26 June 2005


My dear friend, running partner, therapist and builder extraordinaire, Gary Welch, constructed new book shelves in our basement. Nothing fancy, I admit. In fact, the new shelves are rather plain and simple. As Gary knows, we’re saving our money for a fake fireplace which runs on propane gas and which can be regulated by remote control from the ease of the comfy chair. I have in my life in my fifteen years in the Midwest already split enough logs for a New Yorker/Upper West Sider of the Jewish persuasion, and now, as I ease into middle age (ha!), I no longer feel compelled to assert my virility by swinging the awl. Actually, I no longer feel compelled to assert my virility at all—why bother, I wonder?

So, anyway, Gary put together floor to ceiling book shelves in the basement, and for the past few days I’ve been re-organizing the library. Oh, we had once purchased very nice bookshelves, but they had filled up all too soon, and alas, they had started to burst at the seams. There were books fatally falling from bulging shelves; there were books lying splayed every which way, many barely able to breathe for lack room, gasping desperately for air, pages screaming silently in ‘mute nostril agonies,’ to reference Jim Morrison of The Doors. Since the basement had been ‘moved’ about several times, and the bookshelves resituated and the books carelessly thrown up on shelves during these resituatings, everything was out of place. Imagine! Kenneth Stampf’s That Peculiar Institution sitting right next to William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. There was Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye Tales abutting Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. Emma Bovary lay atop Leopold Bloom! There was unrest in the basement. And I worried about where to put the new books which streamed in regularly.

So, as my favorite librarian, Carol Hagness, might say, I’ve been re-shelving down there. I first decided that I would put all of the fiction on the new shelves in alphabetical order! Starting with A. Chinua Achebe. Sherwood Anderson. Aharon Appelfeld. Margaret Atwood. Nelson Algren. Suddenly, issues I had not anticipated arose. Should I fill a whole shelf at once, or should I leave room for yet-to-be purchased volumes? How much space should I leave for books we already own authored by people whose last name began with ‘R?’ Why do I have so many books by authors whose last name begins with ‘F?’ Should I save the several editions of Moby Dick each with personal annotations, or should I keep only one volume containing the most (or best?) reading notes? What if, when I am done, the books are unevenly spaced along the shelves?

The delight in finding books I’ve long forgotten is, without question, enormously satisfying. As I organized, I met so many old friends and acquaintances—and not a few enemies. And while I worked I thought of a wonderful chapter in one of my favorite novels: Italo Calvino’s, if on a winter’s night a traveler. There, the author describes a reader’s foray into a bookstore to purchase the new Italo Calvino novel, if on a winter’s night a traveler. Calvino catalogues, as only a bibliophile and scholar would understand, the taxonomy of volumes the book lover passes: Books You Haven’t Read, Books You Needn’t Read, Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category of Books Read Before Being Written, Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered; Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered; the Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody; Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them Too; Books You’ve Been Planning to Read For Ages; Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success; Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At the Moment; Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case; Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer; Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves, Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiousity, Not Easily Justified; Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread And The Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down and Really Read Them; New Books Whose Author Or Subject Appeals To You; New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Not New (for you or in general) and New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Completely Unknown (at least to you).

All and more were on my shelves. I am so comforted surrounded by my books. I am so content en-tomed.

21 June 2005

Anger, righteous or not!

