Which Would You Prefer, A Story or an Explanation
Cause of Death: Fox News
Toward the end he sat on the back porch,
sweeping his binoculars back and forth
over the dry scrub-brush and arroyos,
certain he saw Mexicans
moving through the creosote and sage
while the TV commentators in the living room,
turned up loud enough for a deaf person to hear,
kept pouring gasoline on his anxiety and rage.
In the end he preferred to think about illegal aliens,
about welfare moms and healthcare socialists,
than about the uncomfortable sensation of the disease
crawling through his tunnels in the night,
crossing the river between his liver and his spleen.
It was just his luck
to be born in the historical period
that would eventually be known
as the twilight of the white male dinosaur,
feeling weaker and more swollen every day,
with the earth gradually looking more like hell
and a strange smell rising from the kitchen sink.
In the background those big male voices
went on and on, turning the old crank
about hard work and god, waving the flag
and whipping the dread into a froth.
Then one day my father had finished
his surveillance, or it had finished him,
and the cable-TV guy
showed up at the house apologetically
to take back the company equipment:
the complicated black box with the dangling cord,
and the gray rectangular remote control,
like a little coffin.
“One way to make a convincing poetic voice is to display the mind in motion, or the mind changing direction as it speaks. We like to say “I changed my mind,” but the human mind alters its direction so rapidly and constantly, we might as well say “My mind changed me.”– Tony Hoagland, The Art of Voice
For the first time in a long time, I read a real, physical book. I suddenly felt conspicuous reading while flying, holding a book in my hands, about which everyone could make assumptions just by reading the title. Reading while flying. It was a book on Buddhism, so make of that what you will. Unfortunately for me, I was seated by a very strange man who kept sliding his hand down his trousers while drinking at least five glasses of cranberry juice. I am not sure whether he was pleasuring himself or somehow trying to relieve a bladder infection by touch. Either way, it was a relief to escape him as well as to finish the book in the course of one flight.
Like every autumn in recent memory, this one has been filled with travel, and this won’t taper off until late November. I don’t think I have ever wanted to *just stay home* as much as I do right now.
October wasn’t spectacularly productive in the reading department but here’s my very brief report anyway.
Thoughts on reading for October:
I had good intentions for producing a full blog post on my reading in October, but it didn’t quite work as I wished. I have too many other things going on, so I don’t read quite as many books, and even if I read the same amount, I don’t have the time to reflect and write about them in quite the same way. And there were other things, important things, happening. Like spending time in Prague and meeting with dearest A as well as more adventures with my brother, so I can’t really claim that shortchanging a blog no one reads is going to make any difference.
“The idea that writerly originality appears from nowhere, or exists as something in isolation, a thing to be guarded and protected from influence, is lunacy. Anyone who doesn’t school themselves by deep, wide, and idiosyncratic reading is choosing aesthetic poverty. Such aesthetic cloistering is like protecting your virginity in the belief that it will make you better at sex.” –The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice – Tony Hoagland
Sadly I didn’t read anything that I thought was so great I’d need to recommend it. Maybe, at a push, I’d say The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice by Tony Hoagland. I am not normally moved by books that aim to “instruct” one on how to write or develop voice, but this was an exception – probably just because Hoagland’s own voice is unique.
Good – or better than expected
I don’t know what I would impart about this except that it has been the most interesting among the required texts for the current study program.
Nothing particularly new given all my previous disciplines of study, but nevertheless a good reminder of how very different various groups define “globalization” – and what the consequences of those different definitions can be.
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
“I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo, and I realized for the first time that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, rooted for Dumbo, against Dumbo’s tormentors. Invariably they laughed and cheered, both when Dumbo succeeded and when bad things happened to his enemies. But they’re you, I thought to myself. How did they not know? They didn’t know. It was astounding, an astounding truth. Everyone thought they were Dumbo. Again and again I saw the phenomenon repeated. The meanest girls, the ones who started secret clubs to ostracize the poorly dressed, delighted to see Cinderella triumph over her stepsisters. They rejoiced when the prince kissed her. Evidently, they not only saw themselves as noble and good, but also wanted to love and be loved. Maybe not by anyone and everyone, the way I wanted to be loved. But, for the right person, they were prepared to form a relation based on mutual kindness. This meant that the Disney portrayal of bullies wasn’t accurate, because the Disney bullies realized they were evil, prided themselves on it, and loved nobody.”
I keep thinking I like Batuman but it’s truer to say that I really, really like short passages. She makes keen observations now and then that are lovely.
