Angle of Repose

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“You yearned backward a good part of your life, and that produced another sort of Doppler Effect. Even while you paid attention to what you must do today and tomorrow, you heard the receding sound of what you had relinquished.”

“Routine work, that best of all anodynes which the twentieth century has tried its best to deprive itself of—that is what I most want.”

Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner

I have no idea why I started reading Angle of Repose, but I am not sure that any book I’ve read recently captured so perfectly that sense of wishing I could breathe life into my own late grandparents’ stories (or the stories of anyone who has left this life)… longing to bring all the details I never thought to ask to life again, to recreate their individual histories and the story they built together. To have, or at least imagine, all the answers to questions I never thought to ask. This history lost to time, as it is in all families. I was quite unexpectedly moved by this quite long book.

“My grandparents had to live their way out of one world and into another, or into several others, making new out of old the way corals live their reef upward. I am on my grandparents’ side. I believe in Time, as they did, and in the life chronological rather than in the life existential. We live in time and through it, we build our huts in its ruins, or used to, and we cannot afford all these abandonings.”

Perhaps the best of books do this to us – we don’t know what to expect going in, and we are constantly surprised, even when what we are confronted with is quite simple, but beautiful. Angle of Repose is certainly both, the richly historical fiction of the American West coupled with two rather tragic but unsentimental stories (one from the past, one in the present, which was, at the time of the book’s publication, the early 1970s.

slowpoke

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I, ever the nagging tooth infection, am abnormally obsessed with teeth.

Not in quite the same way as my old friend, Mike, who became obsessed with his own tooth care so as not to leave behind a toothless skeleton.

Also not in the way that most Americans obsess about the cosmetics and perfection of their teeth and smile. But in an all-encompassing way. Months ago, I stumbled on a book, Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America by Mary Otto, which actually made me cry, and also, more importantly of course, chronicled the American love affair with cosmetic dentistry (and its accompanying expense) and the relation between tooth care, oral health and poverty. But this was not enough. But I was not sure how to drill down (ha – I know – not funny) further.

Last week I read some books on teeth, Teeth: A Very Short Introduction and Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins – both by Peter S Ungar – that delve into evolutionary theory and how teeth have developed – in humans and other species. As I read, particularly as one book went into detail about the types of teeth in other species, I wondered to myself, “What am I doing? Why am I reading this?” Yes, I was fascinated – riveted even – but it still seemed so far off course from what I would normally read or be interested in. I thought for a moment that it might just be deep-rooted (ha – again, not funny) respect for the level of obsessive detail scholars (in any field) bring to their work. I would not have the patience or depth of interest in any field to carry out the kind of painstaking attention and focus that these researchers in archaeology, paleontology, biology, anthropology (and various other sciences) dedicated to their ongoing work.

But it was certainly more than that because I don’t read multiple books on other topics just because I admire the compulsive need of the scientist to chronicle his/her work and hit upon discoveries no one has made before (or broaden, deepen, confirm, refute or upend the existing scholarship). No, it’s just a weird fascination with teeth. In Ungar’s Teeth, as I happily read along in delight, this was confirmed in a long passage about the teeth of snails, slugs and other molluscs, confirming my answers to this internal self-questioning.

Then there are the mollusks. Tens of thousands of species, from slug to snail to squid, have ‘teeth’. These form in rows on ribbons of chitin in the mouth called radulae. Many mollusks use these structures as a comb to rake up microorganisms, or as a rasp to scrape food from rock or shell. Radulae typically move back and forth like a handsaw. While radular ‘teeth’ tend to be small and recurved, shapes and sizes can vary with species and function in feeding. They can even vary within individuals. In fact, a change in diet can trigger a change in shape for new ‘teeth’ formed to replace old, worn ones. Also, some radulae are extremely specialized. Whelks, for example, commonly have three long, sabre-like ‘teeth’ in each row. These are used to drill through barnacle and clam shells with the help of secretions that break down calcium carbonate. And cone snails have radulae modified into hypodermic needles to inject venom. These have barb at their ends, and can be extended from the mouth like harpoons to attack and paralyse prey.

I had to laugh at my own oddity.

