Monday, August 27, 2007

Distance From Loved Ones

I've been thinking about this poem recently, for reasons I'm not sure I understand. The poet responsible, James Tate, taught at the University of Massachusetts when I as at Amherst. Once or twice, I saw him wandering around town. He typically had a dazed, self-absorbed, fragile kind of aura about him--very much like a poet is supposed to. A holy innocent, he seemed, although I don't know how much of that was contrivance and how much was truth. Regardless, I love this poem.
Distance from Loved Ones
by James Tate

After her husband died, Zita decided to get the face-lift
she had always wanted. Half-way through the operation
her blood pressure started to drop, and they had to stop.
When Zita tried to fasten her seat-belt for her sad drive
home, she threw-out her shoulder. Back at the hospital
the doctor examined her and found cancer run rampant
throughout her shoulder and arm and elsewhere. Radiation
followed. And, now, Zita just sits there in her beauty parlor,
bald, crying and crying.

My mother tells me all this on the phone, and I say:
Mother, who is Zita?

And my mother says, I am Zita. All my life I have been
Zita, bald and crying. And you, my son, who should have known
me best, thought I was nothing but your mother.

But, Mother, I say, I am dying. . .

Thursday, August 23, 2007


As anyone who has been made to listen to the stories of my on-again, off-again love affair with caffeine will know, I regard the drug with a wary combination of fear and admiration.

Right now I am back "on."

Caffeine is to the human mind as the moon's gravity is to the tide. We drink caffeine in the hope that by increasing the force of the moon's gravitation, we will increase the power and the frequency with which we are blessed with waves (human thoughts). However, if the power and force of the moon's gravity grows too strong, then the waves break up--are torn apart, dissolve before they ever reach land. This is what it feels like to have too much caffeine. You have a million thoughts, each of last two seconds. You can't follow through on anything. The mind becomes a vortex, consuming without producing.

At the moment, luckily, I seem to have some waves coming to shore. On which I place surfers (words?) in the hope that their peripatetic and awkward stabs at beauty may, occasionally, succeed.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Onion is still funny

"Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended"
My favorite part:
Hiles said he became drawn to the prospect of setting the play [The Merchant of Venice] in such an unorthodox locale while casually rereading the play early last year. He noticed that Venice was mentioned several times in the text, not only in character dialogue, but also in italics just before the first character speaks.

Monday, August 13, 2007

"A Certain Alienated Majesty"

Emerson is insane. I love him. This is from "Self-Reliance." I believe it was recorded in '77, just after Live From Budokan.
To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,--that is genius. Speak your latent conviction and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time become the outmost,--and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to use with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impressions with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

Friday, August 10, 2007

I Also Would Like My Own Rocket Sled

I have never in my entire life had any desire to jump out of an airplane. Several friends have done so; they all report it as being a glorious and life-affirming experience--one that I "have to try." Well, no: I don't. I'm perfectly comfortable here on the ground. I like not having to worry about plummeting thousands of feet to my death.

Strangely, though, I've always been fascinated by people who do jump out of airplanes. I'm especially interested in high-altitude drops--people jumping out of planes so high above the earth that they have to wear pressure suits and oxygen tanks to keep from dying. Part of my interest comes from my experience on airplanes. I sit there: I'm afraid; I look out the window and I always imagine what it would be like to fall from that height. ("Unpleasant" is my best guess). The fact that people actually jump from those heights--and much much higher--amazes me. And baffles me. (There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt in my philosophy). Why do they do it? I guess it's the same mindset that causes people to climb high mountains, or live in trees. They want to prove to themselves it's possible.

Or, they're completely mad.

