. Silent battles over whether you can read the next guy’s newspaper, folded up thin in accord with subway etiquette but the corner of the front page wagging into someone else’s eye. Violent fantasies about what if someone tries to grope you. All the lonely people where do they all come from: from Pelham Parkway and Fort Hamilton Parkway and Bay Ridge and Woodlawn and Midwood and Inwood and Washington Heights and Jackson Heights and Astoria and Flushing and Flatbush and Bensonhurst and Ocean Parkway and Brighton Beach and Fort Totten and Fort Lee and Bergenfield and Fair Lawn and Passaic and Massapequa and Levittown and Rochdale Village and Greenwich Village and Riverside Drive.

In the jammed street outside the office building at rush and lunch hours, an emaciated roundshouldered man in a frayed greengray suit stood holding up something small and rectangular at eye level, too small to be a book unless it was something really esoteric like it might hold the secret of the cosmos or something, and he murmured in a clipped, meek, oddly ironic voice so that only if you walked very near and leaned your ear attentively could you understand what he was saying: “Wanna buy a card case? Wanna buy a card case?” Little silvered cases for calling cards, as in a Victorian novel. A rapid mutter like an unaccountably demure racing tout: “Wanna buy a card case? Wanna buy a card case?” Did anyone ever? I didn’t. Sunken cheeks, yellow olive skin, using no wasted motion as if he couldn’t afford the caloric expenditure. Knocked by pedestrians’ shoulders and kneeheight briefcases. I have sometimes wondered if at some point he starved to death.

“Okay, kids, this is it, school! Have a great Friday, see you later.”

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March 25, 2007

How To Tell Your Story

"...if you don't find a way of telling your own story, someone else will. And it will probably be a mangled version."

from Teju Cole at Modal Minority.

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Hatch Your Heart

"Could it be that my heart, finally, is hatching, after so many years inside the shell it grew around itself? Is this possible, so late in life?"

From Jean at This Too.

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Cafe Mundi

I like to sit outside at the Cafe Mundi when the weather's nice. A four-season patio shaded by crepe myrtles and bordered by bamboo. Baby palm trees and bronze and stone sculptures. Movies on Monday nights, music most other nights, art exhibits on the interior walls. Grackles in the trees, their droppings dotting the cement tables. (Well, sorry, this is a realistic blog.) Excellent Greek salad with organic mixed greens, and sandwiches and breakfast specials, and surprisingly tasty vegan pastries. Fancy beer, unfancy wine, yerba matte, Mexican soft drinks, Italian syrups, the whole shebang. It's hard to find, on a back street in a warehouse district in east central Austin. Lots of inexpensive Mexican restaurants and cantinas; a recycling center; a film production studio; a new mixed-use complex of apartments and boutiques, spottily rented.

I sit reading Louise Gluck's The Wild Iris and Althea Horner's The Wish for Power and the Fear of Having It, both of them revelatory in their different ways. I focus my ears and keep my head half-turned from the conversation at the next table, which I am eagerly straining to hear: two women, seasoning their talk liberally with profanities, analyzing a friend who has an exhibit opening somewhere but, judging from what they say, appears to be a pitiable creature unable to advance herself in the world without their advice. All my life I have loved to listen in.

My self-image is of someone twenty years younger than these people. How long can a human being keep deluding himself?

The view across the street.

UPDATE: Cafe Mundi has a website. (h/p: reader iam)

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March 23, 2007

Sir George Martin Kidnapped by Terrorists!

h/t: my brother Steve

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Wrong Turn

Just now coming back from driving the kids to school, it happened for the first time ever: I turned onto the block where I used to live rather than the bachelor rental a quarter-mile away where I'm living now. The lights were off, the shades were down, the car was in the driveway. Well, one time in almost four months, that's not bad. Anyway I was distracted by something else as I drove: I was writing. And as I reached the corner I started writing this.

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Bishop Berkeley, may I introduce Agent 97.

We were hanging around in the living room yesterday evening when Agent 97, lying on the couch, speculated,"If I can't see something, I can't prove it exists. Like if you're sitting on that chair and I can't see you from here, I can't prove you exist."

