Saturday, May 31, 2008

Confessions of a Justified Sinner

...which of course, is the title of the famous early 1800's book by Mr. James Hogg, which I've just begun, and which could easily fit in a college course regarding religious/ partisan/ political intolerance and what comes of it. At least from what I've gotten from my reading of the first 35 pages. What attracted me to the book was the commentary on its use of the double, which is something I've been rather taken with for almost a decade. A story about a double, told in double fashion, and twice-told as a bonus? Count me in. There appear to be a few too many political in-jokes for this book to work for my freshman class, but I'd recommend it for those grad students out there wondering what to read next. At least from what I've gotten from my reading of the first 35 pages.
Piety as profanity. The notion that "to the wicked, all things are wicked; but to the just, all things are just and right. [...] How delightful to think that a justified person can do no wrong!" From standing in the middle of a tennis court and thus ruining the fun for everyone, as the young Wringhim does, or active political pressure to deny citizens civil rights, or resorting to violence. Zealotry will have its way. I've read books that have had amazing first 50 pages (viz. Tropic of Capricorn and The Way of All Flesh), but I'm hoping this one will follow through.

Photo by Davo--Original sculptures in Indianapolis Museum of Art

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Treehugging as Ineffective Brake

Back in high school, I was a bit of a nerd. I know this revelation may come as a shock to some of my readers. In the 80s, I was really rather unsure of myself, somewhat bookish, and generally in awe of the worldliness of others. To some extent, I've held true to form in these regards. So, in the '86-'87 school year, my senior year, I decided that now was the time to turn over a new leaf. I was going to be more social, more outgoing, and, in light of an impending year at college (the traditional "social do-over" transformation year for most people), I was going to get out there. I was going to do it. How else was I to make friends, establish contacts that I could treasure through my adult years and share stories with during class reunions?

So I did it. I joined the Science Club. All those people I'd only seen in the hallway, combined with some I knew from class, such as Astronomy with Mr. Smith, who ran the planetarium in the science wing, and who was in charge of the Science club. We organized all-night star-watching sessions, using the motor-driven telescope on the roof of the school, and, in mid-February, all organized a cross-country ski trip in Pokagon State Park in northeastern Indiana. This was a big deal--I was going out, without parents or family, with my new social contacts, for an entire day, and I was going to go tobogganing and even skiing. Though the toboggan run is one of the Midwest's best, after only one run down with the toboggan, a group of us decided that we should really get going on the skiing action. Once we paid for the special boots and skis, we referred to the map of the various trails and set off.

What we soon learned is that the ski trails and the hiking trails intersected, and we found ourselves no longer on a beginner ski trail, but on an Advanced trail titled The Devil's Tooth, which is supposed to be hard to walk on. We, in little time, had to resort to climbing up the inclines on our hands and knees in the snow. We were surprised to find actual roads in our path, which we clacked across briskly. We found ourselves lost, the map unhelpful, until we realized that we had not only crossed county roads, but also a highway. We weren't even in the park anymore. After well over 18 miles of skiing, we exhaustedly flopped at sundown in the ski lodge and turned in our skis, finding that we were over an hour past the deadline for signing out--there were search parties out to find us. I remember us looking confusedly at each other, but most of us were too tired to care. All I could think of was the fact that we had been miles from nowhere, with the high temperature 15 degrees, crawling up wooded hills. Once at the top, the trails down were steep and winding. We went in order, giving a number before we shoved off that represented the number of trees we estimated we'd hit before we got to the bottom. We tried to schuss, but were too inexpert. Most would head straight down, crashing through bare saplings before clipping something far more substantial. The skier would then disappear in a cloud of tossed snow and branches before coming to a rest with a call: "I'm alright."

