Ancient Tech

February 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

I’ve been in Florida for a week and went swimming for the first time today. It was lovely; I came home and promptly passed out. I was woken by the harsh ringing of Charles’ evil telephone—it’s an old-fashioned instrument, the color of dried blood, with a crocodile pattern, only used by telemarketers. This is because since 2007 he’s been checking his messages at most twice a year in order to subtly persuade people to call on his beloved iphone or go away. Some can’t be persuaded.

He came in the bedroom and took it off the hook to stop the ringing, but off course I soon had to get up to deal with the busy-signal yammering, and the sight of the receiver dangling from its curly cord brought back so many memories of hope, agony and loathing. Do kids today ever feel this amorous dread? They must want someone to call and someone else not to, fear calls they have to make, and so on. But the phone itself doesn’t seem to become the personification of what they feel; rather it’s a part of them, like their own ears (which makes it so upsetting when teachers confiscate them). If a woman were to rip her ears off for bringing her news that broke her heart, or mildly annoyed her, we wouldn’t all sigh with recognition, or complain, “What a cliché. Can’t these screenwriters ever think of something original?”

Which reminds me of Jeff Bezos laughing like a hyena on Jon Stewart the other night, discussing the Kindle. Stewart talked about the feel of a real, paper-and-glue book, its low-tech homey comfort. Others have rhapsodized about this. I could too—though I’d also like a Kindle. What we’re afraid of is losing everything we’ve projected onto books: their understanding, their silent dignity, their assurance of immortality (for some). Their independent life.

Once, I was idling in a bookshop, as I did so often in my youth, and saw a book on a low shelf, no dust jacket, with the title, Phone Calls from the Dead. I glanced at it several times, checking that it was really there and that was the actual title, but I didn’t pick it up. It stirred too many emotions, and not because I believed any of the departed had my number. But someone had written a book about it, the book had been published, and the shop had ordered it. The idea was made flesh. It was like seeing a voodoo doll that looked just like me, one pin quivering in the heart.

No way I’d get that feeling from an online list of titles available on Kindle. Anyway, I can read books on my iphone.

Now we’re going to the beach again. It’s 9:30, Saturday night, we’ve been hard at work since dinner (an early dinner that felt like lunch since I’d slept half the afternoon) and we’re taking the last of the wine to the dark gorgeous crash of the waves.

some books

some books

Frank is a Good Dog’s Name

February 26, 2009 § 1 Comment

My mother and Frank

My mother and Frank

I saw Michelle Obama on TV complaining about the names her daughters are considering for the new First Dog, a Portuguese Water Spaniel : Frank and Moose. I’m always in favor of kids having free rein with pets’ names, unless they name it something obscene or after their grandmother.

But the thing is, Frank. My mother had a dog named Frank. Her rule of thumb, learned from her father, is that a dog’s name must be one syllable so you can call it easily. My grandfather had hunting dogs, so this rule made sense for him. If you were ever part of a big family and experienced a parent try to call a bunch of kids inside, away from the cliff, out of the water, and mangling all the syllables in a frustrated snarl, you’ll get the point.

Frank loved my mother. When he was a young adult animal, she was a single woman in her midfifties, her kids out of the house. She wanted that devoted love, and a Doberman is a nothing if not a devoted, one-point-focus kind of animal. But she also wanted to be free to travel with her boyfriends. Particularly she wanted to accompany a rather unpleasant Australian man who took her all over France and Italy: the kind of leisurely car trip we all dream of, although not with him.

While she was gone, a young man named Greg looked after her house and Frank. Greg was a gay friend of my brother’s who didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, and my mother had extra room, so he lived with her.  She always liked having a young person in the house, and was happiest when her children were of an age to provide her with needy cast-offs.

Frank missed my mother intensely. He mourned, as only a dog can, silent, stoic, not knowing if the beloved will return but holding hope alive steadfastly. I’ve always been inordinately sympathetic to the loneliness of dogs. It seemed a crime to me to inspire that degree of love and then depart with no way to explain or reassure, no possibility of postcards. On the other hand, in my mother’s place, I would have gone to Europe.