Roused to suspicion, I immediately interrogated him as to the source of his idea. "Did you read it somewhere? Did you hear it from someone? Did you learn it at school?"

"No, I've just been thinking about it."

I leaned forward, ready to trap him in an admission. "For how long? Why'd you start thinking about it?"

"For a while. I don't know, I just did."

But what if he didn't see me but he heard me, I queried.

Well, any of the senses, he readily agreed.

I tousled his hair for having independently invented a major philosophical theory, and told him to brush his teeth before bed.


March 20, 2007

Tiny Homes #1

Maybe I'll start a series of photos of small houses. Why? I don't know, what do you think I am, the answer man or something?

The problem is, the first house will probably be the smallest, making the rest of the series superfluous. Well, less work for me, anyway.

This is the smallest house I know by sight. I've never been in it, but I would imagine it has room for a kitchenette, a minimal bathroom, and a bedsitting room. Hard to imagine why it's set apart within its own frame and not stacked up wiht a lot of other equal-sized boxes in an apartment complex. (I know, pioneer houses were often smaller. I'm not talking about them.)

The photos make the place look bigger than in person.

It's a rental house, I think, and I wonder who's rented it over the years. For the same monthly payment, you could probably get a modern two-bedroom apartment. The ideal renter for this house would be someone who craved enclosure, someone seeking a life of coziness, whose ambition was to become a character from The Wind in the Willows. Walk home from the market with a brown paper bag -- one brown paper bag to hold a week's groceries -- and heat water in a kettle and serve four cups of tea: one for yourself and three for your animal friends. Someone who thought it was her duty to occupy as little space as possible in this world. Maybe someone who spent very little time in that house, who spent most of her time in a huge office building with frightening vistas of endless aisles of cubicles; who shrank further and further into her cubicle and longed for the end of the day, when her shrinking would be thankful rather than scared, because she'd be returning to her proper refuge, candlelit and potpourri-scented, with a narrow bed, and stuffed animals lined up beside her so she wouldn't fall.

Different from the Tiny Homes movement that's been written about here and here. Not as extremely tiny as those, because not part of a self-conscious movement. Not trying to make a point or sell a novelty. Just trying to remain unharmed, snugly overlooked but sometimes smiled at, amid the terrible bigness of everything else.

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March 19, 2007

Offspring of the Famous

Here's a really nice article about a famous writer's son who achieved literary success on his own, practicing his craft for years, suffering the rejections that come with the territory, even changing his name in order not to use it for advantage -- because he understood that it would hurt him as a writer to do so. I admire this young man, and I'm eager to read his book.

In contrast...

PS: An agent or publisher would be crazy not to let Joe Hill's cat out of the bag, and the Times article hints that that may have happened. But based on the information presented, I believe that Hill tried his best not to capitalize on his father's fame. And I don't even think he would have been wrong to capitalize on it -- I would have, in his place. That makes him stronger than most of us.

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March 18, 2007

Flashing Neon Sign

Nowadays it's unwise to write on fundamental matters without hanging up a flashing neon sign that says, "Enlightenment Sold Here." You could do it, but it would produce no impact. And a human being wants what he does to have impact. The sages tell us to leave no traces, but if not for the traces they left we would not know who they were or what they taught.

A funny ambition, to leave no trace: impossible to strive for sincerely, but in the end impossible not to fulfill.

I’m wondering about that word “nowadays,” though. Was it really any different long ago? Buddha hit the lecture circuit for forty-five years, charmingly holding up a flower to wild applause. Jesus and Moses did magic tricks to get the crowd’s attention.

Even Diogenes, famously looking for an honest man, parading naked around Athens with a barrel around his middle, peering with a lantern in broad daylight: talk abut a publicity-hound! Did he know that the man he was looking for wasn’t himself?

Who are the ones who didn’t advertise themselves? Their names are lost to history.

I spur my horse past ruins;
ruins move a traveler's heart.

But what I lament are the common bones
unnamed in the records of immortals.

-- Han Shan, Poem 18

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March 16, 2007

Contemporary Irritants, #1

I wonder how many times a day, on the average, I type a password.

