21 April 2013

Intellectual lassitude

I am lonely without something to read. Oh, it is not that my book shelf is empty: on it sits Confessions, the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Proper Study of Mankind, Essays by Isaiah Berlin, tomes to which I am invited by some urging but am then unwilling to continue the engagement. I leave each behind. On my ‘to be read’ shelf sits Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon, and NW by Zadie Smith and Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall. Oh there are others, I know,  No, there is no dearth of reading material that sits ready, even eager, to be grasped. But of late I seem only comfortable in the Zuckerman novels of Philip Roth. I am wondering what this condition suggests about my condition. (I seem to remember a song by Mickey Newbury in which occurs the line, “I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.” That is what I’m wondering).
As always, the book that I seek is the one that contains some answer to some unanswerable question. That book is the book that is lost, alas.
What does it mean not to know how to articulate the question? It is not as if nothing runs through my mind—or that my mind is not a running tape of fragments of ideas or images of events. It is not as if nothing goes on around me or in my life. It is rather that nothing seems connected, like a table full of puzzle pieces from too many different puzzles: no matter how hard I work I cannot put together two contiguous pieces and I look furiously at the array of pieces and feel confusion. I walk down stairs and stand before the books on my shelves and am drawn to none. I walk into the bookstore and pick up dozens of volumes, look at the cover, read the blurbs and look at the author’s photograph and put the book down. No, I don’t want to read about that right now; no, I’m not at all interested in this subject, indeed, any subject, it would seem, except maybe Nathan Zuckerman! I think I have either been Zuckerman or am becoming Zuckerman, but it is only his life that throws the least light on mine. I guess I am looking for another klieg light but I don’t know where it might be found or when found, how and on whom to focus it.
So, I spend time in the movie theaters. 42, Trance, and today To the Wonder. There I am becalmed, and I forget my self; I sit in the dark and somehow I don’t look for myself up there on the screen. The questions seem less important or intimate. Viewing Trance all I could think was “Huh?” and I was content enough. Maybe this is because I did not study film the same way that I studied literature. Well, no matter. Off to the movies next to which there is no bookstore.
Doesn’t this make no sense. Exactly! 

15 April 2013

Boston, 2013

You know what? I don’t care who set off the bombs in Copley Plaza at the end of the Boston Marathon. Whoever committed this deed is Evil. And I don’t care what the cause was of those who set off the bombs in Copley Plaza. If a cause could lead to such violence then the cause is Evil and I reject it with all the vehemence of my mind.
Earlier today one of my children spoke of wanting to run next year in the Boston Marathon. Right now she is up to  . . . well, I don’t know how many yards per day she runs, and I suggested to her that the Boston Marathon requires a qualifying time in a marathon race earlier in the year. “Oh well,” she said, “I’ll run a different marathon.” And then several hours later some despicable human beings planted bombs at the finish, at least, and killed and injured runners who had trained very hard for a long time to qualify for this race. For some of those runners entry in the Boston Marathon was the fulfillment of a dream. And some despicable people planted bombs at the finish and destroyed the well-earned triumphs of very normal people who had worked very hard to achieve the finish line at the Boston Marathon.
And then those despicable people hid their faces.
And now my child fears planes and trains and automobiles. And road-running races!
I am reminded of the change in the last line in Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll: “Bury the rag deep in your face, Now is the time for your tears.” I am ashamed for the perpetrators of this most heinous act. And then I am reminded of Hamlet’s description of Claudius: “Bloody, bawdy, villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” If their cause had validity before this act, then in the bombing today that cause has lost that validity.
The Boston Marathon celebrates Patriot’s Day; the day celebrates the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. There at Concord Bridge was fired the shot heard ‘round the world. It was the semi-official beginning of the American Revolution. Today, another shot was fired and it shamed the day.  The United States has much good to say of it; it has much bad to speak of as well. Some would say that the bombings in Copley Plaza are the acts of another revolution in progress, but I reject that ascription. What I know about the Revolution is that the rebels targeted not the innocent but the traitorous collaborationist. Benjamin Franklin disown ed his son who sided with the British, but he did not blow up his house and children.
The act is unspeakable, and I cannot speak more about it. And having crossed the finish line at several marathons, I am distraught at the horror of this act, and I am crushed by sadness for those who finished the race in the wrong time.    

