23 October 2018

Robbing My Time: A Rant

In his song, “Close the Door Lightly” Eric Andersen sings, 
Who was the one that stole my mind?
Who was the one that robbed my time?
Who was the one? Made me feel unkind
So fare thee well, sweet love of mine
I thought about those sentiments today as I rode my bike during a spin cycle class. I have for the past forty-five years exercised with some regularity. For many of those years I ran long distances. I have run three marathons and didn’t finish last in one of them. I loved running not only for the physical benefits of exercise but for the psychological and emotional rewards that I enjoyed. I often took my life out on the roads, thought through personal and professional situations—even difficulties—and returned to the house cleansed, at peace, even sometimes transformed. I wrote my books during those miles, and I wrote the eulogy for my father. My running almost always calmed me and gave me energy. Running as part of my days improved those days. Ah yes, there were some bad days when the running proved difficult, my breath drawn with difficulty and my legs heavy, but in my memory those days were rare. I found peace on the roads. I made my peace out on the roads.
     I have retired from about four or so years ago and taken up spin cycling and yoga. I practice of the latter only Hatha Yoga or Ashtanga Vinyasa. In both the atmosphere is peaceful, calming. The music soundtrack is quiet. I can Be. Now, spin cycle has a different ambiance: the music is loud and pulsing, and the class instructor directs the class through a microphone. “Turn the blue knob, increase resistance; double your speed; up, out of the saddle; get a drink.” Spin cycle has become for me a total physical experience with a rare and often surprising moment of insight. When I ran I could set an agenda for my thought, but that is impossible in the cycle class. I’m there to sweat and get my heart rate up. I still set the agenda: I rarely follow the instructor’s lead not to be oppositional but because I am not physically capable of doing what he says. And he does often remark, “Do what you can. This is your ride.” And the music, neither Bob Dylan nor the Grateful Dead (but sometimes Bruce Springsteen and the Talking Heads) accompanies the ride and facilitates my effort.
     I join the class to improve myself and not to be improved. Loud as the music in the room may be, I can usually find my space in the room to exist in some private quiet and find some personal peace. But sometimes, however, the instructor robs my time, and the class becomes a forum for his/her agenda. I’m thinking of Lyle Lovett’s song “Church,” where the preacher he keeps on preaching and everyone in the congregation gets hungrier and hungrier: “And now everyone was getting so hungry/That the old ones started feeling ill/And the weak ones started passing out/And the young ones they could not sit still.” I don’t come to class for life coaching, and I don’t want to be assaulted by declarations concerning what I should believe and how I should act. I don’t want to be lectured with an agenda that is not mine and that does not apply to me. I just want to spin, to sweat, and to occasionally have a necessary thought. Insight rare but welcome.
     And electronic music doesn’t inspire me to work harder at all but rather, it seems to make me angry and want to get the hell out of there.  
Who was the one that stole my mind?
Who was the one that robbed my time?
Who was the one? Made me feel unkind
So fare thee well, sweet love of mine

21 October 2018

The Garden

In James Baldwin’s 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room, the character Jacques says, “Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden . . . I wonder why.” I have long considered that question, and I have come to accept that that we do not stay in the Garden because there is nothing to do there. In myth the Garden is paradisiacal: there is no death, no labor, no effort necessary to do or to receive anything. In the Garden all is provided for and there is no disruption of ease. In the Garden of Eden the mother’s breast is always full and immediately available. In the Garden all desires are fulfilled, which is to say there are no Desires. There is nothing in the Garden that requires any forward movement. In the Garden there is nothing to think about. David, the novel’s narrator, says that to remember Eden is to remember innocence and to suffer the pain of its death; but to forget Eden is to suffer the madness that derives from a denial of pain and from the hatred of innocence. David suggests that a hero can do both: remember Eden and forget it. Heroes, David admits, are rare. But I think that our onward movements depend on an oscillatory alternation of moments of remembering and forgetting. In the Garden there exists no motive to neither remember nor to forget.
     It might be true as the novel’s narrator says that everyone has his or her own Garden of Eden, but each individual Eden is structurally similar: it is the place where all is perfect—the women, if you want them, or the men if that is what is desired. In the Garden there should be no consequences because the Garden of Eden is the fulfillment of Desire and in the Garden exists no obstruction to the realization of it.
     But I know that there is a world that exists outside of Eden. The world and reality (always an insult, says Winnicott) is out here and unlike are things in the Garden, out here what I want is not immediately available. Out here I must make an effort to achieve anything. Out here I can begin the repair of myself and the world. David, the narrator, says that the phrase to find oneself “betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced.” Indeed! But to me it seems more accurate to believe that out here one doesn’t find oneself so much as create that self. In the Garden without resistance there is no growth, and growth doesn’t come without sweat and cost.
     Nobody can (or even should) stay in the Garden, of course, because there is too much to be accomplished and gained, ah, and destroyed and lost out here. Yes, by the sweat of our brows we must earn our keep, the difficult ground out here must be cultivated, and our births are often harrowing and dangerous. Like Death, the Garden is a place of nothingness. Life exists outside it.

