Monthly Archives: May 2009

Three Paragraphs of Nature

Bridge over the Marsh

There is an invisible boundary midway between Shoreline Park and the open tidal flats of San Francisco Bay beyond which the world belongs entirely to winged things: gulls and terns, innumerable songbirds, snoozing ducks and colonies of croaking pelicans, herons and egrets that stilt-walk through the grass and curl their necks into figure eights when they fly, and the large solitary raven that plucks mollusks from the oozing mud and breaks them on the rocks.  There are insects too: ladybugs and drab buzzing beetles, honeybees and bumblebees, and the broad black and yellow and small white butterflies that flit like fairies through the mustard flowers and the cowbane on either side of the path.

I spent my lunch hour today hiking down the levies that escort Stevens Creek and Whisman Slough into the Bay.  It’s a gravel trail on top that drops on the right into cattails and tidal ponds and on the left into lush sloping lawns that verge the creek, thick with marsh grass and hardy low shrubs, where ground squirrels scamper and jackrabbits hop incautiously from flower to flower.  At low tide the place has a rich sour odor of sweating mud and rotting vegetable matter.  A mile and a half out the fresh water from Stevens Creek ceases to flow eastward as it had all the way from the Santa Cruz Mountains and the saltwater from the Bay begins to push back up the half-empty channel.

Set here and there in the ponds are false islands, hunters’ blinds of sun-bleached wooden planking gapped like teeth when the gums have receded to allow for the barrels of shotguns in season.  There are metal towers for power lines, too, which seem oddly out of place, and the hum of electricity running through the cables is audible at a distance.  The path dead-ends at the open tidal flats, a vast killing field of saline mud where gulls in their thousands hunt the puddles for stranded fish, and clams and mussels poke up from the silt like paving tiles.  A bubbly, sucking sound of water leeching from the exposed earth in every direction makes a chorus to beg back the tide, which is on its way anyhow.  Meanwhile the circling raven eyes me curiously.


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Marginalia, no.57

Desire to be a bird, desire to become a bee.  Man feels that his happiness is in the air.  – And if we wish to become a bird, it is not an eagle, a vulture, a pheasant, a partridge, or a parrot that we wish to become, but a modest little bird gifted with amiability, a warbler, a titmouse, a robin, a nightingale, an average and innocent bird.

~ Joseph Joubert

I lack the confidence to fly in my dreams – not like a proper bird anyway.  As a child I dreamt that if I wiggled my fingers in a ridiculous sort of way I could incrementally propel myself into the far corners of the living room’s vaulted ceiling.  Nowadays, I dream that with a good running start I can jump indefinite distances, holding myself six inches above the ground by sheer force of will for as long as I like.  I would much rather dream myself into ‘an average and innocent bird.’  But like a fever or a plagued conscience, gravity imposes itself even on my sleep.  Birds are magical because they are immune.

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Marginalia, no.56

When he dies, the angels, they find nothing to eat on his bones.

~ Dimitrije Mitrinovic

Mitrinovic thought that Bertrand Russell had starved himself of any sense for the marvelous.  I like the grisly image of angels as barbeque connoisseurs crowded round a grand celestial picnic table.  (Little cupid’s got a smudge of marinade on his tunic – Raphael’s dipped a wing in the potato salad again…)  Really, it never helped much when you told your son to eat his greens “because children in Africa are starving.”  Give him something fresh to puzzle over. “Keep your sense of wonder, kid, and you’ll feed a hungry angel.”

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Lacking Authorization


Every life is inexplicable… No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details are given, the essential thing resists telling…  We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person in the story, pretending that we can understand him because we can understand ourselves.  This is a deception.  We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence.  No one can cross the boundary into another – for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself.

~ Paul Auster, The Locked Room


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The Lunch Hour

I am sitting alone eating a plate of Thai green curry and reading Paul Auster’s Ghosts when I look up and take fresh note of my surroundings.  I come here often.  The waitress gives a friendly laugh every time I walk in: always with a book, always orders the same thing.  But today there’s something exotic in the quotidian details of it all – the décor, the people, my own presence here, the ritual of meals in public places.

Immediately to my left is a pair of software engineers, one with a light brown beard and a gray and white Hawaiian shirt; the other in a green polo, with dark hair and a large nose.  They’re excitedly talking in a language nominally English but composed of acronyms and nonsense terms, pronouncing judgment on the skills of colleagues and the quality of products the functions of which are to me incomprehensible.