Photo (c) 2017 S Donaghy

Contextual past and eventual becoming

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“I am writing for the person I used to be. Perhaps the person I once left behind persists, standing there, still and grim, in some attic of time – on a bend, on a crossroads – and in some mysterious way she is able to read the lines I am setting out here, without seeing them.” –A General Theory of Oblivion, José Eduardo Agualusa

In If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino hints gently at context, and by envisioning parallel, fictional realities, we may be ripping some gem from its intended context and stuffing it into another to serve another purpose, to enhance another context. These are not even close to his words, and in fact, in my own paraphrasing I have moved his original words (in translation no less) quite far from their origin and intended context to justify my own. It is the intent, perhaps, that a reader should interpret and ‘steal’ concepts (I know that in one of the multitudes of books I have read this week, there was a passage somewhere about stealing and refashioning good ideas – but I don’t know if I saved the quote. A shame).

But this is my pattern. I read aggressively, voraciously, feverishly highlighting meaningful passages (stopping briefly to wonder if I might highlight different passages and quotes if I were in another frame of mind, or context). And later I find some application – or context – for those passages that meant most to me in some way.

Behavior eventually shows its hand and establishes a pattern if you wait long enough. I can change these patterns to change behaviors, but the underlying drive comes out the same. I shifted from television addiction to a reading addiction, which I would argue is the better of the two addictions. But both are addictive and almost compulsive behaviors. To compensate, I seek and find some balance, and my constant underlying drive is not just the search for balance but the search for change. And for me, change is always about the future and ensuring some otherness or difference from the now and the past. It is not about dragging vestiges of the past with me into new scenery; it is likewise not about erasing that past or its experience. It does not mean cast off the you who was, but does mean give careful consideration to the you who will be.

“This is what I mean when I say I would like to swim against the stream of time: I would like to erase the consequences of certain events and restore an initial condition. But every moment of my life brings with it an accumulation of new facts, and each of these new facts brings with it its consequences; so the more I seek to return to the zero moment from which I set out, the further I move away from it: though all my actions are bent on erasing the consequences of previous actions and though I manage to achieve appreciable results in this erasure, enough to open my heart to hopes of immediate relief, I must, however, bear in mind that my every move to erase previous events provokes a rain of new events, which complicate the situation worse than before and which I will then, in their turn, have to try to erase. Therefore I must calculate carefully every move so as to achieve the maximum of erasure with the minimum of recomplication.” If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

While many recognize and complain about their patterns, they do nothing to alter them. Change, after all, is what we most avoid. Because of this aversion to change, at least some kinds of change, the complaints are idle and the angst projected about them contrived. But we all have our blind spots, especially when it comes to other, unpredictable, people.

“…but at that moment it was as if an undigested bit of the past had come back up his throat.” –The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Paolo Giordano

Yes, people. Unpredictable people who jump around in the timeline of our lives. Almost dead within our archives, yet somehow we live on, almost as living, breathing people in the daily existences, of which we are (almost) no longer a part. I can control my books or tv viewing or the lengths of walks in the rain (though I cannot yet control the rain). I can control how much I sleep and how deeply involved I become in my mad dreams (how I love these). But people… and how much the past wears on and continues to affect (and infect) people.

Someone told me recently that “the past is a foreign country”, which sounds, not unlike my allusions and references to Calvino, like something lifted from a literary source (with which I am not familiar). This is poetic, but Calvino himself manages to describe the pernicious nature of the past with a far more apt simile:

“The past is like a tapeworm, constantly growing, which I carry curled up inside me”.

The past, and the people who populate it, has a voracious appetite and will eat away at one from the inside, if one lets it.

The interesting part is that the phantoms, those living in the past as though it were yesterday: they are often the most honest ones. Maybe not about how the past was (they can in fact be quite blind and/or deluded), but they aren’t hiding their intentions or papering over their defects. And the people laboring along in the firm belief that they are living in the present and looking toward the future? The veneer of calm does not hide the high-strung individual underneath, paddling away from reminders of the past like poor swimmers with no instinct for floating – there is no actual serenity in those who so desperately seek it. Maybe, like Daniel Hall writes in “Love Letter Burning”: “The past will shed some light/but never keep us warm”.

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion

Memoirs & McKagan

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In between the more grueling books I’m juggling, I make room spontaneously for “spot choices” – something that I am reminded of in the spur of the moment, something I would not necessarily seek out eagerly (Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality and the Struggle for Oral Health in America, anyone?) but which might be interesting in some way. This is, as I have mentioned before, how I come to read most contemporary autobiographical memoirs. They share some background information about admired (or not) musicians or celebrities, but don’t usually set my brain ablaze. Sure, from the thoughtful writing of Carrie Brownstein and Kim Gordon, both seemingly effortlessly cool public figures, I glimpsed that seemingly universal truth that no matter how cool, aloof, nonchalant and in control we seem on the surface, there’s an insecure, wants-to-be-liked person underneath.