And 75% of them, I type wrong the first time.


Lucky Guys

It’s not that I spend much time in cafes, it’s that I’d like to. In cafes the faces show enough to be fascinating and hide enough to be mysterious. I like to hear pairs of women gush about their lovers and gripe about their work –- or is it the other way around? –- and I wonder what the solitary people, sitting for hours with an empty cup, write in their little notebooks. I like to look at the faces of people sipping coffee and imagine what they’re escaping from, what they’re girding up their courage for, what nemeses they’re silently shouting down. It’s like looking into a neighbor's window, but with spoons clinking and steam hissing and a CD playing jazz.

The other day in the Café M_____ I watched a tall, balding man in his forties enter with a startlingly pretty young woman. How did he get to have her, and I’m sitting here alone? She was slim and brunette, her long hair feathered at the tips, a natural brown-eyed beauty wearing blue jeans and a black smock shirt, and meanwhile he was wearing a goofy red and white plaid.

But if you keep looking you notice more. She wasn’t looking at him. She followed like a needle following a magnet, but her eyes searched elsewhere as if looking for a friend, almost as if she didn’t want to be seen next to him.…

So the balding guy was her father. (Not her professor; they would have been talking.)

I relaxed. There was no threat to my self-esteem. Guys like that don’t get girls like her after all, I said to myself. I’m not behind him in the contest.

I took a sip of decaf French roast. The door opened again, and here came another odd couple, in fact they were the same kind, an unprepossessing older man and a very pretty younger woman…and this time they were holding hands and couldn’t take their eyes off each other.

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March 14, 2007

Checking the Years

A while ago the numbers of the checks I wrote started matching the years of the modern era. I first noticed it when I reached check #1945, the year everyone came home from the war and my parents got married: that check paid my rent. I paid the utility bill with the check for my birth year, 1952; my brothers’ birth years went for quarterly estimated taxes and my gasoline credit card. Check #1963, the year that began the seismic shift whose aftershocks echo all around us, was a Paypal purchase for online tutorials teaching my kids how to create animations. A couple of days after that, check #1968 -– an awful, awful year -- went to a bank credit card. The next day I smiled blissfully when I saw myself writing check #1969 -- the wheel was turning, we landed on the moon, I went to Woodstock and the Fillmore East, then off to Michigan for college -- for a doctor’s copay. Today I’ll write #1984: a different credit card, that’s all I do nowadays is pay off credit cards to Big Brother.

Check #2007? A couple more months down the road, I guess. And what will the ones after that commemorate? How much will we pay for the future, and what memories will overcome our children as they write their checks?


March 12, 2007

Don’t Use These Expressions In My Vicinity Or I Won’t Be Responsible

1. Back in the day. You are not black, and you never will be, no matter how hard you try. I can tell you’re not, because if you were you would have stopped saying this ten years ago.

2. Icon or Iconic to describe living human beings. Have you been chrismated into the Orthodox Church, that you see icons everywhere? Congratulations, and God be with you!

3. Courageous, as a description of writing or art. Is that blank page going to shoot you? Quick, rip it to shreds!

4. Generous, as a description of same. Oh really, what percent of his royalties is the author giving to charity?

5. Luminous or astonishing as descriptions of same. These two have been hobbyhorses of mine for twenty years -- which shows how lame the critics are who still use them. I was delighted to see Joe Queenan strike them down in the NYT a couple of months ago. (Subscription necessary, I think.)

6. Impact as a verb. Try it and I’ll impact your bicuspids.

7. Notion instead of idea. Unless, of course, you don’t have ideas.

8. Folks, instead of people. When did people with graduate degrees start going hayseed? I think it was in the 90s, some time after all fathers became dads and all mothers became moms and all political candidates started being called by nicknames. The infantilization of a great people continues unabated.

9. Kinda, sorta. See comments under “folks.” You are not one of der volk, Herr Professor. In fact, if you went among der volk, they would kinda sorta run you out of town.

10. Incredible, meaning “of high excellence,” as in “I just read the most incredible book.” If you don’t believe what’s in the book, why do you think I should read it?