15 October 2018

Not in this Club

As I live through these unbelievable, unacceptable times, I think about Groucho Marx, and his declaration “I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Who would choose to belong to the Republican Party, an ideologically bankrupt group of thugs. They have stolen a Supreme Court nomination, insulted President Obama in any number of repulsive denigrations and contemptuous actions (recall the South Carolina congressman who screamed “You lie” during the State of the Union Message: an act that would have sent any third grader to the principal!); insulted a woman (all women) who claimed that she had been sexually assaulted by a clearly inappropriate Supreme Court nominee; and plowed ahead without a care in the world for anything but their own autocratic, anti-democratic agenda. And to do so with glee.
     Today the New York Times reports that Trump talked with the King of Saudi Arabia who (surprise!) denied complicity in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Trump suggested that perhaps some rogue killers had been responsible for the murder. Interesting, I think, because Trump seemed to acknowledge that Khashoggi was murdered somehow in the Saudi embassy, a fact the embassy personnel has stridently denied. Trump seems to admit that a murder has taken place but that the Saudi leaders had nothing to do with it! The stupidity that Trump displays is only equaled by those who believe his lies.
     The article in the Times announces thatIf the Saudi leaders are found to be behind what happened to Mr. Khashoggi, Mr. Trump would probably face more pressure from Congress and other countries to respond.” More Pressure?? What pressure? If the Republican Congress hasn’t pressured Trump yet, then why should they begin now? In fact, the Republican Congress has abdicated all responsibility of serving as an independent and balancing arm of government; rather, they have in disgusting cowardice groveled at the feet of the President. “Oh no, there is no Sanity Clause” in this Republican government.

11 October 2018

Hurricane Watch

Once when I was yet in high school we were either sent home in the middle of the day or told to stay home in anticipation of a hurricane. Maybe then we experienced a hurricane but if so I recall nothing of the event and only the anticipation. Many years later I lived in New York City on the Upper West Side in a corner apartment with a number of large windows. A hurricane was forecast and we were warned to prepare ourselves with food and water supplies (and chocolate donuts) and to place duct tape in X patters on the windows to prevent them from dangerously shattering in the onslaught of gale-force winds splaying shards of glass about the rooms. I did as I was told . . . but there occurred no hurricane—we were spared--but in my lethargic relief, I waited too long to remove the tape from the windows and the sun baking my rooms burned shadows of the tape onto the glass resulting in the panes to remain marked with a large X that now covered the entire length and breadth of the oversized windows.
     The newscasters (and weather people) hourly give alarming reports on the destruction that has resulted from Hurricane Michael (and before that Hurricane Florence and before that Maria, and before that Sandy) making landfall in Florida before it will move North into parts of Alabama and North Carolina. The news would say that the storm will ‘leave devastation in its wake as it moves.” I am intrigued by the anthropomorphizing of the hurricane. The headline of today’s New York Times reads “Storm Devastates Panhandle,” and the lead sentence says, “Hurricane Michael, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the continental United States, slammed into the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday, unleashing a trail of destruction across 200 miles that splintered houses, peeled off roofs and stirred up a terrifying surge of seawater that submerged entire neighborhoods and set boats careening down city streets.” The on-line headline reads “Hurricane Michael Cuts Path of Destruction Through Florida’s Panhandle.” I am interested in the action verbs that attribute agency to the hurricane. My own use of an active verb “move’ in the first sentence of this paragraph is symptomatic of this assignment of agency to a natural phenomena that clearly has no consciousness to choose anything. Hurricanes simply are, and destruction follows in their wake. Destruction is caused by hurricanes, but hurricanes do not choose to destroy.Actually, in Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen!Natural conditions there are not suitable to the formation of such storms but unprepared as the location might be for such storms massive damage could be caused. Hurricanes have no agency and I wonder what is the consequence of assigning human agency to natural phenomena. In this construction the active agent becomes Nature as if Nature could with any conscious good or bad order events—as if hurricanes actually knew what they were doing, and we humans merely passive objects of the hurricane’s fury. Yes, we are certainly victims of the fury of the storm, but we are not the storm’s enemy. The storm is an impersonal force that is incapable of consciousness and therefore, of agency. But I think our willingness to employ language to reduce humans to passivity indicates further our sense of helplessness in these first few decades of the 21stcentury. If Nature has agency then climate change can be attributed to Nature’s way and not to human action. We humans are relieved of responsibility. Anthropomorphizing non-human phenomena (I am told we live now in a post-human world—another topic for another time) gives agency where it does not belong and removes agency from its proper place of origin. I think our verbs tell a great deal about our sense of self in the world. If we learned to speak with greater consciousness and acknowledge our agency.

