Train Catalogue #14

Something was odd this afternoon on the line I rarely take, an express that just isn’t situated right, route-wise, for me to bother with, even though it hits my stop. But schedules had gone screwy, as they sometimes do, and so I hopped on the rush-hours-only train after work. Unbelievably, I had my pick of seats, sharing the carriage for a while with all of maybe seven other people and a conductor who gave a live heads-up of station names, instead of letting the standard pre-recorded announcements chug along in their salesmanlike cheer. The lack of a crowd combined with the presence of a live human voice to form something like an atmosphere of calm beauty in the old car, and for a time, I was left feeling more relaxed about the world than has been the case in a very long time.

The sense began to erode, though, as I noticed that I was the only person in the compartment not entranced by a smartphone in hand. The realization came right after looking up from an article I was reading in The New Yorker, whose paragraph ended by describing actress Geraldine Page’s “illustrating the psychic disturbances and the hidden joys of being human, of feeling strange in a strange land.”* Admittedly, there wasn’t much drama going on in that car, and it’s not as if that final phrase was original enough to jolt me into a revelatory space– but I began to move from feeling a subtle joy in a peaceful moment on a public vehicle to being reminded that I can’t seem to get down in some fundamental ways with the time I’ve been destined to inhabit. Although being surrounded by mobile-captivated zombies has become so habitual I hardly notice it half the time, I’m still brought up short every now and then by what feels like walking among a population that operates according to cultural rules that are in some essential, unchangeable fashion foreign to the basic assumptions that guide my life.

"Look up, speak nicely, and don't twiddle your fingers all the time." John Tenniel's Alice in Wonderland illustrations, on Wikimedia Commons.

“Look up, speak nicely, and don’t twiddle your fingers all the time.” John Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland illustrations, on Wikimedia Commons.

But that semi-regularly recurring reminder is also not necessarily a disheartening, nor even a lonely one; rather, it’s urging me, as it usually does, to go back to Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, and to find solace in the eras- and generations-spanning fellowship of thinkers and actors who’ve never really been able to inhabit any place or time comfortably, because it’s just not in their nature to accept the way things or people are; because for them, the “is” will never be good or worthy enough as long as there’s an “ought” being ignored or suppressed. I’m guessing that a good many of my contemporary compatriots are getting 1) at least a glimpse right now of what it might feel like to be, or be thought of as, strangers in their own, newly strange, land; and 2) of just how many “oughts” are pending out there, awaiting our responses. Maybe it’ll mean more people will start to look up and around, and at the very least, to think a bit more about who and how they are among others, and the duties and expectations that come with such a knowledge. It’s a fragile hope, and only a meager beginning, but a hope all the same.

 

Hilton Als, “Paging Geraldine,” in The New Yorker, 13 & 20 February 2017, 23.

Train Catalogue Redivivus

Hans Krell, Princess Emilia of Saxony, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hans Krell, Princess Emilia of Saxony, via Wikimedia Commons.

Down the aisle from me sat a woman with a pronounced Elizabethan hairline, high, high forehead and plucked and penciled eyebrows bent toward the hardback book in her lap, and the audible world blocked out with the unsurprising presence of earbuds. I never discovered what it was she was reading; only that its cover featured bright yellows and reds and oranges, a fitting complement to the late-afternoon sun coming in through the carriage windows, and doing so in an unusually clear and determined fashion for this time of year.

Well-matched, though, as her text was with the weather, the passenger was apparently conflicted between loyalty to or interest in the narrative on paper and the one being created with her own two thumbs and the screen of her phone, which rested against the pages when she wasn’t toying with it.

Much like the title of her tome, I’ll never find out whether she chose one medium or the other, or whether she continued her jumpy oscillation between the two; as if sensing my thoughts, just before I got off at my stop, the woman glanced my way with what seemed to be an optic warning to back off.

The Fun(niness) of the Numbers Game

It seems beyond banal to say it, but developments that veer me off my assumed path in life never fail to amaze. Presently, that unforeseen twist consists of levels of involvement in and learning centered around financial management I never thought would be within my capacities, much less my realm of interest. But, circumstances having forced me into a new relationship with numbers, most of my reading these days has to do with fiscal policy and organizational structure.

From von Nettesheim, De Occulta Philosophia, on Wikimedia Commons.

From von Nettesheim, De Occulta Philosophia, on Wikimedia Commons.

You’d think it would be a pretty dry topic, and I’m not denying the frequently flat nature, or occasional lack of affect, of the thick tomes I’ve been lugging around. But here’s what I’ve discovered, and what an excellent teacher has helped me to understand: numbers can tell certain narratives in ways that words alone might have to dance around. With their own grammatical structures and rules of usage, numbers and formulae can give off a sort of crackling espionage-esque sense that secret code is carrying something electric through dark voids, something that the players involved want to keep under wraps.