I read with great pleasure and disgust Mark Danner’s piece in the New York Review of Books, an essay based on his commencement address to the graduating students of the Department of English of the University of California, Berkeley. The pleasure and disgust derive from exactly the same source: a perspective on the national zeitgeist. I have over the past five horrible years argued repeatedly that during the George Bush Jr. administration the wages of sin in America are obviously and remarkably plentiful. Indeed, those that have take great efforts and derive wonderful pleasures lauding their stealings over those from whom they have stolen. The number of millionaires has risen, the millionaires have become billionaires, and the power elite continue to gather their ill gotten wealth by using and abusing and disenfranchising the rest of us, laborers and workers and professional people alike. Indeed, over all those who make less than $100,000 per annum I have complained ad nauseum that the Bush Jr. administration is corrupt, impeachable, and mean. I have publicly worried that the country itself, having elected the criminals, is mean as well. I have mourned the abandonment of principle for the sake of ease and comfort by those already in power and who possess adequate pensions and health care. I am appalled at the cowardliness of the Democrats who have abandoned principle for . . . well, I guess I can’t exactly say what they intend to gain by their flight from decency and honest concern for those whom they would represent, because their present moral stances clear them of any taint of the Democratic Party. I have mourned the cowardliness of a press which refuses to ask not even the hard questions, but to leave unsaid the obvious ones as well. I have hated the public discourse which claims that I have no moral values because I didn’t support the illegal and unjust war, when I still do support universal health care, and the right to love whomever one cares to love, and to have some control over not only the nature of my family, but whether to have a family at all! I am sick at heart about not only the ethical stance of the elected officials of this country (and a few non-elected ones as well), but of the frightening direction in which we stumble in our present ethical positions And if ethics is the stance we take before the face of the Stranger—the one we do not know but for whom we must care—then I can hardly call what we practice in this country an ‘ethics.’

And so, the pleasure I had when I read Mark Danner’s piece is the confirmation that someone else felt as I did! But of course, my disgust stemmed from the pleasure. Dammit, I’m not crazy—it really is that bad!

I take no comfort in the guilty verdict today of the Klansman who murdered Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. They died in their youths; that bastard lived to a ripe old age. The ages of the four children who died in the Church bombing hardly add up to half of the age of the man who was finally convicted of planning and executing that obscene and murderous event. Justice, justice thou shalt pursue. Not here, not now!

17 June 2005

Take Me Out Of The Ball Game!

I’ve never been very fond of nostalgia. As I said in an earlier post, I eschew regret, and nostalgia seems to me a longing for an event or emotion which never really occurred. That said . . .

I went to the Twins-Giants baseball game last evening with my friend, Mitchell. The last baseball game I attended was in 1969, the year the New York Mets won the World Series. I had been a Met fan from their first season—1962—and had suffered mightily through a great deal of silliness in their early years. It was a great year all around for New York teams—1969 was also the year the Knicks and the Jets won their respective championships.

I loved going to baseball games, but I didn’t at all enjoy the experience last evening. Oh, I think Mitchell and I had a wonderful time, and for a baseball game, there was quite a lot of action. Twenty hits in five innings, twelve or thirteen runs total. Several home runs and a lot of long ball hits! But there was something essentially missing in my mind. And this is it:

When I went to the stadiums up through 1969, I would enter the front gates from the streets or the vast parking lots. To Shea or Yankee Stadium, I sometimes would walk from the subway or the Long Island Railroad cars. I would move from the every day world of concrete and asphalt and noise and smells and dirt and confusion, hand the attendant my ticket, buy a program and a pencil to keep score, and walk up the concrete ramps to the assigned level where I might find my seats. Everything was a bit dark in the corridors of the stadium, and definitely composed of cold, hard concrete. The circular levels echoed, and people walked about toward their seats, some carrying team banners, hot dogs, and beers. There were always souvenir stands at which stood children hungry for a material remembrance of the game. At regular intervals, a square concrete entranceway led toward the field. I would walk through it, as if walking through a time warp on any one of a number of Star Trek episodes. And when I walked through that gate, I stepped into the magical world of the baseball field with its beautifully manicured grass, and carefully groomed dirt infields, and pearly white bases and straight chalk baselines. Players in home-team white and visitor gray uniforms were warming up, taking batting and pitching practice. And the sky (here comes the nostalgia!!) was always clear, blue, and cloudless, and the air, even in the Bronx and Flushing, Queens, was fresh. And there I would stand, before a field of dreams, and I was very, very happy. I felt the baseball stadium, and the fields before me, and the skies above me, and the fans about me, and the players before me. I took deep and contented breaths. I experienced an intense bodily experience.

Last evening, however, when I stepped through the entranceway—a simple doorway and not at all the great concrete portals of the concrete stadiums of earlier days—and I looked out towards the field, the grass (it was not really grass) was a horrible green color—like a badly worn carpet in an old run-down house. And above me there was no blue sky, but underneath the big white metal dome hung a white parachute type material looking more like stationary ghosts than clouds. The stadium was air conditioned, and I soon grew cold. Because it was enclosed, the smell of mustard permeated the air. And I heard no one scream, “Beer here,” and no one wondered, “Peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jacks?”