In a booth to my right a young woman sits with a friend or coworker.  She’s wearing black Chuck Taylors and jeans and her tightly curled red hair is tied in a knot on top of her head.  She looks down, smiling, and closes her eyes while pretending to brush crumbs from the table – a gesture intended to illustrate something in their conversation.  She and her companion leave.  Their place is taken by two south Asians, a man and a woman.  He’s tall and broad in a button down shirt, no tie.  She’s slim, wearing khakis and a tapering blouse with vertical pink stripes.  They smile and laugh. They’re in love, I think.  But then a second man arrives, wearing an office badge that matches theirs.  We were beginning to think you wouldn’t make it, they tell him.  I pay my bill and leave.

I sit in the hot car with the windows down and read for another five minutes.  An enormous black bug flies into the automobile and buzzes at my face, moving in sharp aggressive jags.  I open the door to give it a wider egress and it shoots away.  A group of businessmen passes, laughing.  To my left a man steps out of a car and yells something in Mandarin or Cantonese.  Two twenty-something hipsters glance at me as they walk by.  An older woman in a purple pants-suit talks on her cell phone while carrying a to-go bag from the Salvadoran taqueria.   I start up my car and drive down the lane.  Bristling with redwoods, the ridges of the Santa Cruz Mountains rise to the west.  A ragged strip of ocean fog hangs above.  I drive faster.  I roll up one window and the fluctuating air pressure in the car makes a staccato thumping in my ears.

Idea for a story: Single, middle-aged man living in Silicon Valley, present day, works for a cremation and burial services company, making cold calls.  His sense of dislocation, his incomprehension of the lives of the technology workers and others around him.

I sleepily park the car.  I make a brief walk around the deserted buildings near my office, the former campus of a forgotten software company.  The poplars are finally in leaf, shimmering.  The fat roses are white and yellow, the grass lush and well kept despite the fact that the buildings have been tenantless for years.  I stretch out on a bench under a maple.  There is a fountain purling to my right.  I close my eyes, which begin to itch and water – allergies.  When I open them halfway the slow shifting of the maple boughs and their rippling leaves above me seem to dance in mathematical patterns like swirling tiles in a cheap cardboard kaleidoscope bought for a child.

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Marginalia, no.55

A civilization has the same fragility as a life.

~ Paul Valéry, Crisis of the Mind

Valéry was looking over the wreckage of the First World War.  Today’s announcers of doom are still heralding the immanent end of western civilization.  I’ve heard my own voice in the choir.  Maybe it’s the sunshine playing tricks on me, but these days I find myself less impressed by life’s fragility than by its stubborn persistence.  It may not chart an upward progress, but if the history of western civilization demonstrates anything it’s the ability to hold through the storm like a barnacle to the rock, or to sleep like a seed in Egyptian honey and shoot forth again in fresh soil.  We’ve seen worse storms, I think, and deeper mountains of sand… Or maybe it’s just the sun.

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Free Pre-Paid Cremations!

I seem to have committed a felony.  We received in the mail this past weekend a letter with a rippling American flag printed on the back and on the front, in italics, the teaser:

Win a Free Pre-Paid Cremation!

Not only is the phrase charmingly nonsensical and oxymoronic but the appeal to patriotism plus the combined use of italics, underlining, and exclamation point left me breathless.  It was more than I could resist, and I opened it.  Then I discovered it wasn’t intended for me but for a woman who must have lived at our address some years ago (and perhaps the offer arrived too late for her anyway).

Inside was a form letter discussing, tactfully but enthusiastically, the benefits of cremation: “Simple, Economical, and Dignified… It Just Makes Sense!tm  (You’ll note here again the well-timed use of the exclamation point, and the strategic trademarking of a phrase which otherwise was sure to be stolen by competitors.)  The recipient was encouraged to pay now for her own future cremation by securing the services of the advertiser “at today’s prices,” and to enter a drawing for the “free, pre-paid” cremation mentioned on the envelope.

I spent some time considering the pitch.  Personally, I prefer the idea of full-body burial and decomposition (‘What was Mozart doing in the graveyard?’ – ‘Decomposing!’).  But I admit there’s something mildly poetic in the idea of spending the silent years holed up in a columbarium, another dove in the dove-cote.  I’ve always loved that word, columbarium.

The deeper appeal in pitches of this sort, I think, is the prospect of your will – in the form of choices and consequences – outliving the decease of your body.  Your purchase now, at today’s prices, guarantees your ability to save money from beyond the grave.  It’s a disembodied immortality for the consumer.  Securing this form of immortality today may also spare you from lesser forms, like the sad immortality of the mail recipient who only gets his next offer for pre-paid cremation after the issue is moot.


