July 29, 2007

Stepping on the Toes of the Muse

I’ve taken more breaks than I expected to on this blog and now I’m stepping away again, but this time for a welcome reason. I’m putting most of my creative attention into a new project, something I’m writing for myself that I’m not telling anyone anything about.

I’ve been dancing with this blog when suddenly across the room I see another face, and rudely I break away and stride across the floor and when I get close enough I see that she's who brought me here at the beginning. I hold my arms out and we come together gliding and weaving, and I know I’ll step on her toes and breathe on her and lean on her too heavily and not know what to say. It’s always been like that; I’ll never learn properly. But somehow she wants to go home with me.

Stop by again, guys, we’ll put some music on. I don’t know when -– maybe tomorrow, maybe in a couple of months. Seeya. Love you guys.

Labels: , ,

July 22, 2007

France, U.S., In Role Reversal

The French are intent on thinking less.

While this article is bound to send American CEO's scrambling to read more.

Moi, je pense trop aussi. Est-ce possible que je suis au fond français?

July 15, 2007

It Didn't Have to Happen This Way But It Did

I drive by a field where a painful incident in my past occurred, and I feel only a mild wistfulness as I keep going forward, the strands of myself separating and recombining, mutating and adapting. These quiet days, even my metabolism feels new: a craving for fruit has come over me: pineapple, cherries, blueberries, blackberries, mangos, plums, any fruits you can name, and once a day is barely enough, as if I’ve regressed into some kind of tropical forest ape.

I lull myself to sleep with scary movies. I cherish the unnerved feeling after it’s over, when you feel you’re still in it, the monsters coming at you, the cave getting pitch dark. Sitting in your easy chair you’re in a deep-breathing, slow-lifting trance that’s almost postcoital. I recommend The Descent, about a group of six adventurous women -– all, coincidentally enough, raving beauties – who get trapped in a deep cave. Never before in my adult life have I been tempted to sleep with the lights on.

Change works through the drifting days as well as the dramatic ones. This is how you make your trail, your worldline, the unique squiggle in spacetime that represents how you danced and ran and squirmed from birth to death. You take one step, then another, none of them necessary until it’s already taken, and at the end you can read your whole life’s unplanned choreography, the curlicued signature you left on the page of eighty years, and it looks just right.

My worldline has led me back to reading science fiction, as I did in adolescence. Currently it’s Stephen Baxter’s panorama novel Evolution, which covers all of primate history from 65 million years ago to the present -– in fact the future. It’s like an exceptionally readable textbook in human paleontology, with imagination added where the fossil record is sketchy. There’s a wonderful set piece about a handful of anthropoid apes set adrift on the ocean on a downed tree after a flash flood: it’s a lifeboat survival tale, complete with long-delayed cannibalism, and reads like Life of Pi except with all the characters as animals. Baxter renders the full stink and slime and gore of animal life; it’s shocking to think of my ancestors defecating on each other to assert dominance or obsessively picking bugs out of each other’s pubic hair to establish social bonds. But that’s us, dear readers: we’re “bipedal, tool wielding, meat eating, xenophobic, hierarchical, combative, competitive” and possessed of “doggedness, exuberance, courage, and vision.” Chance and opportunism, smart or foolish or arbitrary choice, pre-adaptation or blind leap, guiding us through an unexplored cave so that we miraculously chose the right passageways and crawled through into the light. We’ve still got the dust on our clothes.

Some of us back then lived among sabertooth cats who were specialized to prey on hominids. No need for scary movies. No luxury of splitting the monogamous pair.

I look back gratefully at my four-foot-high, stone-axe-chipping, fireless, garmentless forebears of a million years ago and wonder at the courage of the primitive. It’s still all we have.

Labels: , ,

July 06, 2007

The Imaginary Philosophy

It was one of those newsmagazine articles that explain the latest impenetrable philosophy to readers who are flipping through on their way to the movie reviews and are keen to learn of something they can hold over the heads of their spouses. It told of a book eight hundred pages long, three hundred of them footnotes, that purported to overturn all conventional views of identity and consciousness. Fueling the excitement was the fact that the book was unreadable.

Jespersen was avid to understand this outpouring of genius but he knew in advance he would never be able to slog through the book, and probably not even a single chapter. He would have to make do with the magazine article instead. Taking each journalistic phrase as the distilled essence of pages of leadfooted inference, by the third column of the article he came to a thunderous realization: he understood! The philosopher was analyzing the human mind as if it were a mechanism and the physical universe as if it were a human consciousness. Jespersen teased out the meaning further: animate and inanimate were equal creations, twin mirrors of the double face of their creator, who could see himself only in them. There is no social agent, there is no experiencing ego, there are only reflections of the invisible.

From then on, Jespersen lived in the charged air of a disciple. He wrote poems inspired by the new system. His diaries recorded how the modernday Pythagoras’s thought had transformed his life. He bored his coworkers with clumsy explanations of exactly what the great thinker meant.

Then one day, feeling that he had at last prepared himself, he read the book--and its ideas were not at all what he had expected; he had completely misunderstood. All that about the human and the inanimate, the identity of creation and creator--it was nowhere to be found in the eight hundred pages.

Overcome, he sat in his bathroom looking at an open razor. Then he shut the razor and put it away, bemoaning his lack of nerve.

He sat on the edge of the tub all night, wondering how he could have believed in a philosophy that had never been invented at all, that had been thought of by no one.


July 04, 2007

Why Love Is Not of the Body

"There are too many of us to have sex with. There's a whole world to love, but too many marriage certificates to hand out." -- Byron Katie

Labels: , ,

Younger than a Rock

In my twenties I identified with a fictional character, a much-honored artist who was selfish and difficult, silent and unworldly, obsessed with perfection and ignorant of humanity, a blandly monomaniacal recluse who insisted not only on cutting his own path up a lonely forbidding mountain but on dragging his loved ones with him. Now I’m the character’s age and I feel as much resemblance to him as to a rock that I stub my toe on.


July 02, 2007

Another Babka Bites the Dust

It's not that I miss the old culture all that much -- let a hundred trendy restaurants invade the Lower East Side, I say, who needs the knishes and the dry goods stores? It's become such a cliche to lament the passing of some commercial semi-institution from bygone generations and to rail at the uncultured rich young vampires who move in. Yes, populations change, new immigrants replace the old, and demographic patterns shift. Otherwise New York [substitute the name of your own place] would become an ethnological museum.

What moves me about this very short New York Times article is not the disappearance of an old bakery or even of my parents' and grandparents' historical environment -- in which they were mostly miserable -- but the emotions of the reporter, which come through so strongly through his journalistic prose. It's not every day that a Times writer gets to tell the world how overjoyed his family was when their father brought home a cake after a day's work at the hosiery shop. The telling is better than the cake.

And let's face it, though I've never been to Gertel's, I'm one of those "grandchildren…of striving sewing machine operators." On both sides.

Labels: ,