Train Connections

It’s the kind of thing you (or I, at least) hope will happen when buried in a book in public: some fellow reader sees the text in your hand (or on the table, your lap, etc., etc.) and feels enough of a connection or surge of curiosity to take a chance and say a few words to you. Before today, it had happened twice in my life that I could remember, totaling a 50% goodness ratio.

Instance 1 (the bad) taught me a lesson: never make it obvious in a public place that you’re studying biblical Hebrew. Because that one fundamentalist nut in the vicinity will somehow hone in on you and assume you share the same ideals. Even though you can’t see the flames painted on the back of his jean jacket, and the question about where the person viewing them thinks s/he will spend eternity,* his Chester Molester glasses tell you all you need to know, regarding the sort of conversation that’s about to be foisted upon you. And you, of course, not enjoying fights about metaphysics or faulty logic or anything else, really, will find yourself losing a battle against a member of the Pentecostal inquisition. In this case, in a hostel in Boston.

Instance 2 (the good): deciding it was time to cede my table to someone else in the crowded café where I’d been reading Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, I packed my bag and made ready to leave. But before I’d stepped away, a representative from a neighboring tableful of Russians asked what I was reading, and whether it was as fascinating as its cover and title made it appear. I granted it was interesting, and we had a short conversation about reading and physics, and then I left, feeling a tiny bit more connected to my neighborhood.

I’m glad to report that my train ride home today provided me with a third case of someone stepping briefly into my life, thanks to a text– and that this chance meeting upped the goodness ratio of those types of encounters. Pulling into a station, an elderly gentleman caught my eye, saying in reference to the latest issue of The New Yorker I was reading, “It’s quite a cover this week, isn’t it?” He had to have recognized the particular font and/or one of the cartoons from the publication, as I had the magazine folded in a way that didn’t make it obvious to most people what I was reading. But we smiled at each other in recognition of our common enjoyment of a particular periodical, and parted ways as he got off the train. Those few seconds were a far cry from a new friendship– but I’ll take it, by golly. I’ll take it.

 

* This self-made design was only revealed to me after the crusader finally walked away in disgust. It was also what told the surly Irishman at the check-in desk that the argument he was witnessing was not, in fact, a domestic dispute, as he’d originally assumed was the case.

What the World Needs Now…

… other than love, sweet love,* is the work of Chilean poet Nicanor Parra. For one thing, check out his ability to say so damn much, in so few words, and without making a big show of overtly stating a piece’s Big Themes.

Lady

your son has rickets
give him beef broth
milk give him steak and eggs
get out of this pigsty
get an apartment on Park Avenue
you look like a ghost, lady
why don’t you take a little trip to Miami**

And really, the big kicker running throughout Parra’s work is his keen, unsparing social analysis. As an example, take this piece, read it multiple times, remember it.

The Rule of Three

Not counting
The twenty million missing
How much do you think the deification of Stalin
Came to in cold, hard cash.

Monuments cost money.

What do you think it cost
To pull down those concrete hulks?

Simply moving the body
Out of the mausoleum to the common grave
Must have cost a fortune.

And what do you think we’ll spend
Putting those sacred statues back in place?***

Will that cycle ever come to an end? I think there’s ample cause to doubt positive(-ish) responses to that question, even when they come from big brains such as Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s. But Parra and all the other prophets committed to making us face the full reality of our (individual and social) nature– and to pushing us to rise above its worst depths– are always essential, especially when we think we’ve reached the complacently safe end of history. So go, pick a favorite poetic nugget of strength, and let it assist you in, to riff only semi-accurately on a notion of the aforementioned Georg Wilhelm Friedrich H., dwelling with our own time’s particular negatives.

 

* (and a variety of other big-ticket items, such as the absence of bigotry, greed, and aggression)

** Nicanor Parra, “Lady,” in Emergency Poems, transl. Miller Williams (New York: New Directions, 1972), 53.

*** ibid., “The Rule of Three,” 49.

Leaving the Literary Rut Behind

Admittedly, I’m currently just a tad emotionally influenced by good Scotch*– but I think even the soberest of mes would agree that few things can raise one’s mood like delving into really solid literature, especially after having forced oneself to schlep through the subpar variety. That’s right: having finally disposed of Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses** and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, *** I’m basking in Monika Fagerholm’s The American Girl. It’s early in the game with this new read, but it’s still got the shine of newness about it, and bears the extra charm of having been finally found after a few years of futile searching for it in local bookstores.

Somehow, this sparrow courtesy of Ken Conger and Wikimedia, is on par with my mood.

Somehow, this sparrow, courtesy of Ken Conger and Wikimedia, is on par with my mood.

Then, too, there’s Osama Alomar’s Fullblood Arabian. You know if Lydia Davis was convinced enough of the poet’s work to write a forward to it, it’s going to be good– and so far, that method of judging its quality has proven sound. A mix of aphorism, super-short story, and poetry, it’s not perfect– but it’s true and unashamedly curious, and therefore, refreshing.

Top all that off with the fact that I and the guy next to me on the train this morning were digging into identical copies of The New Yorker, and it all just gets better. I realize the magazine has a gajillion subscribers, and that the coincidence is more or less meaningless– but I’ll take any evidence of solidarity between two human beings I can get these days, tenuous as it may be. He’s to you, train friend: although we never even dared to look each other in the eye, for a few minutes there, we had a good thing going.

 

* Don’t worry, readers; my extremely low-frequency indulgence in the products of the alcoholic kingdom, and hence, my exceedingly low tolerance, mean that my evening consisted of only one glass of Glenmorangie, nursed over a couple of hours and accompanied by a respectable amount of food. So much for my rock-n-roll lifestyle.

** Brief review: The author tries to make her point about the wondrousness involved in how humans make contact with the rest of creation by piling up a bunch of lists and making unfounded generalizations (e.g., “We think of the wind as a destructive force.” Maybe I’m odd, but the first thing I think about when the concept “wind” pops up is a pleasantly blustery day; destruction doesn’t come into my own head’s conversation about the topic until we’ve gotten well past recognition of soft breezes, for example). All in all, the book tends toward the mawkish, although I am willing to grant its moments of insights, such as the assertion that “When you consider something like death… then it probably doesn’t matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply…” Both quotes are from Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage Books, 1991) 237 and 256.

*** I’m being overly harsh in calling this one subpar; maybe it was simply a combination of the book’s being too long to hold the interest of someone not really into stories of Western pioneer hardihood.

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.