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Marginalia, no.54

I had in fact picked up a very rare fungus of the bone-marrow in China.

~ Bruce Chatwin, What Am I Doing Here

Every writer lies.  Better writers do so in order to reach oblique truths not directly attainable.  Chatwin lied for other reasons too.  In fact he had HIV.  He was blamed for not being more honest about it.  But for Chatwin the self was as much fiction as fact.  He lied to preserve his own narrative freedom and deny others the totemic biographical details by which they might reduce him to rigid caricature or draft him for crusades he never signed up to fight.

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Marginalia, no.53

No editor is going to drink champagne from my skull.

~ Maria Reiche

The German-born mathematician who spent most of her life surveying the Nazca lines in Peru explains why she chose to self-publish Mystery on the Desert, her 1968 book on the subject.  It used to be that self-publishing was only undertaken with difficulty and at grave risk to one’s purse.  Nowadays everyone prefers to drink champagne from his own skull.  Pity the unemployed editors and their ragged children sipping water from Dixie cups.

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Bug Notes

On Fresh Air yesterday Terry Gross interviewed an entomologist who made his name studying the dung beetle, which turns out to be a more romantic subject than one might expect.  Dung beetles inhabit a nearly medieval world of armored combat, knight-errantry and captured damsels.  Each species (there are over two thousand) has its own particular weaponry: maces, hooks, and spines of sword-like vorpal efficiency.  Male beetles stake out territory and challenge all passers, and fight for the sexual favors of females dispensed beneath pavilions of cow shit that serve for castle, boudoir, and supper.

It’s Malory in miniature, except for the pavilion-eating part.

My wife informs me that weevils have infested our stock of oatmeal, which will have to be thrown out.  The weevil happens to be the subject of a friend’s doctoral studies.  It must also have been a favorite of Jim Henson – to judge by the long-snouted spy Garindan from the original Star Wars movie and Gonzo from The Muppet Show.  Despite the consonance of words, however, the weevil doesn’t look particularly evil.  It’s actually cute.  But of course insects are commonly associated with darkness, decay, evil.  It’s probably undeserved, and I’m afraid the former administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” (confined spaces, bugs) only adds to the slander.

That proposition (bugs = evil) brings me to Scottish poet Edwin Muir.  In his Autobiography Muir recounts his 19th century childhood on the little Orkney rock of Wyre where there was nothing much in the way of trees, ground-cover, or people, but an apparent abundance of quaintly nicknamed bugs (like “Jenny Hunderlegs”) to play on his boyish phobias.  With the exception of arachnids, which he imagined “bearded and magistral” and generally well intentioned, these were for little Edwin objects of paralyzing horror:

…interesting but squalid, with thoughts that could never be penetrated, inconceivable aims, perverse activities… like little fragments of night darting about in the sun.  Their presence troubled me as the mind is troubled in adolescence by the realization of physical lust.  The gavelocks and forkytails were my first intimation of evil, and associations of evil still cling round them for me.

Leaving alone the weird association of insect-revulsion with lust (despite Muir’s own penchant for Freudian self-analysis, he doesn’t expand on this), it’s curious to note that Muir and his wife, Willa, were among the first to translate Kafka into English, and their rendering of Metamorphosis is still widely available.  Exactly what kind of insect Gregor Samsa is transformed into is unclear in the original German (the Muirs kept it simple with “insect”  and so avoided the dreadfully bland “vermin” I’ve seen elsewhere), but illustrators have frequently made him a cockroach – of all insects, perhaps the most viscerally associated with filth and evil.  I’m not sure whether this is less fair to the cockroach or to Gregor Samsa.

Vladimir Nabokov deplored such jumping to conclusions on the part of Kafka’s reckless illuminators.  Instead he suggests a proper reading of the text would make Gregor Samsa one of those more noble beetles with wings tucked under its carapace: which is to say that Samsa could fly if only he knew it.  Such a suggestion, however, merely proves that Nabokov never spent a night in the miserable Key Largo motel where I once stayed, where hordes of giant, winged cockroaches buzzed overhead and knocked senselessly into walls and mirrors from dusk to dawn.  Really, Nabokov should have had enough basic entomology to know about winged cockroaches.  He was, after all, a part-time lepidopterist. 

Which brings us to butterflies.  Ah, butterflies

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