Thursday, December 31, 2009

Spinning the World

Two years ago October I wrote a post in which I gave some examples of one of the stylistic devices which often creates a certain kind of rhetorical intensity: the list in parallel. This other night as I was reading  Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, I was arrested by two passages. Sol Soderburg, a trial judge in the New York City court system, is thinking back, somewhat ruefully, to his first days on the job, his naive aspirations:

He was a man who believed in the absolute of the law. He would be able to weigh and dissect and ponder and make a change, give something back to the city where he'd been born He always felt that he had skirted the city's edges and now he would take a pay cut and be at its core. The law was fundamental to how it was imparted and to what degree it could contain the excesses of human folly. He believed in the notion that even when laws were written down they ought not to remain unaltered. The law was work. It was there to be sifted. He was interested not just in the meaning of what could be, but what ought to be. He would be the coal face. One of the important miners of the morality of the city. The Honorable Solomon Soderberg...

He had walked in, his very first day, with his heart on fire. Through the front entrance. He wanted to savor it. He'd brought a brand-new suit from a swanky tailor on Madison Avenue. A Gucci tie. Tassels on his shoes. He approached the building in a great swell of anticipation. Etched on the wide, gold-colored doors were the words THE PEOPLE ARE THE FOUNDATION OF POWER. He stood a moment and breathed it all in. Inside, in the lobby, there was a blur of movement. Pimps and reporters and ambulance chasers. Men in purple platform shoes. Womean dragging their children behind them. Bums sleeping in the window alcoves. He could feel his heart sink with each step. It seemed for just a moment that the building could still have the aura—the high ceilings, the old wooden balustrades, the marble floor—but the more he walked around, the more his spirits sank. The courtrooms were even worse than he remembered. He shuffled around, dazed and disheartened. The corridor walls were graffitied. Men sat smoking in the back of the courtrooms. Deals were going down int the bathrooms. Prosecutors had holes in their suits. Crooked cops roamed about, looking for kickbacks. Kids were doing complicated handshakes. Fathers sat with smacked-out daughters. Mothers wept over their long-haired sons. On the courtroom doors, the fancy red leather pouching was slit. Attorneys went by with with battered attaché cases. He ghosted past them all, took the elevator upstairs, then pulled up a chair at his new desk. There was a piece of dried chewing gum underneath the desk drawer. (254-5)

Soderberg's early initiation into disillusionment eventually leads him to a diminished but more realistic sense of his own role within the context of a system whose dysfunctionality threatens at every moment to overwhelm him:

At the words of times he thought, I'm a maintenance guy. I'm a gatekeeper, a two-bit security man. He watched the parade come in and out of his courtroom, which Part he was in that day, and he wondered how the city had become such a disgusting thing on his watch. How it lifted babies by the hair, and how it raped seventy-year-old women, and how it set fires where lovers slept, and how it pocketed candy bars, and how it shattered ribcages, and how it allowed its war protesters to spit in the faces of cops, and how the union men ran roughshod over their bosses, and how the Mafia took hold of the boardwalks, and how fathers used their daughters as ashtrays, and how bar fights spun out of control, and how perfectly good businessmen ended up urinating in front of the Woolworth Building, and how guns were drawn in pizza joints, and how whole families got blown away, and how paramedics ended up with crushed skulls, and how addicts shot heroin into their tongues, and how shopkeepers gave back the wrong change, and how the mayor wheezed and wheedled and lied while the city burned down the the ground, got itself ready for its own little funeral of ashes, crime, crime, crime. (256-7)

One thing that interests me here how McCann has resisted the temptation to make this list more poetic or verbally flamboyant than it is. This is not McCann's inventory, not a writerly list, but Soderberg's. Such force as it develops along the way is by way of calling attention not to the the writer, nor even to the criminal justice system, but to to frame of mind of Sol Soderberg. It's an efficient means of characterization. And it turns out that all of this description of the discouraging tedium of daily life at court is by way of setting up a special event, a special day, a case that comes his way that in allows him for at least one moment to step see and experience himself differently.

That contrast is mirrored in the book as a whole, which is itself an accumulation of very precisely rendered if not always heartwarming details, all of which turn out to be by way of accounting for the circumstances and identity of a new character, introduced in the last chapter, whose story is product, the momentary culmination, of everything that has gone before. It's a remarkable story, and a very satisfying book.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Up on the Wire

I may be one of the last people on the planet to have found out about this, but  friend of mine sent me this video yesterday morning. Later in the day, as I was browsing through the New York Times online, I noticed this op ed piece about the cyclist, Danny MacAskill, and the impact that the video, which according to the article is "the Top Favorited sports video in YouTube History," on McAskill's life.

What interested me about the video is not so much what it shows, mind-boggling as that may be, but what it implies about what isn't shown: the the 10,000+ hours of practice, the falls, the miscues, the injuries, the pain. I've never quite grokked the skateboarding ethos: kids on the street spending hours and hours obsessively practicing a set of skills that have no practical value and often constitute an considerable annoyance to those within earshot. For what, exactly? But out of every thousand kids who waste amazing amounts of time on something they'll never be much good at, and at the expense of learning something else that might actually serve a purpose, for them or somebody else, there are always perhaps one or two guys like MacAskill who manage to raise their skill level in whatever idiosyncratic discipline they are engaged in to the point where it's somehow transcendent, inspirational, even somehow spiritual. The Zen of Bicycling.

