Monthly Archives: April 2009

The Huntress

Diana

Last night: a luminous sickle moon suspended in the west above the maple and the willows, like a clipped, discarded thumbnail of God.  I set up the tripod and the binoculars and watched it decline on a northward course from 45 degrees.  The crescent filled the whole lens but was finally lost in the foliage. 

To bathe in silver seas, stand at the division of light and dark, lap celestial milk from the porcelain bowl… The nocturnal and unconverted half of the soul always calls the moon a goddess.

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Marginalia, no.52

By then I had only an hour or so to catch the plane, so I began to curse, which I do well.  The secret of good cursing lies in cadence, emphasis, and antiphony.  The basic themes are always the same.  Conscious striving after variety is not to be encouraged, because it takes your mind off your cursing.

~ A.J. Liebling, The Road Back to Paris

No true master ever failed to respect the rules that govern his art.  It’s the negative space within the frame that gives shape and power to the portrait, damn it.

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On Pets

The trouble with keeping a blog is that you sometimes have to feed it, and pet food costs money, and money is time, and time is scarce if you don’t want to neglect your other time-wasting activities, like working on your novel, which is still a joke but not as much a joke as it was, say, six months ago. 

Still, here it is, the little blog, whimpering in the corner with its feed-me eyes and tent-pole ribs.  Wasn’t pet ownership supposed to be a sunny afternoon pleasure rather than a pulsar of everyday guilt?  But indulgence dresses itself up as obligation in the end.

There are upsides to malnourishment.  Studies show that rats raised on near-starvation diets will ripen into veritable Methuselahs compared to those plumped up on sugarwater and fatty meats.  Even if the little blog isn’t, thanks to the Spartan rations, as round and cuddly as it might be, at least it isn’t completely debauched.

Anyway, I’m still here.  Stick around long enough and you just might get a Scooby Snack.

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Marginalia, no.51

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.

~ Francis Bacon, Of Studies

Still others are best put on ice for future enjoyment.  After all, certain foods are more happily digested by the middle aged than the young, or by the old than the middle aged.  Bacon himself ought to know something about the dangers of improper refrigeration since he died – on Easter Sunday 1626 – of an infection contracted while stuffing a dead chicken full of snow.

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Marginalia, no.50

Of all the animals, man appears to be the only one who enjoys this peculiar pleasure of writing.  This is unfortunate, as it would be interesting to read the written works of the dog, the cat, the fox, the hog, the hippopotamus, and others, did they commit any.

~ Rose Macaulay, Personal Pleasures

The crows that loiter outside my office are writers after a fashion.  Too often I’ve had the pleasure of reading their generous commentaries on the hood of my car.  They must prefer to compose on Japanese rather than German makes, since my coworkers are always spared – or perhaps it’s just that my coworkers actually wash their cars from time to time.  If my cat were to write a book I think it would read something like Mein Kampf.  She’s a wicked, embittered creature that takes easy offense at her human captors and will blithely resort to tooth and claw even with the children.  Thankfully, she’s shown no particular interest in scribbling down her manifesto.

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Camera Obscura

terra-incognita

God’s veil over things makes them all riddles.  If they were not all so particular, detailed, and very rich I might have more rest from them.  But I am a prisoner of perception, a compulsory witness.

~ Saul Bellow, Herzog

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Marginalia, no.49

It is not enough a game, and too serious an amusement.

~ Montaigne, Essays, I, 50

He’s referring to chess.  The sentiment, I think, can be more broadly applied.  But Montaigne goes on to describe the special power of chess to excite the passions and overwhelm us with anger, impatience, even hatred, and the grinding ambition to win a contest which it might be more philosophically educational to lose. “For rare and extraordinary excellence in frivolous things,” he says, “is unbecoming a man of honor.”  One might conclude that he rarely played.  But Montaigne would admit he’s entirely consumed by frivolous things, and he’s too familiar with the pangs and trials of the game to be an unfazed or merely occasional player.  It’s a common condition, really: to be utterly devoted to something one feels honor-bound to disparage.

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The Working Life

One of the great consolations of work must be its abbreviation of the world’s area.

~ That’s a speculation of the narrator from Joseph O’Neill’s worthy novel, Netherland.  The idea is that we devote ourselves to work when our personal lives unravel because minimizing our area of concern gives an illusion of control easily projected onto the greater canvas of our life.  But, of course, it doesn’t always happen this way.  For instance, personal life and work may both roll in simultaneous upheaval.  Or else the office environment may decay to such violent, primal chaos that we retreat to our personal lives for order and security.  And barring trouble in either arena, the delimited scope of the workplace is for many not so much a consolation as the chance to exercise a long-desired tyranny over others.

Work as consolation and work as power: both ideas seem equally absurd, though perhaps I might feel differently if I had any respect whatever for the kind of work I do or for the world of business in general.  But the circumstances of my employment have always been, finally, an indifferent issue to me, even an embarrassment – or at best a nine- or ten-hour daily distraction from life which I only grudgingly concede is necessary. 