11. Any adjective constituted of the suffix –ass appended to another adjective, as in “a bigass burrito.” And you expect me to eat that thing? De gustibus and all that, of course, old chap, but…no thanks, I’ll pass.


March 11, 2007

Times Reporter Dares to Buy Sliced Brisket

I've been thinking about this New York Times article since it came out a few days ago -- an article on the barbecue craze in New York and whether the barbecue there meets Texas standards, or has to.

But that part's not what I'm thinking about.

What I'm thinking about is this line describing Kreuz Market, the legendary barbecue joint thirty miles down the road from here (page 3 of the article, fifth paragraph from the bottom):

A friend related a story of visiting Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Tex., one of the high holy shrines of Texas barbecue. He tried to describe the vibe in the room while he was eating: a low, throbbing, violent, ready-to-rumble hum that he felt and felt part of.

Well, gosh dang. I've been to Kreuz Market numerous times, some of them with my 65ish mother-in-law, and it's about as violent and ready-to-rumble as the local supermarket. It's a big, multi-room place with almost no decor, and you wait in line to order your meat from a counter in front of a smoky pit, and it's sliced and weighed and wrapped by polite, quiet Mexican experts, and you pick up a sampling of the minimal side dishes, maybe a tomato or an avocado and some jalapenos and pickles and onions, and you sit with your family at a wood-stained formica table, eating off butcher paper and wiping your hands and mouth with paper towels from a roll on a spindle. There are kids and parents and elderly couples and young couples, black and brown and white people, and maybe some groups of workers breaking for lunch or a solitary worker at a small table thinking about his relatives on the other side of the border. (Was he the one the reporter thought was about to kill someone?) Nobody is starting anything. Nobody is looking sideways at anyone. They're just a bunch of ordinary Texans. But they've got the Times writer all aflutter.

You are not a simmering street fighter or an in-the-know sophisticate by virtue of buying a slab of pork ribs in a place listed in every guidebook, in a town where you don't have to look before you cross the street.

Why does everyone in this country have to brag about how tough they are, how hip they are, how mean the streets are down which they walk? When did it start? With Brando in 1954, vrooming through town in leather bomber jacket and shades and never imagining how he would end up? Or John Wayne, who didn't serve in World War II but could beat up anyone on the screen? Or Hemingway, who advised Midwesterners where to eat in Madrid after paying to watch other men risk their lives?

We've been copying those acts for almost a century, and it's bullshit, Americans, it's just a load of it. It's damaged the national character, all this vain posturing. It's why some of the most gifted craftsmen in the nation spend their careers making the same gangster movie over and over, saying millions of dollars' worth of nothing. It's why the most popular genre of music in the past generation, hip-hop, is based almost entirely on empty, juvenile boasts of sexual prowess. What a dead end for all that talent!

I'm in a cafe -- this was Friday, with the kids after school -- and a guy with a long graying ponytail swings his leg over a barstool cowboy-style. Starts jawing with the barista about how much caffeine the two of them have been swigging.

"Got your afternoon fix, eh?"

"Yeah, one of the perks of working here."

A low, throbbing, violent, ready-to-rumble hum drifts past the espresso machine, past the rack of alternative weeklies, past the wall exhibit of photos from a faculty member's trip to Florence, past the plastic tub where you put your dirty cups and spoons.

Ponytail orders a second espresso.

"All right, dude, go for it!" the barista approves.

"Hey, it's the weekend, it's my wild time, bro, I need to stay up, know what I'm sayin'?"

"After this one, you won't be gettin' no sleep till, like, 4 am."

"That's it, that's what I'm after."

It's pathetic enough when guys brag about how much beer they've been drinking. These guys are bragging about drinking coffee, like it's 1700 and it's the very latest from Istanbul.

Do they realize that they sound like children bragging about how late they stayed up the night they had a babysitter?

Hey, lemme tell ya how many lollipops I had tonight...

