A quick update from Pambamarca– read all about it here.
Category Archives: Editorial
Editorial: When the winds of war start to rise (North Korea, Afghanistan) I reread All Quiet on the Western Front to help me think about war. This is a grim bit, but telling too. Life is at an end
(p. 117) We see men living with their skulls blown open; we see soldiers run with their two feet cut off, they stagger on their splintered stumps into the next shell-hole; a lance-corporal crawls a mile and a half on his hands dragging his smashed knee after him; another goes to the dressing station and over his clasped hands bulge his intestines; we see mean without mouths, without jaws, without faces; we find one man who has held the artery of his arm in his teeth for two hours in order not to bleed to death. The sun goes down, night comes, the shells whine, life is at an end.
Still the little piece of convulsed earth in which we lie is held. We have yielded no more than a few hundred yards of it as a prize to the enemy. But on every yard there lies a dead man.
Also after this reading I watched for the first time the 1930 film adaptation. Who knew old movies were so goofy, even ones about the horrors of WWI that won two Oscars? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Quiet_on_the_Western_Front_(1930_film)
I’m not much of an authoritarian, so I hesitate to introduce a new Rule. But I think this one will be useful. It came to me during my visit to the Falkland Islands.
Rule: If you want to buy a Range Rover you will do so only after moving to the Falkland Islands where you can then drive it willy-nilly.
Corollary Rule: If you own a Range Rover now you will ship it to the Falkland Islands where someone else can drive it for you. (Subcorollary: Alternatively you can have yourself shipped with your Range Rover to ensure your continued driving pleasure.)
(Special thanks to fellow passenger DW for sharing some of his RR photos.)
Over the winter break we took a family trip to Antarctica. There were many highlights, which I hope to share here over time. The first one concerns sea swells.
On our particular trip, the ship followed a triangular route, comprised of three long “crossings” on the open ocean:
1. Ushuaia, Argentina to South Georgia Island (crossing the South Atlantic Ocean, two days at sea)
2. South Georgia Island to the Antarctic Peninsula (crossing the Scotia Sea, two days at sea)
3. the Antarctic Peninsula to Ushuaia (crossing the Drake Passage, two days at sea)
These crossings can be calm, easy and restful (e.g., “Drake Lake”), or rough, difficult and barf-inducing (e.g., “Drake Shake”). On our trip, crossing #1 was rough and crossings #2 and #3 were calm, which we were told is about average (three calms or three roughs is rare).
Our rough crossing– the one from Argentina to South Georgia Island– lasted for the full two days. Many people got seasick, including some of the crew, so most people used the seasickness patch (scopolamine). During these rough stretches deckhands place barf bags all over the boat, tucking them behind handrails and lamps, and stacking them on bars and tables. The on-board PA announcements remind you to “give one hand to the boat,” and in fact you are always holding onto something because of the roll of the ocean. When a big wave breaks against the ship, items slide off tables and out of shelves (waiter trays, glasses, cups of tea, etc.). Overall it takes some getting used to, but the patch does work and you do find your sea legs.
On day 1 of the crossing we had 15′ seas, and we were mesmerized by the mountains of water rolling across the ocean, lifting and dropping our large ship over and over. On day 2 the swell increased to 25′, and again we were mesmerized. I tried mostly in vain to photograph these swells, hoping to capture their volume, height and personality, but their scale against the endlessness of the ocean and the uniformity of its color resulted in boring photos. At first I took pictures from Deck 6, looking out over the sea. Here’s the best I could do.
At the moment when I took this photo, the boat was cresting one swell while I photographed the approaching peak of water that you can see in the middle of the photo. I was not thrilled with this image, so I asked the on-board photographer for help. He offered no useful tip, except “keep trying”.
For my second effort, I went down below to the dining room on Deck 2, to photograph the waves through the window. For reference, here’s the ship.
You can see the big windows of the dining room on Deck 2 at the stern of the ship, in the gray painted area. (I snapped the Deck 6 photo from the open area at the stern, next to the French flag.) For more context, here’s a picture of the dining room.
We are sitting at our usual breakfast table, and you can see a window in the background. (On the first day, we tried sitting at the window table but we got queasy, so we moved inboard to this table.)
So by going to Deck 2 I wanted to capture what it felt like looking up at these swells from below. Here’s a photo looking out the window from the perspective of the queasy table.
Because you can’t see the horizon, it is hard to measure the size of this swell, so again I felt stymied.
Finally, I took this video out the same window. You can see the table setting at the bottom of the video. It is 50 seconds long; try to hang in there until the 30-second mark. Make it fullscreen if you can.