Admittedly, all of this excitement is probably due to the thrill of discovering that I’m not nearly as bad at math as I’d always presumed, and to the dorky elation yours truly experiences at learning just about anything new. But even after the numerical honeymoon comes to an end, I’ll still be left with bits of levity from my present text, Financial Management for Nonprofit Organizations: Policies and Practices.* I’m guessing the authors didn’t expect readers to laugh at the following warning– “In the process of carrying out these [financial] responsibilities, some members of the organization may feel disliked or undervalued by those they serve on a regular basis… accountability is not always popular with those being held accountable”–** but being personally familiar with such reactions blended into my love of what sounded like such an old-school maxim at the end there that I had to wonder, and amusedly so, with what sort of facial expression this team set those words down, and whether they exchanged greatest-hits tales of being derided as the office goodie-two-shoes.

Plus, the following provided a much-needed break from the legalese of the sample board by-laws I was reading– namely, the specification that “There shall be no… members who are not natural persons” on the board.*** Sorry, robots; you’ve still got a way to go, in terms of being fully accepted in the human world. I’m not sure where this rule leaves ghosts; I guess their official designation as “supernatural” disqualifies them as well. Yeah, yeah; I understand why such a specification needs to be made, but really: I’ll take any occasion I can to make this stuff more engaging– or relatable to a “natural person,” as the by-laws would have it.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m in no danger of ditching my lifelong obsession with linguistics, poetics, syntax, structure, imaginative plot and characterization and metaphor and the like. And my finding humor in this stuff isn’t in any way an indication of my taking it as anything less than dead-serious, and interesting, material. But damn– as long as I’m learning it, I’m determined to have as much fun with it as possible. Might as well, since “those I’m holding accountable” definitely aren’t finding anything at all entertaining about my being trained in the ways of pointing official fingers.

 

* John Zietlow, Jo Ann Hankin, and Alan G. Seidner (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2007).
** ibid., xxvi.
*** ibid., 118.

Gilding– Or Schmalzing Up– the Lily

Ho hum. I don’t know whether or not I should have known better, but Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses is doing everything it can to limit my ability to stomach more than a few pages at a time. At some point in my life, I hope to have achieved the ability to articulate with grand precision just what it is about her style that turns an inherently interesting topic– namely, the capacities we have for experiencing the world and ourselves– into something that feels just as treacly as a Krista Tippett production.

If you’re not a party to my aversion of the beloved On Being broadcaster, and the way in which her tone and manner make it impossible for me to listen to the fantastically intriguing guests she succeeds in booking, this comparison will offer zilch in the way of explanation. But it’s about the best I’ve got right now, in trying to describe why I can’t shake the sense that Ackerman’s mode of expression seems to be rooted in an almost unquestioningly celebratory approach to nature and our bodies as part of it, a willingness to view even the most unpleasant aspects of pure biology as gloriously benevolent. There’s something here of the stereotypically hippie-dippy, a phrase that the tree-hugger I am is wary of using in circles who might not understand my simultaneously being a nagging environmental defender and an often no-nonsense human who tends not to suffer fools of her fellow species gladly.

I’m probably being unfair, especially since I’ve only been able to move through this book in slow, measured doses, and do that during a week where fools seem to be coming out of the woodwork and settling themselves into the gilded thrones of power– hence, making me unreceptive, mood-wise, to things that bear even a hint of fulsomeness.dsc04308

Well– instead of complaining, I’ll focus on one good use of nature-based metaphor that I saw at a protest this weekend. Maybe if the sort of seeds this poster references really are determined to– and do– grow and put forth meaningful fruit, my mood will allow me to be a little more patient with Ackerman and her aesthetics, and to see beneath them the real and valuable encouragement to respect and appreciate all the touchable, breathable, tangible realities of ourselves and our world– realities that are especially in need these days of our support and protection. If it means using sappiness of the Ackerman sort to succeed in that project, so be it; I’ll take up a variety of tools for the cause, whether I find them personally stimulating or not.

Proud Classmate of the Poet

Two posts in a day? This must be serious– and indeed it is.

Having received word this afternoon that Nashville friend Lisa Dordal is coming out with a new book, I checked out her blog, which includes links to some of her poems– and I thought: “Damn. She’s good.” Can’t wait for the publication– but until then, I’ll spread the word.

Silence Demanding Its Say

I’ve been thinking a lot about silence lately; although that general topic or concern or phenomenon (I’m still not sure how to define it) has spread itself over multiple subject boundaries, the area in which I’m currently settled has to do with public space. Namely, how much silence should we expect or demand in different sorts of public places– trains, coffee shops, parks?

Set photo from Ingmar Bergman's The Silence, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Set photo from Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

One aspect of that query might just entail considering what’s justifiable in terms of the volume of people’s conversation; the high-decibel vulgarian splashing one crude side of a dialogue throughout an entire train carriage would seem obviously unacceptable– but that’s an extreme, and hence, easy, case for Ethics 101. And then we have a situation such as the following: a friend of mine, just back from a coffee shop we’d frequented in college for studying, and which was still used by the same sort of crowd for the same purposes, couldn’t understand why she was getting the stink-eye from multiple tables in reaction to her toddler’s spinning around the middle of the floor accompanied by his own choral stylings. How could they not find that funny, she demanded? I wish I’d been willing to go more in-depth into that conversation, and to emphasize how you really do need to understand and respect what’s appropriate for a given atmosphere– but having any sort of discussion these days that might possibly involve even the slightest hint of not finding people’s kids in the right, all the time and in all places, tends to put you in the path of unjustified parental wrath, and so I slunk out of that potential confrontation like a true coward’s coward.