Even the memoirs of “regular” people (which, of course, all of these books underline: we all are regular people), such as the pleasant-enough Shrill by Lindy West and the charmingly self-deprecating All Over the Place by effusively expressive Geraldine DeRuiter (and I am dead serious here: if you don’t already read Geraldine’s Everywhereist blog, do. Also follow her on Twitter; one of my favorite Twitter feeds), forge this kind of ‘we’re all in the soup’ of humanity by sharing their everyday experiences. (Or maybe now that I look at this as a pattern, I read all of these because there is the Seattle connection to all of them but Kim Gordon.)

That said, these kinds of books are rarely ever deeply challenging, will be fast and easy to read. They may make us smile, laugh, nod in agreement and approval or even get angry or feel sympathy for the writer. These are very human books. It was in this way, in one of these palate cleansing frames of mind, that I came to read Duff McKagan’s How to Be a Man.

I don’t know how Duff McKagan ever ended up being someone on my radar, bookwise or otherwise. Somehow since junior high school in the Seattle area, he, despite my not being the Guns ‘n’ Roses ‘type’ (whatever that is), stuck out (probably being a local boy and all helped that visibility). Later, I think I was impressed by the fact that he went back to college after the heyday of GnR and worked on finding his sobriety and ways to maintain it. At another point in my life, I would not have picked up this book; in fact even if I had, I don’t think I would have taken anything away from it. But this time, having had the experiences of the last decade, I approached it differently.

But this is what I will say about it: Despite the fact that it struck me as slightly disorganized (some parts more organized than others), slightly random (although some parts were considerably slicker than others, which made me think the editing was choppy), neither of these things made the book bad. It in fact inspired the feeling and sense of sitting and listening to the guy reel off stories and opinions about his life and his experiences. Maybe that was what he was going for – the relatable (well, in tone, perhaps, not in all the activities – although let’s be clear, as Duff most certainly is – all Seattleites DO live with the ticking-clock on summer, and the damn deck/lawn/painting/housework can only be done in rain-soaked Seattle in that limited window) and conversational.

The book was entertaining and perfectly served the need I had at this exact moment:

*It flowed quickly, even if, as I stated, the editing didn’t make the content flow all the time.

*I liked the random lists of stuff, particularly the diverse variety of recommended albums and books. I would probably add more must-hear albums/artists (today I am overly influenced by the songwriting genius of Neil Finn/Crowded House and the longevity and wild creativity of Robyn Hitchcock). I would also add many books, but who wouldn’t? There are too many books in the world to be able to do justice to a must-read list, which McKagan himself acknowledges, describing his propensity for populating his personal library both in digital and paper formats:

“But a bookstore is the ultimate way to immerse yourself in what’s new. You can browse, and you can ask around, something you can’t do as well in the cocoon of e-commerce. It can be the littlest hint or clue that sends people looking for a book and thrusts their life briefly in new directions. It can be gossip you hear in line for an espresso or a movie you see on espionage. The direction of your reading can very well influence your life for a while.” –How to Be a Man

Clearly he gets what most passionate readers get:

“This is every reader’s catch-22: the more you read, the more you realize you haven’t read; the more you yearn to read more, the more you understand that you have, in fact, read nothing. There is no way to finish, and perhaps that shouldn’t be the goal. The novelist Umberto Eco famously kept what the writer Nassim Taleb called an “anti-library,” a vast collection of books he had not read, believing that one’s personal trove should contain as much of what you don’t know as possible.” –My Life with Bob, Pamela Paul

*On addiction and sobriety, he didn’t have anything new to say that I haven’t heard or read from recovering addicts or specialists in this field. But it’s nevertheless key to see some of the resounding themes: resentment and regret; again, some of this same lack of self-esteem and assurance that the other memoirists listed above have expressed, e.g. learning to like and trust oneself; that, as cliche as it sounds, it’s a one-day-at-a-time process. And sometimes the things that pull you through are unexpected and maybe even the smallest things that then go on to have ripple effects. In his case it was his ‘latching onto’ Jim Rome’s radio show, and when he appeared on the show as a guest, this prompted other listeners to take steps to regain control of their own lives. This too could sound cliche, but the kinship of addicts, and the power of these small sparks to inspire, is the same kind of things I have seen in trying to understand and connect with recovering alcoholics in my own life:

“This life is crazy. It’s the little things that can be absolute game changers.” –How to Be a Man

*Seahawks, Seattle sports and the constant, indefatigable cheering for the (hometown) underdog. Need I say more?