Editorial: Here below are three passages from Louise Erdrich’s latest, LaRose (2016). She remains one of my favorites. I read her books slowly because it’s no fun when they run out.
(p. 198) What She Learned. Before the first LaRose died, she had taught her daughter how to find guardian spirits in each place they walked, how to heal people with songs, with plants, what lichens to eat in an extremity of hunger, how to set snares, jig fish, tie nets, net fish, create fire out of sticks and curls of birchbark. How to sew, how to boil food with hot stones, how to weave reed mats and make birchbark pots. She taught her how to poison fish with plants, how to make arrows, a bow, shoot a rifle, how to use the wind when hunting, make a digging stick, dig certain roots, carve a flute, play it, bead a bandolier bag. She taught her how to tell from the calls of birds what animal had entered the woods, how to tell from the calls of birds which direction and what type of weather was approaching, how to tell from the calls of birds if you were going to die or if an enemy was on your trail. She learned how to keep a newborn from crying, how to amuse an older child, what to feed a child of each age, how to catch an eagle to take a feather, knock a partridge from a tree. How to carve a pipe bowl, burn the center of a sumac branch for the stem, how to make tobacco, make pemmican, how to harvest wild rice, dance, winnow, parch, and store it, and make tobacco for your pipe. How to carve tree taps, tap maples, collect sap, how to make syrup, sugar, how to soak a hide, scrape down a hide, how to grease it and cure it with the animal’s brains, how to make it soft and silky, how to smoke it, what to use it for. She taught her to make mittens, leggings, makazinan, a dress, a drum, a coat, a carry sack from the stomach of an elk, a caribou, a woods buffalo. She taught her how to leave behind her body when half awake or in sleep and fly around to investigate what was happening on the earth. She taught her how to dream, how to return from a dream, change the dream, or stay in the dream in order to save her life.
(p.227) He said this firmly, although he still didn’t know exactly what to do besides watch Nola. Sam Eagleboy had told him to sit still and open his mind if he had a problem. LaRose would come back to the grass nest that evening, after Maggie was gone. He would concentrate on the problem. Even if he couldn’t see them, he would ask those people he met in the woods. He would find out what the situation called for.
(p. 290) There are five LaRoses. First the LaRose who poisoned Mackinnon, went to mission school, married Wolfred, taught her children the shape of the world, and traveled that world as a set of stolen bones. Second, her daughter LaRose, who went to Carlisle. This LaRose got tuberculosis like her own mother, and like the first LaRose fought it off again and again. Lived long enough to become the mother of the third LaRose, who went to Fort Totten and bore the fourth LaRose, who eventually became the mother of Emmaline, the teacher of Romeo and Landreaux. The fourth LaRose also became the grandmother of the last LaRose, who was given to the Ravich family by his parents in exchange for a son accidentally killed.
In all of these LaRoses there was a tendency to fly above the earth. They could fly for hours when the right songs were drummed and sung to support them. Those songs are now waiting in the leaves, half lost, but the drumming of the water drum will never be lost. This ability to fly went back to the first LaRose, whose mother taught her to do it when her name was still Mirage, and who had learned this from her father, a jiisikid conjurer, who’d flung his spirit all the way around the world in 1798 and come back to tell his astonished drummers that it was no use, white people covered the earth like lice.
Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.
Editorial: If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. Voltaire wrote this famous (and largely misunderstood) aphorism in 1768 in an epistle denouncing a group of atheists. Taken out of context it seems weirdly pragmatic and even cynical, and at odds with Voltaire’s faith in the sublime (in his words, the bridle to the wicked) and in a shared order in society (created by a heavenly architect). For those of us with less confidence than Voltaire, the question is not whether you might believe God actually exists, but rather whether the act of believing in a god is a right and good thing.
Addendum: A little anthropology will help with any confusion lurking out there. Anthropology maintains that religious beliefs and the gods they create are extensions of old magic. Therefore the human product of religion necessarily flows from economics, politics, relationships of power, and other such human idiosyncrasies. As such you might even say that God is dead.
Editorial: This colloquialism describes the rush actors get on stage. I love its poetry and the gist it evokes.
I am bowled over by the amount of energy we humans spend on our daily performances. We have so many roles to play: deli customer, brother-in-law, subway rider, employee, professor, sports fan, sonbrotherhusbandfather. It is endless. I find that in some instances I slide right into roles effortlessly—because they just are. Other times I need to pause and reset before the show can go on. Problems arise if I make the transition from role to role too quickly, for instance I can be too brusque when I go from coworker to adviser or from subway rider to father. But in all these roles, no matter how ordinary or extraordinary, if you can remember to breadth in, if you can remember to open your ears, the thrill of life (the smell… the roar…) is palpable.
