“There is no god but God, and Bach is his prophet.”
Glenn Gould, 1981.
History is not linear; it is the rings of growth in a tree.
~ Guy Davenport, ‘Prehistoric Eyes’
I read once about a young woman with a medical condition that made it impossible for her to shed old skin cells. The result was a hardened, armor-like epidermis prone to cracking and, because she couldn’t sweat, a dangerously elevated body temperature. Her arms and legs were stiff and she could only bend her torso with difficulty. She was Ovid’s Daphne stuck halfway between girl and tree, the fresh wood of her new self at constant war with the encasing bark of her past. Rare as a physical pathology, the psychological variety is common enough.
A little past five o’clock I stepped aboard a commuter train in San Francisco and took a seat on the upper level, which I prefer. There were only a few others in the car. As I sat down I noticed a small black bag below the empty seat in front of me. Unaccompanied bags like this make me nervous because, as everyone knows, they always contain bombs.
My first instinct was to move to the other end of the train where the force of the blast probably wouldn’t kill me. At most, I figured, I’d lose a limb and get some time off work. I might even be able to collect on my accidental dismemberment policy. Then I thought of the others who would be sitting nearer and were sure to suffer grisly deaths. Through acrid clouds of diesel smoke and a moaning chorus of the injured, the pitiful faces of their bereaved children passed before me.
At the clarion call of duty I picked up the bag. It was leather, tube-shaped, maybe ten inches around and a foot long. There was a small strap at the top through which I hooked my finger. With a flutter of uncertainty I gave up my seat. I would find the conductor or another train worker, I decided, and bring the hateful thing to their attention. Surely they had some kind of protocol to follow.
I held the bag in front of me like a vicious, infected thing and squeezed by boarders in the aisle and seated passengers that glanced dumbly from my face to the object I carried, none with a proper appreciation of the direful moment. I stepped off the train and looked down the platform. There were no uniforms in sight, only a great flood of boarding passengers. I stepped back onto the train and wandered in a delirium through the cars.
We were scheduled to depart any moment and I could find no one professionally obliged to accept the bag from my hands. Could I just drop it somewhere after all? On the platform outside, for example, or in a stairwell when no one was looking? Unfortunately, several people had already seen me with the bag. When it was discovered in the stairwell (assuming we were still alive) and the train was halted between stations and the SWAT team deployed throughout the cars, they would point the finger at me. On the other hand, if I kept the bag, not only was I guaranteed to die in the explosion but if, by chance, its proper owner came looking for it I’d be fingered again.
Circumstance seemed to require that I become either a terrorist or a bag thief… It suddenly felt important that I have a place to sit. If I didn’t take a seat now I wouldn’t get one at all. I decided, therefore, to exercise what little freedom was left me in my last few moments of life and turn bag thief. I scrambled to the upper level of the car and found a seat. Then, thinking I might as well take an admiring peek at the circuitry that would murder me, I turned to the window and opened the zipper at the end of the bag.
There was no bomb inside, which was a disappointing relief. Instead, I found a rolled-up windbreaker, an unopened tube of skin lotion and a half dozen plastic-wrapped bars of soap, the kind provided in hotel bathrooms. There were no cigarettes inside the bag but there was the smell of a smoker, which is something different and less pleasant than the smell of cigarettes.
You’d think I might at least have earned a wad of twenties or a few semi-precious gems for all the trouble the bag had given me. There’s apparently no such thing as beginner’s luck for thieves. With a resentful grunt, I shoved everything back inside, zipped the bag shut, and kicked it under the seat in front of me. No one came asking for it and I left it there when I exited the train.
The machine which at first blush seems a means of isolating man from the great problems of nature, actually plunges him more deeply into them.
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars
It’s hard to feel optimistic about man. If technology is an attempt to escape human limitations, the limitation it seems most irked by these days is our inability to completely do away with each other. The awkward need served by new forms of communication is the need to be in touch with as many people as possible while keeping as far away from them as possible. To invoke Dostoyevsky, it’s easy and gratifying to love mankind in the abstract or from a distance, but it doesn’t count for much.
It’s the rainy season in northern California but we haven’t seen a drop since November. The nights are cold with occasional frost. The days are bright and warmer than they ought to be. This is the season, most years, when we guiltlessly spend our weekends indoors with books and board games. Instead we’re obliged to be outside. Saturday we hiked to a little farm in the hills and along the way found a spotted towhee hunting through the underbrush.
In the first chapter of The Peregrine, J.A. Baker recommends discarding any simple notions that would make small colorful birds mere accessories of the landscape. “Consider the cold-eyed thrush,” he writes, “that springy carnivore of lawns, worm stabber, basher to death of snails.” If we have nothing to fear in him, it’s only an accident of scale.
Our most common thrush is the American robin. One evening last week my daughter and I saw fifty of them in the greenbelt behind the house, that apparently inexhaustible nursery of insects and worms. They marched in alert formation, evenly spaced, eastward through the grass. What must the plodding beetle feel to look up into the bright red eye of the towhee or the robin’s depthless black?
To safely get close to gorillas in the wild, it’s wise to act like a gorilla yourself.
~ Mary Pope Osborne, Good Morning, Gorillas
My six-year-old daughter marks up her books with pencil, takes notes, even copies out important passages like the one above. On finding this particular note it occurred to me that she’s not generalizing its advice very well. She doesn’t purr with the cat or chirp at the neighborhood squirrels. Maybe that’s for the best. But then I realized: she’s marking her books with pencil, taking notes, copying out important passages... I am the gorilla in question.
Foreknowledge is the rear of memory…
~ Edward Dahlberg, Can These Bones Live?
If we’re going to allow for prophetic posteriors then a bad case of gas might account for déjà vu.