31 January 2015

Circle close

As it happened (or as Bokononists say, “As it was meant to happen"), I sat down at the computer and turned on the Web-radio to hear Judy Collins’ rendition of Bob Dylan’s iconic,  “Mr. Tambourine Man.” I have lived with this song for fifty years in its multiple versions by a diversity of artists, but I have remained fixed on Dylan’s original version on Bringing it All Back Home and Judy Collins’ 1965 version of the song on her Fifth Album. The strains of the song settled me back to the summer of 1965 when I washed cars and mowed lawns and debated with my schoolmates the identity of Mr. Tambourine Man who could help me forget about today until tomorrow and who would take me “disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind.”
As it was meant to happen, I had originally sat down to write about a sense of the world that began as a significant part of my life in the 1960s, and that seems to have come around full circle last evening. In Washington State marijuana is now legal. And so last evening after a convivial dinner we sat and passed around the bong, and I considered that my life in one respect had completed. I had begun smoking dope when I was 19 years old, almost fifty years ago. Then drugs were all illegal and there was something revolutionary, anarchic, and dangerous about indulging in the weed. I remember sitting in my dormitory room with the windows flung wide open to aid the smoke disappearing out into the air, and with the heel on my bedroom dooropening stopped up by a towel to keep the smell of burning weed from escaping out into the hallways. I remember passing the joint down the row at concerts sharing our stash with everyone about us, and I remember sitting on the New York Subways proudly and seditiously carrying on my lap in my green back pack my recent purchase of a pound of marijuana that I would split with my dear friend and colleague. Smoking dope was a relatively dangerous and glorious experience that I associate with the generally rebellious stance I assumed in my life during those years. If they were for it, then I was opposed to it. I always voted but almost never for anyone who actually won an election; I could could not tolerate my parents bourgeois status (though I continued to benefit from it), and identified with a host of revolutionaries, starting with Ché Guevara. I read Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. I enlisted in the counterculture. I think I became a hippie, though I only owned that identity years later when the history books defined the phenomenon and I understood that I was being described.
But last evening we sat comfortably together in a magnificent home in great warmth, both real and metaphorical, and without a care in the world drank wine and got very high and talked not about how easy it was to tell black from white, or how we knew what was wrong and what was right. No, we talked about the choices we had made, the roads we had traveled, some of which had shattered and all of which had split. I was so much older then . . . but last night I was happy in my comfort even as I had been happy in my rebellion then even as I engaged in the same activity and enjoyed the same flight as I fell under the dancing spell of Mr. Tambourine Man.

27 January 2015

In these New York Times

The banner headline in today’s New York Times declares in horror that the snowstorm barreling into the Northeast will paralyze travel and severely disrupt daily life. This barreling storm threatens to crush all in its path, though unlike the barrel, the snowstorm derives from no human source. “Millions of people from New York to Maine were forced to quit work early, rush to get off roads and highways and take shelter as a snowstorm bore down on the region Monday night, bringing winds of near hurricane force and the threat of coastal flooding and more than two feet of snow,” the article screams. No doubt this storm promises to be a serious natural occurrence with very real human consequences. By Tuesday, of course, the dire predictions that this might be the worst storm in history for New York City did not prove true, and though the environs experienced ten inches or so of snow, and I am certain many suffered great inconvenience, well, the City barreled through and went about its business this Tuesday. I read that, too, in an on-line version of The New York Times.
But . . . underneath the five-column picture of passengers exiting a train at 125th Street amidst the snowfall, and in much smaller type and space, was a one column head announcing that the Koch brothers’ budget for the 2016 election campaign will be set at almost $900 million. The Koch brothers’ organization will spend as much money on the election as the Democratic and Republican parties will devote to the efforts! Two people will try to buy the next United States Government.
I always despair when the weather forecaster announces a winter storm advisory. I live in the mid-West and the winters are brutal. Only two years ago we experienced a 12” snowfall on May 2. Sometimes the temperature doesn’t get to zero for a week on end. I have no doubt that the nature of character in the populace of the upper mid-West results in some significant part from the harshness of the weather. Often, of course, the forecaster’s predictions are inaccurate and they are proven wrong: I envy their freedom!! When I err there is hell to pay and my pay is threatened.
I am appalled that The New York Times devoted five columns to a headline concerning a snowstorm—albeit it one that might affect millions of people—and prints a single-one column article reporting on the Koch brothers attempt to purchase the United States Government, an effort that will concern the daily lives of billions of people around the globe. The consequences of those actions will absolutely affect the millions yet unborn who will suffer from policies that bespeak a disregard for the welfare of those whose lack of private wealth renders them dangerously vulnerable to the barreling forces of self-serving, hateful financial resources of the filty rich and infamous. The rhetoric of such rapacious brutes rings empty even as their silver clinks loudly in their arrogant pockets.

I hold in contempt the politics of contemporary America. And despair for the children.

