Monthly Archives: June 2012

Marginalia, no.263

We found all our dead and all the badly wounded. Around one of the latter, the big, hideous land crabs had gathered in a gruesome ring…

~ Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders

Amelia Earhart, some guess, was eaten by crabs. Honey Ryder in Ian Fleming’s Dr. No was lucky enough to escape that fate. Guy Smith wrote novels about an invasion of Britain by hungry crustaceans. Roger Corman directed a 1957 movie (Attack of the Crab Monsters) about run-of-the-mill crabs that had marinated in atomic fallout from Bikini Atoll and turned into giant man-eaters. We dislike this particular idea so much that we call other things that eat away at us by the same name. Cancer is from the Latin, and carcinoma from the Greek, for crab.

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“The Edifice of Peace”

The wife and kids and I spent last week at a cabin near Mendocino on the northern California coast, just down the road from what must be the world’s most scenically situated cemetery. If I could pick any place at all for my “long retirement,” the cemetery at Little River would be it. I’d order a custom-built casket with a window and periscope attached; in my earthy drawer beneath the pines I would decompose in perfect contentment with a view of the Pacific bluffs.

Mendocino was settled in the 1850s by New England logging families, Chinese laborers, and fishermen from the Azores. The Yankees left their mark in the town’s carpenter gothic architecture and converted water towers. The Chinese (whose numbers in the mid-1800s were greater than the total current population) built a Joss House, a Taoist temple, that still functions today. The Portuguese planted the otherworldly echium pininana that sprout twelve-foot-tall pink and purple floral towers, each of which could support whole colonies of bees and hummingbirds.

By the early years of World War II, when Japanese subs prowled off the coast, Mendocino was in decline. Later, James Dean’s East of Eden was filmed here, and several episodes of Murder She Wrote. Mendocino is sustained today by tourists motoring up Highway 1, by weekenders from the San Francisco Bay Area, and by the regular patronage of gray-market marijuana farmers who filter down from the woods when they need things like toilet paper or milk or a sit-down-and-talk at the local bar.

In the checkout line of the small grocery store in downtown Mendocino you can buy the Summer 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, but no celebrity gossip rags. You can buy superior tonic water for your evening cocktails and several types of gluten-free baked goods. Mendocino is that kind of place. Every restaurant down Lansing and Ukiah Streets serves local, organic foods. The coffee shop stocks organic almond milk for the dairy-intolerant. The toy store highlights products not made in China.

From the top of nearby Van Damme State Park we hiked through a “pygmy forest” where the acidic soil, without benefit of drainage from higher ridges, has stunted a dense growth of Mendocino Cypress, Pacific Rhododendron and Bishop’s Pine. Down a steep decline we came into the redwoods. Here wild clovers grow as big as a man’s hand. Butterflies, flapping drunkenly from pool to pool of light, tempt you off the path like fairies.

At the beach below the town bluffs we unexpectedly ran into some acquaintances. While we talked, the kids made friends with a local boy named “Monday” who liked to bury insects in the sand and watch them crawl out again. Next day, en route to the botanical gardens at Fort Bragg (where we would spot an osprey), we saw the beginning of a grass fire at the edge of the same beach. We pulled up to a hardware store and told them to call for help. When we drove by again several hours later the firefighters were still smothering the last patches of heat.

Back at the cabin, furnished in a 1940s theme, we cooked beans and rice and listened to Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman records on vinyl, then watched (of all things) Back to the Future. It was, in every way, an escape from the present. There was no cell reception and I’d left my work computer at home. We drank in generous measures of quiet. The kids wanted to stay and breathe the salt air indefinitely, to give more time to the woods and beach, to dedicate themselves to chess and cards and drawing pictures. In full relaxation mode, my wife drank tea and read Stendhal while I drank tea and read Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and passages from Walden.

Framed on the walls of the cabin’s one bedroom were old photographs of the proprietor’s parents, a then-young Navy officer and his high school sweetheart. There were framed love letters they had written each other during the last months of WWII, as well as birth and baptismal certificates, a marriage license, and paper menus from hotels and restaurants where they had dined, back in the days when fifteen cents would buy you a slice of pie, and five cents a cup of coffee.

On the nightstand I found a short essay written in 1945 by the proprietor’s mother, in a pleasant cursive script without erasures. She had titled it “The Edifice of Peace” but the c in “peace” I at first mistook for an s. Intentional? I wondered if it were perhaps a playful rather than a serious exercise, but not at all. Drafted by a nineteen-year-old girl on the threshold of marriage and the armistice, it was written in an inspired spirit of charming, heroic naiveté.

“You and you and you,” it begins, “are the builders of tomorrow’s world. Out of the chaos and destruction of the war each one of you has a stone to build into the structure of peace. What sort of a structure are you going to build? Not the same as the last one, which has crumbled away so completely before the whip of Mars.”

“This time,” she resolved, “we shall not build our foundations on paper treaties.” I nod my agreement. The foundations of even a moment’s peace, it seems to me, can only be built on more substantial things – things like exhaustion, necessity, and desire. Sometimes we’re lucky with the materials at hand.


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“A delicate art: fencing enthusiasts apply moustache wax by foil.”

Mystery Cards (game?), ca.1870s.

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Three Paragraphs of Philistinism, Barbarity and Anti-social Behavior

The Russians next door have a new daughter. Wanting to be neighborly, we bought them some baby clothes, but couldn’t bring ourselves to deliver the gift for more than a month. “Once you know your neighbors,” Rose Macaulay writes in Crewe Train, “you are no longer free, you are all tangled up, you have to stop and speak when you are out and you never feel safe when you are in.” I have some hope that our neighbors’ poor English skills will save us from the worst.

