Thursday, December 30, 2010

Celebrating The New Year

New Year's Eve celebrations are a paradox.
It's deeply counter intuitive to try to take
advantage of a new year as an opportunity
for a new start by indulging the night before
in behavior which insures your new start
starts with a hangover guaranteed to rob you
of the initiative needed for change.

The problem is that the new year comes in
the midst of winter.  Balanced against our
desire for a fresh start lies the role the
holidays play in getting us through the winter.

The winter is the toughest part of the year
for an animal such as a human being.  There
is too little light.  The sun falls early, often
pulling our spirits down too.  The cold
numbs our capacity for sensual enjoyment,
and our physical natures can't forget that
which - given modern heating systems - we
intellectually forget: against the cold,
survival is a struggle.

But before the holidays, winter is enlivened
by the prospect of their coming.  Magic's
in the air.  Snow's romantic when tied
to Christmas.  People brave the cold to
keep wearing clothing with a bit of
erotic charm; holiday lights enchant the
darkness; and the coming celebrations
generally enliven the growing gloom of the
natural world.

After the holidays, winter's long and dreary. 
It must just be gotten through until Spring
returns, mixing memory with desire to bring
us the cruel joys of April.

The passing of the holidays can be very
depressing indeed, and so

Excess is the whole point of New Year's Eve.
Yes, excess!  Its purpose is to give us too much
of the holidays, and so cut the pain of watching
them disappear with the old year into the great
vanished with nothing to look forward to but
two or three more dreary months of winter.

Yes, New Year's Eve is at war with New Years.
So use the contradiction to fit  your own needs.
If you want a new start, get to bed early and
rise and shine and go for a bracing swim at
dawn on New Year's Day.  Make your new
start.  If you're sad to see the holidays go,
party until you can barely lift your painful
head from its hung over pillow and say with
someone or the other from Shakespeare:

"If all the year were sporting holidays,
To play would be as tedious as to work."


Monday, December 27, 2010

Her Certain Smile


She took me lovingly by the hand, and I wondered
how many germs passed between us at that moment
and all the other customers she had taken in the same
way that day tenderly by the hand.

Why had I slowed down?  I knew exactly why.  The
way she smiled at me, although she was only selling
me a hand product. 

I enjoyed the way she handled my fingers.  I told
her I thought she had the wrong customer.  Her
product cost $40 - that was half off - and she was
disappointed when I moved on. 

I wished I had given her the money.  She would
have smiled again, and it would have been worth
every bit of my $40 plus tax.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Shop Around The Corner

Trying to pick up The Shop Around The Corner
yesterday, I was informed by the clerk that it
had gone the DVD equivalent of "out of print."

This is quite surprising as its the perfect
Christmas movie for rough economic times.
For one thing it's the one holiday film which
is honest about the economics of Christmas.
The characters are living in a rough
environment, and they are depending on
good Christmas receipts to keep them all

Still, though seemingly sentimental in
spots, it's quite tough-minded.   The store
owner finding happiness on Christmas Eve
by befriending his poorest employee may be
a sentimental clichè, but comparing the encounter
to one between a rich man and a gold digger
is pure Lubitsch.

And no one from the Golden Era of Hollywood
moved the camera with greater ease and fluidity
than Lubitsch.  His camera and Jimmy Stewart's
performance function in perfect synchronicty with
each other.

Undergirding Stewart's fine and moving performance
is the fear voiced by Margaret Sullivan's Clara that
at bottom he is nothing but an insignificant clerk.
The look on his face after she calls hims such is
likely to haunt you for days, a perfect distillation
of the essence of film acting.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Updating Memories, or

Why We Go Home For The Holidays

As people age out of college and into their
20s and 30s, they often find their regular
trips home for the holiday celebrations
difficult in several ways.

First there is the problem of regressing.
Adults tend to fall back into relationships with
their siblings and parents more typical of
adolescence, and the result is often to feel
somewhat frustrated or even powerless
in the face of certain seemingly inevitable
family dynamics. 

Tensions between family members are often
present but suppressed under the social pressure
of togetherness at the holidays, and boredom
is very common as time can hang heavy under
the rigors of enforced family unity.

All in all it can be a rough couple of days.
Relief and a feeling of liberation is often the
overwhelming feelings when returning to
one's own home from the family home at
the end of these ordeals; but the funny thing
is that once the trip is actually over, it does
not take much time for the trip to move within
our memory in a positive direction.

Our minds take a trip which was not entirely
satisfactory at the time - of course I exclude
the extreme episodes of dysfunction and
unhappiness which are a different matter - and
turns it into another in a series of happy memories,
these happy memories being mainly made up of
episodes which were generally flatter and sometimes
fraught with tension at their origin.*

It's not that all these episodes are remembered as
happy, it's that as a whole the series of them is very
satisfying to us.   Small gestures such as toasts or
giving thanks together grow in significance in
our memories.  Much is forgotten, and that which
is remembered is necessarily that which holds
interest for us.  The people we love have a special
charm for us in their absence,  and we come to
value those things which hold us together more than
those which divide us.