“Katalin, who was seventeen, was beautiful, with waist-length flaxen hair and a perfectly plain face. Why was “plain” a euphemism for “ugly,” when the very hallmark of human beauty was its plainness, the symmetry and simplicity that always seemed so young and so innocent. It was impossible not to think that her beauty was one of the most important things about her—something having to do with who she really was.“
But then the rest of it reads like someone’s college diary. And everything I’ve read that she’s written feels like a slightly different version of that very same thing. I related to it to some extent because she’s writing about university in the early 90s, studying Russian/Eastern European stuff and the infancy of email, when we were assigned email addresses by our universities but didn’t really understand how the magic happened when these mysterious digital messages just appeared.
I don’t think I ran into anything exceptionally coincidental in my reading except for the fact that there was a long passage in The New Social Face of Buddhism in which the infamous Milgram and Zimbardo psychological experiments are cited (as they always are when examining ethical missteps). It’s tangentially coincidental because I never remember the name “Milgram” and Mr Firewall, who has never studied psychology, but did see a thinly veiled takeoff on the Milgram story in an old episode of Law & Order: SVU (with the late Robin Williams as guest star), always remembers the name now.
Also, it being a book about Buddhism, there is a whole lot of stuff about mindfulness, which is something that comes up constantly and which Firewall hates.
I was therefore able to tell him that even in this book on Buddhism there were things for him in it.
Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)
I don’t think I read anything I hated or felt great disappointment about.
If I knew I would be dead by this time next year I believe I would
spend the months from now till then writing thank-you notes to strangers
telling them, “You really were a great travel agent,” or
“I never got the taste of your kisses out of my mouth.” or
“Watching you walk across the room
was part of my destination.”
It would be the equivalent, I think, of leaving a chocolate wrapped in
shiny foil on the pillow of a guest in a hotel–
“Hotel of earth, where we resided for some years together,” I
start to say, before I realize it is a terrible cliche,
and stop, and then go on, forgiving myself in a mere split second
because now that I’m dying, I just go forward like water, flowing
and second thoughts, not getting snagged, just continuing with my long
list of thank-yous, which seems to naturally expand
to include sunlight and wind, and the aspen trees which gleam and
shimmer in the yard and the intricate irrigation system
which nourishes their roots invented by an individual whose name I will
never know but to whom I am quietly grateful.
Outside it is autumn, season when cold air sharpens the mind. The hills
are red and copper in their shaggy majesty.
The clouds blow overhead like governments and years. Time to contemplate
the distant things, to learn from their example of calm;
time to practice affection without a desperate hanging on. It took me a
long time to understand the phrase “distant regard,”
but I believe that I get it now, and I am grateful for my heart, that
turned out to be good, after all;
and grateful for my mind, to which, in retrospect, I can see I have
never been sufficiently kind.
Don’t Tell Anyone
We had been married for six or seven years
when my wife, standing in the kitchen one afternoon, told me
that she screams underwater when she swims—
that, in fact, she has been screaming for years
into the blue chlorinated water of the community pool
where she does laps every other day.
Buttering her toast, not as if she had been
not as if I should consider myself
personally the cause of her screaming,
nor as if we should perform an act of therapy
right that minute on the kitchen table,
—casually, she told me,
and I could see her turn her square face up
to take a gulp of oxygen,
then down again into the cold wet mask of the unconscious.
For all I know, maybe everyone is screaming
as they go through life, silently,
politely keeping the big secret
that it is not all fun
to be ripped by the crooked beak
of something called psychology,
to be dipped down
again and again into time;
that the truest, most intimate
pleasure you can sometimes find
is the wet kiss
of your own pain.
There goes Kath, at one pm, to swim her twenty-two laps
back and forth in the community pool;
—what discipline she has!
Twenty-two laps like twenty-two pages,
that will never be read by anyone.
I don’t trust people who overuse the word extraordinary.
Nor those who tell you how much they adore everything,
as in, “I adore Susan Sarandon” or, “this apple pie” or, “the way you wear your hair.”
I get lost inside of the exaggerations.
The tree will topple under all those promises.
The branch will break from all that heavy fruit.
Why pretend? Not all human beings are beautiful.
People killed by bombs are not automatic heroes.
One Tuesday night’s unhappiness
does not make the world a terrible place.
The four-star general on television says,
“Bombing that city was a serious mistake,
but it taught me a lot about myself.”
Perhaps he should give a medal to his therapist.
When I hear how certain people speak,
I think of those mansions built along the north New Jersey shore,
that completely block ordinary people from a view of the ocean.
I think of the people who call that investment real estate.
My heroes are the ones who don’t say much.