19 January 2015

Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice. Another saw the movie and then read the book. I did like the movie, but I loved the book—in the middle of which reading I had to see again The Maltese Falcon. Screened the latter with twenty-year-old daughter who moaned when I said that it was made in 1941, and exasperatedly wondered, “Is it black and white?” And when I said indeed, it was, she rolled her eyes and sighed and resignedly fell onto the comfy couch seemingly determined to fall asleep. She remained awake.
          Near its end the novel defines inherent vice as, “what you can’t avoid, stuff marine policies don’t like to cover. Usually applies to cargo--like eggs break--but sometimes it’s also the vessel carrying it. Like why bilges have to be pumped out.” As I understand it, then, inherent vice refers to that which is inevitable: the bilge pump gets rid of water that inexorably enters the ship and that must be pumped out in order to keep the boat from sinking! The water is going to come in and so the bilge pump has to pump it out! Louis Menand in his review of Pynchon’s novel refers as well to the novel’s definition of inherent vice. Menand says that “The title is a term in maritime law (a specialty of one of the minor characters). It refers to the quality of things that makes them difficult to insure: if you have eggs in your cargo, a normal policy will not cover their breaking.” Inherent vice in this case refers to the quality of things and experience to break and fall apart. Of course, insurance companies prefer to bet on less risk and so in the above case the insurance company will not cover eggs not breaking as they are transported on sea (or even on land?) from place to place.
          But Wikipedia adds something interesting to me to this definition. They write that the phrase ‘inherent vice’ refers to a “hidden defect (or the very nature) of a physical object that causes it to deteriorate because of the fundamental instability of its components. In the legal sense, inherent vice may make an item an unacceptable risk to a carrier or insurer. If the characteristic or defect is not visible, and if the carrier or the insurer has not been warned of it, neither of them may be liable for any claim arising solely out of the inherent vice." What a perfect metaphor for existence: in its basic structure contains an inherent flaw, an instability that leads to the eventual diminishment of the whole. (I remember an early experience with Pynchon and this idea in his short story “Entropy”). And wasn’t the Sixties, 1970 is the year in which the book is set, a perfect exemplar of this phenomenon of inherent vice; wasn’t the Tate murder and the Manson gang (to which the novel makes repeated reference) emblematic of society’s hidden defect or the very structural vulnerability of society in general. For Pynchon that defect is revealed in part by the Manson murders; for me the events at Altamont come immediately to mind. But in the novel there exist numerous ‘flaws’ that reflect the instability of the social order that would lead to its collapse: the police, the racial and social tensions, the war in Vietnam. I do not doubt that the front pages of our newspapers today regularly reflect on the inherent vice of societies and the resultant deterioration of order and civility.
          Inherent Vice is at least partly about the end of the Sixties: “[A]nd here was Doc, on the natch, caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, all be lost, taken back into darkness . . . how a certain hand might reach out of darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good” (255). I loved the idea of the 1960s. I was there, even though Wavy Gravy suggested that if I remember the 60s then I wasn’t! But I was. And Inherent Vice suggests to me what might have happened experienced and noted by someone who I believe found value in that brief interval. This blog piece is not meant to be a paean to that era. But the book immersed me in the sense of the times and I felt in good company again. Like Doc at the book’s end, I wait hopefully, “For the fog to burn away, and for something else this time. somehow, to be there instead.”

08 January 2015

Wild again

I enjoyed the film Wild as I had earlier written; indeed, took my younger daughter to see it when she returned from vacation. Besides the exciting performance by Reese Witherspoon, Wild exemplifies the themes I desire my daughters to consider: a life of action and acceptance. No regrets. When Strayed crossed the Bridge of the Gods she had come to acknowledge that everything in her life has brought her to that triumphant and had  moment, and thus what once appeared to be error became part of the process of becoming. To my mind regrets misuse energy better served in living.
And so I picked up the book from which the film was made. I had been reading memoirs and autobiographies, and especially contemporary versions of lives lived under what the authors consider extraordinary circumstances: e.g. Mary Karr’s trilogy, Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle; and now Wild. I have written elsewhere on this blog about this genre, likening it at times to the 1950s television show Queen for a Day, on which women were invited to tell the stories of their hardships and the audience would be asked to pick as queen for the day the woman who could narrate the most miserable life. As her prize she would receive those things (a washing machine, a trip to the a beach, a new kitchen) that would enthrone her.
But I think I have begun to sense a particularity of style common to this genre. The writing communicates consistently a sense of urgency and imminent crisis in so many of its sentences and paragraphs. I suppose that in a memoir of this type¾in which the narrator survives crises by acts of strength and courage¾the narration of crisis is de rigeur. That is, the narration describes a life of survival in the face of great adversities, and the sense and movement of the sentences and the paragraphs contains the crisis. Either experiences of adversity of circumstances or moments of insight comprise the entire narrative. Sentences and paragraphs are constructed to communicate this sense: every moment is filled with urgency and every sentence contains that urgency. I read: “In the previous days I’d been charged by a Texas longhorn bull, torn and bruise by falls and mishaps, and had navigated my way down a remote road past a mountain that soon to be blown up. I’d made it through miles of desert, ascended and descended countless mountains, and gone days without seeing another person. I’d worn my feet raw, chafed my body until it bled, and carried not only myself over miles of rugged wilderness, but also a pack that weighed more than half of what I did. And I’d done it alone.” I cannot prove it right now, but the comment on the weight of the pack occurs earlier in the narrative as well.
And I think I am finding the reading of these memoirs both exciting and exhausting. Perhaps that is the intent of the style. The inclusion of exact and quoted dialogue makes me suspect, though I know that there is some motive to reporting common conversation to elicit traits of character and to break up the narrative flow. But I refuse to accept that one can remember exactly conversation for even one day much less for months and years, and thus, these passages of talk are more part of style than of truth. I compare this to say, Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory, in which he eschews direct quotes and his narrative lacks all intensity and urgency.  

And so I am enjoying Wild, and still admire Strayed for both her physical and emotional accomplishment. No, more than admire: I applaud and accept her effort and her achievement. But I find myself exhausted after a while and have to pick up Pynchon’s Inherent Vice for some rest and relief.