*Seattle. Yes, Seattle. (Do I sound all homesick? I swear I’m not! I left so long ago for a reason!) That place that suddenly became visible in the 1990s, from which its veil was slightly lifted with the mania that surrounded Twin Peaks during its first go-around (even though this was not technically Seattle, you’d still have to go to Seattle to get to the real-world equivalent of Twin Peaks). It is hard to believe now that Seattle was ever this unheard-of place that McKagan describes.

But true story: in junior high, I had a pen pal in California (this was 1989) who phoned me once and asked not only what time it was in Seattle (says more about his ignorance of time zones and geography than Seattle’s invisibility). He seemed surprised to learn that I had ever heard of Depeche Mode and even that I had a phone. If I recall, it was the same year that Time magazine covered the insular nature of Washington state and its ire at “rich Californians” showing up to scoop up all the land. Hmm. (I did go back to see if I could find that issue of Time, and it was, as a side note, interesting to see the cover stories – Donald Trump on the cover in Jan 1989, taunting readers that we would all be “green with envy” about his wealth – or a headline: “The New USSR?” – or Kevin Costner, just releasing Field of Dreams, or Pete Rose, just being tossed for life from baseball. Oh, hilariously, there was a cover featuring the Rolling Stones, including a headline about “aging rockers”… and we thought they were aged then?)

Back to the point. Seattle was on no one’s radar. Not in any appreciable way, at least. Not until Nirvana came along:

“I used to brag to anyone who would listen that these guys were from “my town” and that soon the rest of the world would realize that people didn’t live in tepees in Seattle!” –How to Be a Man

While McKagan framed the singular Seattle “way” within the lens of sports (and a bit in music), it is on the whole accurate about the city’s attitude and evolution.

It is a place of some stoicism, insularity and a bit of an outsider’s “fuck ’em” attitude. Claire Dederer posits in her own sort of memoir, Love & Trouble:

“Seattle is not a big city for crying. Seattle, in fact, is famously emotionally stoppered. There are many theories as to why this is the case; some say it’s because of our dominant genetic and cultural heritages: Norwegian and Japanese. Whatever the reason, Seattle is a place where you are not supposed to emote. You are supposed to endure. In Seattle, where rain and traffic are two snakes twining, choking the body of the city, forbearance is an art. We don’t cry, we just put on more Gore-Tex or maybe use the driving time of our commute to listen to a self-improvement book on tape. Though “driving” is a strong word for what happens when you get into a car in Seattle. And yet suddenly there were these crying hot spots.”

“When you visit other cities, get asked about Seattle. The people you meet want to move there. No one used to move to Seattle except aeronautical engineers and, like, rabid fishing enthusiasts. No one used to know where Seattle even was. They thought maybe it was in Oregon.”

And this obscurity from which Seattle was lifted has made it a too-hot, too-desirable place, in which most mere mortals cannot afford to live.

So… bottom line, I don’t know if I would recommend that anyone read McKagan’s book. I will, though, be giving a copy to one person who will be able to relate, and I think in that way it will help him. And perhaps that is the most one can hope for: reaching one person, especially when they need to hear your particular message, one day at a time.

The break

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After getting through the three-book series on AIDS in Swedish, I told someone I would ‘take a break’. He found it, in his words, ‘ridiculously endearing’ that for me, reading a “fluffy” book is the break. For him, a break would be to cease reading entirely, grabbing the remote and feeding his eyes with mindless cop shows or football matches. For me, a break is putting away the Dostoevsky-heavy books and reading something lightweight, like the music memoirs of Kim Gordon or Carrie Brownstein (I’m even considering something like Duff McKagan’s How to Be a Man right now). These are easy and relatively entertaining reads.

See, I can’t stop reading now that I am back up at the plate. I will stay put and keep hitting foul tips if I have to. (I could maybe put baseball language to bed, though.) As I said to someone the other day, we can’t live our lives as though they stretch on for untold decades. I don’t have regrets, but if I were to, I do ask myself what I was thinking all those years not reading much of anything at all. I can’t get the last decade back. I was not in the right frame of mind to hoover up this much stuff, or even anything close to this kind of volume, but maybe a few bits more would not have hurt.

Mediocre egg roll

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When I spend such a vast amount of time reading – losing track even of how many hours pass with my nose in a virtual book – of course I see connections. Most often these are thematic connections that crochet together, however loosely, disparate books and ideas from different parts of the world.

Sometimes though there are just coincidental mentions that seem strange – for instance, choosing randomly to read a Philip Roth (Goodbye Columbus) in which he mentions egg rolls, only to be followed immediately by a Joan Didion (Play It as It Lays), which also mentions egg rolls.