Maybe what I’d like to know is whether we have– or should have or expect– a right to silence, and to silence that goes beyond the bounds of our own private, isolated spaces. If democracy entails the need for equal-opportunity, equal-access public conversation, might it also require a place to come together in, or at least experience together, silence? Since listening is an essential part of meaningful conversation, and since said listening necessarily entails some level of silence from the person engaging in it, might we, in fact, need somehow to practice silence, and to do it together?

I don’t know– and I’m aware of the fact that my speculations initially stem from my own frustrations at trying to read and/or write in places, such as libraries or–again– coffee shops, not obviously dedicated to loud or even noticeable exchanges. Even as I write this post, camped out in the lobby of a downtown corporate skyscraper, I’m irked at the mid-career go-getter offering pseudo-chill life hacks* at a volume just high enough to allow others outside of the conversation to benefit from his wisdom. That tendency, of course, is the nature of this variety of dude, and even of this particular space, which is usually filled either with the voiced assurances of unsolicited advisors or bored entry-levelers wasting their lunch breaks by scrolling through useless information on their phones. And so, expecting silence here is both unrealistic and somewhat unfair; it’s not part of the accepted nature of the place.

Then there’s also the question of the quality of the silence that prevails; going back again to being silent together, it’s not just a matter of being able to enjoy a lack of aural intrusion into your own personal space. I’m thinking once again of coffee shops, where most people these days have some form of earplug or -phone blocking out the sounds surrounding them, in favor of some private audio stream doing direct damage to their stereocilia. Sure, it’s much more conducive for yours truly to get work done under those circumstances– but being willingly excluded from a shared phonic atmosphere does nothing to help us inhabit a space together. Again, though, that’s not what everyone’s there for, and hence, once again, I might have to retract my concerns or complaints about this particular scene.

Like most of the things I’m interested in, trying to find an answer to my questions is probably impossible, and equally as likely undesirable. But for the time being? If that guy could just shut up about the mind-blowing insights of What Color Is Your Parachute?, or at least give his motivational speech at a lower decibel level, I’d be satisfied.

 

 

*Did I really just use that phrase? Even employing it as a form of character disparagement makes me feel compromised. Also, you probably couldn’t include this particular bro and his continual employment of business, corporate-spiritual, and Urban Slang Dictionary vocabulary in fiction without people thinking the writer had simply gone too far.

Of Fantastic Endings and Liquid Platitudes

Yuri Trifonov: I’d read some of his short stories before, and remember thoroughly enjoying them– but also, as is often the case with me, couldn’t tell you anything about their contents, or why I found the work so great. But I grabbed another of his books a few weeks back, Another Life and The House on the Embankment: Novellas, and after taking my time with it, was once again solidly impressed. And I also made a note of– was struck, in fact, by– Trifonov’s brilliant ability to bring a story to a close.

I realized that each of the novellas in this volume did in under 200 pages what other authors usually need over a thousand to do: namely, build up a years-long saga that allows us to get to know the characters as believable, full, ambivalently ethical and talented and likable human beings, all the while quietly weaving along a plot until, close to the end, we realize what he’s been constructing, and how it emerges into significance both for the protagonists and for the reader’s sense of how life plays out for our species in general, often even across very different times and cultures. Indeed, if I’m remembering John Updike’s intro to the book correctly, he notes that Trifonov had the ability, writing as he did in the midst of the Cold War, to bring out the humanity and relatability of individual lives many “Westerners” thought could never have been played out on the other side of the easy-to-stereotype Iron Curtain.

I was frankly surprised that Trifonov apparently never suffered any regime censure. The strength of his characters, the unfair, often oppressive, realities they face– and with all the nuance and thoughtful cowardice, if that latter phrase makes any sense, that anyone else would– these people are hardly the joyful defenders of the ongoing class struggle we expect to be the only types of which Soviet authorities approved.

What I found least relatable? The inclusion, in The House on the Embankment, of an old chestnut that makes its way into literature and the arts all over the world: namely, one character offering another agitated one a glass of water, in order to comfort and/or calm the latter. I have never been on the receiving end of this gesture, or even ever seen it played out in actual life– and I’m left wondering where this narrative commonplace came from, and if any real-world person has ever experienced it. How is a glass of water supposed to make anyone feel better, cause her (because it’s usually a her) to stop ranting or crying or to pause in her hysteria long enough to pull herself together and produce a coolly rational sentence? When this ceremony plops its way into a plot, I usually suspect that the author didn’t know what else to do in order to get through the scene, and/or has never actually been in a situation as tense or uncomfortable as the one that wants to be written.

Anyway. That unsatisfactory paragraph was so minor, I think it’s absolutely excusable, and it won’t stop me at all from looking to Trifonov as a master of the novella form. Still: if you’ve ever been treated to the would-be consolation of a glass of water, I want to hear about it– especially whether it did its intended job or not. Happy Christmas, everyone, and have a long tall drink of water for me.