I've spent a lot of the last few days deeply engrossed in Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. I think it's a terrific book, broad and deep and profound in many ways, and I'll probably have more to say about it in days to come. But the reason I'm bringing it up now is that its inspiration, the founding event that gives rise to the entire imagined world of the novel and that intersects the lives of each of its characters, is the story of Philippe Petit, who had his fifteen minutes of fame in 1974 when he snuck in to the World Trade Center Towers, stretched a tightrope between them, and spent 45 minutes on the wire in full view of thousands of people. Colum McAnn uses that act of imaginative daring as a kind of symbolic reference point both for his characters and, inevitably, for himself inthe writing of the novel, a high-wire act of a different kind. One of the risks the McAnn takes is in the range and depth of his characterizations. Major characters include an Irish Catholic Missionary, a New York socialite grieving the loss of her son in the Vietnam War,  a prostitute, a trial judge, and the funambulist himself. McCann often writes extended passages that get deep inside the minds of each of these characters. Here, for example, we are in the mind of the tightrope walker as he steps out onto the wire:

On the night of the walk it took them ten hours to string the furtive cable. He was exhausted. He hadn't brought enough water. He thought perhaps he mightn't even be able to walk, so dehydrated that his body would crack on movement. But the simple sight of the cable tightened between the towers thrilled him. The call came across the intercom from the far tower. They were ready. He felt a bolt of pure energy move through him: he was new again. The silence seemed made for him to sway about in. The morning light climbed over the dockyards, the river, the gray waterfront, over the low squalor of the East Side, where it spread and diffused—doorway, awning, cornice piece, window ledge, brickwork, railing, roofline—until it took a mighty leap and hit the hard space of downtown. He whispered on the intercom and waved to the waiting figure on the south tower. Time to go.

One foot on the wire—his better foot, the balancing foot. First he slid his toes, then his sole, then his heel. The cable nested between his big and second toes for grip. His slippers were thin, the soles made of buffalo hide. He paused there a moment, pulled the line tighter by the strength of his eyes. He played out the aluminum pole along his hands. The coolness rolled across his palm. The pole was fifty-five pounds, half the weight of a woman. She moved on his skin like water. He had wrapped rubber tubing around its center to keep it from slipping. With a curve of his left fingers he he was able to tighten his right-hand calf muscle. The little finger played out the shape of his shoulder. It was the  thumb that held the bar in place. He tilted upward right and the body came slightly left. The roll in the hand was so tiny no naked eye could see it. His mind shifted space to receive his old practiced self. No tiredness in his body anymore. He held the bar in muscular memory and in one flow went forward.

Wow. I could write for the rest of the day about all of the stuff that's going on there. But I guess the thing that I like the most is the pacing, the patience, the precision, the focus of the description. McAnn's careful focus and balance precisely mirrors that of the man he is describing. He's in the zone, and he's bringing us into it as well.

What the tightrope walker is doing, what MacAskill is doing, what McCann is doing: they are operating at a very high level of technical expertise with a terrific concentration and focus. I like that. I respect that. It makes me feel good to be a part of it, even as a spectator.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Too Much Happiness

On the recommendation of several friends, I've been test-driving the Amazon Kindle app on my iPhone, and I've got to say I'm impressed. It took me about half a minute to download my first two books: Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness, and a book called The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, which is one of a lot of books available for free via the Kindle app interface.

Reading a book on the iPhone couldn't be easier. You navigate to the opening pages via the usual tap-to-select process. Once you're on the page, you tap on the right side of the page to move forward, on the left to move back, or in the middle to bring up a semi-transparent command bar that allow you to change text size or color, navigate to a specified page, or perform various other operations. You press and hold on a word, and a little dialogue bar comes up that allows you to either highlight or annotate that word. Turn the phone sideways, and you can read in landscape mode. If you want to lock it so that it stays in landscape (or portrait) no matter how you turn the iPhone, you can do that as well.

The screen is very clean and readable and easy on the eyes. The text comes at you in manageable chunks, and you can set a print size that gives you more text per screen, or less, as you prefer.

This sample image is for some reason more pixelated than the actual one on the iPhone screen, which is very clean and sharp. And it has the great advantage of being readable whether you are in daylight or in darkness. Last night I went to pick up my wife from class and was sitting outside in the car for perhaps fifteen minutes. Normally I would have tried to read a book, and would have been angling it to catch the light from a streetlight and squinting at it as I craned my neck. Instead, I sat there with the phone resting on the steering wheel for stability, finished one of Munro's short stories, and began another.

Alice Munro, let it be said, is one of the most capable and assured writers on the planet. She's got what amounts to perfect pitch as a writer. Her characters are ordinary people, in the throes of the dilemmas of ordinary life, and her renderings of them are deft and clean and dead on. But despite the clarity and simplicity of her writing style, she is remarkably adept at revealing the inner depths, the psychological complexities of her characters, in a manner that is acutely perceptive, often devastatingly so, and yet also compassionate. (The middle paragraph in the passage shown above is not atypical: how quickly the young woman is sketched, and how efficiently her character is nailed down in the sequence "Broad shoulders, thick bangs,tight ponytail, no possibility of a smile.")

