Monthly Archives: April 2013

Words and Moths

I’m a bit worried these days by how little I have, or care, to say. Other people’s words don’t hold much interest either. It feels ridiculous that we should be required to have opinions and perspectives, or that we should need to express them. These days I avoid conversation. I switch off the television and radio and wonder why we can’t be content, like Bertie Wooster in Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, to “just exist beautifully.” How different – how better –things would be if we could only dial down (by fifty percent, say) the chatty sociability of the species.

Alfred Kazin in A Walker in the City describes the challenge of speaking when he was a child: “The word was my agony. The word that for others was so effortless and so neutral, so unburdened, so simple, so exact, I had first to meditate in advance, to see if I could make it, like a plumber fitting together odd lengths and shapes of pipe.” I don’t stutter like the young Kazin did – but like Kazin, maybe, I’m more fluent on paper than in person. Without a drink in me, I’m am awful talker. Three minutes into most conversations I become so distracted by having nothing to say that I cease listening too.

When I was four or five years old we lived in a small house built during the war with a rose bush out front and a big sycamore (I think it was) in the backyard. One afternoon while playing alone I found an old rusted tea kettle under the leaves and put the spout to my lips, pretending to drink from it. At once I felt a fluttering on my tongue and against the roof of my mouth. I opened up and, to my astonishment, a moth flew out. That’s how it ought to feel when we speak: like some living thing – a moth, a tiger, a whale – has just launched itself from our tongue into the air.

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Marginalia, no.293

Possession of virtue seems actually compatible with being asleep, or with lifelong inactivity, and, further, with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes; but a man who was living so no one would call happy, unless he were maintaining a thesis at all costs.

~ Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

The ambiguity (in English translation) of the pronoun in that final clause is delightful. Is “he” the person who insists that the narcoleptic is happy, or is “he” the virtuous narcoleptic himself? Maintaining a thesis at all costs will often give a satisfactory thrill. “You see what I must endure?” asks the whining longsufferer who never acts to improve his situation. Misery is sometimes converted to happiness by the alchemy of being proven right.

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Marginalia, no.292

A tree would never have spoken to me like this.

~ Robert Louis Stevenson, An Inland Voyage

How disappointing it would be to discover that we were wrong about the trees. A willow, for example, might be the most petty, vindictive creature on the planet.

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Photograph of feces from a Mountain Gorilla

Another ounce of precious ignorance vaporized.

The California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

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Where Every Prospect Pleases

The wife and children and I live in a small two-bedroom condo. It’s all that we can afford here in the San Francisco Bay Area where things are pricey. We bought at the wrong time, in late 2005, just before the Great Recession. Not that the recession did much to bring down the cost of housing. If you’re very lucky, a half million dollars today will get you an ugly fixer-upper in a distant, soul-killing suburb. Or you can make do, like we do, in a rinky-dink condominium in a downtown neighborhood of the inner suburbs where the library and local bookshop are only two blocks away. I don’t know how anyone affords a detached single-family home here.

I’ve just read Two Years Before the Mast in which Richard Henry Dana – a Boston Brahmin turned common sailor – recounts his time spent aboard a merchant vessel working the coast of the then-Mexican province of Alta California in 1834-35. It’s amazing to me that the state could have been so sparsely populated so recently. Monterey, the capitol at the time, seems to have had no more than a few hundred residents. Anchoring in San Francisco Bay (which he calls Francis Drake’s Bay – actually a little farther north), Dana admires the perfection of the climate and the wooded hills framing the water. “If California ever becomes a prosperous country,” he prophesies, “this bay will be the center of its prosperity.”

Elsewhere Dana observes that “the beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the common-place, and the solemn with the ludicrous.” This is true, I suppose, of most everything that man gets his mitts on, but it feels specially true of my corner of California. It is beautiful in spring when the hills are green and the sun shines most days and the birds are everywhere. Hiking with the kids a week ago we identified over twenty species, from kestrels and turkeys to mockingbirds and wrens. A few miles away, however, by the bay shore, my office is built atop a toxic dump created by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who cheerily poured their waste chemicals into old orchard plots forty years ago.

All things are apparently convertible to dollars. This is proof, perhaps, that something went horribly wrong. Or maybe it was ever thus. Profit is only another name for virtue here in the best of all possible worlds. I may resent the universe for seeming to require of me the things it seems to require. I may sincerely hope to vomit if I hear another colleague use the terms “KPI” (key performance indicator) or “B-HAG” (big hairy audacious goal). I may drive the freeways worshiping the wild hills and despising the tract homes and the filthy strip malls. I may repeat to myself again and again that only man is vile. But I try to remember that I’m a man too.

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Marginalia, no.291

I hereby join the success circle of the Psychic Club of America, with the right to withdraw whenever I see fit. While I am a member, I pledge myself to join my brethren in sending out thoughts of love, encouragement, help, and success, to myself, my brothers and sisters of the success circle; and all mankind. I will do my best to refrain from all thoughts of fear, discouragement, failure, and hate, and I will do my best to add to the loving and helpful thought wave being sent out by the circle.

~ Pscyhic Club of America “Success Circle” pledge (circa 1900)

I don’t know how long the loving and helpful thought wave produced by members of the success circle was maintained, or how large it managed to swell before breaking on the pebbly, saline shore of reality, but let us bless its memory. To paraphrase Montaigne, at a time when to do evil is so common, to do only what is ridiculous, useless or absurd is commendable.

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