28 May 2005

Mighty Haakon

I spend at least 8 hours a week on the road, scurrying from one freelance job to another: it's a gypsy's life. I ping-pong between Staten Island, NY, where I have a house, and Bethlehem, PA, where I have an apartment, with the occasional ricochet to Bucks County PA and Morristown NJ. And -- I almost forgot -- the Bronx, where I teach a class in Hypertext Theory and Practice at Fordham one night a week.

At highway speed through most of New Jersey, that's close to 500 miles a week, and over the 5 years I've been performing this boogie, I've put some serious mileage on Mighty Haakon the WonderVolvo, a dark blue 1991 240 sedan, maintained by our doughty neighbors Phil and Lee at Island Vo Vo Repair, 3 blocks away at 68 Hannah St. If you drive a Volvo and live anywhere within 100 miles of Staten Island, Island Vo Vo is the place to take your Big Swede next time for a periodical.

The name of the enterprise was Island Volvo for many years, until there was some kind of palace coup at Volvo Corporate, and the suits showed up on Phil's doorstep demanding he change the name, since he wasn't an official dealership. So Phil took out his stepladder, removed the "L" from the sign above the garage doors, and the suits had nothing more to say. There's a great photograph of him in front of the place, cradling the L in his arm, deadpanning the whole thing, as is his way.

I'm not sure how I got into this, but 6 years ago, there were only 60,000 miles on Mighty Haakon, only 50,000 more than when we bought him, used, in 1991. In another couple weeks or so, he'll turn 240,000. When I told my friend John McDaid this, he said, "That's as far as the moon." No other friend of mine would think of that.

When I thanked Phil for making it possible for me to drive to the moon, he said, "Which way you headed now?"

25 May 2005

Mazel tov, tovarisch Emil!

Three years back, during a too-short residency at the Vermont Studio Center, I became friends with Emil Draitser, a writer and professor of Russian literature at Hunter College. In 1974 (the year I started teaching) Emil was "blacklisted by the Soviet literary establishment for a satirical attack on one of its members, [and] immigrated to the U.S. where he continued his writing career," according to the bio on his website.

Last night I attended a talk and reading Emil gave at the Bowery Poetry Club, "Searching for Jewish Roots: An Evening of Russian-American Literature," sponsored by the Russian American Cultural Center. The occasion is the publication of Emil's new book, Kto ty takoi (Who Are You?), "a memoir of his childhood during the most perilous time of post-WWII Soviet history, and of the pressure of growing up Jewish in an anti-Semitic and totalitarian society." Here's the press release for the reading (Emil doesn't look quite so out of focus in person).

The talk was conducted in English, the reading in Russian. Emil told of coming to realize that a whole dimension of his childhood had somehow become lost to him: he was being interviewed about growing up Jewish in post-war Stalinist Russia, when his voice started to break, even though he wasn't particularly upset at that moment, but it felt, he said, "as if I was swallowing tears." His interlocutor recognized what was happening, saying that many of the people interviewed simply broke down sobbing, unexpectedly, once they started talking about their lives.

Arthur Miller describes a moment in the Witch Museum of Salem MA in 1951 or so, where he'd gone to do some research (for a new play that would become The Crucible), when a family of tourists came in, asking to see the nails -- i.e., those reportedly found in the flesh of the little girls who said they had been "witched" by one of their elders. He said, "I have an overwhelming urge to tell these people what the nails mean. It is the urge to write." (My paraphrase.)

Emil felt the same urge, only it was himself he needed to tell this story to -- and he was afraid he couldn't remember what happened, after so much time. But he found, he said, that we remember everything: memories are like index cards -- they might get pushed back into corners or buried under others, but all you have to do is take one away and then another, and eventually it all comes back.

The novel-in-progress is about Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, and the part Emil read is set in Rome, where he spent a month and a half in the Russian community there while his papers were being processed for his eventual "repatriation" to America. Unfortunately, he told us before starting to read, "I write my academic books in English, because they come from the head. But my fiction comes from the heart, and so I write in Russian." He apologized to those of us who wouldn't know what he was saying, but I loved watching my friend work the audience -- who found the story hilarious -- without being encumbered by the meaning of his words.

I left much edified -- about memory, about writing, about life.

08 May 2005

Two Kinds of People...

As everyone knows, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don't.

Being one of the first kind of people has certain advantages: for example, you're able to account for things some people do that is otherwise inexplicable, such as re-electing George W. Bush. If you believe there's only one kind of people in the world, you'd have to think that 51% of them had become psychotic, or had been replaced by eidolai that came out of giant bean-pods in the garage, or had suffered some other incredible mishap that, if you took it seriously, would make you doubt your own grip on reality.

