Monthly Archives: August 2012

Radio Silence

I’m taking a late summer break but will return (barring utter disaster) in mid-September.

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Marginalia, no.271

“Notice of Availability of and Intent to Adopt a Mitigated Negative Declaration”

~ Title of a San Francisco Planning Department notice

Most of the mitigated negative declarations I’ve heard were uttered by women. There was Bridget in middle school who gave me a thumbs down for attractiveness but told me I still had nice eyes. There was a college girlfriend who dumped me, but only because she was so devoted to God. Then there was the stranger I asked out for a drink once. “No thanks,” she said, “but I admit that you have better-than-average grooming habits.”

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Three Paragraphs of Disaster Narrowly Averted

I almost killed us last night. I was cooking a batch of nectar for the hummingbird feeder (three parts water to one part sugar), but left the room and got distracted. When a smell like burnt marshmallows finally registered in my brain there was already a heavy, stinging fug in the hallway. Only then, as I ran cursing beneath it, did the smoke alarm go off.

The wife took the pan from the stovetop and set it outside in the soil of an empty flower box. It was full of black, pocked magma, a menacing and alien substance. We opened the windows, turned on the fans, wrapped the kids in their bathrobes and marched them onto the porch. My daughter, age six, thought nothing so exciting had ever happened before. She thought she might even see a shooting star.

We listened to the weird crackling of the lava in the pot, cooling in the night air. Ghost Cat – a  neighbor’s white longhair that only appears at night – stepped out and looked in our direction. A black cat by day, a white cat by night? But our luck had held. Our precious flammable books and flammable furniture and flammable selves were unconsumed. Only the hummingbirds would suffer.

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Hannah kept a stoic calm through any gastrointestinal embarrassment.

Photo by Samuel Alex Walker, 1865.

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Marginalia, no.270

In 1499 some sparrows were excommunicated for depositing droppings on the pews in St Vincent, in France. In 1546 a band of weevils were tried for damaging church vineyards in St Julien.

~ Richard Mabey, Weeds

There’s no word on whether these actions evoked any contrition in the offenders, or if the poor sparrows were ever restored to communion. I suppose nature’s apostates might also include things like polio, malaria, and cholera. They say that influenza lives in constant fear of Vatican lawyers. Unfortunately, cancer, as an aggressive mutation of one’s own cells, cannot be excommunicated without at the same time excommunicating the patient.

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Marginalia, no.269

The white blackbird exists, but it is so white that it cannot be seen, and the black blackbird is only its shadow.

~ Jules Renard, Journals

Platonism is more than the instinct that things might be better. It’s the insistence that in fact they are better: it’s just that things at their best are invisible. This becomes a handy notion, allowing me to claim the superlative qualities of the ideal person I imagine myself to be, while still allowing me, when I fail in one respect or another, to blame my shadow.

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Marginalia, no.268

Each time I look at you I’m limp as a glove…

~ Johnny Burke (lyrics), ‘Like Someone in Love

Some love songs can only fail to inspire confidence.

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“Diagram: How to dismember a harlequin”

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The Art of Bilocation

At Winter Quarters on Antarctica’s Ross Island in 1911 you don’t always want one of the so-called great books to read before bed. Of course you’ll read whatever is handy (what else is there to do?), but what you really want, says Apsley Cherry-Garrard in The Worst Journey in the World, is a book that will

take you into the frivolous fripperies of modern social life which you may not know and may never wish to know, but which it is so often pleasant to read about, and never so much so as when its charms are so remote.

The best sort of reading (which may occur even when what you’re reading isn’t the best sort of book) typically induces a sense of bilocation. My son, age nine, tried to explain this to me the other day. “When I’m reading a book,” he said, “the world around me disappears and it’s like I’m really in the story in my imagination, even more than when I’m watching TV.”

We may enjoy a keener pleasure when the contrast between book and life is most pronounced. This, I’m sure, is part of what “Cherry” is getting at. We want to live two lives at once, and if those lives share too much in the way of outward circumstance, the bilocation fails. So, for example, I don’t imagine I would have enjoyed Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships quite so much, or in the same way, if I had been a professional pillager myself.

Likewise, I had put off reading The Worst Journey in the World until summer because I knew the contrast between my own gross comfort and the gross discomfort of Cherry and co. would add to the experience. Not that I find satisfaction in their sufferings, but the transport to Antarctica makes for rather effective mental air conditioning.

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