Munro is not a satirist. She does not condescend to her characters. She is a scientist of the imagination, a writer whose powers of observation are deployed in the service of understanding.  She's certainly one of the wisest writers I know.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Creation and Recreation

As the New Year approaches, I've been thinking, and writing in my journal, as I generally do at this time of year, about how things are going and what resolutions I might be inclined to make if I were the sort of person who believed in making New Year's Resolutions. It's not that I'm irresolute; it's more that experience teaches that New Year's resolutions are no more likely — indeed, probably less likely — to "take" than resolutions made under less arbitrary circumstances. If as a result of the fact that I a find myself short of breath one day I resolve to eat more and exercise less, the logic of that resolution is surely more compelling than the logic associated with turning over a new leaf simply because of a calendrical change. Or so I suspect.

But the process of reflecting upon what changes might be warranted at any given moment is surely a worthwhile, value-creating exercise. And in attempting it this year I have found myself thinking about derivations, specifically about the relationship between the words "creation" and "recreation," insofar as they apply to the larger ethical and philosophical question of how we (I) might best spend our time on any given day, or hour. I'm old enough now to sense that my time is running out. I've already outlived my father, who died of a heart attack at 61. I lost a friend and colleague at the start of this school year. I've been really lucky these last ten years in Hawaii, and I know that my luck won't hold out forever. So as I approach the new year, and even as I approach each new day, I've got a voice in my head saying, "What are you going to do with this day." And often, it seems that the question of what to do with it comes down to a question of balance: what proportion of the day for creation, what part of the day for recreation.

I look at work as value-creation. In work, whether it be the work I do at my job or other kinds of product-generation like writing or drawing or painting, I am trying create something of value, something that be a source of benefit or pleasure either to me or to somebody else. Play, on the other hand, is not directly oriented toward production, but toward immediate enjoyment. For example, I play a lot of online chess. Over the past few months I've average perhaps an hour or an hour and a half a day. I enjoy it, I really do. I sit down at the computer and the time just flies by. But it's pure recreation. It serves no purpose; it creates no value; it gets nothing done. Granted, practice has made me a better player, and perhaps by myelinating those neural pathways I'm making some little contribution toward forestalling the early(er) onset of Alzheimer's. But even if I were to become a grandmaster, what good does that do anyone? And once I am dead and gone, how will that particular accomplishment have added in any way to the quotient of value and happiness in the world? And so every time I fire up the computer and sit down to play, there's this Puritanical little voice in the back of my head saying "Don't you really have anything better to do?" And the answer is, "Sure." Almost anything I might choose to do would be better than playing chess, if the criterion of judgment is productivity.

Fortunately or unfortunately, there are other voices in my head as well. Like the one chirping variations on the theme of "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." We can't all be productive all the time, right? Isn't there room in every well-governed life for a judicious mixture of creation and recreation? Sure. So how do we do the math? What's the calculus of productivity? What's the ethics of recreational responsibility?

And then there's the derivation question. The root form of "create," it turns out, according to dictionary of Indo-European Roots in the back of my trusty American Heritage Dictionary, is "ker," which means "grow." It comes from the Latin Ceres, who was the goddess of agriculture, responsible for the growth of grain. Cognate words include cereal, increase, and crescendo, and more distantly, adolescent and sincere. So that's a nice little cluster of words with positive connotations. But how do we get "recreation" from re-creation? Perhaps there is some sense in which making something the first time is work, but "making it again" is just for fun? Is "recreation" somehow therefore a mere shadow or vestige of "creation?"

All of which puts me in mind of the last stanza of Robert Frost's Two Tramps in Mud Time:

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.
And now that I read and re-read those lines, I'm conscious of the cognitive dissonance they create in me. I find myself gritting my teeth and resisting, in the reptile part of my brain, the forced logic of these lines. Frost sounds here like a scold, like a schoolmaster. He's going for profundity, but, but you can't get there if you leave out the "fun." In his best poems his playfulness and his work do balance and reinforce one another. This poem, on the other hands, feels too fully willed, too self-consciously worked out, for me. I hear the words, but I'm not convinced by them. But I can still relate to what he's trying to examine here: Avocation and vocation. Love and need. Work and play. Creation and recreation.

I'll spend some time the next few days thinking about the role that chess is going to have in my life during the New Year, whether I should perhaps give it up on the grounds that it is insufficiently creative, or whether I should set some sort of arbitrary limit upon my time playing on the grounds that balance is a good thing, or whether I should just do what I feel like and to hell with it, on the grounds that life is too short to worry about it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Red Cliff

Yesterday afternoon we went to see John Woo's Red Cliff. It was a pretty straightforward historical epic, telling the story of  a group of Chinese warlords who unite against Cao Cao, a prime minister who has made himself into a warlord and is on the verge of establishing himself as the absolute ruler in China. It's beautifully filmed, well-acted, and interesting to watch throughout. I could have done without the last two minute scene, which felt sentimental and false and out of sync with the rest of the movie in much the same way as the very last scene in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, but overall I thought it was very well put together.