Today's my 39th birthday, and I'm finding that birthdays are more and more like this field trip of 22 years ago. I keep hearing from folks that some birthdays are worse than others. One sets off on skis down the hill, hearing that 40 is the Big One. The Tree looms somewhere on the slope, and there always seems to be the hope that one can steer around it, but when one gets to 39, that's when one realizes that you're gonna hit that tree. 39 is the Bad Birthday. 35 is a bad birthday too, because it can be rounded to 40, which is only ten years from 50, which, if one rounds again, is 100. One is Old. But 39 isn't a matter of rounding. It's a concrete confirmation of what most of us dread. Up to a certain age, things stay static: there's the old'uns and the young'uns. Past that, one, insidiously, gets a sense of both--the inadequacies of those younger and the growing concerns of those older. The day stays the same, but the presents are different.
First, it's toys, then clothes perhaps (which are always a real drag), then, perhaps, a bike, a stereo, a car. Then cards with checks, then cards with notes, then cards. Then the increasing realization that that slope has a river at the bottom of it, or, like the chocolates in that famous scene on I Love Lucy, there is an end to the conveyor belt. There's lots to do, but what to do first? Clipping the trees doesn't slow one down a bit.

So past a certain age, it seems things turn from endless horizons to an increasing urge toward prioritization, an undercurrent of What One Should Be Doing. I'm not working on a Bucket list by any means, but I'm becoming increasingly aware of how much time I've wasted up to now worrying about things that don't matter. Therefore: a focus, or at least a goal to focus, on the things that matter. That, and to get these damnable windows reglazed before I turn 40.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sun on Stones

"We must go and see The Pilgrims at Emmaus together. Why was I talking about the picture? To throw some light on this idea of testimony of mine. The pilgrims in the inn are witnesses to a great event, a presence, as yet hidden from the rest of the world. They will have to testify to it together. Even if they had not known each other before, they would become great friends. According to my idea, it's always rather in that way that you make friends with anybody. You are present together at a moment in the life of the world, perhaps in the presence of a fleeting secret of the world--an apparition which nobody has ever seen before and perhaps nobody will ever see again.
"It may even be something very little. Take two men going for a walk, for example, like us. Suddenly, thanks to a break in the clouds, a ray of light come and strikes the top of a wall; and the top of the wall becomes, for the moment, something in some way quite extraordinary. One of the two men touches the other on the shoulder. The other raises his head and sees it too, understands it too. Then the thing up there vanishes. But they will know in aeternam that it once existed."
"You think that friendship depends on something like that?"
"Depends on it--perhaps not. Springs from it. I've just taken a case where the then to be attested to is the humblest kind of thing. The Pilgrims is the supreme example. And that's why, too, you have so little time to make even a small number of friends--friends whom you may lose, but whom you can never replace."
"I don't quite see the connection."
"It's quite clear. Even supposeing that in the whole of our lives we have a chance like that at Emmaus--I mean the chance of stumbling upon an extraordinary presence, which deserves to be attested to in aeternam--at what age shall we have it, old man?"
"That suggests that it's very exciting to be the age we are now and to have the next few years before us..."
"It is indeed."
"But you were saying something about love...Dont you agree that there's something similar to the case of love?"
"You mean love that is love and something else--when friendship doesn't come in as well? Love is so much more bound up in itself, born of itself, so much more shut up. Lovers turn toward one another. Friends turn to something which is neither of them."

--from Quinette's Crime, Jules Romains.

photo file from abc gallery. Original, Rembrandt, at the Louvre

Sunday, May 25, 2008

New Connections and Robert Musil

"The mind has learned that beauty can make things good, bad, stupid or enchanting. The mind dissects a sheep and a penitent sinner and finds humility and patience in both. It investigates a substance and observes that in large quantities it is a poison, in smaller quantities a stimulant. It knows that the mucous membrane of the lips is related to the mucous membrane of the intestine, but knows too that the humility of those lips is related to the humility of all that is saintly. It mixes things up, unravels them again and forms new combinations. Good and evil, above and below, are for it not relative ideas tinged with scepticism, but terms of a function, values dependent on the context in which they appear. It has learnt from the centuries that vices may turn into virtues and virtues into vices, and actually regards it as sheer clumsiness if one does not in one lifetime succeed in turning a criminal into a useful citizen. It does not recognize anything as in itself permissible or impermissible, for anything may have a quality by which it some day becomes part of a great new relationship. It secretly has a mortal hatred of everything that behaves as through it were established once and for all, the great ideals and laws and their little fossilized imprint, the hedged-in character. It regards nothing as firmly established, neither any personality nor any order of things or ideas. Because our knowledge may change with every day, it believes in no ties, and everything possesses the value that it has only until the next act of creation, as a face to which one is speaking changes even while the words are being spoken."

