Overheard on my volunteer shift in the bookstore the other day: one member of a couple declaring very seriously to the other, as the duo browsed the $5 bestseller table, “I’m just opposed to time travel in general, you know?” I was unable to crane my head around the computer without it becoming obvious I was eavesdropping, so I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation– but it did go on, giving the impression that there was much of urgency to discuss, in the way of real-world possibilities (and their attendant merits, ethical dilemmas, and so forth) of leapfrogging from one era to another.
Sure, this topic has provided grist for literature and film both great and inane; I’ll admit to finding the first Bill and Ted movie, well, excellent, maybe because it could really qualify for membership in both of those categories at the same time. And why not discuss time travel seriously; not too long ago, space tourism was inconceivable, and now we’ve got bazillionaires chomping at the bit to spend a few hours in oxygen- and gravity-free zones, rather than throw down some of that cash on, say, the alleviation of global poverty or at least something that won’t pollute the atmosphere with a sloshing tank of rocket fuel and other detritus.
But I digress. Maybe confronting supposedly impossible scenarios, such as time travel, could act as a training ground for development in mature civil discourse. After all, getting shouted down and insulted by your opponent regarding the ethics of popping into your parents’ teenage years is far less likely than being (emotionally, at least) mauled by an ideologue at a town hall meeting. I’m certainly not going to base a curriculum in civics on the possibility, but maybe because there’s less at stake in digging into far-fetched hypotheticals, people are more willing to entertain each other’s conflicting views and arguments– and if they realize they can get along even in a heated debate about worm holes or the risk of retro- (or would it be pro-, here?) actively annulling your own existence, they could take it to a real-world level and be willing to work together to confront anything from potholes to prison reform.
That rosy little pipe dream is probably akin to the faith I want to have in kids– and adults– who really took Harry Potter, especially volume 5, to heart. If those readers can remember that particular volume’s beautiful elucidation of how ideology works– and the entire series’ wrangling with the noblest way to confront very difficult, very terrifying situations, and apply it to their own world, I’m willing to refrain from throwing in the towel just yet. And if an examination of magical worlds can do that for us, well, so, too, can a variety of other apparently frivolous conversations. Carry on, then, with your bookstore conversation, sci-fi couple. Carry on.
I’ve discussed before the joy that ensues when I turn the page of a used book and find something left there by its previous owner. Child of the Cold War that I am, these little surprises throw me right back into the belief that the presence of any object could be something other than the result of negligence or coincidence– that if you know what to look for, and how to go about it, that seemingly insignificant castoff could take you down a wild rabbit hole of adventure and mind-bending.
The postage sticker I found this weekend tucked in between two brittle, yellowed pages of my copy of George Mills gave off precisely that sort of aura. Its probable origins in Germany or Austria or Switzerland (what about the delicious possibility of Liechtenstein?) means that my book itself may very well have spent time on foreign soil, and in a place where the grudging default to tourist-aimed English was bypassed in favor of French. It’s just the sort of thing the spy I wanted to be as a child might have used, especially since the backing for this airmail label, as time-yellowed as are the pages that had apparently cradled it for years, might be old enough to have been printed back in the days of perestroika.*
I don’t often let go of books once they’re in my possession. But the next time I donate a volume or two, I might just stick something in between the pages, hoping to pass along to the text’s new owner the simple pleasure of finding hidden treasures someone else has left behind.
* Given the current, weird mélange of affinity and hostility being displayed between old-enemy world powers, maybe, in line with my desire to see greater meaning in found objects than they actually possess, the appearance of my very hypothetically-dated sticker may constitute a significant message about to be revealed!
I mentioned not too long ago that I thought Diane Ackerman had a tendency in A Natural History of the Senses to make too-quick assumptions about general human feelings vis-à-vis the environment and its many phenomena– and I illustrated my discomfort by citing her assertion that “we” associate winds with destruction. Well, the following has nothing to do, really, with warnings to authors about making more humble characterizations– but it does have to do with wind, and with some fun poked at bygone naturalists with a tendency to exaggeration. Behold, some satire from Mark Twain, directed at popular earthquake reporting and forecasting:
Oct. 22–Light winds, perhaps. If they blow, it will be from the “east’ard, or the west’ard, or the suth’ard,” or from some general direction approximating more or less to these points of the compass or otherwise. Winds are uncertain–more especially when they blow from whence they cometh and whither they listeth. N.B.–Such is the nature of winds.*
I’m not sure why I almost choked on my roll at “Such is the nature of winds”– but that stifled chuckle was soon followed by another when reading just a few sentences later “Oct. 26–Considerable phenomenal atmospheric foolishness.”