Such, I think, would be a fair assessment of John Paul Stapp, an Air Force physician who is among the various pioneers of super-high-alitutude skydiving profiled in "Falling", a fantastic article appearing in this week's New Yorker. (Unfortunately, the article in question is not available online: you'll have to get the print edition. For further information, go here.) To really get a sense of the true courage--and insanity--of the kinds of people who jump out of balloons suspended nineteen miles above the surface of the earth, you need to read the whole article. (It's well worth your time). Here, though, is a brief excerpt. The passage I'm quoting describes early tests conducted by John Paul Stapp to determine, basically, how much misery the human body could endure. Among his goals were to figure out if it were possible to parachute out of a jet, flying 70,000 feet above the earth at near the speed of sound, and live.

Stapp wanted to know the true limits of human tolerance. He used cats, chimpanzees, and human subjects for his research, but reserved the most dangerous tests for himself. Beginning in 1946, he made repeated flights to forty-seven thousand feet in an unpressurized plane, racking his body with the bends. (By breathing pure oxygen before a flight, he discovered, he could rid his blood of the nitrogen that would bubble up as the pressure dropped.) Later, he had a rocket sled built on a track in southern New Mexico and fired himself across the desert at up to six hundred miles per hour. By December of 1954, Craig Ryan writes in his 1995 book "The Pre-Astronauts," Stapp had broken his ribs and wrists, suffered concussions, hernias, retinal hemorrhages, and "searing headaches that lingered for days." His final sled run subjected his body to forty-six times the force of gravity and left him temporarily blind. But he survived.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Porcupine-Lay

I first learned about Patrick O'Brian through David Mamet, of all people. He claimed--I think it was in an interview--that the best novelists then writing (this was 15 years ago) weren't the so-called "literary" ones (Auster, DeLillo, Roth, etc): they were genre writers. As examples he listed John LeCarre and Patrick O'Brian. I read LeCarre almost immediately. (He's excellent, by the way). O'Brian, for some reason, I put off. Maybe I wasn't ready for twenty straight 300-page novels. I think I knew that once I started, I wouldn't stop. It was a big commitment.

Five years ago, I finally picked up Master and Commander, the first book in the series. I read it, then I read the series. A year later, I read the series again. In the process, I bought eight of the novels. Perhaps unfortunately, they now reside six inches from my reading chair. The result is that I reread them over and over--generally to the neglect of whatever book (usually 'literary') I'm supposed to be reading. At this point, I've probably read each of them at least ten times. I know them better than anything else in my shelves.

I don't have the time or ability to attempt a full-length appreciation of O'Brian. Briefly: he is amazing, and I would encourage you all to read him. As far as it's possible to know what it would be like to live in a different era, O'Brian, I think, knew. (By which I mean: imagined.) To read him is to have, at least in flashes, hints of that same knowledge. He's a writer of phenomenal intellect and great wisdom, of course; but more than that, he is a writer, like Shakespeare, able to depict fully-realized portraits of society on every level. Dukes and princes, admirals and captains, sailors and whores: they're all there. None of them are sentimentalized, and all of them are somehow real.

Big claims, I know, and ones that I can't illustrate in a single passage. Here, though, is one of my (current) favorites. The ship is about to leave port. "Jack" is Jack Aubrey, the captain and one of the book's heroes. The other character, Heaven, is insignificant to the plot:

...and now they had been together long enough, with a good deal of foul weather and some very hard fighting, to have formed a distinct community with a great sense of their ship and a great pride in her.

A somewhat anomalous community however in a ship that looked so very like a man-of-war, for not only did it contain no Marines, no uniformed officers and no midshipmen, but people walked about at ease, even with their hands in their pockets; there was a certain amount of laughter in the forecastle in spite of the parting; and the quartermaster at the con, wiping a tear from his cheek and shaking his grey head, did not scruple to address Jack directly: "I shall never see her like again, sir. The loveliest young woman in Shelmerston."

"A lovely young woman indeed, Heaven," said Jack. "Mrs. Heaven, if I do not mistake?"

"Why, sir, in a manner of speaking: but some might say more on the porcupine-lay, the roving-line, if you understand me."

"There is a good deal to be said for porcupines, Heaven: Solomon had a thousand, and Solomon knew what o'clock it was, I believe. You will certainly see her again."