My first job, aged sixteen, was bus-boy and dishwasher at an old bar and grill in the downtown of a small city in the blazing, agricultural San Joaquin Valley.  I was paid under the table.  My duties included mopping vomit off the floor of the men’s room and dollying around cases of beer in stacks that weighed more than I did.  One of our regular bar customers, an older Chinese man, once came in with a bloody nose and black eye – he’d been mugged in the alley outside; his assailant had made off with his wallet and two McDonald’s hamburgers wrapped in a paper bag.  Another customer once stopped me to ask about something he saw dangling from my sleeve. “Looks like a loose string or something.”  I glanced down and he chuckled, “Sorry, I guess it’s just your arm, kid.”

At university in the Pacific Northwest I worked a summer in our Records department – a job that sounds almost medieval now, since nothing was digitized and we spent all our time in a secured, windowless room where the paper transcripts of every student in the school’s hundred year history were kept, and official changes were made by white-out and typewriter.  After that I worked three years in the library where the highlights of my career included thumbing through old copies of the TLS and NYRB and refusing one evening to make photocopies for the bilious president of the university, since (as I told him) being his personal secretary didn’t fall within the scope of my duties.  He was in a rush, red-faced, irate – but I pointed him in the direction of the copy machines and then made him sign the charges (a dollar and change) so that we could bill his office appropriately.

After graduation I worked briefly for an industrial printing company where I off-loaded a cutter machine and drove monstrous stacks of paper around a warehouse.  Then came my years at the bookshop, which I’ve written of elsewhere.  And then a summer spent working the salmon season at a cannery in Ketchikan, Alaska – a rough job where I watched several others lose digits and limbs but happily managed to keep my own, and where every night I dreamt up mountains of fish flesh and empty cans (trabajo de la noche, one of my Mexican coworkers called it).

My entree into the corporate world occurred in ‘98 when I landed a job with Amazon.com.  I worked from home in Capitol Hill as well as downtown – in customer service, and for a while as a special order book buyer.  The bright spots of my time there, which ended when three hundred of us were laid off in the early stages of the dotcom crash, included the company’s Dionysian summer parties where I once managed to sink Jeff Bezos in a dunk tank, and the WTO riots in ‘99 which landed several of my coworkers (bystanders, mostly innocent) in jail without charges, and sent clouds of tear gas into the building – which then had to be evacuated.

After several months of unemployment following the lay off at Amazon, I took a job with Blue Shield in another tower in downtown Seattle.  There I worked most notably as a writer and editor of medical correspondence – funneling requests for coverage of unusual or expensive procedures to our medical review team and in turn translating their decisions (usually ‘No’) into English as comprehensible and sympathetic as possible.  Following 9/11, one of my coworkers, an Army Ranger and veteran of the Persian Gulf War who had just transitioned to the reserves and wanted out, was forced back into active duty to lead Special Forces missions in Afghanistan.  He once met Hamid Karzai in person and received governmental commendations, but his wife was sick of his absences and so took the kids and left him when the invasion of Iraq looked certain.  He was devastated: wed to the Army against his will when he would rather have been married to his wife.

Since moving back to California, I’ve worked for a medium-sized dotcom in Silicon Valley – in marketing communications.  I’m not sure how I got this job.  It’s not a bad job, really, and I’m thankful for the fact that it allows me to feed my children and put a roof over their heads.  Since I work in close contact with our executive team it also allows me a post from which to observe the world of those for whom business really is serious business.  I get to watch the petty political machinations, the ego-stroking, the back-stabbing and the personal victories of all the type-As and MBAs as they claw their way up the ladder toward affluence and a brand of prestige I never really thought to desire for myself. 

I know that I am not, at bottom, any better than they are – but I feel a different sort of species sometimes.  Where the circumscription of the workplace allows them scope in which to battle it out and establish petty kingdoms for themselves, seats from which to reach toward total empire and the demi-apotheosis of an executive title, for me it’s something tinted with melancholy and regret.  It’s not that I’m unconscious of the temptations in that direction – money chief among them.  But like my Ranger friend (lacking, I’m sure, his fortitude and courage), I just want out.  I fantasize daily about taking justified offense at some minor slight and quitting, or else of being laid off or fired: anything to get me out again into the imagined larger world of open possibility – a world I vaguely sense during the lunch hour or over the weekend, and which vanishes with the alarm every Monday morning.

My sense of these things is ill-defined, uncertain.  Most of the time I move numbly through my work week without questioning the necessity of it all in anything more than a dreamy, juvenile sort of way: the late adolescent discontentment of someone who should have outgrown it by now.  But I can’t shake the feeling that somehow this “abbreviation of the world’s area” which we find in the workplace is not so much a consolation as a curse.

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