They don’t hug people they just met.
They use plain language even when they listen.
They stand back and let you see it for yourself.
Wisdom doesn’t come to every Californian.
Chances are I too
will die with difficulty in the dark.
If you want to see a lost civilization,
why not just look in the mirror?
If you want to talk about love, why not begin
with those marigolds you forgot to water?
Ode to the Republic
It’s going to be so great when America is just a second fiddle
and we stand on the sidelines and watch the big boys slug it out.
Old men reading the Times on benches in Central Park
will smile and say, “Let Brazil take care of it.”
Farmers in South Carolina will have bumper stickers that read
“One nation, with vegetables for all” and “USA:
Numero Uno for grade A tomatoes!”
America, you big scary baby, didn’t you know
when you pounded your chest like that in public
it just embarrassed us?
When you lied to yourself on television,
we looked down at our feet;
When your left hand turned into a claw,
when you hammered the little country down
and chanted the pledge of allegiance,
I put on my new sunglasses
and stared at the church across the street.
I thought I had to go down with you,
hating myself in red white and blue
learning to say “I’m sorry,” in more and more foreign languages.
But now at last the end of our dynasty has arrived,
and I feel humble and calm and curiously free.
It’s so good to be unimportant.
It’s so nice to sit on the shore of the Potomac
and watch Time take back half of everything.
It’s a relief to take the dog for a walk
without body armor and stun guns, without frightening the neighbors.
My country, ‘tis of thee I sing:
There are worse things than being
minor player, ex-bigshot, former VIP, drinking decaf
in the nursing home for downsized superpowers.
Like a Navajo wearing a cowboy hat, may you learn
to handle history ironically.
May you look into the mirror and see your doubleness—old blue eyes
in a brown face.
May your women finally lay down
the law: No more war on a school night.
May your shame at failing be cushioned by the oldest kind of chemotherapy:
stage after stage of acceptance.
May someone learn to love you again.
May you sit on the porch with the other countries
in the late afternoon,
and talk about chickens and rain.
Coming and Going
My marriage ended in an airport long ago.
I was not wise enough to cry while looking for my car,
walking through the underground garage;
jets were roaring overhead, and if I had been wise
I would have looked up at those heavy-bellied cylinders
and seen the wheelchairs and the frightened dogs inside;
the kidneys bedded in dry ice and Styrofoam containers.
I would have known that in synagogues and churches all over town
couples were gathering like flocks of geese
getting ready to take off, while here the jets were putting down
their gear, getting ready for the jolt, the giant tires
shrieking and scraping off two
long streaks of rubber molecules,
that might have been my wife and I, screaming in our fear.
It is a matter of amusement to me now,
me staggering around that underground garage,
trying to remember the color of my vehicle,
unable to recall that I had come by cab—
eventually gathering myself and going back inside,
to get the luggage
I would be carrying for the rest of my life.
Proof of Life
Those small cuts and infections on my hands
from splinters and thorns
that show I have been working out of doors this week.
The maddening peculiar purgatory
of Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band
playing “Against the Wind”
continuously for three days inside my head
until on the fourth day it finally stops.
The sound of clothes going around in the dryer
at the other end of the house.
Wanting from a very young age
not to be a zombie sleepwalking through time.
Leaving people, and being left by them.
This catch-and-release version of life.
The kidnappers send out a photograph of the
holding up a newspaper from yesterday.
They call this “proof of life.”
It means the captive is still alive.
The day is blue with one high white cloud
like a pilgrim going to Canterbury.
There is a bird half-hidden in the shrub outside.
Something he has eaten has made his
chest feathers red.
Ten Reasons Why We Cannot Seem to Make Progress
As long as the cheerleader keeps watching the movie about cheerleaders
and the businessman keeps a copy of The Art of War in his attaché case.
As long as the money retains no memory of where it has been
but keeps on running like a river
Until going to war is explained in terms of child development
Until the man is shown licking his fingertips
and reaching down to brush the woman’s cunt,
until her wetness wakes and matches his.
Until every candidate for Congress is required
to work for a year in the military,
rubbing lotion onto the stumps of the amputees,
which will be so frightening to most on a sexual level,
that soon only women will run for the Senate.
As long as meaning is pursued and captured
and placed on display like a trophy or a piece of meat
As long as shoppers continue
to enter the heaven of the shopping mall
like ants climbing in a long line
into the nozzle of the plastic honey container
to die in a golden profusion
of what they planned to bring home—
As long as there are these things
that we are not allowed to think or say out loud.
Until we can speak them out loud,
we will be trapped inside the dream.