“…if only someone will take the time and the care…”

Joyce Carol Oates, interviewed in the Paris Review, 1978.


Do you enjoy writing?


I do enjoy writing, yes. A great deal. And I feel somewhat at a loss, aimless and foolishly sentimental, and disconnected, when I’ve finished one work and haven’t yet become absorbed in another. All of us who write, work out of a conviction that we are participating in some sort of communal activity. Whether my role is writing, or reading and responding, might not be very important. I take seriously Flaubert’s statement that we must love one another in our art as the mystics love one another in God. By honoring one another’s creation we honor something that deeply connects us all, and goes beyond us.

Of course, writing is only one activity out of a vast number of activities that constitute our lives. It seems to be the one that some of us have concentrated on, as if we were fated for it. Since I have a great deal of faith in the processes and the wisdom of the unconscious, and have learned from experience to take lightly the judgments of the ego and its inevitable doubts, I never find myself constrained to answer such questions. Life is energy, and energy is creativity. And even when we as individuals pass on, the energy is retained in the work of art, locked in it and awaiting release if only someone will take the time and the care to unlock it.

“Broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed”

“Let me suggest the following practical suggestion. Literature, real literature must not be gulped down like some potion which may be good for the heart or good for the brain — the brain, that stomach of the soul. Literature must be taken and broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed — then its lovely reek will be smelt in the hollow of the palm, it will be munched and rolled upon the tongue with relish; then, and only then, its rare flavor will be appreciated at its true worth and the broken and crushed parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood.”

– Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature (1981)

Poet as Reconciler

“Slowly Hofmannsthal shaped a synthesis between lifeless illusion and formless vitality, between Gardener-king and Madman. Out of it emerged the poet, not as legislator, not as judge, not as sympathizer, but as reconciler.

In 1906 Hofmannsthal defined the poet’s role with a new clarity: ‘It is he who binds up in himself the elements of the times.’ In a society and a culture that he saw as essentially pluralistic and fragmented, Hofmannsthal set literature the task of establishing relationships. The poet must accept the multiplicity of reality, and through the magic medium of language, bring unity and cohesion to modern man. The poet ‘is the passionate admirer of things of eternity and the things of the present. London in the fog with ghostly processions of unemployed, the temple ruins of Luxor, the splashing of a lonely forest spring, the roaring of monstrous machines: the transitions are never hard for him…everything is simultaneously present in him.’ Where others saw conflict or contradiction, the poet would reveal hidden ties and develop them by bringing out their unity through rhythm and sound.”

Carl Schorske, Fin de Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture

‘It’s difficult to argue with numbers – if numbers are accepted as an argument.’

On the certainties that underlied communism, the ethics of quantitative and qualitative.

“Everyone who went over to communism had to accept the Leninist principle that you couldn’t make omelettes without breaking eggs. That was the first thing. But a basic question arose here, and I asked myself: what certainty is there; where are the criteria for that certainty? I was defenseless in my debate with Nowogrodzki because he showered me with numbers, and it’s difficult to argue with numbers – if numbers are accepted as an argument. One could use as a counter-argument Ivan Karamazov’s position that all the harmony of the universe is not worth the single tear of a child that has been wronged. Obviously, a certain gradation could be introduced here as God did with Abraham and Sodom. Not one tear but ten, or ten children. But as soon as one enters Marxism, several unspoken assumptions are accepted. The omelette is the first assumption, and the second is that numbers are an argument, that one can have a certain faith in determination, not only qualitative but quantitative. Qualitative determination is typical not only of Marxism and communism but also of many religions. But the quantitative (Abraham and Sodom: ten yes, but eleven no) is the contribution of French scientism: quantity as an ethical argument, the majority, the minority, what constitutes the majority. It all follows from that. It follows that fractions cannot exist, that the minority must without further discussion submit to the decrees, worldview, and theories of the party majority.”

From my current read, My Century, by Aleksander Wat.

The new math

Video of the day and ludicrous advertising line of the day (LALOTD?) comes from Sylvan Learning Centers. Conscientious Parent, what inspires more horror in you than the thought of your little ones locking up on the SAT?

