January 5, 2006
January 6, 2006
January 11, 2006
The limestone fenceposts in northern Oklahoma.
January 25, 2006
February 3, 2006
"What does that mean?" Gillian asked.
I didn't know, but I surmised that, since football teams have 11 players, the driver of this vehicle must be proudly declaring that he is the twelfth man on the team.
But I didn't dwell long on that point, because I was struck by how the visual presentation of this vehicle was exactly the same as that used for lavish display of the American flag in the months after the bombing of the World Trade Center. I wondered if the guy who was now flying the "12" flags was using flagpole holders he had previously used for American flags. Did he go to the same dealer to buy the flags? It must be a great boon to the dealer, having people want "12" flags. It must have been hard times for him, the last couple years, since the passionate desire to display the stars and stripes faded.
The guy with the "12" flags: if he had American flags before, how long did he drive around with them? What was it like, the morning he got up and decided to take the flags off his Land Rover? That must have felt really strange. Yesterday it was important for me to display my patriotism, but today it isn't. Did he wait for a convenient excuse? Maybe wait till he needed to run the car through the carwash. You'd have to take all the flags off for that, and then you could just kind of not put them on again after.
At the Kinko's on Market Street, they painted the whole huge front window in red, white, and blue in the fall of 2001, saying, "9/11 – We will never forget. EVER." I walked by one day and an employee was in the window with a razor blade in a holder, scraping "EVER" off the glass.
February 4, 2006
"That's the way it is," a mother will say. "This is what God intended," the preacher will intone. "It is for the best," a kindly schoolteacher will explain. The slaves are well treated. They couldn't take care of themselves. We're watching over them. The burden of caring for them is heavy, but we cannot avoid it. It's our duty.
Imagine if somehow you had the force of character to resist these arguments and continue to hear the quiet voice that says, "but it's wrong." As you came into manhood, how could you dare express that voice loud? What are you saying, that you'd wish your father and mother poor? The destruction of your whole community? Everything they've worked so hard to build? The prosperity of your town? Would you tell the man whose daughter you want to marry that you wish him de-propertied?
It is safer to become a reformer. In any community, there would be those who worked to pass laws against excessively harsh treatment of the slaves. To see that cruel men who whip slaves to death are brought to justice. Reform measures have been proposed that would allow slave families to stay together, prohibiting owners from selling wives away from their husbands, children away from their wives. "This bill has a chance in the state legislature this year," a reformer would tell you. "We've been pushing for it for twelve years. Be reasonable, man. The conservatives want to paint us all as radicals. With your looney notions about 'slavery is just wrong,' you're playing right into their hands. You give them the chance to paint us all as crazy. We have they chance to actually make a difference here. For God's sake, don't throw that away!"
If you grew up in a society where one group of people not only owned others, but killed and ate them, similar arguments could probably turn aside your revulsion as well. You'd never be comfortable with the idea, but you'd work with some warm-hearted reformers to make sure that the deaths were painless.
The same would hold true if you grew up where one hereditary privileged group claimed all the resources of the earth as theirs, took those resources by military force, and consumed them in lavish displays of splendid waste while most people on the planet died for lack of even basic sustenance.
February 10, 2006
March 8, 2006
March 16, 2006
March 17, 2006
March 18, 2006
March 19, 2006
March 20, 2006
In my first book of poetry – well, since we're back here in the actual present, my only published book of poetry – there's a poem called "The Parking Lot Outside the Art Museum." The narrator of the poem talks about how you feel after several kinds of experiences, and surmises that the purpose of the art museum is what you see when you walk outside into the parking lot. The experience I was trying to describe in "The Parking Lot Outside the Art Museum" is something that happens after forty or fifty minutes in the museum – about the same time you'd spend in the gym, and I've explained it that way before, introducing the poem at a reading: "You don't go to the gym to admire the Nautilus machines," I might say. "You go to the gym for the way you feel walking out of the gym." But what I feel after a few days of all-day arting with Gillian isn't a nice post-workout buzz. It's more like Post-Artistic Stress Syndrome.
In PS1 this afternoon – the first Public School in New York City, in Queens, now converted to a branch of the Museum of Modern Art, mostly given to contemporary installations and media work – I walked into a room on the third floor and was stunned at what the artist had done. He – or she – had created a stunningly detailed recreation of a business office, complete down to the paperwork artfully arranged on the perfectly textured desktops. I was standing there in mute admiration, completely overcome with appreciation, when I realized that it wasn't an installation, I was standing in a business office of the museum.