09 April 2013


I awoke this morning with Simon and Garfunkel’s “Dangling Conversation” playing on my internal sound track. They sing: “And you read your Emily Dickinson and I my Robert Frost, and we note our page with bookmarkers, and measure what we’ve lost.” On one level the song expressed the emotional distance that had developed between two people. I think I am reminded in these lines of the scene in Citizen Kane when the breakfast table between he and his wife grows in size and they in distance until they are sitting at opposite ends of a huge dining table and she is reading a rival newspaper.
And “Dangling Conversations” also defined the anomie, the sterility of the culture in which I grew up and into which I was supposed to move. It was only a few years later that The Graduate would explicitly portray the angst of my generation.
So I wondered what it meant that this particular sound track played last night in my dreams. What provoked that playlist? And my first response was the most mundane and also the truest, I think. Here it is: sometimes, my friends and I sit at the coffee house and discuss world events (about which mostly we agree), our domestic lives (about which mostly we agree), and compare the growing quantity of those little plastic white-topped butterscotch colored bottles that contain the prescribed medicines that sit on our shelves. And these don’t always agree. One suffers from hypertension and another from diabetes; this one has a heart condition and that one experiences anxiety attacks; this one prepares for her colonoscopy and that one for hip replacement.
You read your Emily Dickinson, and I my Robert Frost. 

05 April 2013

Three Songs and a Life

In the middle of the 1970s, during a time when I was seeking desperately to break out of my family orbit, at the end of a day at school where I worked as a teacher, I would walk into my studio apartment in New York City, a domicile no bigger than Thoreau’s cabin because it was my cabin on the shores of Walden (I had even placed between the only two windows in my apartmentboth of which overlooked the alleyway and the windows of another buildinga framed sepia-toned photograph of a replica of Thoreau’s cabin I had taken several years prior during my first pilgrimage to the shores of the pond) and would head immediately to the turntable (yes, then I owned still a turntable) and put on Bruce Springsteen’s “Independence Day.”
Well say goodbye it's Independence Day
It's Independence Day all boys must run away
So say goodbye it's Independence Day
All men must make their way come Independence Day
I would turn the volume on the amplifier very loud as I would throw off my street clothes and change into my running gear for my daily six mile circle route of Central Park. I then lived in an apartment building occupied mostly by young people, some of whom were even music students, and no one ever seemed to mind the excessive volume. I played the song again and again until I was completely ready to leave the apartment and head into the streets. As I struggled for what I thought was my freedom, whether that struggle was right or wrong, legitimate or illegitimate, Springsteen’s “Independence Day” gave me strength to go on. That song is forever linked to those months of struggle and anguish.
Once, at an extremely low moment in my life, after attending the funeral of a friend who died a violent death, I headed out for a long-scheduled weekend with a dear friend. I recall very little of the long flight to the West Coast save a brief layover somewhere in a spot where the wireless access was free and I probably checked my email. Whenever I traveled there I would arrive at approximately 8:00pm and we would then go to a bar/restaurant where that night I drank two single-malt Scotch whiskeys and consumed a bowl of edamame beans. I think we probably arrived home at about 11:00pm, and after carelessly emptying my luggage, I changed into my nightclothes and went to bed.
But at 5:00am I awoke with the previous day’s events too fresh and raw. I carried my reading book—I hope it was something by Philip Roth, but I can’t recall right now—and my journal and fountain pen downstairs, turned on the electric gas fireplace and a small overhead lamp, and sat in the corner barrel chair and before any one else awakened read and wrote for several hours. And then, when it became just light enough to ensure I would not get lost, I put on the running clothes I had brought with me, strapped on my runner’s watch and my iPod and headed out on the roads. I remembered that I had yesterday grieved and that I was now very much still grieving. The iPod control was on shuffle, and there were hundred of songs that might play on it. I was not ordering the playlist. And the first thing I heard that morning following the burial of my friend was “The Gathering of Spirits” by Carrie Newcomer.
Let it go my love, my truest
Let it sail on silver wings
Life's a twinkling and that's for certain
But it's such a fine thing
There's a gathering of spirits
There's a festival of friends
And we'll take up where we left off
When we all meet again
And as I listened as I ran I felt myself begin to breathe again and to think that, yes, perhaps all would be well again. That song is forever linked to that moment of difficult comfort and hard-wrung joy, and whenever I hear it I experience some calm.
And there was one more moment. I had taken too many drugs that day and just the right kind. I had spent part of the afternoon at the movie theater watching a re-mastered print of Disney’s Fantasia. Now, it was the end of the day, and even from my meager windows I knew it was night. I was alone at Walden, and for some reason that I no longer recall I put on Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. I was standing in the middle of the room probably with a glass of wine in my hand and I heard Dylan sing,
Purple clover, Queen Anne’s Lace
Crimson hair across your face
You could make me cry if you don’t know
Can’t remember what I was thinkin’ of
You might be spoilin’ me too much, love
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go
And I understood for a moment a relief from my dread. Everything does end, must inevitably end, but in the meantime I could enjoy being spoiled. That song is forever linked to that moment of insight, and whenever I hear that song, I experience some relief and can sense for my life direction and hope.
I know that there have been other such moments in my life when I could not have lived without the music and when the music gave me life. For this I am so very fortunate and grateful.