Only the thought of them asking you for help. Sylvan feels you.  Because shit, you barely got a C in pre-calc yourself.  And who knows how much has changed since then?

“Math wasn’t easy when you were in school, and it’s only gotten HARDER!”


“Particle physics wasn’t easy when you were in school, and it’s only gotten…more entropic!”

“There was a lot of history when you were a kid, and now there’s only….more of it!”

The strangest thing in the supermarket

I want you to look at this, especially if you savor the random and/or the seemingly senseless in life and supermarket aisles.  For there – in the main aisle of my local supermarket, drifting between the courtesy desk and pharmacy counter  – is where I first noticed this particular DVD display stand several months ago.  I find myself drawn back to it every now and then, because it kind of blows my mind.

Just check it out.  Look at it.

Errol Morris’s ‘Fog of War’ next to ‘Paul Blart, Mall Cop’.  Recent Angelina Jolie spy thriller ‘Salt’ next to Frank Capra’s 1937 classic “Lost Horizon.”  What else can we pick out in this picture?  ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?’  ‘Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs.’  ‘2012.’  ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.’  ‘Golden Boy’ (twice.)

Note that it’s a double-sided display.  Self-consciousness kept me from snapping a whole set of photos in the middle of the store, but I assure you the other side is just as varied and no less coherent.  A Seinfeld series DVD alongside ‘Why We Fight’ alongside ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’  And so on.

A stranger juxtaposition of films old and new, mainstream and niche, mundane and coruscating you could not find in one place.  Well, of course you might, in the bargain bin at your local big box store or odd-lot shop.  But the thing is, you’re not looking at a bargain bin here.  No, this isn’t one of those pits full of straight-to-DVD crap or sixty-seven discounted copies of last summer’s blockbuster dud.    The display itself is rather small and select.  There are some really good, if offbeat movies here, cheek-by-jowl alongside some trashy fluff and they’re all priced somewhere between 10 and 15 bucks.  It’s not a junk pile.  It couldn’t afford to be.  I’m proceeding on the assumption that every inch of floor and shelf space in a supermarket (like other modern stores) is carefully accounted for, rationalized.  That there’s no room for a product, display arrangement, or anything else that doesn’t pull its weight.  Everything’s there for a reason.  Isn’t it?

I can think of two possible explanations for the assortment we see here:

1.  It really is just random what ends up here.  In which case, weird.

2.  More intriguingly to me, this islet of genrelessness (agenre?) is actually the product of some canny market research on the part of…well, whoever puts together/puts out these displays (I have no idea – a studio? a third-party distributor?)  There is a higher vision at work, a foresight we ordinary people can hardly understand.  I have the vision of someone poring over surveys, focus group transcripts, purchasing data, perhaps some deep psychographic profiling of Hudson Valley Hannaford’s shoppers, honing in their eclectic film tastes –  and these is the result, this is it.  This is a fair approximation of those tastes, made concrete (or cardboard, more precisely.)

No less weird.

“And there were always choices to make.”

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.
Seen from this point of view, the mental reactions of the inmates of a concentration camp must seem more to us than the mere expression of certain physical and sociological conditions. Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually. He many retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.” – Viktor Frankl

Last night I picked up ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘ for the first time in a few years.  It’s a horrifying, edifying, inspiring little book.  I don’t mean ‘inspiring’ in the common, cheerful sense, but rather in Frankl’s account of human resilience amidst the worst imaginable conditions and insistence on the need for meaning-making in life.

This seems to me its essential passage, and it sticks with me.

In which I get half-lost in Ulster County, and stirred by cyclists in Rwanda

I’m not known for getting up very early on Sunday mornings (or any morning, for that matter.)  Yet I went up to Poughkeepsie earlyish this morning (for me) to do a little volunteering for a good cause – Blue Belt Janicik, a bicycle safety awareness campaign put together by the family of a local airman, who was killed riding his bicycle near his base in Texas in 2008.  Please don’t think it sprang out of these noble impulses that I’ve now got to boast about.  I belong to a nearby triathlon club, which asks its members to volunteer at a couple local events a year; I needed to check one off, and the date worked for me.