05 October 2018

May all Your Favorite Bands Stay Together

I want to assume that the song that served as the soundtrack of my dreams has been carefully produced by the unconscious. Last night’s dream was accompanied by the Dawes, “May all Your Favorite Bands Stay Together.” They sing: 
I hope that life without a chaperone is what you thought it’d be
I hope your brother’s El Camino runs forever
I hope the world sees the same person that you always were to me
And may all your favorite bands stay together
Until the breakup of the Beatles I don’t recall that this heartbreaking possibility was ever a concern of mine. Of course, there were occasionally personnel changes within a band, as when John Denver replaced Chad Mitchell or the replacements for Keith Moon of the Who or Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones both of whom died of drug abuse. The folk artists whom I adored—Tom Paxton, Eric Anderson, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, well, etc. usually played solo or with a hired upright bass player. They stayed together. And Peter, Paul and Mary stayed together for life.
     But one’s favorite bands represented more than the music they played: they were a time and place, friends and even lovers, early hopes for some variety of communal living—visions, I suppose, of a rock n’ roll heaven. Favorite bands spoke to the devotee in sympathetic and cryptic languages, gave distance from the insular home and helped preserve our early energies and means of escapes. Our favorite bands encapsulated our lives, and when they broke up we felt abandoned. If our lives were becoming messy, at least the music would remain consistent and hold us—even bind us, together, but when they broke up they left a huge gap in our consciousness.
     Our adult lives are life without a chaperone, but I don’t know if it is all I thought it’d be. I thought it would contain my favorite bands, for one.
     So I suppose the sound of the Dawes recording in my dreams last evening indicates both a regret and a hope. My favorite bands didn’t always stay together, and none of my cars (except my present Prius!!) ran forever. I certainly don’t think the world sees me as I would be seen—who would?? But we can cling to the idea that we had a favorite band and we can hold to the hope that they will reunite, young as they and we once were.

02 October 2018

The Imposter

Ostensibly, The Imposter, by Javier Cercas is a book about Enrico Marco, who at the age of fifty (as did Don Quixote, Cercas often reminds the reader) reinvented his life and himself. Cercas writes, “He [Marco] became deeply politicized, and completely reinvented himself, falsifying or embellishing or embroidering his past, gifting himself with a new name, a new wife, a new city, a new job and a new life.” Finally, Marco went so far as to claim to be a survivor of the Nazi concentration camp, Flossenbürg. This, like the rest of Marco’s story, Cercas discovers, to be a blatant lie. Cercas’ book, apparently an elaboration of an article exposing Marco’s deception, details the process by which Marco invented his life. Ostensibly, The Imposter is a book about the deceptions constructed by Enrico Marco in his reinvention of himself and Cercas’ journey to discover those lies. Cercas, the novelist, admits that he can’t write a novel about Marco because Marco has already spoken so many lies that his life is already a fiction. He has to write an interpretive history, though ironically Cercas writes, “The liar has no history.”
     Ostensibly, all seems well and good. But in fact, Cercas is a novelist, and throughout The Imposter he refers to books as either “novels with fiction” or “novels without fiction.” All novels mix fiction and reality, Cercas acknowledges. “Except for non-fiction novels or true stories, all novels do.” The Imposter is meant to be a novel without fiction, but Cercas troubles the notion of literature. His classification suggests that all books are novels, a genre that is associated usually with the category of fiction: things that are made up, are imaginative creations, with characters that have no actual existence in the world, but rather, exist only in the imaginations of the author and her readers. Well, t description hat sounds a bit like Enrico Marco: and Part II of Cercas’ book second is headed “The Novelist of Himself.” But I am thinking—I have thought-- if all books are novels, then what are novels except just that--books, and to label them as ‘with or without’ fiction becomes a spurious distinction. To paraphrase Hamlet, there is nothing true or false but thinking makes it so??
     I think The Imposter concerns the nature of literature, what it is and how it serves the reading public: well, even the nonreading public who live with those who do read. The question recurs often in Cercas’ book: how is what Marco has done in creating a character different than what an author does in constructing a world, and perhaps for similar reasons. In an imaginary conversation with Marco (!), Cercas asks, “if literature cannot serve to save people, what purpose does it serve?” Marco tries to convince Cercas (Cercas usurping Marco’s voice!) that the two men are identical in their purpose. “And what did I do?” Marco asks. “I did exactly the same as you—no, I did it much better than you. I invented a guy like Miralles [a character in Cercas’ novel [Soldiers of Salamis], except that this Miralles was alive and he visited schools and talked to children about the horrors of the Nazi camps and about the Spanish inmates there, and about justice and freedom and solidarity; this man was leader of the Amical de Mauthausen, and thanks to him people began to talk about the Holocaust in Spanish schools, thanks to him people discovered that Flossenbürg camp existed and that fourteen Spaniards had died there.” What Marco argues (what Cercas argues as Marco) is that the fiction that Marco creates served a greater purpose no different than Cercas hopes for his novels with fiction.
     Marco lived the novel he wrote. As an interesting note, Cercas links his narrative to the myth of Narcissus. Conceived as a result of his mother’s rape by Cephissus, Narcissus is born with incredible beauty. Liriope travels to the blind prophet, Tiresias, to ask if her son will live to an old age. Tiresias tells Liriope, that her son will live to old age “if he does not know himself.” Cercas labels Marco as “a textbook narcissist;” at the moment of this writing Marco is ninety-seven years old. What seems suggested is that Marco never does come to know himself, and the novel he wrote kept him defensively ignorant. Literature saved him.