It has no significance. But why is that the one connection… and the one thing I remember? (I do recall my last trip to Iceland when my dear Jane brought over egg rolls and had somehow ordered two orders of them rather than just two egg rolls, and it was actually the best thing about the meal – they were quite good!)

Overdosing on reading, I took a little break Friday evening to watch a “triple feature” of Jaime Rosales’s understated, slice-of-life, ultra-realistic films (on MUBI, of course). And what do they show other than the tedium and brevity of life, punctuated as it is by bits of bad news, manipulative people and occasional dramatic events that upend our lives and sometimes disturb our very souls. And yet the backdrop remains the same: the humdrum, the mundane and the mediocre. And this is a place where the small, almost imperceptible happinesses reside: where a character meets a waitress who comments on how cute her baby son is, where a character can enjoy how much light comes into her flat, where characters at dinner can comment at length on how simple and good the meal turned out, where a character can move little by little past the individual and collective tragedies. We don’t get to see this “striving for normal life” much, certainly not in mainstream films, and certainly not in films that exceed two hours in length (as Solitary Fragments/La Soledad was) or which are essentially without dialogue (Bullet in the Head/Tiro en la Cabeza).

The films were there for me to watch at exactly the right time. After reading an article about the desire for a mediocre life, which unexpectedly struck chords with many of my friends, and thinking about how the simplicity and calm of an average and non-dramatic life is exceptionally fulfilling, the normal and mediocre nature of life as portrayed in these films was illustrative and almost life-affirming. And the things in life that often give us the most are the things that are the most unassuming, the least glamorous. These things, as a 2016 University of Otago study concluded, are small, daily creative pursuits that foster feelings of “flourishing” and make us want to do more. For me, it has often been baking (everyone knows that once I start, it’s hard to stop because I feel productive joy from this simple act and giving the results to others); for others, it is long-distance running; for others, like my mother, it’s knitting. Things that don’t necessarily require excessive resources or expensive equipment, exciting or exotic locations or anything particularly demanding.

Especially after being hit Friday evening with a brief wave of deep sadness and a feeling of loss that sprang up seemingly from nowhere to choke me as I waited in a long, endless Friday evening line at the store.

By the end of the night the feeling had completely washed away, soothed by returning to reading (The Things They Carried and I Do Not Come to You By Chance) and some always-restorative words from a fellow, in his words, “misanthropic mugwump”.

Photo (c) 2011 Annie used under Creative Commons license.

Reflective deceit – interchangeably on repeat

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“We are who we’re not, and life is quick and sad.”Fernando Pessoa, The Age of Disquiet

I had given a lot of thought to mirrors – both literal and figurative – in the days leading up to his sharing a random thought about mirrors and their uses. I twirled that around in my mind – how is it that each thought he expresses is like a mirror of my own thoughts? Not just general “thinking similarly” but near-verbatim captures, as though he were me and shared my consciousness, overlapping in time and meaning. I would think something, be overcome by something, silently, and he would voice the next logical thought or feeling for me. It should have been frightening to realize this interchangeability, but instead it was comforting to feel that a shared mind could express what I could not, or could extend my expressions, without my exerting any effort at all. An intellectual and mental mirror image.

My considerations, informed by a complete overload of reading, centered on how mirrors and reflections (both the visual and the intellectual varieties) intertwine effortlessly with memory, desire, identity and our whole concept of time, i.e. what the past and future mean to us as we creep through the minutes and hours of the present.

We know there is no objective truth when it comes to human reflection, but does that make it all reflective deceit? Our reflections have value, but at what cost?

“At times the mirror increases a thing’s value, at times denies it. Not everything that seems valuable above the mirror maintains its force when mirrored.”Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

“Los espejos son gratis pero qué caro mirarse de verdad…”Julio Cortázar, “Inflación qué mentira” (Mirrors are free but how dear to really see yourself”)

Particularly given how memory is tricky, slippery and totally enmeshed in personal consciousness.

La memoria es un espejo que miente escandalosamente.” -Cortázar (Memory is a mirror that scandalously lies)

The fallibility and subjectivity of memory means it cannot be trusted.

“Stuck On Repeat” – Little Boots – because repeating shit is what I do: “Every time I try to break free/then something comes along to intervene”

But we’re alive,
full of memory and thought,
love, sometimes regret,
and at moments we take a special pride
because the future cries in us
and its tumult makes us human.

from “Describing Paintings,” Eternal Enemies Adam Zagajewski

Photo (c) 2013 Dermot McElduff used under Creative Commons license.