What really gave me goose bumps, however, was when, at the end of the movie, as the music was playing and the credits were rolling over a black screen, the words to a poem appeared, a couple of lines at a time, at the bottom of the screen. On Saturday I had written a post in which I made reference to Su Tung P'o, the 11th Century Chinese poet who, for karmic reasons still in the process of manifesting themselves, has suddenly has made his appearance in my life, via references in the poems of W.S. Merwin and Jim Harrison. And I had spent some time on Sunday and Monday tracking down what materials were available to me in on the net and in our school library. And the very first thing I had run across, on, was the very same poem that I was now seeing scrolling in front of me at the end of this movie:

Battle of Red Cliff

The Yangtze flows east
Washing away
A thousand ages of great men
West of the ramparts —
People say —
Are the fabled Red Cliffs of young Chou of the Three Kingdoms
Rebellious rocks pierce the sky
Frightening waves rip the bank
The backwash churns vast snowy swells —
River and mountains like a painting
how many heroes passed them, once ...

Think back to those years, Chou Yu —
Just married to the younger Chiao —
Brave, brilliant
With plumed fan, silk kerchief
Laughed and talked
While masts and oars vanished to flying ash and smoke!
I roam through ancient realms
Absurdly moved
Turn gray too soon —
A man's life passes like a dream —
Pour out a cup then, to the river, and the moon

So that was a weird moment. Funny how sometimes there are these unanticipated convergences, one thing connecting with another. Su Tung P'o wrote his thoughts down nine hundred years ago, and here we are today, still turning them over in our minds, noticing the same things, asking the same questions. Absurdly moving. I wonder who of our contemporaries the denizens of the world will be reading in the year 2909, and which stories of ours will have lasted long enough to inspire their moviemakers. (Acknowledging, of course, the extreme unlikelihood that there will be, by 2099, anyone around to do the reading or make the movies, or that even if there are such people, the these technologies will any longer exist, or will, like the masts and oars of Cao Cao's armada, be vanished to flying ash and smoke.)

A toast then, to the river, the moon... and to my new and ghostly friend, Su Tung P'o.

Monday, December 21, 2009


So yesterday we went to see the 3-D version of Avatar, which has arrived on a blast of the kind of hype that only a movie which wound up costing $460 million dollars seems to be able to generate. The movie has been heralded as epochal, game-changing event in the history of moviemaking. (There's a terrific recent profile of director James Cameron by Dana Goodyear in the October 26 New Yorker which makes a plausible case for that.) It has also been observed that Avatar has a five-hundred milllion dollar body and a ten-cent brain. There's an element of truth in both points of view.

Certainly it is the most amazing and consistently riveting visual experience I've ever had in a movie theatre. Even when what you're watching doesn't really hold up to logical scrutiny, it's gorgeous to look at, and there was never a moment in the movie where I found myself drifting off or reacting to anything other than the amazingly complex and richly imagined world unfolding in front of my eyes. Whatever else you might say about James Cameron, he has succeeded in putting together a movie that goes, technologically, where no movie has gone before. And it's going to make billions, so you can't fault him on having bad business sense either.

The plot is another matter. Certainly it's no worse than a thousand other movies that have been made along the same lines. There are certain buttons that moviemakers have learned to push. The are certain story lines that just get repeated over and over again because they work, because they resonate with human psychology at some basic archetypal level and elicit a very predictable response. There are no new stories. However, there's a difference between telling an old story in a way that makes it fresh, and telling an old story from a list of plot conventions so mechanically that you can almost feel the boxes being checked off. James Cameron has made his list and he's checked it twice, or maybe twice times twice times twice. Ordinary guy gets sent to alien world. Check. Has to establish his street cred with the humans already there. Check. Humans want to exploit natural resources of the alien environment. Check. Our hero gets sent undercover into the alien world and immediately faces danger. Check. Is saved by native girl. Check. From that beginning, you can go ahead and make up you own list of where we're going with this, and by the time you get done with this movie you'll find every single item on your list will have been checked off. There is nothing new under the Pandoran (or Pocahantan) sun.

Which is not an argument against seeing the movie. If there were ever a movie that qualified as a must-see, Avatar is it. It is, as advertised, just mind-blowingly, amazingly, awesomely impressive entertainment experience. There are chase scenes and fight scenes and taming-the-wild-beast scenes that are going to be talked about and admired - and, perhaps unfortunately, imitated - for years to come. You just don't want to think too hard about it after you leave the theatre.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Old Questions

Funny, both poetry books I pulled off the shelf at the library the other day (the other one is In Search of Small Gods by Jim Harrison)  by poets nearing the end of their allotment of days on this planet, have poems referencing Su Tung-p'o. Even though the two writers could hardly be more different in their styles and preoccupations, they are both reading Su Tung P'o with attention and appreciation. Here's Merwin's tribute:

A Letter to Su Tung-p'o

Almost a thousand years later
I am asking the same questions
you did the ones you kept finding
yourself returning to as though
nothing had changed except the tone
of their echo growing deeper
and what you knew of the coming
of age before you had grown old
I do not know any more now
than you did then about what you
were asking as I sit at night
above the hushed valley thinking
of you on your river that one
bright sheet of moonlight in the dream
of the waterbirds and I hear
the silence after your questions
how old are the questions tonight

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Before Vacation

Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say on a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day
That's the island greeting that we send to you from the land where palm trees sway
Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright
The sun to shine by day and all the stars at night
Mele Kalikimaka is Hawaii's way to say Merry Christmas to you

Somehow the lyrics to this song mean more when it's a bunch of kindergartners belting it out. I'm ready for the Christmas break. I imagine you are too.


