Monthly Archives: October 2013

Wine in the Morning and Breakfast at Night

You might have mistaken the cars out the window for lumps of sugar. A series of winter storms had come down from the Gulf of Alaska and dropped enough snow on Seattle to enforce a five-day hibernation. Queen Anne Hill, where I lived, was cut off like an iceberg, its steep slopes sheathed in ice. No one went to work. Public buses were stopped. Truck deliveries were impossible. Soon the local grocer began to run out of food. My roommates and I listened to David Bowie and the Velvet Underground and drank Jim Beam and marveled at the transformation of the world outside. It was like a little holiday with a faint specter of starvation. That night I dreamed that Bowie circa 1973 was cooking a meal for us. The cupboards bare, he dropped armloads of colored felt puppets into a vat of boiling water. We would dine, he said, on puppet stew.

That must have been in 1996 or ’97, I’m not sure which. I was a few years out of college, poor and single and working at the bookshop. Back then I lived almost entirely on spaghetti and bagels, Bowie and The Velvet Underground. Seattle was still vaguely famous for its “grunge” music, but I was more interested in the music of my parents’ generation. Not that my parents ever listened to David Bowie or Lou Reed. In the sixties and seventies they had been more interested in The Beatles, Donovan, Simon and Garunkel, and The Mamas and the Papas. But my roommates and I kept The Velvets’ entire discography, and Bowie’s from Space Oddity to Diamond Dogs, on near-constant rotation. When working the front counter at the bookshop I listened to the same.

The obsession – though not the enjoyment – began to wear off. I started exploring jazz from the fifties and sixties (Davis, Coltrane, Mingus, Chet Baker, and Dave Brubeck) and modern Eastern Bloc composers (Gorecki, Schnittke, Ligeti, Arvo Part, and Peteris Vasks). Most of the latter I can’t bear anymore, having retreated to the more gratifying Baroque period – the music of which, along with a broader sampling of jazz artists, makes up most of what we play at home these days. This past Sunday, however, after hearing of Lou Reed’s death, I listened with deep satisfaction to an old Velvet Underground disc while washing the dishes. The leaves were piling up outside and things suddenly felt melancholy. I don’t know why we should be affected by the deaths of artists, most of whom are strangers to us and haven’t produced memorable work in years, but sometimes we are affected, a little.

Lou Reed was one of a handful of aging popular musicians whose passing might mark something for me. The others include David Bowie, Ray Davies, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Paul McCartney. Like any good parents, my wife and I have tried to raise our kids to appreciate rock and roll of the sort they made. So far we’ve failed. Our son, age ten, is a rather good violin player. He’s been taking lessons for four years now and practices an hour each day. Mondays he plays with a local youth chamber orchestra. My daughter, eight years old, is showing some promise with the piano. I can’t even read music, so their achievements are, to me, miraculous. But they absolutely hate – detest – rock and roll. I expected to raise music snobs, but not this kind. I’m Beginning to See the Light came on while I was finishing up the silverware. You can imagine my dismay when both son and daughter covered their ears and stomped off to the bedroom to blast Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major.

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Marginalia, no.311

The corporate bathroom is the one place in the whole office where you understand completely what is expected of you.

~ Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine

Certain of my coworkers from overseas believe that what’s expected of them is to strip naked (dropping their clothes on the filthy floor) and climb atop the toilet seat to crouch and unburden themselves at an altitude. Others imagine that hand washing is optional. I’m tempted sometimes to follow these to the break room and make a public denunciation. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I might say, “be advised that THIS MAN” (pointing the accusatory finger) “is even now rudely befouling the roasted and salted pistachio bin!”

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Marginalia, no.310

…her hand in his looked like a rose lying among carrots…

~ Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers

In real life, thank God, no woman’s hand looks anything like a rose, unless it’s been dissected or injured by a boat propeller.

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My True Majority

Mendocino
I often daydream about losing my job. I arrive at the office one morning to find that my keycard no longer works. Or else I’m met by an HR representative and given ten minutes to clean out my desk. “What a relief,” I say and smile as I exit the building. In the good old days I was laid off every two or three years. My last period of unemployment (from September 2003 to March 2004) was a golden era. We were poor as dirt but had time for things. I walked alone in the hills. I read and wrote. I was thirty, a new father. My son had a bad case of roseola but a good attitude. There he is in a photograph, rashy and smiling, in a sunny courtyard of an old Spanish mission that we visited one day.

I turned forty last month. If any part of me was still waiting for real adulthood to arrive, I suppose this is it. Paul Giamatti once said in an interview that he never felt right until he turned forty. Some people have young souls and others have old ones, he said, “but I have a middle-aged soul.” I don’t know the age of my soul, but I feel all right. The young narrator of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine expects that age forty will mark “the end of the rule of nostalgia, the beginning of my true majority.” Only then, he calculates, will the weight of childhood ideas and associations be fully counter-balanced by ideas and associations acquired in adulthood. Instead I think: being seven, that was something! Being twenty-seven or thirty-seven? Not so much.

I marked my fortieth birthday by running away with the wife and kids to a cabin near Mendocino, about 150 miles north of San Francisco. At the cabin there is no mobile phone signal, no Internet access (it’s a luxury to be inconvenienced these days). There is, however, the sound of the ocean, there are birds, and there are lots and lots of trees. This is the California I like best, a half-wild bucolic territory of slow Victorian-era towns, valley vineyards framed in oaks, redwood canyons, roaring headlands, and salt fog. Let go from work, it’s just the place to run off to, a place to live on wild berries and sea urchins, or to slowly turn Sasquatch. Retirement is only twenty-five years away.

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Marginalia, no.309

But in comparison with the debased culture of seventh-century Gaul, traditionalism itself was a progressive force, for it secured the survival of the Classical inheritance of Western culture. The words of Alcuin’s teacher, Aelbert of York – that it would be disgraceful to allow the knowledge which had been discovered by the wise men of old to perish in our generation – show a sense of responsibility to the past which is the mark of genuine humanism rather than of a blind adherence to traditionalism.

~ Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture

Impressed by the pace of technological innovation in 1932, H.G. Wells bemoaned the fact that “there is not a single Professor of Foresight in the world” to help humanity prepare itself. We have abundant futurists and would-be prophets now. It’s possible to look to the future while still being responsible to the past, but constant panting after the Next Big Thing is debasing. Offerings and prayers are rightly made to ancestors rather than descendants. Genuine humanism values history not as an index of folly and barbarism but as a repository of memory without which there can be no abiding sense of self.

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Marginalia, no.308

Drinking blood, “the noblest of the humors,” was considered an especially potent remedy with many uses, among them dissolving blood clots, protecting a patient from painful spleen or coughing, preventing seizures…or even curing flatulence.

~ Joel F. Harrington, The Faithful Executioner

A bad case of gas will drive a man to desperate measures. He may haunt dim corners, embrace voluntary social isolation, and even (yes) quaff pints of human blood in hope of a cure. We begin, perhaps, to guess Count Dracula’s true motivation.

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