No freshness here, no fresh at all. It was a bodily absence. It was a failure of body and spirit.

And at the Metrodome all the excitement derived from external sources. There were mascots, and giveaways, and big screen television, and promotions, and loud music prods over huge speakers hanging above just underneath the ghosts. I wondered what were the ground rules if a ball became stuck in a speaker and did not descend. Was it counted a double, a triple, or a foul ball? I had no opportunity to settle myself to the game, to move in and out of the experience, and to offer to it what I could and would. The game was programmed from the outset. Only the final score remained in any doubt. There was no place in that vast arena for me.

Mitchell tells me the Giants finally won, 14-7. We were already gone, but then, I’m not sure I was ever there.

There should be a law against building roofs where there is no need for them.

09 June 2005

The Ten Most Harmful Books--Are You Kidding?

Through a list serve to which I belong I received notice that Human Events, the National Conservative Weekly since 1944 (their blurb!), “asked a panel of fifteen conservative scholars an public policy leaders to help compile a list of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries.” Okay. I have quoted this post exactly because I don’t want you to think I am making this up!! I will offer here a link to an article I wrote called “The Book That Changed My Life, or What I didn’t Read on My Summer Vacation,” as an alterative to the idea in the Human Events list. As if the list itself isn’t the silliest thing in the world, (if there is an idea in the whole notion of this list) absurd as it is, and will be always ridiculous. Number One most harmful book is Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. Second, (though I don’t know if it is a close second or not!), was Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Third, as you might expect given the direction here, is The Quotations of Chairman Mao. In fourth place is Alfred Kinsey’s The Kinsey Report. Well, I saw the movie, Kinsey, so perhaps this might have had something to do with this high placement. Ah, well. Do you suppose that the scholars asked to list these books were appalled by the subject of the Kinsey Report, or were angered by being discovered in their sexual behaviors?

So far, well, the list, silly as it is, is also horribly predictable. And remarkably limited. Of course, once a book makes the list, is it more or less harmful. Worse, shouldn’t we all read these books now so that we know what ideas to avoid?

But when I arrive at the book nominated in fifth place, I ceased laughing. For right underneath Chairman Mao, and right before Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (I assume Volume I), is John Dewey’s Democracy and Education. I cannot begin to deal with this absurdity. Finally, I understand the condition of apoplexy. Because it seems to be that one reason the conservative agenda knows enough to name the ten most harmful books is because they were educated in a democracy and John Dewey’s Democracy and Education is an eloquent advocacy for a social system constructed on a foundation of an educational establishment in which social justice and individual contentment co-depend and co-exist. Without an educational system based in Democracy and Education, without a social system advocated in Democracy in Education, then all of those harmful books wouldn’t even be known as harmful. They’d be permanent policy!

As if books could ever be harmful!! What happened to the whole idea of education as learning to read with critical intelligence?

How absurd! How silly to have wasted my time on such idiocy!

04 June 2005

I'm Whitening My Pearly Whites

I’ve been whitening my teeth. One day early last week, I stared at myself in the early morning mirror and realized my teeth had yellowed just a bit too obviously. I was upset by my yellowing teeth. Coincidentally, I had a dentist appointment that week anyway—I have to visit him three or four times a year for regular cleaning because a few years ago when I was younger than I am now, but older than I should have been then, I had to have periodontal work, which requires steady care by my regular dental care provider. We have become somewhat close in spirit in that office.

So, I asked my dental hygienist about teeth whitening, and she gave me a lovely sales talk. She offered me a sample, but what good is a single day’s sample if the whole treatment requires an investment of twenty-eight days and sixty two dollars? I bought the farm.

And now, twice a day for the next twenty-eight days, I wrap my teeth in these sheets, and bleach them clean. There is a certain vanity to the effort, I know, but in my vanity, I consider it less extreme than say, plastic surgery, or full teeth capping, or botox, or even Viagra. I’m just sitting here typing, watching the river flow, and whitening my teeth. No one knows, except now all of you.