Monthly Archives: December 2010

Notes on New Year’s Eve

The year closes with unexpected guests, unexpected gifts, and snapshots from a sixty-year-old funeral.

We found a grasshopper in the kitchen. I don’t know what usually happens to grasshoppers in winter time, whether they go into hibernation or simply die when it gets cold. I like to think that this one heard rumors of my daughter’s affection for all insects, snails and slugs, and so made a desperate trek through storm and hazard (he’s missing a leg) in hope of adoption. Which he’s now found. ‘Salty’ (from the Spanish saltamontes) is nicely set up in a little mesh insect cage on the counter, fattening on leaves of romaine and producing remarkable amounts of excrement. Really, you have no idea.

In the mail today I received a gift from Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence: a hardbound copy of Aldo Buzzi’s Journey to the Land of the Flies. I’ve been searching for this book more than a year. Mr Kurp recently mentioned picking up a copy, and I knew he’d written about it before. No wonder I can never find it, I joked, since you keep snatching up all available copies. A few days later I had an email to say that he was sending me one. ‘Merry Christmas,’ he wrote. Like a good many readers online and off, I was already in Mr Kurp’s debt. But for him and his blog, I might never have discovered Peter De Vries or L.E. Sissman or Eric Hoffer; without his encouragement, I might never have got round to reading Anthony Powell’s Music of Time or Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. But this is the happiest sort of debt.

In The Way of the World, which I’m presently reading, Nicolas Bouvier describes an Armenian funeral in Tabriz (Iran) that he attended in the 1950s. It was December. A young Christian girl had poisoned herself for love of a Muslim Romeo. At the end of the service, after the whole congregation had filed past the deceased, the doors of the church were thrown open and the girl’s jewelry and shoes were publicly removed. Grim old women with scissors cut her dress to ribbons. This was no judgment on her suicide, but rather, according to Bouvier, “it was winter, season of dearth and grave-robbers: it was hoped that by these gestures profanation would be avoided.”

We had a wind storm the other day. The leaves that had collected on our porch and sidewalk and that still clung to the sycamores like stubborn memories of summer were caught up into the air (along with everything else not bolted down) and blown to God-knows-where. Next day the world out of doors was bare and clean. How right, I thought, that New Year’s should come to us in winter rather than spring. Laying the year to rest in a world stripped of  adornments, we’re better taught, I think, that sentimentality only steals from the past, that only empty hands are open to receive new gifts.

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Marginalia, no.167

How long do Sea-Monkeys live? Thanks to new computer-driven processing technologies and ultra-pure, non-toxic chemicals, twice as many Sea-Monkeys instantly hatch, grow larger, and live longer than ever before.

~ The Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys® brochure

Sales Tip #72: Don’t answer direct questions about Sea-Monkey death. ‘Well, Junior, like the globe itself, the happy plastic aquarium is, of course, a graveyard. But modern science allows you to enjoy it longer than your grandparents ever did.’

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Tragedy: The Snake-Man

One of the things I managed to do this year after all was finally read Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. I’ve owned my copy three years and every year read the first fifty pages or so and stopped. It wasn’t for lack of interest – not at all – but those first fifty pages were so rich and dense and overwhelming, I somehow didn’t dare go on. I needed more time to build up my immunities, perhaps, to get stronger.

A family is a language to itself, but from dumb beginnings and single-syllables any child of the house moves inevitably to perfect fluency. Reading Stead’s book is something like being born yourself as yet another supernumerary child of the Pollit household: you are mesmerized and disoriented by a dialect, a cadence, a register that mysteriously cohere bit by bit to become a world.

Stead’s verbal exuberance and genius for comic invention are just astonishing, of a caliber (I’m tempted to say) with Melville or Shakespeare. Her characters – Sam and Henny and Louie especially – so weigh down the text that the paperback swells to ten times its size, pulpy with flesh and blood. It babbles and complains when left alone on the table. It shouts for tea and sings and sweats and coughs in your face when you open it to read.

If the book has its faults – and there are people glad to point them out to you – I like to agree with those who say that they are nature’s own faults: gratuitous detail, excess vitality, general overabundance. Rather than make a sloppy mess of it all, like a lesser author might, Stead manages to reproduce life where life exceeds art while still fully containing it.

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Three Paragraphs of Nearly Christmas

Our friend the evolutionary biologist was visiting from New York this past weekend.  We met him in San Francisco on a rainy Saturday for a brunch of crab-meat benedicts and mimosas.  He’s a snazzy dresser (button-down shirt, sweater, slacks, glossy oxfords), heavily bearded, wears glasses; personal interests include weevils, pulp science-fiction novels, and espresso.

A couple days later: After a wait of forty minutes and a per-vehicle fee of $15, we cruise the park to admire the Christmas light displays.  The children sip hot cocoa in the back and we listen to The Chipmunks.  Elves peek from behind trees.  Santa, in a boat, whips a fish from the water straight into the mouth a waiting pelican.  A teddy bear rappels down a giant candy cane.  Around a corner we surprise a dozen dinosaurs of precarious holiday relevance.  T-rex screams. Brontosaurus only munches his electric salad leaves.