--from The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil

Friday, May 23, 2008

Suzanne Vega--Quiet Indictments

This can't end up as a blog entry. This, I think, will be longer than most will be willing to read for a blog entry. The reasons for typing this were brought on by the fact that it's once again cold and gloomy and chance brought me to it in web surfing. I was called back to an album that I got, not entirely by accident, but rather because I had signed up for that goddamned Columbia Music Club membership and I needed to fill out the 10, 15 or whatever free (plus extortionate shipping) discs that were part of their introductory membership.

It was Suzanne Vega, fer godsakes--her 99.9F album. I was never a fan of folk music, folk rock, or coffee-cafe music, and I thought that that "Luka" song, at the time, though earnest, was somewhat embarrassing. The strange new lives given to "Tom's Diner" while I was in college--Remixed by the faceless DJs DNA, or by others, re-ordered so that the Duh-da-duh-das scatted out the "I Dream of Jeannie" theme were rather fun, and gave out a sense that she wasn't taking herself as seriously as "Luka" let on. so I went ahead and ordered 99.9F, not knowing at all what it would be like.

What her then-new album turned out to be was a rather mindblowingly unified collection of songs that explored, in deadpan fashion, the hysteria and fear of the previous seven years of the AIDS crisis. Not that AIDS is ever mentioned over the course of the twelve songs on the album.

The disc was a departure for Vega, with lots of synthesizer and concrete noise. Without even knowing what the subject of the first song was, titled Rock in this Pocket (Song of David) one gets a sense of gravity "What's so small to you/ is so large to me/if its the last thing I do/ I'll make you see." In the late 80s and early nineties, the idea was to let shame take over--after all, those affected had done something horribly wrong--and to let those in control just leave things alone. Quarantine had been mentioned, by more than ill-informed politicians, but by those as close by as those who share my family name--put them all on an island and let them fuck each other senseless, and let them die, they said. And it wasn't once that it was spoken. And I may be wrong, I may be extending things, but I'm willing to say that at least some of them who spoke it then feel today that it was a shame, a missed opportunity, that their plan wasn't put into action back in '84, which was before they'd ever heard of the issue, anyway. "Pale as a candle and your face is hot," Vega sings in the title track, "...and if I touch you I might get what you've got."

A relative was in his residency at Riley when Ryan White was undergoing treatment and I was there when this uncle mentioned that he double gowned himself and triple gloved before entering the room. I'd heard that the disease was sexually transmitted, but gloves and gowns? I as a high school student knew little about the transmission of the disease--and though the conversation didn't blame White for any of his health issues, it certainly didn't exculpate those civic-minded people in society that, unknowing that they were infected, donated blood. But I hear the voice of White as well as quite a few others in one of the singles from Vega's album: "I think you might want to know the details and the facts/ but there's something in my blood denies the memory of the acts/So just forget it Doc/ I think it's really cool that you're concerned [...]/cos blood makes noise/ and I can't hear you in the thickening of fear."

And without even wanting to, I'm swept up in the starkly, clockwork-bluesy "In Liverpool," setting indicator aside, uses Victor Hugo's love story of Notre Dame as illustration of a character who dies for love. As the luckiest of us do.

The characters are there, Esmeralda seems to be the singer at times:

I'll be the one who sings for my supper
You'll be the monk whose forehead is high
He'll be the man whose already working
Spreading his memory all through the sky...

At the time I hadn't read the novel, but now that I have I think the juxtaposition is ingenious: that French Novel about illiteracy and desire and this new thing that so many people didn't understand--

"...the boy in the belfry he's crazy
He's throwing himself down from the top of the tower
Like a hunchback in Heaven
He's ringing the bells in the church for the last half an hour
He sounds like he's missing something or someone that he knows he can't have now
And if he isn't I certainly am.

If that isn't chilling enough, Vega tucks in, among the compressed percussion:

Homesick, for a clock that told the same time
sometimes you made no sense to me.
When you lie on the ground in somebody's arms,
you'll probably swallow some of their history.

Many people in the United States my age and five or so years older are dead now and no one talks about them. They have vanished. Simply gone. At best, a square of a very long blanket marks their being, their having been.