Greg told me that one night he came home from work—it was summer and still light out—and found Frank on the lawn, staring at a line-up of my mother’s shoes. My mother had 15 or 20 pairs of shoes, some quite old. Frank had taken one shoe from each pair out of her closet, down the stairs, across the hall, through the kitchen and outside. He had arranged them on the grass and then lain down in front of them, nose between his paws.

I was living in Berkeley then, reading Proust, Flaubert, Colette—all the masters of unrequited love—far too afraid of that kind of surrender, although I thought of myself as daring in matters of passion. And there was Frank, who could never take my mother to Italy, who didn’t own a car, couldn’t compete with a man who was far beneath him except for the small matter of species—Frank, who could only carry the shoes that held her scent out into the sunlight and look at them.

Maybe you don’t want this model for your daughters, Michelle. But I have to say, Frank was a good dog.

**

“The woman whose face we have before our eyes more constantly than light itself…this unique woman—we know quite well that it would have been another woman that would now be unique to us if we had been in another town than that in which we made her acquaintance, if we had explored other quarters of the town, if we had frequented the house of a different hostess. Unique, we suppose; she is innumerable. And yet she is compact, indestructible in our loving eyes, irreplaceable for a long time to come by any other.”

~Marcel Proust

Ash Wednesday: A miscellany

February 25, 2009 § 1 Comment

I realize these leopards are not white

I realize these leopards are not white

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been
contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live?

— from Ash Wednesday, by T. S. Eliot

***

(Ash-Wednesday). Up and by water, it being a very fine morning, to White Hall, and there to speak with Sir Ph. Warwicke, but he was gone out to chappell, so I spent much of the morning walking in the Park, and going to the Queene’s chappell, where I staid and saw their masse, till a man came and bid me go out or kneel down: so I did go out. And thence to Somerset House; and there into the chappell, where Monsieur d’Espagne used to preach. But now it is made very fine, and was ten times more crouded than the Queene’s chappell at St. James’s; which I wonder at. Thence down to the garden of Somerset House, and up and down the new building, which in every respect will be mighty magnificent and costly. I staid a great while talking with a man in the garden that was sawing of a piece of marble, and did give him 6d. to drink. He told me much of the nature and labour of the worke, how he could not saw above 4 inches of the stone in a day, and of a greater not above one or two, and after it is sawed, then it is rubbed with coarse and then with finer and finer sand till they come to putty, and so polish it as smooth as glass. Their saws have no teeth, but it is the sand only which the saw rubs up and down that do the thing. Thence by water to the Coffee-house, and there sat with Alderman Barker talking of hempe and the trade, and thence to the ‘Change a little, and so home and dined with my wife, and then to the office till the evening, and then walked a while merrily with my wife in the garden, and so she gone, I to work again till late, and so home to supper and to bed.

–from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 1663

***

I was driving a 69 Chevy Nova 370 four-barrel with mag wheels and a dual exhaust. It’s a kick-ass car. I took the muffler out so it sounds like a Harley. People love it. I was staring at myself through the window into the driver’s side window; I do that all the time. I’ll stare into anything that reflects. That’s not a flattering quality, and I wish I didn’t do it, but I do. I’m vain as all hell. It’s revolting. Most of the time when I’m looking in the mirror, I’m checking to see if I’m still here or else I’m wishing I was somebody else, a Mexican bandito or somebody like that. I have a mustache. Most guys with mustaches look like fags, but I don’t. I touch mine too much, though. I touch it all the time. I don’t even know why I’m telling you about it now. I just stare at myself constantly and I wish I didn’t. It brings me absolutely no pleasure at all.

–from Ash Wednesday, by Ethan Hawke

**

As for me, I went to the beach and it was sunny and breezy, the waves breaking with fine force, sweeping over the sand, lacy foam sparkling, white and blue and deeper blue, and my thoughts were chasing each other, dates, places, deadlines, choices, and I’d jerk my gaze back to the waltz of blues and think you’re an idiot not to be captivated by this and then the wheel of thoughts creaked around again; I had that stony feeling I get after hauling myself up from mucky hateful despair, just barely not resenting the existence of beauty.

I’m in the dim house now repenting my lack of joyousness.

Nor was the ocean quite this dramatic

Nor was the ocean quite this dramatic

“…And all wonder and a wild desire.”