Before the Russians there was a Norwegian mother with two children the same ages as our own. The youngest, a girl, had an imperious temper and would storm out at the slightest provocation from my daughter. The oldest, a boy, was always trying to sell us hard candies for a dollar each, or paper airplanes for five. My son was thrilled at having a new neighbor friend, but exhausted too. He never complained when, every night at dinner time, I finally had to throw the boy out and close the blinds.

With her customary charm, Macaulay dedicates Crewe Train to “The Philistines, the Barbarians, the Unsociable, and those who do not care to take any trouble.” I suppose I’m one of these, or I was. I used to like nothing better than to be left alone. Nowadays I consider wife and children necessary society. These are the deplorably civilizing effects of love. You may hide yourself in perfect happiness in a hole in the ground, as Macaulay shows, but love will find some mean way to drive you out of it.

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Marginalia, no.262

‘What’s the procedure,’ I said. ‘I suppose you lurk in a bush till a bird comes along, and then you out with the glasses and watch it?’

~ P.G. Wodehouse, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen

My father likes to fish. We used to drive into the Sierra and camp in rustic fashion at some mountain lake where Dad would spend all day fishing and my brother and I would join him for an hour or two before running off to explore the surrounding peaks. Very occasionally, it seemed to me, he caught something. I never had my father’s patience for fishing, though I admired it as a style of philosophy, which is roughly what he considered it to be. I take my kids bird watching instead. Like lake fishing, the activity can sound comical in bare descriptive terms, but the philosophy, I think, is equally admirable.

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“In his ascetic moods, the sun prefers to recline on a bare floor.”

Photograph by Chris Ware from Living Architecture: Islamic Indian, by Andreas Volwahsen (1970).

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Marginalia, no.261

When one has weighed the sun in a balance, and measured the steps of the moon, and mapped out the seven heavens star by star, there still remains oneself. Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?

~ Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

Quantum mechanics has it that the act of observing a system alters that system. Electrons, they say, are constrained by observation to behave like particles rather than waves. I don’t fully understand this, but I wonder about applying the “observer effect” more broadly. It may be that stars and planets droop with the gravity of a million gazes, that celebrities can’t help but make fools of themselves, and that introspection will get you no closer to self knowledge than watching reality TV.

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The Heavy and the Dead

I once arrived for a great-aunt’s memorial service just as her son was rushing out to, in his words, “fetch mother.” He’d left the urn containing her ashes on the table at home and didn’t want to start things without her. What an odd errand that must have been. After committing himself to the continued personhood of her remains, could he possibly have tucked her into the trunk for the return drive? Wasn’t he emotionally obliged to set the urn on the passenger seat instead? And if so, wouldn’t it have been necessary to buckle her in to prevent the urn from spilling? Circumstances like these tempt us to suspect that the grand machinery of the cosmos and all its patient sifting of chance serve only for the production of Woody Allen moments.

Other animals don’t bother moving deceased friends and relatives from one place to another. I did hear once about a chimpanzee in such denial of the death of her baby that she carried it around for a week. But while they may gather to sniff and grieve, animals are generally content to let the dead lie where they’ve fallen. We humans distinguish ourselves by making sure that everyone gets a final, free ride to the cemetery. Some of us get substantially more than that. According to certain rites and traditions, corpses of saints or princes (or parts thereof) are paraded through the streets on holidays, and I read once about a group of Papua New Guinea tribesmen that tie their dead chiefs to rocking chairs and bring them out now and then for a chat and to touch them up with clay.

Incan emperors, and the kings of the Chimu before them, were honored in similar fashion. Their mummies were carried on litters through the streets for special occasions and they continued to live in the palaces they had built and to receive tribute from the territories they had conquered, forever. Through their numerous descendants, retainers and loyalists, dead rulers could exert real political and cultural influence for generations beyond their death. (This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Think of the cult of Reagan.)

Nicolas Malebranche and the preformationists had it backwards, it seems, when they imagined that Adam carried us all, to innumerable generations, as microscopic homunculi in his semen. Instead, the burden falls the other way and we’re the ones who have to carry our ancestors around with us. And not merely by remembrance, habits or predilections, of course, but in our genes. It’s my father who’s required now to endure his father’s heart disease, and not vice versa. In one of his essays, Montaigne marveled at how his own father had developed kidney stones in his middle sixties, decades after begetting Montaigne himself, but still had somehow passed down the curse:

Where was the propensity to this infirmity hatching all this time? And when he was so far from the ailment, how did this slight bit of his substance, with which he made me, bear so great an impression of it for its share? And moreover, how did it remain so concealed that I began to feel it forty-five years later? If anyone will enlighten me about this process, I will believe him about as many other miracles as he wants.

It’s not our physical descendants only who will have to carry us with them, but also our non-living children, the offspring of our minds. Family likeness is frequently unmistakable in art. We recognize a Rembrandt or an El Greco right away. I would know within a paragraph, I think, whether a certain passage were Emerson’s. I could guess in a sentence or two if it were Melville’s or Wodehouse’s. Within a couple measures, I feel sure I could distinguish Beethoven from Bach from Chopin. In his introduction to the reader, Cervantes says of Don Quixote that “I should have liked this book, which is the child of my brain, to be the fairest, the sprightliest, and the cleverest that could be imagined; but I have not been able to contravene the law of nature which would have it that like begets like.”

Without denying the possibility of original variation, there’s a lineage to every tone and word, a family history in every folly or obsession, an inheritance of glory or glorious failure in every vital attempt. None of us conceives immaculately. Which is just fine, because in the end we’d like to think that someone rather like ourselves – someone accustomed to our weight and sympathetic to our continued, if defunct, personhood – will strap us in gently and deliver us to the memorial.

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