Four Quartets (selection)
Quartet IV, ‘Little Gidding’, Part I
by T. S. Eliot
Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
Editorial: This is Part I of ‘Little Gidding’, the fourth quarter of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’. The whole work has layers of meaning which can be explored and enjoyed. This selection speaks about this time of year (winter, the liturgical season of Advent, heading into Christmas), when movement and busyness are on the rise—we with our dumb spirits coming and going, seeking, wanting, hoping. It reminds us what to do and what profound things can follow. It is mesmerizing and mystical. (Thanks to RTM for sharing).
La leçon de catéchisme (1890)
Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie de Besançon
oil on canvas
Editorial: We are giving catechism a go. I have reservations that are admittedly abstract. The word itself is unfortunate– to sound down to. And while I like the idea of studying doctrines intellectually (in this case Christian doctrines), the thought of indoctrinating our daughter is rather off-putting. I am accepting the skepticism and discomfort as part of the process itself, which is why for now we are leaning in.
Editorial: My six-year old daughter saw two turtles mating at a science museum and mentioned offhandedly that they were making baby turtles. We have not talked with her all that much about procreation but the Zeitgeist does have a way of seeping everywhere—even into the minds of Kindergarteners. My friend who was standing next to my daughter agreed that the turtles were probably making baby turtles and that was that. Then just the other day my daughter and I were waiting on the curb at a crowded NYC bus stop when a double-long city bus pulled up with this exact Sundance advertisement plastered along its side. If you have been in this spot before then you know what it feels like to have a huge, high-gloss advertisement like this one take over your entire field of vision. As we shuffled towards the door of the bus and passed the shirtless gentleman with the high-tops and blindfold (sic) my daughter stopped dead in her tracks, gazing at the larger-than-life image. When we finally boarded the bus a focused conversation began about who tends to like whom in this world. My daughter reported that in her Kindergarten class “like” between her classmates went in four directions: Girls who like Girls (common); Boys who like Boys (also common); Girls who like Boys (somewhat common); Boys who like Girls (not common at all). She then fell silent for a moment before making this point about the advertisement: Papa, the boys who like boys in that bed are going to need help from the girls to make babies.
Thanks, Zeitgeist, for taking care of this one. Persistence seems to be your best technique.
Look, Pa, there goes Grandpa’s ghost!
Editorial: Yesterday I was sitting in an airport Sbarro with my daughter at a small table along the edge of a concourse. We were sitting face-to-face. Walking towards us from behind my daughter I spied an older man with a slight limp, wispy gray hair, and tortoise-rimmed glasses. He was carrying a well-loved canvas tote and wore a familiar uniform: frayed khaki pants, pinpoint dress shirt, well-worn leather lace-up shoes, and of course a double-breasted navy blue blazer with bright gold buttons. Instantly I saw my father. I smiled to myself and thanked him silently for his visit. I also made the mental note that my father is a traveler in death and that it was idiotic of me to visualize him holed up in the firmament. As the traveler came abreast of our table, passed, and then entered my daughter’s field of vision she called out, Look, Pa, there goes Grandpa’s ghost! This dear child barely knew her grandfather and certainly never traveled with him. I smiled again. There went Grandpa’s ghost.
Editorial: This footage is mesmerizing– Sedaka’s dancing, the lip-syncing, and the overall vibe. So smooth @ 1:02; then again @ 1:36; two dancerettes bust a move @ 2:02; “that’s a gas, man” @ 2:44.
After Zeno (1965)
For my father
by Kay Ryan
When he was
But I still am
and he is still.
Where is is
when is is was?
I have an is
but where is his?
such a little
There’s no sense
in past tense.
Editorial: Continuation of a theme.
Father and Son
by Dan Chiasson
Only much later did they see, the two of them,
that, never knowing one another, there was nothing
not to know; that not being to begin with meant
those later, more drastic negations negated nothing;
this was to be the poignant part of it. The nothing
nevertheless would someday end; and the wish–
he wished it in a priory, he wished it in a mall–
was that the ending to this nothing might be,
if not an event, at least not a non-event.
Which, in the end, when it happened, it wasn’t.
Editorial: This…blows…my…mind…for reasons quite meaningful to me.
Jumping off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living and the delight of spring without its cleaning, he pursued his way across the meadow till he reached the hedge on the further side.