Several years before I'd gotten Vega's album, back in the last years of my undergraduate degreee, the work of Diamanda Galas, who was, for me, really out there, who started out as an operatic mezzo, whose brother died of AIDS in the early years of the epidemic and saw such things first-hand, composed a Plague Mass, with spirituals and shrieks, with conversations between patients and doctors "What time is it? / How much time do you want?"

That mass remains, for all its shock and blood and noise, a chilling indictment. We do not take care of our own. They aren't our own if we disown them. The character in Vega's "Bad Wisdom" says, in a meter most often left to limericks and comic verse:

Mother the doctor knows something is wrong
Cause my body has strange information
He's looked in my eyes and knows I'm not a child
But he doesn't dare ask the right question.
Mother my friends are no longer my friends
And the games we once played have no meaning
Mother your eyes have gone suddenly cold
And it wasn't what I was expecting

When I was high school age someone I still know, and who was smart enough to know better, told the following joke to me, thinking it funny, which I'll paraphrase.
A man with AIDS walks into the doctors' office and complains of various symptoms. The doctor listens sternly and prescribes a diet of oranges, grapefruit, and salad, and to see him in a week.

A week later the patient comes back, complaining of severe diarrhea. The doctor hears this with a serious expression and nods. "Change your diet to lettuce and peaches only and see me in a week."

A week passes and the patient comes back, exhausted, saying that the symptoms are worse than ever. He can hardly leave the bathroom. The doctor nods. "Good," the doctor says, "perhaps now you know what an asshole's for."

Such dismissal of suffering. These were the jokes circulating in 1987. These were the things I heard from people I have to admit I still care a lot for today.

I'm not at all sure where this post is going. It isn't a blog entry, certainly. It isn't a record review for an album released 16 years ago, which, if it were, is rather tardy. It's this realization that, through a 99-cent CD and a visit to a man incoherently trying to recover from a fall not discovered for three days and that, in reading various blogs, that many my age aren't alive now due not only to the toughness of a disease but also due to stupid priggishness, that something should be written, or said, or something. "What kind of rule," the final words of Suzanne Vega's album ask, "can overthrow a fool/ And leave the land with no stain?"

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Further Reading Further

"There is one passage in the Odyssey where it speaks of two gates, one of horn and one of ivory. Through the ivory gate false dreams pass to men, and through the gate of horn go the true and prophetic dreams. And there is a passage in the Aeneid, in the sixth book, which has provoked innumerable commentaries. Aeneas descends to the Elysian Fields, beyond the Pillars of Hercules. He speaks with the shades of Achilles and Tiresias; he sees the shade of his mother, he wants to embrace her but cannot because she is made of shadow; and he sees, moreover, the future greatness of the city he will found. He sees Romulus and Remus, a field, and then in that field the future Roman Forum, the future grandeur of Rome, the greatness of Augustus; he sees the whole imperial grandeur. And after having seen all of this, after having talked to its contemporaries (who, for Aeneas, are future people), he returns to the world of the living. What then occurs is quite curious and has never been well explained, except by one anonymous commentator who I believe offered the truth. Aeneas returns through the gate of ivory and not through the gate of horn. Why? The anonymous commentator tells us: because we are not in reality. For Virgil, the real world was possibly the Platonic world, the world of the archetypes. Aeneas passes through the gates of ivory because he enters the world of dreams--that is to say, what we call waking."

--from the "Nightmares" of Seven Nights
Jorge Luis Borges

--painting: Claude Monet. Charing Cross Bridge,

Indianapolis Museum of Art,
permanent collection

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Gaffes at Home

Honestly--does Hardee's want me to devote a summer's worth of blogging to them? They seem to be telling me that they do. First it was the Jalapeno Thickpurge (which was displayed on their sign for almost three full weeks), and now this.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Gaffes on Tour

When I was still in High School, I remember my mom talking to me about early teaching experiences she had back in 1966-67. I can't quite remember what grade she said she was teaching at the time, though I do remember looking at the school yearbook she showed me--mom with a blond French twist, her broad smile, the students' black-and-white postage-stamp-sized pictures, the girls' cat-eye glasses--perhaps it was fourth or fifth grade. Mom was teaching the Religion portion of the school day and she asked the class "What is Salvation?" A boy's hand shot up after some thought.

"Salvation is an Army," the boy said.