A similar experience has been with me the rest of the day. Instead of trying to figure out how to work the turnstiles in the subway, I'm flabbergasted by the layers of enamel finish the artist has used on them, the texture all pockmarked as the moon but, because of the high-gloss paint, all smooth and shiny.
As we were sitting at dinner, I was having a hard time reading the menu because I was lost trying to figure out the way the artist had arranged the shadows of the silverware, I turned to Gillian to see if there were some way to ask – she's been doing this art walk for well over five decades now, and I was twisting my head around out of the visual mode to try to put into words the question of how she deals with P.A.S.S. in her life, and then, just the same way I realized that that room in PS1 wasn't a recreation of a business office as an art installation, it was a business office, I realized – Oh! This weird dislocation of the consciousness I'm trying to figure out how to deal with, this is how Gillian feels all the time.
April 19, 2006
May 2, 2006
May 3, 2006
May 4, 2006
May 10, 2006
June 4, 2006
July 2, 2006
July 6, 2006
July 13, 2006
"Yeah, but if you had only one . . . "
July 17, 2006
August 3, 2006
August 4, 2006
August 14, 2006
September 1, 2006
September 16, 2006
September 22, 2006
September 24, 2006
"I'll meet you in St. Paul's Churchyard." The St. Paul's we see today only dates from the seventeenth century, of course. The old one burned in the Great Fire of London. It was bigger. Before they built the old Cathedral, there was an old church, and long before the old church, the Druids worshipped on that hill.
It seems to a boy from the country, who grew up on English lit and for whom therefore London will always be the One True City, the model from which all others fall short, that the whole city is like St. Paul's. A thousand years old, but actually, what you see now is the most recent restoration, and in fact we've got tons of thoroughly modern construction tractors working out back right now.
Take St. Pancras. One of the great Victorian train stations, in a city that has so many. When its trainshed was built in 1868, it was the largest roof in the world, and it still takes the breath away. Out behind they're tearing up square miles, to bring in hot Eurostar trains, 200 miles per hour from France, through the tunnel under the English Channel. Whole neighborhoods gone. But then, at the Museum of London, I saw pictures of the neighborhoods they tore up to build St. Pancras in the first place, and the inhabitants left homeless. The looming Victorian Gothic castle of a station itself is being fitted out now as condos. You could buy one and live next door to the new British Library, which isn't in the British Museum any more. The British Museum still has the circular reading room where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, but the Magna Carta, the map collection, the Austen manuscripts, and the first drafts of Beatles songs are all out now next to St. Pancras, in a building as modern as the Bibliothèque publique d'information in Paris.
Stop anywhere, on any corner, and around you are a medieval story, a renaissance story, an eighteenth century story, a Victorian story, and six twentieth century stories. "The V-2's opened the city up. That square, that's a V-2. The park on the Islington High Street, that's another."
Holborn is named after a village established in 1249, which was named after a river, a tributary to the Fleet. Of course, the rivers are gone underground now, you know where they flowed by the names of streets. In Holborn is Gresham College, an institution of higher learning which enrolls no students and grants no degrees, but gives lectures free and open to the public. It was founded in 1597 and has been in continuous operation ever since. Of course it's moved three times and none of the original buildings are left.
It all reminds one of George Washington's hatchet. You know, the one he chopped down the cherry tree with, and then didn't tell a lie about when his father asked him? They still have that hatchet at Mount Vernon. Of course, it's a working farm, so they've kept using the hatchet, and over the years they've had to replace the head once and the handle three times.
September 30, 2006
The first woman was coming out of the second room of Monet water lilies at the Orangerie, completely overcome. I have to say, after a couple of hours there, I was almost in similar shape myself. Monet's rendering of air is more transporting than my best hallucinations. With the possible exception of the first time I encountered one of James Turrell's ganzfelds, I don't think I've ever had such a strong reaction to a visual stimulus.
The second was sitting in a metro station as our train went past, sobbing into a cell phone.
The girl was probably six or seven, sitting two tables from us in a Breton creperie in Rue d'Odessa. The tables were so close together that they had to be pulled out so you could move around them. Her father moved the table out so she could come sit on his lap until she'd calmed enough to eat.
October 1, 2006
I know I’ve said it about other establishments, but it may bet true that Gibert Joseph is the best bookstore in the world. I’m too ignorant to evaluate its merits fairly. Being able to read English, I can notice that Gilbert Joseph has the most comprehensive collection of works by Philip K. Dick of any store I’ve ever been in. I don’t know Turkish, Flemish, or Chinese, but those sections of the store look equally well stocked.