That said, I was happy to be there doing something (or looking like it, anyway).  The story behind the Janicik cause is both heartbreaking and horrifying to me.  I spend a lot of time on my bicycles, commuting, training, or just plain riding around.  Bike culture has drawn me further and further in over the years – and this month especially, when (like every July, going back to pre-Lance days) I get absorbed in watching the Tour de France.  I’ve never been a competitive bike racer, though I had a intense yearning to do so when I was a teenager (and I’m still a little sad I didn’t find a way to put myself through that punishing training then.)  I just rode a lot, miles upon miles through the summers.   Memories of 14-15 year old me careening down two-lane no-shoulder windy Connecticut roads, on a rarely-maintained Sears bike and (of course) no helmet chills me nowadays.  I never wrecked – not that I can remember, anyway – and for that I’m thankful and probably quite lucky.

The more often I get out on my bikes nowadays, the happier I am.  Yet it’s still a somewhat dangerous pasttime/hobby/way of life, as my own good sense and groups like CARD tell me way too often.  A lot of people are getting hurt or killed on the roads.  It’s preventable.  I don’t want to stop and I don’t want to get hurt.  So whatever little bit I can do for the cause of bike safety and advocacy, I tend to do.  Let’s just say there’s some self-interest there to go with the ideals.

As volunteering goes, it was a short stint today – iffy weather following the heat wave kept the morning bridge-biker crowd down.  After an hour we packed up.  Since I was already at the Walkway over the Hudson, and had ridden my bike up from the train, I decided to pedal over the bridge, along the recently extended rail trail to its terminus, then a few miles down the main road to New Paltz and to Main Street Bistro, my preferred place for a superb $3 weekend brunch.

What was meant to be the wheeled version of a Sunday stroll to a fine, cheap meal, mapped in my mind like this:

Turned into a wandering, sweating, hilly, half-lost 20+ mile journey, mapped in reality like this:

Really, 20 miles isn’t very much to me – when I know I’m going 20 miles.  Or when I know where I’m going at all.  But today I got half-lost once off the rail trail, thanks to a closed road in an unfamiliar neighborhood and a poorly-followed detour.  Not really lost; after a few miles I figured out where I was, but by then there was little point in backtracking.  I rode on.  I hadn’t dressed or prepared for a ride ride – a cotton polo and cargo shorts, no water, no glasses, a banana four hours earlier, masquerading as breakfast.

So it was a pretty Sunday ride and an irritatingly sweat-soaked, want-to-be-there-already, now-here-comes-the rain experience.  Forget three dollar brunch, by the time I got to New Paltz I needed the fat veggie club sandwich and a half-gallon of fluids.

I rode, as I sometimes ride, with my bike lock in one of those flimsy drawstring nylon bags you get as a giveaway just about anywhere these days.  Along with the lock, I’d thrown in a recent edition of the New Yorker.  The one, it just so happens, with “Climbers,” Philip Gourevitch’s wonderful piece on Team Rwanda, a fledgling professional bike racing team made up of a dozen or so young Rwandan men, all dealing to different degrees with the legacy of the civil wars and genocides that ravaged that country when they were children.

It’s an amazing story.  Can you conceive of a neophyte bike team that doesn’t just carry the name of a nation synonymous with mass brutality, but may be helping heal that nation’s heart and soul in some little way?   Did you even realize there is a Tour of Rwanda bicycle race, its stages lined by thousands of spectators, like a scaled-down version of the legendary grand tours of Europe and elsewhere?  This may be difficult to imagine for most Westerners if they think of Rwanda; lucky thing most Westerners probably don’t think of Rwanda, at least beyond “that place in that hotel movie a few years ago.”   Can you imagine that the aspiring pros on Team Rwanda – now demi-celebrities in their country – by and large grew up far too poor to afford even cheap Chinese single-speed bikes, making do instead with wooden bikes – “Flintstoneian scooters made from machete-hewn planks and beams, and fitted with machete-whittled wheels”?  That training in a city tens or even a hundred miles away doesn’t mean throwing the race bike on the rear rack of your Subaru, but riding your one and only bike all the way there?  That some of the team’s members, like Gasore Hategeka, worked their way into the team by racing its members with their loaded bike-taxis, or else by setting off on long solo treks across the mountainous country, partly to train, but mostly to survive.