When my daughter Nelly started to ask all those questions that start with W, my favorite was "Daddy, what makes them do that?" -- because it was the only one I felt I could honestly get away with answering, "I really don't know. I've never been able to figure that one out." I didn't have the heart to tell her there are two kinds of people in the world, at least until she was old enough to have some compassion, understanding, and respect for such poor benighted souls following their leader (whoever he happened to be) into the darkness: they can't help themselves, sweetie-heart, because they are, well, different from us.

At a political luncheon on that fatal election day last fall, I heard a dear friend and fellow traveler describe the dichotomy thus: "What we (liberals) want is a big tent, and for everybody to be able to get into the process; all they (the conservatives) want is 51%, and they're willing to do anything to get it."

It may seem at first glance that my friend is with me, believing that there are two kinds of people -- liberals and conservatives, in this formulation -- liberals recognizing and respecting difference, hence their open-door policy; while conservatives only see things one way -- their way.

But in fact it's the other way round: liberals believe that all people are created equal, and therefore are entitled to every protection the law can provide; conservatives recognize clearly that there are two kinds of people -- the good ones (them) and the evil spawn of the devil (us) who must be exterminated by any means necessary.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity.
-- William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming (1920).

Well, maybe each group has both kind of people in it, which might account for Jim Wallis's encouraging book God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It as well as Dennis Miller's going over to the Dark Side.

Bernard Shaw, in his seminal modernist rant The Quintessence of Ibsenism, divvies up the world's population into Idealists and Realists (well, actually there are also the Philistines, but they count for little, since they're able to get along pretty much with things as they are). It would be tempting to think, at least among the combatants strutting and fretting their hour upon politco-cultural stage today, that the liberals are the realists, trying to get government to mirror the world as it is -- i.e., full of all different kinds of folk, including not only fat rich straight white ones, but also people of all different colors, races, creeds, genders, sexual orientations, and body weight -- while the conservatives are the idealists, trying to force everybody to force everybody to actually be all the same -- i.e., aligned with the Lord and imbued with Fambly Vayooze.

Again, at least to this two-kinder, that's backwards. Liberals believe that government can actually evolve (with help, admittedly) into the Peacable Kingdom, whereas conservatives *know* that the only thing government is really good at is preventing some people from doing what they want (albeit, sometimes, to the benefit of all concerned). Who was it who brought the term realpolitik into our national discourse? Wasn't it Henry the K (may the vultures roost on his shoulders)?

I think the only way to make any sense of this controversy is to get Biblical on its ass.
And the Lord God said..., I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
-- Genesis 3:14-15, King James Version

That pretty much sums it up for me, how about you? The thought has occurred that this might be an evolutionary thing, possibly even DNA-related (as was clearly the case between the woman and the serpent), and that the survivor in the culture wars was going to be the one with the passionate intensity, irrespective of position on the issues.

Does being a big-tentist preclude being a realist? I sure hope not, but Team Liberal better find itself a firebrand somewhere and soon, cuz night is falling fast.
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
-- Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach (1867).

03 May 2005

Capturing the Unicorn

Short follow-up to the previous post on Heritage.

After sufficient gentle nagging from my darling webmaven Deb, I finally got around to reading a most remarkable article in The New Yorker (print version) from about a month back, Richard Preston's "Capturing the Unicorn: How two mathematicians came to the aid of the Met."
In 1998, the Cloisters—the museum of medieval art in upper Manhattan—began a renovation of the room where the seven tapestries known as “The Hunt of the Unicorn” hang.

Googling turned up the unadorned text version of the article in the magazine's archives as well as a lovely excerpt with grafix among the Braden Files.

Of course the tapestries had to come down, and it seemed a good opportunity to clean them and also to create digitized images of them for archival purposes. Turned out the tapestries had ideas of their own...

If you're still nearby

...If you're still nearby, if somewhere in this darkness
there's a place where your spirit
resonates with the shallow sound waves
a solitary voice can stir alone at night
in the currents of a high-ceilinged room:
then hear me: Help me. You see, we slip back,
without kknowing it, from our advance,
into something we didn't intend: where
we can become caught up, as in a dream,
and where we could die without waking.
No one went further. It can happen to any of us
who raise our blood to an extended work,
that we can't hold it at that level,
and it falls of its own weight, worthless.
For somewhere an old enmity exists
between our life and the great works we do.
So that I may have insight into it and say it: help me.
-- Margaret Atwood, from Two Headed Poems