October 5, 2006
October 6, 2006
October 8, 2006
October 14, 2006
October 19, 2006
I went to the Country Music Hall of Fame, in Nashville, Tennessee, many years ago, where I saw Elvis Presley’s Cadillac, various musicians’ cowboy boots, and the 1957 RCA Studio B console. (Gillian Welch and David Rawlings recently got permission to have it dusted out and turned on once again to record an album.)
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was indeed a lot like that, only bigger. Six stories of glass cases. It does a pretty good job of telling the story, starting with old blues, gospel, Bill Monroe, and rockabilly, working from Elvis to Janis to Kurt Cobain, with short video clips on televisions, surrounded by visual aids such as album covers, ticket stubs, clothes, and, yes, lots and lots of amazing guitars it just tears you up inside to see in glass cases rather than out being played. (A 1939 Martin 000-42! In a glass case!) There are cars: Janis’s Porsche, ZZ Top’s bright red “Eliminator” hot rod, the Corvette that Roy Orbison drove back and forth to the studio when they were cutting The Traveling Wilburys. Many outfits Jimi Hendrix wore. First drafts of songs, in the songwriters’ hands. And more guitars. Ledbelly’s twelve-string Stella. The objects I liked best were John Lennon’s green card and Elvis Presley’s enrollment in the Memphis Federation of Musicians. But looking at a collection of objects has, if not nothing at all, certainly very little to do with the musical experience that invests those objects with meaning. Walking through a museum looking at objects in glass cases is, if not the precise opposite of rock and roll, certainly way on the other side of the world.
So what would I do? If you gave me six floors and an operating budget? I don’t know, I guess I’d have a continuous sock hop running on the first floor, the Acid Tests with a light show on the second floor, a recreation of a Mississippi fish fry in the basement, etc. In the same way that The Dark Star Orchestra attempts to recreate Grateful Dead concerts, I’d try to make it sound just as close as I could make it to the way Jerry Lee Lewis sounded at some roller rink in the Midwest. The R&RHoF makes some attempt to present the music. There are kiosks where you can put on headphones and listen to famous singles, and several theaters where short films show continuously. But it’s kind of silly to show us someone on a screen saying “The only thing that ever matters is the live performance.” Well, yeah. Exactly. The one thing you can’t put in a museum. Six floors devoted to Rock and Roll, and not a single person dancing.
I did appreciate the chance to see four of Jerry Garcia’s guitars up close: Stephen Cripes’s Top Hat and Lightning Bolt, and Doug Irwin’s Rosebud and Wolf, Jr. But if they let you vote, whether they should keep those instruments in glass cases so you can see them up close, or hold an annual contest where high school kids all over America compete for the prize of getting to take that instrument home and play it for a year, man, who would vote for the glass case?
November 9, 2006
I realized this morning, when I found myself sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea writing after a long spell cut off from it, that when I'm not writing, it's not just that I'm neglecting my practice, and feeling guilty and angry and afraid of ending up never having done anything worth remembering. It's that when I'm not writing, I'm not organizing or making sense of my experience. It's just a stream of things happening to me.
November 19, 2006
The subject suddenly realizes that life is short.
The subject is forced to consider how he is
allocating a scarce resource, and realizes he is making bad decisions.
The feelings are intensely painful.
There is an urgent need to do something immediately.
The usual constraints on the subject’s behavior
So one either does something about it or not. The doing something can look pretty radical.
Sometimes a man stands up during supper
Sherwood Anderson walked out of his business office one day in 1912 and never went back. (This was the beginning of his career as a writer.) The man in the throes of crisis can make bad decisions because it’s so imperative that he make big decisions immediately. Failing to grab the moment is surely worse. Gritting the teeth, stuffing the ears, retaining one's life in pretty much the same basic shape it’s already in — this is the saddest defeat imaginable. After throwing away most of one’s life, one is suddenly shaken awake and sees, laid out before him, his choices. To say, "No, this is too painful. You’re asking too much of me." To go back to sleep. One can never after this moment sleep comfortably again. This is how old men get so bitter and sour.
Why do I say “men?”