The other day, in the context of a process reflection on a poem I had attempted, I had reason to speak of a dictionary I have had with me for fifty years. Yesterday I was in the library looking at the new books on display, thinking I'd see if there were anything I might want to read over vacation, and there was W.S. Merwin's 2008 volume of poetry The Shadow of Sirius, in which I discovered this poem, testimony to what a writer who knows what he is about can do with a dictionary as a jumping off point:


At my elbow on the table
it lies open as it has done
for a good part of these thirty
years ever since my father died
and it passed into my hands
this Webster's New International
Dictionary of the English
Language of 1922
on India paper which I
was always forbidden to touch
for fear I would tear or somehow
damage its delicate pages
heavy in their binding
this color of wet sand
on which thin waves hover
when it was printed he was twenty-six
they had not been married four years
he was a country preacher
in a one-store town and I suppose
a man came to the door one day
peddling this new dictionary
on fine paper like the Bible
at an unrepeatable price
and it seemed it would represent
a distinction just to own it
confirming something about him
that he could not even name
now its cover is worn as though
it had been carried on journeys
across the mountains and deserts
of the earth but it has been here
beside me the whole time
what has frayed it like that
loosening it gnawing at it
all through these years
I know I must have used it
much more than he did but always
with care and indeed affection
turning the pages carefully
in search of meanings

I'm taken with the arc of the poem, the way it moves. We start in the present moment with the dictionary at hand, move into the memory of being forbidden to touch it, and from there into the imagined past as Merwin tries to account for its origins. (I particularly like the way we are moved so quickly and seamlessly into the mind of Merwin's father as he reflects, in looking at the dictionary, that it would "represent a distinction just to own it confirming something about him that he could not even name." There are books that have spoken to me in exactly that way when I first held them in my hands.) Back into the now, looking at the cover worn "as though it had been carried on journeys," and then the elegant little dismount at the close, with Merwin's recollection of "turning the pages patiently in search of meanings."  It's a poem about a book, a poem about a son, a poem about a father, a poem about being a writer and about knowing your tools. Smooth as sunrise, this one.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Westward Ho

For the last few semesters I've taken Eliza up on an invitation to visit her American Lit Nature class when they are reading Robert Frost. This year, as I was going through my files in preparation for the visit, I ran across a copy of the poem that Frost read at the inauguration of John F Kennedy in 1961. Maybe it was because I had just finished reading Barack Obama's terrific Nobel Prize Acceptance speech that had me thinking about the connections between poetry and public policy. But I think that it is a measure of how much has changed, and how far we have come, that Frost felt comfortable reading a poem on a national stage in 1961 for which he would be roundly, and rightly, pilloried today.

The Gift Outright

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

I can remember reading this poem 30 years ago and not having the visceral negative reaction which it now evokes in me. How remarkable, how amazingly tunnel-visioned, this meditation on ownership appears to be now, how smugly self-enclosed this notion of "we" is, how much misery and suffering is elided in the oblique phrasing of "the land vaguely realizing westward," how snobbish the characterization of the land as being "unstoried, artless, and unenhanced" before "our" arrival.

I wrote earlier this week about Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger. One of the many pleasures of that book is the number of set pieces, conversations between characters whose core beliefs are at odds with one another in ways that exemplify the perennial fault lines that have defined social and political relations throughout history. Here, from late in the book, is part of a conversation between Erasmus Kemp, the self-centered and self-righteous son of of a British merchant, and Redwood, a British army officer in charge of a garrison in Florida. Redwood is in a classic bind that has driven many men, before and since, to some combination of cynicism and alcohlism. The two have just come from a parley with at which a group of settlers, led by the British governor of the colony in Florida, have been negotiating with the leaders of the Creek Indian tribe in hopes of exacting gifts of land. Over a glass of wine, Redwood asks of Erasmus:

    '... Tell me, what did you think of the business today?'
    'Much of the time was taken was taken up with ceremony. It was interersting for me, of course, who have not seen these Indian customs before. They were all decked out in their best beads and feathers.' He laughed a little saying this.
    'So were you I suppose?'
    'What do you mean?' Erasmus said, staring.
    'Campbell in his dress uniform. Watson in his best broadcloth and silver wig and you, as always, irreproachably turned out. Just a question of fashion, really. Theirs suits the climate better."
    Obscurely displeased at this comparison, Erasmus made no immediate reply. Redwood waited a moment, then said, 'You were talking of the Calumet ceremony, the peace pipes. I have seen it often. They have come singing and dancing to their ruin with those pipes in their hands all over America.'
    'It is hardly ruin, Redwood — you are exaggerating. They will be left in possession of large tracts of land, as I understand the matter from Colonel Campbell.'
    'For how long? We daren't do otherwise at present, or they will rise against us and sweep us into the sea. Campbell is a reasonable man in his way. He knows the Creeks and has a feeling for them. But he is set on getting a favorable treaty — his career hangs on it, and it makes him wonderfully single-minded. That Indian who spoke today, who complained of trade prices, he wasn't so wide of the mark.'
    'Not wide of the mark? He accused Watson of breaking promises he had never made. He wasn't even talking of Florida, but of Georgia.'
    'That is is the point. He has seen thousands of land-hungry white settlers pouring into the Georgia back-country from Virginia and the Carolinas. Many of them have crossed the treaty line and fenced the land on the other side. Nothing has been done to stop it, and nothing will be done. And why? You know the answer as well as I do, Kemp. I suggest you know it much better. You have been having a look around, haven't you? This is prime land, and there are fortunes to be made out of it — but it is worth a lot more with no Indians on it.'
    Redwood sat back, smiling with the slightly bitter carelessness characteristic of him. There were brief soudnds from above them, steps on the stairs, then silence. 'And it is hardly necessary to us to use force of arms,' he continued. 'They are prevailed upon to cede their lands by treaty. Trade is the thing that has undone them, this great blessing of trade. Watson tells them they should be grateful for the advantages of trade. Campbell tells them they should give up their land to their English brothers for the sake of the trade goods they will get by it. They have hunted these lands for centuries without ever knowing that what they needed for happiness were muskets and looking-glasses and beads and bits of printed cotton. Now they are persuaded that they cannot live without these things. Strange, is it not?'
    Erasmus smiled, but without much warmth. What he had taken for a good-natured, rather thoughtless expansiveness, seemed quite other to him now: Redwood obtruded his views more than a man should, without first making sure they were welcome. And what he was saying was perverse, subversive even. Trade brought benefits to both sides — so much was common knowledge. Erasmus had always disliked people who took a view contrary to what was broadly agreed upon by men of sense...' (479-80)
There you have it, in a nutshell, the reality behind what Frost describes blithely as "the land vaguely realizing westward." Rich men utterly convinced of their own  superiority, unable to conceive of even the possibility that their might be another point of view, relentlessly pursuing their own self-interest at the expense of those who they believe themselves to be saving.

Two of the things that I most admire about Barack Obama are first, his willingness to concede that neither he in particular nor the United States government in general has a monopoly on the truth, and second, his willingness to say that out loud in the face of his many critics who want nothing more than to characterize every conflict as a matter of, well,  black and white. One of the most subtle and telling passages in Obama's Nobel speech comes when he says that the promotion of human rights must be "coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with oppressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach — condemnation without discussion — can only carry forward a crippling status quo."

"The satisfying purity of indignation." There's a phrase that describes with telling accuracy a lot of what you hear in the media today. My hope this holiday season is that cooler heads may eventually prevail.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Prompt Response

Okay, so here is a poem I worked on today using a prompt from Ken Ronkowitz's Poets Online site. Two prompts, actually. The current prompt is to write a poem about a sacred place, but the December 11 post from the Poets Online Blog - a different but connected site - suggested that readers try a triolet, so I thought I'd try to both at once.

Ever So Humble

Fifth floor. Four rooms. A small lanai.
Some bookcases, an easy chair.
Not a lot to be reckoned by:
Fifth floor, four rooms, and a small lanai.
But when the darkness floods the sky
On winter nights, I have my lair:
Fifth floor. Four rooms. A small lanai.
Some bookcases, an easy chair.

Process Reflection: When I think of sacred spaces, I don't have to go far. I live across the street from one of the most beautiful campuses on the planet. But I wanted to start even closer to home. Which is to say, AT home. I like our apartment. I have been liking it even more since returning from travel, which is one of the nice things about travel.

Formally, this was sort of a fun puzzle.  When you work in forms, you have to work back and forth from the free lines to the constrained lines. In this form, lines two, six, and eight made me sweat some. Since two and eight are the same line repeated, it has to be a line that works in two slightly different ways. And it has to end in a word that can be rhymed in line six. Originally line two read "Some furniture, some books." But there aren't a whole lot of words that rhyme with "books," and none that I could use. I tried half a dozen other lines before hitting on this one. Then I wound up having to break out my old Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, the one my high school English teacher said every student should own, and which I had re-bound some twenty years ago when it started to fall apart. It's no longer even my dictionary of choice, that being the American Heritage Dictionary, but it does have the singular advantage of having a little rhyming dictionary in the back. I might have found my way to "lair" without it, but having it there in front of me helped.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I don't know when exactly I started playing chess. I know that I learned the basic moves from my mother when I was perhaps seven or eight years old, and used to play with her, or with one of my visiting cousins, on those rare occasions when I could talk someone into a game. The problem with chess is that unless you belong to a club or have a large pool of possible candidates to play with, it is hard to find an opponent at your level. Chess is a game, like table tennis, which has such a range of skill levels that it's very hard to find a good match. A good C level player is going to beat a recreational player consistently, but get crushed most of the time by a good B level player. The B level player stands no real chance against a master, and the master isn't going to win very often against an international grandmaster. So it's hard to find someone with whom you can have a game which isn't a drubbing on one side or the other. It wasn't until I got to college and made the acquaintance of two college professors who liked to play that I began to play with any regularity. But I enjoyed playing with those two, and came to enjoy the focused, microcosmic gestalt of the chess board. It's an interesting little world down there, with its patterns and its formalities and its surprises. One comes to understand and appreciate the distinction between strategy and tactics, and to learn how pieces with remarkably different individual capabilities can be made to work together. Or not.