Our family cat is sixteen and has never received a letter.  I’m posting her one from the office today.  It comes, ostensibly, from another cat she knew years ago in Seattle, a full page of punctuated ‘meows’ with a paw-print for signature and photo attached.  Won’t she be surprised.  My five-year-old daughter collects the mail with me each evening.

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Hic Bibitur

This past weekend in Petaluma, north of San Francisco, the wife and kids and I encountered the monument above, erected by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, as it says, in 1891.  Sprouting from the top of the granite block (not easily seen here) is a water fountain.  Drink if thirsty, the grim message goes, but only water – forever.

That was a hell narrowly avoided, wasn’t it?  Personally, I find that such relics of militant sobriety inspire me with a boundless gratitude and admiration for our irreformable human nature.  And a sick, sick craving for a gin and tonic.

H.L. Mencken, in the fourth series of his Prejudices (1924), reminds us that “all the great villainies of history have been perpetrated by sober men, and chiefly by teetotalers.”  Conversely, he says, all pleasant and ennobling products of human culture have their origin in booze.  What we need in order to be better persons, generally, is more alcohol rather than less.  If we want to love our neighbor, lead happy lives, and be peaceful and decent citizens, then we ought to live (he says) in a middling state of perpetual tipsiness:

I am well aware that getting the whole human race stewed and keeping it stewed, year in and year out, would present formidable technical difficulties… On the one hand there would be the constant danger that large minorities might occasionally become cold sober, and so start wars, theological disputes, moral reforms, and other such unpleasantnesses.  On the other hand, there would be danger that other minorities might proceed to actual intoxication, and so annoy us all with their fatuous bawling or maudlin tears.  But such technical obstacles, of course, are by no means insurmountable.  Perhaps they might be got around by abandoning the administration of alcohol per ora and distributing it instead by impregnating the air with it.  I throw out the suggestion and pass on.

Reading this again last night a cartoon light bulb flashed in my head and I thought of a passage marked in my copy of Flann O’Brien’s The Best of Myles.  I don’t know if it’s a case of great minds thinking alike or if O’Brien (writing somewhat later) took inspiration from Mencken.  In any case, O’Brien’s ‘Myles na gCopaleen Research Bureau’ turns out a truly novel method of imbibing:

It is provisionally called ‘Trink’ and looks for all the world like the ordinary black ink you can buy for twopence.  ‘Trink’, however, is a very special job.  When put on paper and dried it emits a subtle alcoholic vapour which will hang over the document in an invisible odorless cloud for several days.  A person perusing such a document is surrounded by this cloud.  The vapour is drawn in with the breath, condenses in the mucous tract, gradually finds its way to the stomach and is absorbed in the blood.  Intoxication ensues, mild or acute, according to how much reading is done…

We are not yet at the stage when we can risk printing the Irish Times with it, but the other day we decided to use it for one or two posters intended for the country.  The results, noted by our own plain-clothes narks who were on the spot, were quite satisfactory.  A few people on their way to work in a certain town paused for a moment to spell out the placard (our educational system is weak remember) and to reflect for a moment on the news.  The news was bad, as usual, but the parties taking it in experienced a strange feeling of elation and well-being.  They went on their way rejoicing and one of them, a staid school master, went into his class and straightway led them in a raucous rendering of ‘Alexander’s Rag-time Band’, bashing out the time on his desk with a pointer.

That’s a long quote, I know, but really I couldn’t help it.  Intoxication, “mild or acute, according to how much reading is done” pretty well sums up my own response to O’Brien, and Mencken too.  No doubt my copies were printed in Trink.

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Marginalia, no.166

The proximity of the gods was signaled by a particular odor, called the ‘sweat of God.’  The hieroglyph for ‘joy’ is a nose.

~ Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen, Masterpieces in Detail

One wonders if the odor in question was commonly met with and recognized by all (which would make the gods’ presence pervasive, if invisible), or if it was occult knowledge, passed by oath and threat from one generation of priests to another.  For all we know, an Egyptian subdeacon milling about Saqqara nose-drunk on incense and roast ibis might recognize the divine perspiration in our modern combo of diesel fumes and fried chicken.  But our godforsaken era lives in ignorance.

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Marginalia, no.165

………………………….These bleared-eyes
Have waked, to read your several colours, sir,
Of the pale citron, the green lion, the crow,
The peacock’s tail, the plumed swan.

~ Ben Jonson, The Alchemist

The alchemical stages.  For its centuries of tending fire toward miraculous transmutations, panaceas, alkahests, and (in the words of the 1771 Britannica) ‘other things equally ridiculous,’ the only sure glory of alchemy was the creation of a universal metaphor.  It is mystical enlightenment, psychological synthesis, discipline of the body, anything you like.  Writers and readers, too, coax base symbols (we hope) into golden life.  We sit up late, blear-eyed, obsessed, as words take form and color: ‘the pale citron, the green lion, the crow, the peacock’s tail, the plumed swan.’

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