It's a very important process.  If romantic love
grows in the imagination, familial love takes hold
and survives in the memory.  Each family trip
extends the reign of memory over another piece
of time, keeping the family members' memories
aging in synch, and building together the foundation
for happy future memories.

*To speak of an experience's origin is to
acknowledge that the experience of anything
extends through all the times the mind 
remembers and dwells on it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

In A Pool, Not Swimming


If I am honest, I have always taken some relish in going
in a pool - urinating only, I'm not disgusting - but I did
not make a habit of it and always did my best to
avoid it until 2 weeks ago.  Of course you encouraged
me to swim - everyday was best, you said - after I could
no longer run.

"You must take care of yourself."

I didn't enjoy swimming too much.  I always worried I
would panic when I first submerged in the cold water,
and then never enjoyed the monotony of going back and
forth inside the deprivation tank, but I learned to let my
thoughts wander to methods of self-improvement and even
tried to make plans for a better future.

I didn't really start taking pleasure time after time in
urinating in the pool until two weeks ago.  But since
then I've done it everytime I've gone in the water.
You see, since you left me, it's absolutely the only power I have left.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Should Writers Twitter?

I am facing the question, because I made a mistake
and decided to follow on Twitter an English novelist
and actor whom I respect.  It took me less than a day
to realize that his posts were, if not ruining his other
work for me, at least seriously diminishing the respect
I felt for him as an artist.

It led me to wonder if it's not usually the case that the
more real the artist is, the less real their work.  Is it
coincidence that greatest author of the English language,
Shakespeare, is one of the least known biographically?
Once the work becomes simply an extension of biography -
something to which many critics eagerly try to reduce an
artist's body of work - does it not lose its status as a
world onto itself with the power to transform our experience
of reality and ourselves?

Must the artist withdraw to let his world come fully to life?
Should she be everywhere present but nowhere apparent,
as Flaubert suggested and the great MacIntosh agreed?
If the artist is not at least somewhat  remote, is he then
not too much with us late and soon?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Reading Pale Fire: Note by Note

For those who have only read Pale Fire
from the first page to the last, I'd very much
suggest trying to read following the instructions
Kinbote leaves in the text.  Of course it gives a
sense of Kinbote's obsessive mind, brooding
over slights which can never be redressed, lost
paradises and missed opportunities - as well
as a certain playfulness which can not be
dismissed - but although Kinbote is the one
giving the instructions, progressing through
the work using his instructions, e.g., see note to
line 919, as a road map also defeats him in the end.

Kinbote makes a point that the commentator
gets the last word, but I defy any two readers
(or even any one re-reader twice )to take the exact
same journey through the notes.  It's too
complicated.  There are too many ambiguities.
No two readings will always return to the
same place after all the departures.

Although Nabokov believed fervently in
rereading books, once you start following
the notes, you'll never read the exact same
Pale Fire twice.  (Support me here,
Heraclitus!)  Inevitably the final word will
be shared - between Nabokov and the
sympathetic reader.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On The Freedom of Infants

?                    ?                       ?

The question is not often asked:

Who is more free:  an intelligent person or an
unintelligent one?

But I think most people's assumption would
be that intelligence enlarges one's freedom.
After all you'd think intelligence would at
least help you come up with a wider range
of choices on which to act.

But I wonder how true our intuition is on
this point.  If very intelligent babies learn
learn to speak earlier than other babies in
similar circumstances, doesn't this mean
they have less freedom?

They don't choose to speak; they are
programmed or designed by nature to learn
to speak, and the more intelligent the child,
the more relentlessly nature makes her
develop according to a preset design. 

Perhaps intelligence is finally a measure
of how successfully nature shapes us
to her own ends.

Friday, December 3, 2010



I was walking down a street here in Old Town (Chicago) 
not really paying attention when the back door of an SUV 
opened.  I probably  wouldn't have noticed it, but a little 
boy, 4 years old I'd guess, jumped out.  

A woman was sitting behind the wheel and speaking
on the cell phone and didn't notice what had happened.
Without thinking I noticed the car's engine was running.
The boy for some reason ran round behind the car,
and then to my horror, the white tail lights came on.

I don't know if the car actually started backing up,
or I just imagined it, but I started shouting,
"Stop!  Stop! and ran back to her window and started
tapping on the glass.

I must have not frightened her, because she rolled
down her window, and clearly annoyed, asked me,
"What is it?'   

Suddenly I didn't know what to say.  If I said, " You're
about to run over and kill your child," it would amount
to saying, "You're a bad mother."

"Your back door's open."  She looked back: Oh my God!
She jumped out of the car.  Her first reaction when she 
saw her son was safe was to let out an immense sigh of
relief through her whole body; then she ran over
half hugged-half grabbed  the boy, upbraiding him for 
what a bad boy he had been, how much he had scared
Mommy.  The phone was still in her hand, but I don't
think realized it.

She didn't look back at me, which I thought was 
sensitive of her, because I was embarrassed to have 
witnessed the scene and would not have known
what to say.  I came here and met you.

--My best recreation of a story I overheard at
The Starbucks at North & Wells in Chicago.

The speaker was a young man in his twenties
I'd guess.  He was talking to another guy much
more casually dressed.