And for those of you who would like a glimpse at the menacing black hole that unnerved the Times writer, here are some photos the lads and I took at lunch today:

its deceptively placid exterior

a pair of desperadoes reading the guest book

a forbidding menu

Smile when yuh say that, pardner.

assault on a rib with a deadly weapon (photo by Agent 95)

plate-equivalents, napkin-equivalents, and utensil-equivalents

an outlaw gang planning its big heist

Was this sign what got him a-shakin' in his boots? (photo by Agent 97)

Agent 95 said, "Dad, I think the New York Times was just jealous because Texas has better barbecue than New York."

'ppears I raised him up right, then. Makes a man feel right proud.

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March 08, 2007

Sadly, these women formed part of my earliest feminine ideal.

Listening to their gum-chewing trash talk, I'm summoned back by scents of trodden-thin grass and linden-seed-littered pavement, fumes from groaning buses, subway-platform newspaper wind, and the ozone from sparks on the subway rail. I see a mob of teenagers pushing onto a city bus, waving cardboard passes in the stuporous driver's face and shoving their books into the kidneys of anyone close by. I see myself walking to Mother Cabrini High School for a driver's ed lesson as girls in white uniform blouses crowd the second-floor window: "That boy's coming into the building!"

I'll drive you down the Bruckner Expressway, girls, there's a moon over the 241st Street station. We'll stop for a black-and-white shake at Carvel and maybe a slice of pizza at Gloria's, and you'll talk about the perfume sale at Alexander's and your classmate who's making out with the science teacher. You haven't changed a bit.

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A Retort to Atheism

They are ill discoverers that think that there is no land if they see nothing but a sea. —Francis Bacon

(This quotation appears on a finely written post (all of his are) on Teju Cole's Modal Minority. His post, "Nothing But a Sea," is memoir or fiction and has nothing to do with my post.)


March 07, 2007

Your Wednesday Morning Vocabulary Enrichment

Thanks to reader D.G. for this:

The Washington Post's Mensa Invitational once again asked readers to take
any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing
one letter, and supply a new definition. Here are this year's winners:

1. Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you
realize it was your money to start with.

2. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

3. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright
ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign
of breaking down in the near future.

4. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject
financially impotent for an indefinite period.

5. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

6. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person
doesn't get it.

7. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

8. Hipatitis: Terminal coolness.

9. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

10. Karmageddon: It's like, when everybody is sending off all these really
bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's like, a
serious bummer.

11. Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming
only things that are good for you.

12. Glibido: All talk and no action.

13. Dopeler effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they
come at you rapidly.

14. Arachnoleptic fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you've
accidentally walked through a spider web.

15. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your
bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

16. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the
fruit you're eating.

**And the pick of the lot:**

17. Ignoranus: A person who's both stupid and an asshole.


March 06, 2007

Can't Quite

It would be more accurate if we prefaced every statement with, “I dreamed…”

“I dreamed I was watching television… I dreamed I got money from a machine… I dreamed I was driving to the airport…”

“I dreamed I was a child… I dreamed I went to school… I dreamed I fell in love… I dreamed I worked in an office… I dreamed I was suddenly old… I dreamed I was going to die…”

Seen in this light, everything begins to make sense. Symbolic of a truth we can’t quite put our finger on.

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March 05, 2007

Inclusive Commenting

Hey, a couple of people have told me that they're having trouble putting comments up using their Blogger accounts, so I've changed my setting to allow anyone to comment without such an account. I had an anyone-can-comment policy for a long time but changed it because I started getting spam comments. We'll see how it works this time.

March 04, 2007

Sapling, Redwood, Galaxy

At the foot of a huge redwood, a sapling grows. It will never reach maturity. Its parent blocks its sunlight; its parent's roots steal its water and minerals.

The huge old redwood has survived lightning and flood, drought and loggers, pests and disease, and it wears its scars as signs of righteousness. It is home to many species of bird and mammal, insect and reptile. It will live hundreds more years.

The frail sapling will not last many more seasons. Soon a rodent will chew its bark to shreds, or a colony of ants will infest its roots, or a running deer will step on it, or a hard rain, delightful to big trees, will drown it. It will be food for something, but never a home to anything.

I ask myself, Which tree does God love more? The answer is obvious to me: they are the same within eternal tenderness. God doesn't care about magnitude, only we fools do.