This quotation is featured in a chapter on earthquake-centered humor in Deborah R. Coen’s book, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter. I’ve long been fascinated by earthquakes, to the point of being so charmed and surprised to find myself in one for the first time that I didn’t even think of moving to safety until the madness had already passed. (Sometimes, as in this case, the stupid get very, very lucky; that one came in somewhere in the middle range of the magnitude scale.) And so, from the start, I knew that the information in this book could even be presented in less-than-stellar style, and I wouldn’t really mind. But Coen’s scholarly exposition makes good use of humor and very human (i.e., quirky, limited, or otherwise engagingly foible-laden) assumptions from the history of disaster science. Even the crotchety Karl Kraus makes a noticeable appearance, with, among other things, his commentary on tone’s ability to convince people of all manner of falsities, citing as an example a satire of an earthquake observation accepted as the real thing by a major press.**
I’m not even halfway through this exploration of how earthquake science developed in tandem with the popular press and scientific practice and discourse as a whole– but if the rest of the book is as thick with lovely linguistic nuggets from long-gone scientists and commentators as it has been thus far,*** the rest of this sunny weekend may just be spent devouring it whole.
* Cited in Deborah R. Coen, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 58.
** I’ve long been meaning to read Kraus via more than secondary sources; now I’m doubly determined to see what he had to say about the “fake news” of his own time, and whether it might help us understand why so many people, in a day at least technologically different from his own, are still so willing to be swindled by what would seem to be obvious misinformation– or, as some might call it in certain circumstances, propaganda or ideology. Another nugget of Kraus-wisdom Coen offers us sounds like it could be a condemnation of a sizable chunk of contemporary social media users: “The idiocy that would never have thought of emerging from its life in private has discovered an opportunity for immortality; banality has been lured out of its hiding place; average humanity has been hauled out in triumph. A consuming greed to be named has taken hold of the Mr. Nobodies.” (Coen, 67.) Kraus was no friend to the average human being– but behind the sneer is nothing other than a more detailed version of the truth-kernel expressed in (what may not have actually been) Andy Warhol’s dictum, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
*** e.g., describing Iceland as one “of the earth’s great safety-valves,” or the way in which false reports were received as evidence of “the heartlessness of a belief that has been disappointed” (that latter quote coming from Kraus again). ibid., 49, 66.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
I may have spoken before about my tendency to transform the intended message of a given sender into total absurdity. This usually happens with publicly broadcast information, as in advertisements or song lyrics, maybe because I’m just not paying that much attention in the first place, and so my receptors are functioning at remedial levels.
It happened again recently, as I was hanging around on a train platform, and looked up from my magazine to find my gaze held by the seriously creepy stare of an illustrated nutcracker who’s made his way onto banners and placards all over town of late, it being the time of year for the one ballet people will have seen if they’ve seen any at all. But I did a double-take not because my soul was being bored into by the dead eyes of an advertising figure; rather, my erroneous reading of the choreographer’s name led me to believe that this performance was the work of Christopher Walken– in which case, the “creatives” behind that poster had produced an impeccably representative icon.
The Nutcracker Suite as envisioned by Walken would be a minor dream come true for yours truly. There is, of course, the primary possibility of his honoring the inherent trippiness of this dream-tale* while combining it with the idiotic frenzy of the season, thus blatantly transforming it into the horror show it really should be by now: a logical manifestation of approved commercial celebration, often gobbled up by people who have no idea what they’re getting into– which leads me into the second reason Walken should be given free reign with this classic.
After sitting through way too many productions of this piece surrounded by families who 1) think this is some sort of toddler-friendly icecapade and 2) not only don’t have the attention span to sit through a two-hour performance, but also have neither an understanding of theater etiquette nor the desire to learn it, I’ve instituted a lifelong personal ban from any staging of The Nutcracker that features an audience whose members’ ability to keep quiet and still is unknown to me. Now, if the ballet becomes associated with Walken, and if he imbues it with the eeriness he can bring to even the most innocent of roles, those disruptive ticket-buyers may start fleeing from something no longer given a family-friendly seal of approval, something that will soon become known for keeping the kids up with nightmarish visions of square-jawed soldiers trying to bite the little ones’ heads off. And hey: the man is, after all, a trained (and excellent) dancer, so I’m sure he’d know what he’s doing from the start.
Yes, yes; I realize I’m just an evil curmudgeon who probably has a bright future in turning the hose on neighborhood kids– and so maybe I should stick with reimaginings of Scrooge figures. But admit it: Christopher Walken would probably put a pretty good spin on those guys as well.
* Among other things, think about the fact that the girl who dreams this wooden appliance has been transformed into a gallant human soldier pretty much fails to grapple with how the dangerous-jawed doll’s facial region would be manifested in an actual living being– and whether any behavioral problems and/or psychological hang-ups on his part would mar the perfection of this beautiful relationship.