Monthly Archives: July 2012

Marginalia, no.267

Improve alignment, accountability, and resources against key priorities.

~ Bullet point from an executive presentation

The head nodders nod their heads. There is a general grunt of affirmation. The fact that his words mean next to nothing is precisely what makes them so appropriate. An oracle that made sense would be no oracle at all.

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Marginalia, no.266

Phocine… pavonine… leporine…

~ Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Before its bath in the cauldron, the newt’s eye served a more mundane function: it was a newt’s eye. Extracted from their customary settings and placed in special combinations, words too are magic. Sentences become spells. In the cauldron are no solids, nature is fluid, shapes shift. The most mundane words find themselves in league moment to moment with the seal, the peacock, the hare.

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“Wear when confronted by your own personal Waterloo.”

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The Mysteries of Occupation

I started as a busboy and dishwasher at a greasy downtown bar and grill in California’s flat, hot Central Valley. I was “paid” (if you want to call it that) under the table. My duties included killing roaches in the kitchen, carting cases of beer out of the walk-in, and mopping up vomit in the restrooms.

At college in Seattle, I worked briefly for the records department. All student transcripts in the school’s hundred year history were stored in a single windowless room where, according to rumor, the doors would automatically shut and all the oxygen get sucked out at the merest whiff of smoke. When a grade change was authorized, we employed the medieval technique of “white-out and typewriter” to make the correction.

Through most of my school years I worked for the university library. The byzantine scheming of competing management factions made for gory blood sport, but it was pleasant to read Shakespeare while manning the circulation desk at night, and pleasant to roll through the aisles with an hour’s shelving to do.

Out of school, I worked short stints for an industrial printing company, a specialty grocery store, and at a salmon cannery in Alaska. Back in Seattle, I worked three years for a late-night bookstore where, on special days, homeless people promised to murder me, crazy people defecated in the children’s section, and animals wandered in from the streets to die.

I joined the party of the devil in 1998 and took a job with Amazon, answering customer emails and telephone calls. At the summer picnic one year, I dunked the company’s billionaire founder in the dunk tank. When the WTO met in Seattle in November of ’99, tear gas seeped into the office and some of my coworkers, fleeing the building, were herded onto buses and arrested en masse as anarchists. After a failed attempt to unionize, three hundred of us were laid off in the spring of 2001, our jobs outsourced to India.

From 2001 to 2003, I worked for a health insurance company. I started in customer service but ended by drafting and editing medical correspondence. Policyholders would write to request authorization of procedures to enhance their disappointing sexual features (photos included) or for coverage of bariatric surgery or growth hormone shots for their children. I would translate the decisions of our medical review panel into plain English explaining why these things could not be paid for.

Since 2004 I have worked in marketing and public relations functions for a dotcom in Silicon Valley. I manage a bit, but mostly I write. I write to create a felt need in consumers that leads them to use our services. I write to convince reporters that they should mention us in their stories. I write to make the company and our executives look good, to make investors feel sanguine and to make government agencies happy to award us fat contracts.

I don’t feel particularly good about this. In fact, though I’ve occasionally tried to feel otherwise, I hate business. I admit, there is a satisfaction in hearing my own bullshit talking points recited word for word by photogenic persons on national television news programs. But this is not a virtuous satisfaction.

John Jay Chapman, remembering his recently-deceased friend the philosopher William James, said that “the mysteries of temperament are deeper than the mysteries of occupation.” He meant, perhaps, that it’s easier to retrace the path bringing a person to his current occupation than to measure the influence of temperament on the route taken, or its ultimate destination.

I’ve rediscovered that I’m temperamentally unsuited to my work. At least, I prefer to think it a series of accidents that brought me here rather than an inevitable expression of my nature. This doesn’t mean that I’m ready to leave my job for something else. I’ve learned to be grateful, and I can’t afford idealism at the moment.

There are three options, as I see it. The first two are described in Swann’s Way when the narrator says that people unfitted to their work may “bring to their regular occupations either an indifference tinged with fantasy, or a sustained and haughty application, scornful, bitter, and conscientious.” A third option, the one I want most but can’t afford, is to run away and live, like Thoreau, a life according to nature and my own temperament.