During my first year of teaching elementary school in Massachusetts, I organized a little chess club as an afterschool activity for my fifth graders. That was in 1971. The following year was the year of the Fischer-Spassky showdown in the World Chess Championship, the moment in my lifetime when suddenly a chess match was big news and was being followed all over the world by newspaper and television reporters. My kids were mesmerized. Membership in the chess club doubled. Suddenly, chess was the in thing. In 1973 I moved from my (small) elementary school to our (large) brand new Middle School, and some of the kids who moved with me wanted me to keep the chess club going. Word got around, and soon we had 20 or 30 kids after school twice a week coming to chess club. It turned out that several other local middle and junior high schools had chess clubs as well, so the next thing I knew I was president of the South Shore JHS Chess League. Those were interesting years. During the season, I'd take a group of kids in my car once a week to a neighboring town and we'd play a five-board competition. Many of my players also got hooked up with the USCF which was sponsoring local tournaments on weekends. Attendance was way up due to the Fischer-Spassky phenomenon. Because the students were playing, I often wound up playing in the adult sections myself.

Fast forward forty years. It's 2009, and technology has solved the problem of finding people to play. There are a number of sites which allow you to play online, either against a chess program, or, my preference, against real people in real time. I've become a big fan of When you go to the site and log in you are started off with a rating of 1500. It's a regular ladder format. You are matched up against other players online at the time, and you can choose whether or not you want to play them. If you defeat a higher-rated player, you get more points than if you defeat a lower-rated player. If you lose to a higher-rated player, you lose less points that if you lose to a lower-rated player. The interface is easy to use. To move a piece you just drag you just drag it from where it is to where you want it to be. You can choose play in various time formats. My favorite is Rapid Chess, in which each player is allotted fifteen minutes. If you run out of time, no matter what the position on the board, you lose. You can sign in to play as a guest, but if you choose you can also pay a subscription fee and be a regular member, in which case it keeps stats for you and allows you to save favorite games so that you can review and/or analyze them.

Here's a screen shot from the end of a game I played last week. I have just played my rook from f1 to d1, and Abu has a problem with his bishops.

I've gone through several stages in my experience with Instantchess. I often will subscribe for a couple of months and play for an hour or two a day until the whole scene starts to get old.  Sometimes I let my subscription lapse, then resubscribe a few months later. But I always wind up coming back. It's just too much fun.  What I like about chess: there are no excuses. There is no luck involved. Either you play well or you don't. If you screw up, it's on you. It's a very pure game in that respect. In the beginning I tended to be streaky, winning a series of games and running my rating up to 1700 or 1800, and then going on horrendous streaks where I would play like a patzer, making blunder after blunder and seeing my rating sink away. During the last two months, I've been more consistent, my rating hovering in the neighborhood of 1850. (Some of the players online have ratings above 2400.) I've been playing the same openings oten enough now that I remember the patterns and feel them in a way I hadn't before, and in a way that it is very tedious to try to learn from books. If someone makes a move that gives me a little advantage, I've learned how to take that advantage and drive a wedge into it: a little space here turns into a pawn advantage there turns into a positional advantage there that turns into an attack that wins a piece. Theoretically. But there's always the humbling meltdown that comes when you least expect it. The other day, for example I briefly cracked 1900 for the first time, at which point I went into a free fall all the way back down to 1760 in a matter of a day and a half. Now I'm trying to stabilize.

Anyway, for those of you who have been wondering what I've been doing on all those days I never got around to posting anything on Throughlines: now you know. And for those of you closeted chess aficianados who can't get anyone to play you, now you know where to go. In fact, I've got some free prepaid one-month subscription vouchers. If you're interested, let me know and I'll send one along.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Artistry of the Moment

While I was visiting Jason and his family in North Carolina I began reading a book he had recommended, Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger. I got pretty well into it while I was there, continued it on the plane ride home, and finished reading it during my first week back in Hawaii. It's the best book I've read this year, and one of the better books I've read in my lifetime. Set in the mid-1700s, it tells the story of a slave ship: how the ship came to be built in the first place, by a British businessman looking to recoup some disastrous losses by means of the lucrative slave trade; how the ships maiden - and only - voyage from Britain to Africa to the New World played out; and how those who made the trip find their lives transformed in ways they could not possibly have foreseen at the outset. While the book has literally dozens of convincingly imagined characters, the main lines of the plot fall into place around two young men: Matthew Paris, who has been driven by force of circumstance to enlist as ship's surgeon, and his cousin Erasmus Kemp, son of the ship's owner, who is embarked upon a difficult journey of his own, navigating the ranks of British society in an attempt to come into his own as a man to be respected.