February 24, 2009 § 6 Comments

Venus and Cupid, Lorenzo Lotto

Venus and Cupid, Lorenzo Lotto

I’d like to meet the man who invented sex and see what he’s working on now.
~ Author Unknown

My sex life has waned along with the economy. The correlation is obvious. Of all the turn-ons I’ve ever heard of, financial anxiety isn’t one of them. Escaping from anxiety is, of course, a classic motive for mindless fucking, but my lover and I seem to have worn out the escapist thing for the time being. “It is what it is,” he keeps saying. What he means is, “I’m finally ready to face what it is, even though the ‘is’ is a lot worse than a few years ago when I couldn’t.”

It’s okay to take a break. We have stuff to do. But just because my sex life is on pause, sex doesn’t go away; others are doing it; I have to stop and think why I’m not, and what’s left to want. I need to write about it to remind myself not to worry. Too much of my worrying happens when I’m not looking.

It’s a truism that people use sex to get lots of different needs met, and my greatest need when I was young was to know. Specifically, the longing to know about men was intense and overpowering. My father died when I was 10, a suicide who was scarcely more available when he was living. I wanted to experience the full range of men, to gather and categorize their glamour, and also, eventually, to dispel the excess. As the shrinks say, I needed to learn to self-regulate.

The laconic boys of my teenage years were such utter mysteries that every morsel of knowledge gained was a treasure. I regarded them with awe. Even the ones I deemed unattractive were more attractive than I wanted to admit. Many other girls had it easier—knew more boys, chatted and joked with more confidence because they didn’t see the opposite sex as beings of light and terror—but I also thought they didn’t know anything.

My first lesson was that sex (on the first, not-necessarily-date) zooms you past male defenses. It did so especially then, in the 1970’s. It surprised boys into intimacy in a way that being a ‘girlfriend’ wouldn’t have. For whatever reason, my willingness didn’t slot me into the category of slut, or not most of the time. Sex was my gift—offered freely, for my own pleasure and to see what would happen—and gifts evoke a whole different response than structured exchange.

In my 20’s, I had to deal with all the usual things sexual wanderlust brings—shame; the need to create a philosophical rationale for my behavior; and jealousy, mine and others’. It was exhilarating and then it was boring. I can understand how for some, tilting against or fitting oneself into social norms can be a source of lifetime intellectual fascination. But I was interested in special cases: as in, everybody is one.

I wanted to know secrets. Among women, that’s not usually too hard: sit patiently, ask questions, offer cake, withhold judgment and most will tell you the good stuff. Men are more of a problem. Often, they don’t know what the good stuff is and/or think it’s dangerous, so you have to fuck them silly.

But whatever you learn, there’s so much more beneath. And if you learn that, there’s twice as much.  I suspected this about people in general from a young age but preferred not to dwell on it except when I was writing fiction, when it was a technical problem.  But in matters of love, it’s the thing that pulls you under.

We want love to be difficult. There’s no possibility of romance if every door swings open. What do you do when it’s too difficult; how do you decide if you’ve reached that point? What scares me about myself is that though I’m a woman with many interests and identities—writer, friend, daughter, sister, stepmother, aunt—sexual or ‘partner’ love is my ground, my true north, the heat I would seek if I were a heat-seeking missile. And the men I love are not easy. Being in a many-partnered situation (adultery, polyamory, whatever—I hate all the words) insures that new levels of weirdness will appear. You wake up in the morning and there are seven extra floors in your brain, inhabited by invisible women and argument; and you have to take it in stride, make the coffee, get your work done. To do otherwise would be saying, all those passionate promises were nothing but sexual hysteria. Actually I can’t handle anything. Take your reality and shove it.

Life is hard now. There are uncertainties I can’t write about here, except to say they involve others’ pain and desperation, and cause me a different kind of desperation, and then there’s my financial loss, which, although I’ve been writing about it for months, I have yet to fully absorb. But I still value desire, still imagine it as the secret path away from the horrible and towards the true, as if the true were never horrible. The truth often is horrible, but desire is like water. When it evaporates, the seemingly vanished is in every breath you take. When it freezes, watch your step. And when spring comes, there no escaping it.