‘Hold up!’ said an elderly rabbit at the gap. ‘Sixpence for the privilege of passing by the private road!’ He was bowled over in an instant by the impatient and contemptuous Mole, who trotted along the side of the hedge chaffing the other rabbits as they peeped hurriedly from their holes to see what the row was about. ‘Onion-sauce! Onion-sauce!’ he remarked jeeringly, and was gone before they could think of a thoroughly satisfactory reply. Then they all started grumbling at each other. ‘How stupid you are! Why didn’t you tell him—-‘ ‘Well, why didn’t you say—-‘ ‘You might have reminded him—-‘ and so on, in the usual way; but, of course, it was then much too late, as is always the case.
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
Editorial: When I first read this passage out loud to my daughter she fell out of the bed in stitches. She asked me to read it again, and again, and again. I lost track at ten readings and she now takes down the book regularly so that we can read together this particular passage (we have it bookmarked of course). To this day I have no idea why she finds it so delightful. She won’t say and I don’t pry. I do however know why I like it– because it makes my daughter delirious with laughter.
Le doute n’est pas une condition agréable, mais la certitude est absurde.
(Doubt is not an agreeable condition, but certainty is an absurd one.)
Editorial: See Kay Ryan.
The Niagara River
by Kay Ryan
the river were
a floor, we position
our table and chairs
upon it, eat, and
As it moves along,
calmly as though
dining room paintings
were being replaced—
the changing scenes
along the shore. We
do know, we do
know this is the
Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.
Editorial: It means the falls lie ahead or perhaps behind. In either case the quaintness of the ‘floor’ belies the tilts and slants and falls that wait for us in life, whether they be good or bad. As Ryan astutely points out this is hard for us to remember, which I can certainly appreciate given how regularly I misread the tea leaves in this or that situation, or given how people I know or love do the same.
The feeling created in this great poem touches on a linguistic question I have wrestled with ever since I studied Italian and Spanish. It goes like this…
It seems to me that the formation of the conditional mood in Romance languages (like Italian and Spanish) mimics a deeply seeded perceptional skill held by their speakers that we Germanic language speakers mostly lack. Romance speakers have it for the simple reason that they are conjugating by rote complex conditional forms as toddlers; Germanic speakers master this grammar later on when they (we) learn to use modal verbs (would, could, might) in tandem with straight verbs. My question has always been whether Romance speakers have a leg up on us Germanic speakers because their brains are wired to negotiate the contingent moments in life the same way their tongues are wired to negotiate the conditional mood. During my own work especially in Spanish-speaking countries during the last 16 years I have stumbled regularly into tongue-tied situations that were beyond the predictable culturally awkward ones I anticipate with increasing acumen. Even at home I find that many situations demand that I look beyond the certainty of the moment (floating down the Niagara River) or the absoluteness of my feelings (serenity while gazing at the changing landscape). Luckily the demand works two ways—when the path tilts up as well as when it slopes down it helps to check the landscape for changes in elevation. Frost makes this point in his poem ‘Neither Out Far Nor In Deep’ about people who cannot look outside their myopia as does Lincoln when he evokes the Eastern monarch. The alternative to appreciating the contingencies of life that lay past the absolutes is disillusionment, alienation, loneliness, and (of course!) death of the sort made famous by Señors Loman & Gatsby and Kings Lear & Oedipus.
This discussion pops up in my mind when things are particular rough or especially joyful. There is no final word, of course, except to return for the umpteenth time to the ‘Subjunctive’ chapter in my Spanish textbook (it is well thumbed and I still don’t get it). It also means that while we are OK in the boat we aren’t always OK in the boat—or necessarily doomed for that matter.
Its protagonist’s self-diagnosed “disease” – a blend of grandiosity and self-contempt, of rage and cowardice, of ideological fervor and a self-conscious inability to act on his convictions: his whole paradoxical and self negating character – makes him a universal figure in whom we can all see parts of ourselves, the same kind of ageless literary archetype as Ajax or Hamlet.
From “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” in Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, Back Bay Books, New York, 2006.
Editorial: I just finished reading Consider the Lobster, a collection of essays by DFW. He caught my attention when I first read his 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College. The point he makes there (see the beauty, it is everywhere) lingers in my mind. For example I almost always remember it when I’m in the checkout line at a busy market. The two points he makes here are likewise thoughtful. One is mostly a common literary observation, namely that we get to see ourselves in compelling, universal stories and characters. How true! The other point (which is really just an observation) is more poignant, namely that humans can exist with enormous contradictions, that they can feel opposite emotions and act on either in an instance. Also so true, but unsettling at the same time.