Living according to my temperament, every day would begin at 9am. I would read and drink tea until 11am. Then, after a nice brunch and cleaning up, I’d run errands or do more reading until 2 or 3pm. After that, I’d go for a long walk (hills or shore), returning home about 6pm. I would drink wine or gin-and-tonic while cooking dinner, which I would eat at 7pm. I would listen – depending on my mood – to Bach or Benny Goodman or Tom Waits while scrubbing dishes. At 9pm I would drink a cup of coffee and start work on my writing projects. Between 1 and 2am I would go to bed.

In other words, I would be a self-centered bastard and no real use to anyone at all. Thankfully, I’ve got my wife and children and mortgage to prevent me from living in full accord with my temperament. I used to have a little homemade sign posted in my office that read: “STOP. Your heart will not guide you.” Of course it’s your bookshelf and your sense of comic irony that should guide you.

I confront myself in the bathroom mirror, the aging vomit mopper, the cannery slave, the midnight bookslinger, a little gray now at the temples and chin: “You may find a way out some day, pal, but let’s not forgot who you are. You used to believe that to look for identity in your “job” was to impoverish your soul. Remember, you might be at this baloney for another thirty years. Go, therefore, and cultivate an attitude of indifference tinged with fantasy.”

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Marginalia, no.265

Gone, alas, was any shred of confidence that she was God. That particular, supreme career was closed to her.

~ Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica

In one of the apocryphal gospels, the child Jesus makes twelve sparrows out of clay while playing on the banks of the Jordan. “Off you go!” he claps, and they fly away singing. It’s no sweat impressing your friends when you’re one of the Holy Trinity, I suppose. If I ever suspected I might be God, my first pottery class cured me of the delusion.

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Three Paragraphs of Night Hunting

In his late essay titled ‘Night and Moonlight,’ Henry David Thoreau writes: “How insupportable would be the days, if the night with its dews and darkness did not come to restore the drooping world. As the shades begin to gather around us, our primeval instincts are aroused, and we steal forth from our lairs, like the inhabitants of the jungle, in search of those silent and brooding thoughts which are the natural prey of the intellect.” Blake’s Tyger! Tyger! hunts by night too.

About nine o’clock on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, after eating dinner and cleaning the kitchen and tucking in the kids, I make myself a cup of coffee and sit down to write. The first hour or so is always a loss, but on a good night I will edit and revise (yet again) a chapter of my novel. I may write something to publish here too. I’ll stay up as late as two in the morning, when the automatic sprinklers cut on outside and the raccoons creep through the oleanders. Other people, I know, get up early to work on their creative projects, but night is when I hear best.

Part of the pleasure of writing, for me, is to knock on things and hear them hum. You’re never sure what notes you might summon from a fact, a character, an observation or idea. The note that you strike with your own knuckles will sound unlike anyone else’s. Even your own knock will sound different tomorrow. The bones in the figurative hand expand, the flesh gets thick and soft, or dry and thin, according to the weather. It all affects the timbre and resonance you discover. When hunting by ear like this (if I can return to the metaphor), I always catch a little of myself in the trap.

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Marginalia, no.264

I did not see any sign among the fighting men, whether wounded or unwounded, of the very complicated emotions assigned to their kind by some of the realistic modern novelists who have written about battles.

~ Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders

Stephen Crane must have been among the “realistic modern novelists” Roosevelt intended: The Red Badge of Courage was published three years before the war with Spain. Roosevelt never mentions him, but Crane traveled as a correspondent with the regiment in Cuba. In a story filed from Siboney on June 24, 1898, Crane recounts the Rough Riders’ first battle with the Spanish. Afterwards, one of his fellow correspondents – mortally wounded – asks Crane to file his dispatches for him. How did this fit a novelist’s idea of “complicated emotions” under fire? “I immediately decided that he was doomed,” says Crane. “No man could be so sublime in detail concerning the trade of journalism and not die.”

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