There is no remedy for love but to love more.
~Henry David Thoreau

O lyric Love, half angel and half bird, And all a wonder and a wild desire.

~Robert Browning

Wordcamp, Miami

February 23, 2009 § 4 Comments

Me, tree

Me, tree

Yesterday I went to Wordcamp in Miami, a WordPress conference at the Mayfair Hotel in Coconut Grove and listened to a presentation by Jim Turner about how to make a living blogging, and another by David Bisset about the new WordPress brainchild BuddyPress (buddypress.org) which is a platform for building your own social networking site from a WordPress multiple user blog. The latter sounded fun and gave me visions of starting the next Facebook and owning reams of personal information that would allow me to rule the world, but unfortunately I can’t even start an MU site, since very few of my friends will start or stick with a blog. And even if they did, I’m not sure they’d want to be associated with this one.

The advice on making money was about attaching oneself to a corporate PR department, pitching your ability to reach the online universe. (For a fulltime position, expect a salary range of 30k-100k). Most of the attendees were techie experts of one kind or another, or considered themselves such. Turner was asked whether Fortune 500 companies would hire a blogger for this kind of work and he advised to steer clear of the big guys, because in that kind of company, “you submit a post to one editor, who shows it to someone else, who runs it by a third, who sends it to legal, then back down the chain and by the time you see it again, it’s unrecognizable.”* I’ve had freelance jobs where the same thing happened and I was working for a solo professional. Turner was also asked how to have your blog show up on Google and suggested writing good content. I like a man who sticks to the basics.

* this is not a word-for-word quote, but as I remember it.

The focus was on success yet I felt far less fear of the future than I do in New York. The Great Depression of the 21st Century, the Clusterf*ck To The Poorhouse as Jon Stewart so memorably calls it, seemed to exist elsewhere, though I have no doubt everyone present was figuring it into his plans. Certainly driving around Miami and later through Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale, we saw lots of empty storefronts, the kind where the sign is still up, and the plate glass window and dusty floors have a distinctly confused look, as if the whole business including proprietor collapsed into a black hole one afternoon without warning.

My husband says that kind of gathering—Wordcamp, not the empty storefronts—makes him feel like he’s allowed to be young, not finished yet, to be the explorer and not the authority. I’ve been feeling that way for some time. My heart’s Mickey Rourke and my body’s a collection of symptoms waiting for the inspiration of disease, but my imagination has been weirdly rejuvenated, even cosmically charged, and I would like to formally thank all the gods and powers I devoted myself to in my adolescence. Since then, I’ve fallen into rationality, but maybe I’m getting my reward for that long ago surrender.

After the conference we went to Fairchild Garden and got intimate with the Ficus Banyan trees*, which are no longer allowed to be planted in Miami-Dade county because they destroy indigenous species. You can tell that just by looking at them—how they spread out, branches growing aerial roots down to earth, adding trunk segments like extra rooms, porches, illegal apartments. Left alone, they can cover several acres. In the city, they’re notorious for breaking pavement and sidewalks, sewer systems; one woman had a tree emerge from her toilet, like the tackiest of horror movies. I don’t know the details on that story but I like to think she was away from home for a few months and returned to find the tree fully dominant, admiring itself in the mirror over the sink while tender roots cascaded into the bath.

*Ficus benghalensis, family Moraceae.
ORIGIN late 16th cent.: from Portuguese, from Gujarati vāṇiyo ‘man of the trading caste,’ from Sanskrit. Originally denoting a Hindu trader or merchant, the term was applied by Europeans in the mid 17th cent. to a particular tree under which such traders had built a pagoda.
(From my Spotlight Dictionary.)