There is much to praise in this book. At one level it's just a very well-told story, a page turner, with solidly engaging characters acting out their karmic roles on an international stage. At another level it's laden with very detailed and accurate historical information about the slave trade and about life on board the ship. At yet another level it's a very cunningly crafted allegorical structure in which careful parallels are drawn between the many forms of bondage to which men subject each other, and themselves— the slaves in thrall to their captors, the sailors in thrall to their captain, the soldiers in thrall to their postings, the scientists in thrall to the popular prejudices of their time, lovers in thrall to their loved ones, wives in thrall to their husbands. There is even a very elegant and humorous interpolation of the figure of Caliban, in thrall to Prospero, in the context of rehearsals of The Tempest by a group of upperclass British socialites to which Erasmus Kemp is attempting to gain access.

But what gave me perhaps more pleasure than any of the above was simply the movement of the language in the book. Unsworth is a writer with the sensibilities of an artist and musician. He is especially good at moments, the kind of moments when, in the midst of other activity, a character is arrested by something in the natural world around him — the flight of a bird, a shadow, the cry of an animal — which turns his thoughts inward, into recollection or reverie. Here is one such passage, which comes right in the middle of a conversation that Matthew Paris is having with his uncle, who has just posed him a question. Before replying, Matthew looks out the window:

Sunshine had come to the day after a misty start and there was a breeze outside, stirring the new leaves on the elms round the little square. Some pigeons flew up as he watched. The movement of the trees and the flight of the pigeons sent quick shoals of shadows across the room, over the ceiling and walls. For some moments he watched this without speaking. Despite the inertness of his body, he felt light, with substance. Misty mornings bring fine weather when the season is turning, he thought vaguely, almost sleepily. First songs of warblers through the mist, the sycamores in first leaf. By the river. Ruth and I hand in hand, light raining down on leaf and bud, shadows moving on the water. Light of love in her face. We sat together on the bank. By then she was carrying the child. A day to be remembered, because we knew — and told each other — that we need do nothing but wait. We only had to be as we were. Everything was calm and satisfactory. The house not very grand but with room enough, and the income from shop and practice sufficient. We had only to wait, with our love, for the child to come. Now Ruth is nowhere in this world any more and I am going to Africa. (30)

The move here from outside — the trees, the pigeons, the shadows — to Matthew's desolate recollection of his loss is startlingly quick. The experience of the physical sensations in this moment, in the here and now, transports him instantly to another moment in memory, a moment when the reality of his current loss would have been, and was, unimaginable. The shift from outer to inner is conveyed by the imagery but perhaps more effectively by the shift in syntax and diction, from full sentences to impressionistic fragments, from more artful language to more mundane.
Here's another example, of the same character caught in the same sort of moment, but fuller and more extended, from late in the book. Matthew Paris is outside a settlement in the New World. It is evening.

            He was looking eastward to where the sea lay, invisible but always present, revealed by something wild in the quality of the light above it. They had built their huts out of sight of the sea on the slightly higher ground between the barrier hummocks near the shore and the lagoons and grasslands behind, a site affording some defense against marauders and some protection from the storms that swept the coast in late summer, while still open to the prevailing sea breezes that combed through the pineland ridges and freshened the exhalations of the swamps.

            It seemed to Paris as he sat there that he had somehow earned the right not merely to live in this place but to love it — a stronger claim of possession, one enforced by the things of deepest familiarity that surrounded him, the invisible sea that cast its light, the dark snake-birds already flying up to roost in the high branches, the breeze moving in the palmettos, stirring the leaves against the palm trunks with a sound like the faint clashing of cymbals, the slender blades of the leaves themselves, curving in perfect gradation like the first whirl of a green shell. Fear of loss gave a sharper intensity to his perception. This was the place that suffering and crime had made their own, where he had been able to save some lives and ease some pain, where he had found a refuge and a physical passion undreamt of in the arms of a woman still in most ways a stranger to him.

            A vagrant beam of sunlight fell across the clearing and lay briefly on the papery bark of a gum-resin tree, lighting the peeling strips to a red glow, as if the tree were burning. The upper branches were hung with drapes of green moss, dark in the centre, fluffed with sunlight at the edges. Paris looked up beyond this, to where branch and foliage and festooning moss melted and fused into a single veil-like substance. Slowly his anxieties receded. (523)

I particularly love that section in the middle about the "things of familiarity": "the invisible sea that cast its light, the dark snake-birds already flying up to roost in the high branches, the breeze moving in the palmettos, stirring the leaves against the palm trunks with a sound like the faint clashing of cymbals, the slender blades of the leaves themselves, curving in perfect gradation like the first whirl of a green shell." There is a patience here, a precision of observation, and again, a musicality that reinforces the description and makes it feel, at least to this reader, utterly satisfying and convincing.

Sacred Hunger won the Booker Prize in 1992, so it's been around for a while. Who knew? But it's well worth reading.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

At the Edge of the Woods

Spent part of a sunny November afternoon in North Carolina on the back side porch, sketching the woods and the wood pile. Went back in later and added some color, then did some more work with the pen, then added color again. Got the basic structures down and then took liberties with the details. The picture gradually worked its way into shape. Something about the strong verticals and layers receding into the distance that's satisfying to me.