“Gasore preferred hauling cargo to passengers, and the longer the trip the better: he liked to see the country, and he liked the workout. There isn’t much flat land in Rwanda, and the northwest is all peaks and troughs. Gasore’s village, Sashwara, sits at one of the highest points on the main road, a mile and a half above sea level. To the town of Gisenyi, on the border with Congo, is about forty miles, and downhill almost all the way. For Gasore, who frequently made the round trip in a day, the steep climb home was his favorite part. Although he could make as much as two thousand francs on the Gisenyi run, he took even greater pleasure in making good time.”

The story of these riders (and their American coach, with a trial and redemption of his own) was a big “suck it up, you dumb wuss,” to me grousing about sweaty clothes and a slight thirst and some rain spitting in my eyes on an elongated ride on my shining, smooth-shifting, few-hundred-dollar second bike.  More importantly, it’s ennobling without being tritely ‘inspiring’, because it does not make these young men out to be indomitable heroes or magical prodigies who’ve risen surely through the sport, whom we’ll soon see  rise over the global stage.  Maybe that happens someday.  Probably not.  That’s ok.   A certain kind of triumph doesn’t necessarily require victory.

If you’re interested in bicycles and bike racing, but also recent world history, the complexities of putting a terribly impoverished and traumatized, yet proud and – yes, ‘optimistic’ – nation back together again in the wake of unimaginable horrors, or just the resilience and determination of individual human beings (and perhaps something about the meaning of effort, concentration, endurance, desire), you ought to check this article it out.

“Always expanding and enriching the relationship without breaking it”

“Versification involves a continual reconciliation of two apparently opposed elements.  One is rhythm, in the sense of the fluid and shifting movements of live speech.  The other is meter, in the sense of a fixed, abstract pattern according to which those movements are organized.  And this steady and ongoing reconciliation between meter and rhythm is almost like a loving relationship between two people.  There exists a harmony between that is stable and constant and, at the same time, ever-changing and lively.  The two elements are engaged in a spirited dialectic that is always expressing itself in new ways and is always expanding and enriching the relationship without breaking it.  Furthermore, just as every vital interpersonal relationship has its own character – no two being quite the same – so in the work of every excellent poet, the interplay between meter and rhythm will have special traits and vivacities.” Timothy Steele, All the Fun’s In How You Say A Thing

I’ve just begun reading Steele’s highly-regarded book on poetic meter.  This fragment (with which Steele starts the book) illuminates some of the qualities shared by both well-turned poetry and ‘loving’ human relationships, and thus the way they work at their best.  Push and pull, insistence and acquiescence, cleaving and joining, stubbornness and acceptance, structure and fluidity.  Marvelous.

Drawing water

Sometimes I just can’t help myself; I long for some Olympian point of view, a 50,ooo foot perspective – no, really, the god’s eye view of things, the sense of ultimate authorial omnipotence.  Reading too many novels did this.  Something simple and self-contained crosses my mind or my vision; a ferryboat crossing the river, a electricity substation, a hillside dotted with flowering apple orchards – and I find myself thinking in terms of similar and different patterns.  Of higher and lower order systems, routes and connections.  The lacework of roads, tracks, channels and trails spread across a landscape, over space and time; the flux and flow of digital bits coursing through the world’s wires every second; the evolution of an idea in a culture, of a thought in one’s psyche, of a city neighborhood.   I am entranced by and sometimes produce  rudimentary, abstract  images on this theme – expansion and contraction, abundance and scarcity, conflict and convergence – comprised of many discrete parts or agents.  Every thing on its own, single, yet connected by something.  By the act of observation, perhaps.

This dynamic visualization of rainfall and urban water usage data, entitled Drawing Water (a masters project by UCLA student David Wicks) is mesmerizing to me in that vein.  It’s informative, too.  There are, of course, a zillion such animations and graphic renderings of all kinds thanks to Google Earth and other such mapping applications, as well as the immense amount of aggregated data out there.  People more data-driven than I are doing really interesting things with all of it.  It’s the kind of thing I wish I could do sometimes.  (Via Fast CoDesign)