The Apparition of those Faces in the Crowd

February 20, 2009 § Leave a comment

facebook-blogIt appears that Facebook has let go its claim to own my stuff forever, even if I quit, but as I understand it, the corporation still owns it now. And, as has been pointed out, even if they ‘erase’ the file when I exit (Can I bear to? How much in life must I renounce? ), there will always be copies. A few months ago, I was irritated that none of my friends were posting status updates that were the slightest bit interesting—nor were they responding to mine—so I said, “Margaret is trying to figure out how to dispose of the body of the man she just killed.” I expected comment. Questions. Advice. Maybe even concern that it was my own body my ghost was tasked with cleaning up before it could join the party in Hell with all the cool suicided poets and how does a ghost do that? I haven’t the faintest idea. If I were in that situation of course I would ask my friends on Facebook. Nobody said a word. They weren’t amused; they had compelling real lives; whatever. I added more friends. In actuality, there was no body (my apartment is very small, and I’m completely sure of that) so it’s unlikely I’ll be framed for murder. But what if I’m nominated to a Cabinet post someday? Wouldn’t the murky circumstances around the ‘confession’ torpedo me instantly? But wait. I don’t want a Cabinet post. I’d be the first to swear that I am utterly unqualified, unless Obama decides we need a Secretary of Imaginary  Friends—in which case my murder rep would still be iffy, but I could probably explain it to House Republicans, who are well versed in creative lying, and who understand the need to do anything to get attention. They’d also be pleased that I’d require such a small budget. A token salary—100 k would do fine—and I’d create a portfolio of imaginary friends for any citizen who asked. The actual chat would be outsourced to Africa where for pennies an hour farmers, truckdrivers, unhappy wives and lonely young men would study the specs and write charming, nonsensical, and smart-assed notes on their complimentary cellphones; English speakers would be paid a bit better to translate. Update The Wall Street Journal reports some Christian parents are considering giving up Facebook for Lent! How can they do that?  These are people who used to think it was silly kid stuff but now check in 20 times a day. They’ll be so lonely.  The article says of one penitent, “She’s also joined an online quitting-Facebook-for-Lent support group. (Since the group is hosted on Facebook, none of the members — in theory, at least — will be logging on to comfort one another during their days of trial.)” Prayer won’t help these people. Not this year. Jesus, my angel sources tell me, was summoned by Obama for advice on the economic meltdown but Tim Geithner rejected his idea to raze the banks and re-institute barter. I think the discord upset the Stock Market, but it’s hard to tell what ails that delicate beast. It blowth where it listeth. These days our Savior is occupying himself being the ‘mutual friend’ linking Malia, Stevie Wonder, the goddess Athena (now reincarnated as a 13 year old Pakistani boy) and me. I have to say, the Son of God has access to some awesome video.

Petals on a Wet, Black Bough

—Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro”

Chickenhearted Kings of Stupidity

February 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

Man is an exception, whatever else he is. If it is not true that a divine being fell, then we can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head.
—Chesterton

This came to mind when I was thinking about the chimpanzee, Travis, who ripped a woman’s face off. In particular I was thinking how unpredictable in their violence and general behavior chimps can be, because they are like us, and how it is that people forget this when they fall in love with chimps because they are like us.

There are many conjectures on the Web as to why Travis behaved as he did. He’s getting a lot more sympathy than the victim. Because he wasn’t human, he’s forgiven as a psychopath never would be; we assume the mauling was an instinctive response to the promptings of fear, hormones or illness-derived brain dysfunction. Maybe; probably; I don’t know. I’m of the opinion that intelligent animals have some degree of free will. My mother’s poodle certainly does.

Of course, for apes as for men, there are patterns and reasons for violence, needs and impulses that can be understood—but what does it mean to say a man can understand a chimpanzee? a) It’s presumptuous, and b) it’s like saying one criminal understands another.

This reminds me of another favorite quote of mine, from Chekhov, “The stupider the peasant, the better his horse understands him.” Maybe if we continue on as we have been, the chimps will eventually understand us. Take the money and stay put: that’s something a chimp would do.

And, yes, I too am more inclined to forgive a chimp than a human (assuming the human has done something more destructive than get out of her car). But if animals R us, don’t look for saints or cuddle toys. And on the subject of stupidity—which the Chesterton quote alludes to, unless it’s alluding to madness, and unless there’s a significant difference—

Stupidity is the devil. Look in the eye of a chicken and you’ll know. It’s the most horrifying, cannibalistic, and nightmarish creature in this world.
—Werner Herzog

I got sidetracked talking about violence and chimpanzees. That interests me but what weighs on me is that the world is leaking stupid and I’m picking it up on my shoes. I live in Manhattan, currently full of the cannibalistic, nightmarish and chickenhearted kings of stupidity.

I feel stupid too. If only I had a horse.

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