As much as one hates to make gender-related generalizations, I think I have some clues as to why the mid-life crisis is more associated with males in our society:
1. In our culture, women tend to be more aware of aging as they age.
In our culture, women tend to be strongly identified with their physical appearance, so they detect signs of change and mortality when they are still quite young. They see the lines in the mirror. Men in our culture tend to be more identified with their activities and accomplishments, and for many men their activities and accomplishments get richer and better as they go along, so it's entirely possible for a man to deny that anything is changing, to continue to “feel 23” without noticing that he no longer is. So while many women might experience aging more as a steady drip, drip, drip, for a man it can come all at once, in a shock as serious as a heart attack. Hell, for many a man it can be a heart attack.
2. In our culture, women have traditionally lived somewhat less cut off from their basic values.
Again, one is aware of the dangers of overgeneralization. Every human life is a unique case. But in the aggregate, if you look at a million Americans, the 500,000 women would have spent more of their lives engaged in tasks that actually matter to them. Men in our culture are encouraged, from a very young age, to “be strong” rather than to experience their feelings, to “be responsible” rather than to think about what they want, to “gut it out.” Quitting is terrible, and a man should never do it. A man should “keep on keepin’ on.” Until one day he wakes up and realizes that these things they teach young boys are ways to keep a man serving other needs than his own.
So what to do about it?
Don’t look to me. I'm amused at writers who think that they have valuable rules for living which it's their duty to pass on. When these writers sit down and look at their book in its covers, do they feel happy imagining the readers who will benefit from its wisdom? Or inside do they know they are frauds, ask “who in the world am I to tell anyone else how to live?”
Performing one of my songs not long ago, I found was chagrined to hear four lines in a row come out in the imperative mode. Do this! Don’t do that! I almost stopped in mid-verse. But it’s okay, I thought. I’m not lecturing anybody else. Those orders are intended for me. But then I tripped again: Well who am I to be advising me? I’m the guy who wasted the last 55 years!
So I don’t have any wisdom to impart. Which is perfectly fine by me. When I read other people’s writing, I don’t find myself hungry for people who can give me instructions. I want to know what it feels like inside them. And, while I have no advice to pass on to others, the feelings I'm having these days are presented in such crystalline clarity that it’s relatively easy to document: “This is what it felt like to L.A. Heberlein in November of 2006.”
One thing I’m experiencing is the difficulty of not making this experience any more painful than it has to be for those I’m close to. I can see how difficult the crisis must be for the partner. When one declares, “Everything about my life is wrong,” how can the partner not reply, “Everything? Including me?” No, no, no, no. Not you. Not you.
One’s partner is, though, structurally, part of what keeps one on an even keel. Maintainer of equilibrium. It’s difficult work not to identify the partner personally as an anti-change agent. And one’s partner does have a deep vested interest in keeping one steady, working, productive. One wakes up one morning realizing that he needs none of his possessions. This house is not a refuge but another heavy thing to carry. Let’s get rid of all this crap. I’m quitting my job. I want to pack my guitar in a Volkswagen van and take off across America. Well . . . other people live in that house, and they might not be as eager as you to abandon its comforts. It may well still serve valuable functions in their psychic landscape.
The man in crisis wakes up one morning saying, “I’ve been selling out my deepest values, the true needs of my soul, every day of my life. I’m not going to compromise any more today.” But the man in a relationship needs to compromise every day of his life.
How to get true while staying gentle? To abandon “everything” without abandoning everything?
My friend Dennis talks articulately about how it feels, a couple of days later, after you actually do take off on your motorcycle. You’re sitting under a picnic table at a roadside rest stop looking out at your bike through the pouring rain. You see astonishingly clearly the value of everything you’ve left behind. You know that the man who went and got those things did want them. And he wasn’t entirely wrong in what he wanted. Comfort, stability, companionship. Those are not evils to be shunned. Out in the cold it’s very cold, and in the alone it’s quite alone.
How to make radical changes while remaining constant? How to smash and yet preserve?
November 20, 2006
November 26, 2006
December 5, 2006
December 6, 2006
You can know all there is to know about probability distributions of random events among a population of five billion people, but if you were Sullivan, wouldn't you worry that it was personal? That is was something about you? After the sixth hit, you could either just become so insanely cautious that you never go outside again, or develop some swagger about it: "I've survived six lightning hits. What, it's going to get me now?"
Rodney Smith says he saw Sullivan interviewed on television about the seventh hit. Sullivan was out fishing, but the minute he saw the first cloud on the horizon – the tiniest cloud so incredibly far off – he insisted, to the grumbling of his companions, that they scramble for shelter. But the cloud sped straight towards them and a single bolt of lightning leapt out of it, straight for Sullivan.
Rodney says we all act like that about tiny clouds on the horizon.
December 23, 2006