Mother tried to clarify her question and re-posed it. "So, what is Salvation?"

"Salvation is an Army," came the boy's reply.

Yesterday our President made a speech in Israel that made a lot of people mad. The main thing government officials got bent up about is that Bush broke an unwritten rule of form that one does not criticise members of the American government while on foreign soil. What upset others, and should be a bigger deal, is that Bush, in his speech, managed to confuse the idea of appeasement with the idea of diplomatic discussion, which Chris Matthews pointed out in his trainwreck of a discussion with Kevin James (where did he come from?) and Mark Green. It's about 9 minutes, but worth watching:

Chris Matthews has certainly not had a spotless record at pointing out bullshit when it came up on his show, and Kevin James certainly didn't make the Neville Chamberlain reference, but perhaps this will mark the beginning of a change wherein in order to be a political commentator we will get more than a couple of phrases designed to do damage to someone's campaign or policy at the expense of actually answering the questions and participating in a dialogue. What reminded me of my mother's teaching experience forty years ago was Kevin James' unvarying (and illogical--the question wasn't what he thought Neville Chamberlain was but, simply, what did Chamberlain do) response to Matthews' question. As was mentioned in the clip. When you're in a hole, stop digging.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Back to Windows

Now that the party is done with and cleaned up from, I'm back to tearing windows apart. It will be the kitchen first and then the bathroom. The problem with both is that, since I won't be varnishing the woodwork, I have to figure out what colors to paint both rooms. At least with painting rather than varnishing, I take a week off of each piece of woodwork. Not that reglazing the windows doesn't take two weeks alone for the glazing compound to properly set anyway.

Am 40 pages into Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and, though it fits my page length parameters, it won't be on my teaching list for Fall semester. I'm still up for suggestions from all of my fives of readers!

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Plow that Broke the Plains...

...was drawn by two oxen, or at least a mule, and I am but one overly-educated human. Still, though, I have managed to peel the sod off of a 12' x 12' section of my side yard for a completely functional Bush-Administration sustenance garden. After lunch (which, by the way is actually healthy for me--how long will Davo go without a Big Mac?), I'll go and buy some food-to-be at the garden store and plant it before mowing my lawn.

Regarding things literary, I'm still working my way through as many novellas for possible inclusion in my Fall '08 advanced composition class. Michael Chabon's The Final Solution stands a good chance of being on the syllabus. For all of my fives of readers, I would love to have your candidates for top five short novels to teach to an advanced Freshman composition class. I'm looking for works that a freshman'll get, but that'll be challenging, will encourage discussion of cultural/social issues that exist today. I'm also looking for stuff that'd be in print, but not easily Cliff's Notes-able, if you get my drift...Just put 'em in the Comments for this blogpost!

Currently on the list for consideration:
Notes from Underground --Fyodor Dostoevsky
A Lost Lady --Willa Cather
The Final Solution --Michael Chabon

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Mission Accomplished, or, Well, One Bush is Gone, at Least...

Woke up this morning and headed right outside to continue on the uprooting of the outtacontrol firebush. The hole I dug ended up being about 4 feet deep by 8 feet in diameter. The Bush has been ousted, though at the end, I couldn't even make my arms movet to rake the last of the dirt back into the hole. The actual gardening will have to wait until Monday, perhaps. The weekend will involve some travel and--it is my sincere hope--some quality reading and writing time, as this summer is crunch time for me. Organize and write. That's about all I have money for at the moment, anyway...

So, after a bath that would have cooked pasta, I'm reacquainting myself with the music files on my hard drive. Tomorrow I might do something inside the house--it's been so long since I've spent quality time here that the bottle Holly and I had for New Years (Toad Hollow's Amplexus it was, and mighty nice) is still in the wastebasket in the Library. In fact, the outer rooms of the house are a time capsule of winter break or Spring Break--an empty teacup, my uncle's handwritten email address from a visit months ago. For the last semester especially the only time I went into the outer rooms was to turn on the thermostat. It was starting to gain the creepiness of an abandoned house with art that stared at one from the walls. It will be nice to dust things down and open the windows and let some light into the place.

[pic of a real car found in Ballard, WA parking space, during my Christmas trip there to see Pez--those of my readers from American Funds now have a real project to aim toward regarding all those disc investments....]