We have photographs of the Elephant Trunk Nebula, and of the red and white pinwheel of the Whirlpool Galaxy. Of the shock waves of gas pouring from the newborn star HH 46, and of the perfect rings of Saturn honed smooth on the potter's wheel of gravity. We send probes and aim telescopes and get back pictures. It is all dead. There is nothing anywhere like us. It is cold black vacuum or screaming radioactive fire, and there is not a thought, not an eye, not a memory, not a love, within lightyears.

I think that every one among us is worth more than all that deadness. Or am I just being sentimental?

But sometimes I look at all that deadness and think, If it is pointless, how can it be so beautiful?

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March 02, 2007

Prodigies and Cousins

Have you been keeping up with the scandal in the classical music world concerning Joyce Hatto, the elderly pianist whose widower released CDs under her name that contained clips plagiarized from other pianists'recordings? The recordings won Hatto widespread praise; a critic called her “the greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of.”. It's become a juicy gossip topic in that little world, and you can read about it here and here.

I'm not interested in Joyce Hatto, but one of the letters to today's NYT about the scandal contrasts the fraudulent Hatto with a genuine "prodigy of old age" still living and performing: Ruth Slenczynska (pronounced Slen-CHIN-ska), who is my late father's first cousin. Here is what the letter says about her:

[T]here is a legendary living pianist, Ruth Slenczynska, who was a world-famous child prodigy but is now in her 80s and still teaching, performing and recording with her own age-defying hands. Madame Slenczynska is a neighbor of mine, and I have the pleasure of hearing her practice daily.

She is a true “prodigy of old age” — not unlike her teacher and mentor, Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Les Dreyer
New York, Feb. 26, 2007
The writer is a violinist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

I've heard about this cousin all my life but alas, have never met her. What I've heard is that she was a genuinely top-tier child prodigy in the 1920s and 1930s, touring major European cities, playing with major orchestras, actually being called -- this will kill you -- "the greatest piano genius since Mozart" by critic Olin Downes. Then, in justified rebellion against her tyrannical father, she stopped performing at age 15. Later she returned to performing and was for many years a member of the music faculty at Southern Illinois University. Now she's retired in New York.

I've got a couple of her wonderful CDs, including this one of Schumann.

In 1957 she published a book about her life as a child prodigy, Forbidden Childhood. It's very hard to find now -- I've found copies listed in used bookstores in the UK and Australia for well over $100 -- and oddly enough, one of the jacket designers is listed as "Andy Warol." I think I know who that is, with an "h" added -- the late 50s were the era when he was making a living in commercial art.

Here's a catalogue showing libraries where the book can be found.

Trying to achieve a successful concert career as a pianist is one of the slimmest bets there is. In another branch of my family -- well, among my soon-to-be-ex-in-laws -- I have a cousin by marriage named Mark Salman who is as technically accomplished and stylistically interesting as the big-name pianists who make millions from concerts and CDs. Why does one career become global and another remain regional? Many theories can be broached, but if you love classical music, you'll be doing yourself a favor by buying any of these CDs, on which you can variously find Beethoven, Schumann, an obscure but brilliant 19th century composer named Alkan with a tragicomic life story, and contemporary piano-cello duets.

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March 01, 2007

Watch What You Think

This morning I looked around at the bathroom and thought, "I haven't seen a single insect in this house since I moved in three months ago."

This evening I saw a roach in the kitchen sink.

Life is always like that: overturning every conclusion, never letting you rest easy. As soon as you think, "X is over," X returns.

(This is a kind of little post I want to start writing now and then: odd offhand observations, casual sidelong moments, quick notes for a "commonplace book.")


Dream Journal: Muhammad Ali, Ph.D.

Muhammad Ali has overcome his Parkinsonism and is searching for a doctoral program to enter. He thinks Asian Renaissance Studies (whatever that is) may be the one. A reality show is being made of his intellectual resurgence. A faculty advisor, speaking with him about the Asian Renaissance Studies program, sweats heavily under the television lights.

I was sweating when I awoke from this.

A lot of celebrity dreams lately. I guess they symbolize personae of myself -- or ones I wished were myself.

Two dream posts in a row -- I’m sure some readers are frowning.