Monthly Archives: May 2011

Marginalia, no.204

If merely ‘feeling good’ could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience.

~ William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

There was a street festival this past weekend that sent a flood of drunken out-of-towners through our neighborhood. My son and I kept a tally of persons seen driving erratically (four), pissing in the ivy (three), and punching each other (two). With none of James’s caveats, Abraham Cowley thought human intoxication a mirror of cosmic intoxication: “Nothing in nature’s sober found / But an eternal health goes round.” I don’t know about that. One could make a good case, I think, for the Temperance Society membership of things like angry baboons and pancreatic cancer.

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Marginalia, no.203

The Scythians who swore by wind and sword, that is, by life and death, were so far from burning their bodies, that they declined all interment, and made their graves in the air: And the Ichthyophagi or fish-eating nations about Aegypt, affected the Sea for their grave: Thereby declining visible corruption, and restoring the debt of their bodies.

~ Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia

Life is a debt we incur before we can be held legally responsible for it. But at least the forms of repayment are varied. Persons disenchanted with the traditional soil blanket method might reconsider the practice of the ichthyophagi, which is apparently coming into vogue again thanks to celebrity adopters. I admit that sea burial sounds poetic (“the dice of drowned men’s bones,” etc). It’s preferable to cremation and presiding as genie-in-the-bottle over one’s own memorial service. But the Scythians with their sky burials had the better idea, especially for those in no hurry to pay their debts. This is proved by the penultimate scene in the 1970 film version of Little Big Man, when Old Lodge Skins, after a bathetic tearful farewell, climbs atop his own burial platform and comically fails to expire.

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A Million Year Walk


Yesterday I was the man walking all over San Francisco with a pillow under his arm. It was the wrong kind of pillow and I had to exchange it. I got a few looks aboard the train. I suffered a few comments at the office too. But the lunch-hour march down Townsend Street was the worst part: a wind in the February style, shin splints from a hard pace, slanting rain in the eyes, and mud puddles for sidewalks through an industrial sector of the city. Then there were the art students, twenty or thirty of them, squinting at the tips of their lit cigarettes near the Academy campus. They parted like waters for Moses to watch the bourgeois thirty-something pass on his incomprehensible errand.

I thought of what I’d read that morning in John McPhee’s Basin and Range. “On the geologic timescale,” McPhee writes, “a human life is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about.” Infinitely briefer, then, and even less worth consideration, was my present discomfort. McPhee expands on the idea by quoting a geologist friend:

If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.

Looking round at the train tracks, the warehouses, the built-up terraced hills of the city, for a moment I saw the place through a lens of geologic time: I walked atop the Cambrian seabed in clouds of groping arthropods; I was wrapped in folds of cooling rock; I was buried in volcanic ash and thrust above the surface of the waters. Before my eyes the city resolved into a work of insects, a temporary beeswax hive. There were eons still to roll over it. My own consciousness was reduced, by a weight of years that smothered sensible regret, to the briefest electric spark of dream in one immemorial night.

I came to the shop where our misbegotten purchase had occurred a few days before. A middle-aged man in round, frameless glasses helped make my exchange. He had a gray goatee and a pleasant voice. Ten minutes later I passed through the crowd of students again with an apparently identical pillow under my arm, like someone on his way to a slumber party at an address he can’t find.

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Marginalia, no.202

Keys yearn to mix with change.

~ Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts

When you buy a ticket for the commuter train that runs up and down the San Francisco Peninsula, you get your change in dollar coins. Once a week on my lunch break I grab a handful and shove them into my pocket. They tinkle against my keys as I walk into the used bookshop downtown. Today I picked up a John McPhee book and read, on the first page, about the wandering poles of geologic history, and the drumskins of continental plates in perpetual basso profondo concussion. Big and small, all things conspire to make music.

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Three Paragraphs of Deduction

If there’s a name for their profession, I don’t know it, but there are people who spend their whole life reconstructing the probable diets of prehistoric creatures based on the shape and patterns of wear in their fossilized molars. It may be that they were driven to the arms of forensic biology after failing dental school, probably through neglect of their textbooks in favor of nitrous oxide-fuelled midnight readings from Arthur Conan Doyle.

If it were possible to arrive by deduction at the object lifted based upon the pattern or character of injury done particular muscles and bones, then my back would declare today that I helped move a piano this last weekend. It wasn’t a very large piano, thankfully, but still it couldn’t move itself. I remember laughing, as a younger man, at the notion that someone could throw out his back by a mere sneeze or fit of hilarity. I don’t laugh at the idea anymore. I don’t dare laugh (or sneeze) at all.

At one of our more colorful local parks, maintained by the Rosicrucians, my son and his entrepreneurial young friend recently discovered they could get rich by dredging the fountain for coins. The fountain is tiled in blue and pink and, like everything else in the park, decorated in Egyptian motifs. One of the nearby hieroglyphs suggests a slender deity giving pharaoh a haircut or shoulder massage. People throw coins into the fountain to make a wish, I reminded the boys. If you steal the coins, aren’t you stealing the wishes too?

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Marginalia, no.201

From Turkistan to the Caucasus, the fortunes of a patch of land are gauged by the quality of its melons. It is a subject of debate, pride and prestige. Throats are cut over melons, and respected men would willingly undertake a week’s journey to taste the famous white melons of Bokhara.

~ Nicolas Bouvier, The Way of the World

In a misty corner of our family history there was a bachelor uncle named Charlie who had lost his sense of taste as the result of an accident. This was in the 1930s, in Iowa. I don’t know how it happened, whether it had started with a car crash, an illness, a mishap with farm equipment, or a knock to the head during a fight. But uncle Charlie was a high liver. Nights out with his pals he would strut into the diner and order up gastronomic blasphemies never printed on any respectable menu. Things like vanilla ice cream with mustard and dill pickles and horseradish, mashed together in a bowl and glazed in Dantean rivers of hot sauce. Surrounded by onlookers, he’d take bets from anyone that dared him, and proceed to eat the whole mess with a show of perverse relish. Then he’d laugh and collect his five or ten or twenty bucks before leaving. Hearing this story as a kid I took Uncle Charlie’s disability for a super power, and his hooting cash-fisted march back into the night for a vision of triumph. Now I can’t help but imagine his private moments: crouched in the dirt behind an outbuilding, weeping into a slice of summer watermelon and cursing God.

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