beautiful gridlock













so. the other day it took me two hours to drive the five miles home from work which if you do the math works out to an average of 2.5 miles an hour which if you think about it and even if you don’t is pretty darn slow…it was Birmingham’s panicked mid-afternoon “OMG it’s snowing EVERYONE GO HOME NOW because OK well maybe it’s not bad now but things could get seriously dangerous in fact they’re saying on the weather that the bridges are icing over and I know I know it never ever really does get that bad but still this could be the big one just like that ice storm blizzard in ’93 when Prairie Home Companion was in Birmingham and Garrison Keillor and his voice and all his guests and the Powdermilk Ragtime Band or whatever it’s called and the crew heroically made it from the Tutwiler Hotel (which incidentally James Agee writes about staying at in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men although it hasn’t been in operation continuously since Agee’s day) to the Alabama Theater and broadcast because as they say in the business the show must go on” (which means the blizzard must’ve started on Friday night hmm) I don’t remember who the guests were but I do remember that Garrison Keillor talked about the ice blizzard and about how there were people in the audience and in fact I know a guy who still likes to walk great distances who walked to the show and even got a t-shirt and also I remember that that’s when my mom was still alive and I called her and might’ve called my sister and I said be sure to listen because they’re in Birmingham and my mom did listen and maybe my sister too I’m just not sure but if I asked her I know she’d remember and Clara was very little and Charlotte was in utero and our power was out for like four days but we had a battery-powered radio and batteries and it was SERIOUSLY cold because gas heat requires electricity to run and that’s what we had but the hot water heater worked so I’d fill up the bathtub with hot water and that would warm us up a little with the steam and I guess overall ambient heat and the roads were iced over and we couldn’t go anywhere not even to get any coffee which caused my head to hurt and trees were falling down just like in Cormac McCarthy which was scary then afterward when it was all over I bought a Coleman propane camp stove so as to prepare for next time and we’ve used it a couple of times for camping trips but of course there hasn’t really been a next time not like that anyway with the power out for so long but you never can tell which is why everyone was driving home the other day but boy that one in ’92 it was something else I tell you what so OK anyhow nowdays I don’t listen to Prairie Home Companion any more or much of anything on public radio any more except right now I’m listening to a local show on the public station because one of my students is supposed to be on talking about an upcoming stage production at the school but so far she hasn’t come on and it’s only a half-hour program so I’m wondering if she really is going be on this episode and if she’s not I’m going to tease her mercilessly about announcing on Facebook that she was on this rebroadcast the first broadcast having been during my class the other day when she just got up and left without the courtesy of advance notice saying something about the radio so now I’m having to listen to a commercial for This American Life and Ira Glass is talking and now there’s one of those produced segments with the music and a white person talking and she’s talking about I can’t believe it but she REALLY IS talking about how one time she had no public radio access so she and her boyfriend would drive somewhere and drink beer and listen to This American Life in their car and Ira Glass I suppose finds this interesting which is fine but I for one don’t care and I’m thinking this is why I don’t listen to NPR any more I mean for example what I just heard it’s a mini-American Life episode about listening to American Life episodes but OK now my student is talking I recognize her voice so I guess she was right about being on the air and another student he’s on there too about how the play or musical or whatever is provocative mainly because of sexuality and guy student is very openly talking about his intense feelings during puberty and about discovering his sexuality and I’m thinking wow both of them they’re my students and they’re so cool way cool but then well it’s all over Baby Blue and before I even realize it uh oh can it be yes here it is American Life has begun reckon I’ll just get up cut that radio off wish I had a remote for it but it’s with an amplifier I got at the Salvation Army for $20 so I’m living with it and it’s OK and in the meantime I’m thinking I’ll ask those students about the “the show must go on” thing and I’m reminded of watching a production of Macbeth at an old industrial site that’s now a historical monument kind of thing and during the performance the guy playing Macbeth fell from a rail onto concrete and hit his head but he just went on blood streaming down his head as if nothing had happened….during that long drive home I stop and read Pope’s “Essay on Criticism” for a few minutes then fall asleep for like fifteen minutes but it’s just as bad when I wake up the traffic not Pope so I say to heck with it I’ll just get going again along with everyone else and eventually I’m inching up this well-known long steep road that passes a statue of Vulcan with his sword raised in the air all pagan and phallic and on a retaining wall alongside the road someone’s painted YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL referring to the motorists not Vulcan I assume and I’m barely moving so I take a couple of pictures but I can’t fit all the text in but that’s OK and oh when I’d left the school seemingly hours earlier I’d found that my iPod had died so I’m listening to CSN&Y’s Déjà vu on CD and “Woodstock” is playing which seems appropriate (“Helpless” would’ve too) and I’ve run out of things to take pictures of so I take a picture of the “Woodstock” display which shows off one of features that makes my car so cool so cool in fact that I named it Miles and I thereby also document the time of day albeit without AM or PM indicated but I promise it was PM and the elapsed time of the song in case there’s an issue about either or both of those facts I’m mean it’s like the snow you just can’t ever be too sure and so then when I finally get home Charlotte’s there and she hasn’t done anything particularly wrong or at least anything lately that I know about but still I find something to yell at her about I don’t remember what it was…

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…and I’m listening to Neil Young’s “Helpless” over and over. His countertenor voice is fragile, alone.

Some of the people I specially love are dead and some of them are alive.

I’m needing a place to go, wanting to go home, go back home, get back home. A place to go.

We humans—we the living, we the dead—we’re real.

There is love, and pain, and they’re real…




(thank you kind friend for your help and déjà vu)

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if only i’d died instead of you

the that that she speaks speaks her self

for Clara, on her 23rd birthday

there’s a certain glare to the that
I said don’t you think
those messy loves plucked deep
from hearts of wild boars who left
their dead for dead in ditches
beneath low stars and now seachange
hurls wind and furls fire while white
ear-song whispers its amends and ends
the new or empty we live with within
the scroll the salads the fishes the pills
I love them all the beasts of the fields
I love the big black bird perched
on the pole that bird who eyed us idly
and flew off to the over there
that far off high star stella maris
some vasty distant there our amnion
but daddy she said unask that
question that question is ungod


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Clara. the nature of the artwork.

Clara’s last travel adventure while she was alive was a trip to Santa Barbara to visit her uncle and aunt and her cousin Avila (then a baby). She celebrated her eighteenth birthday there, November 21, 2005. She had a good time and by all accounts, and the pictures, felt very close to the baby. Her uncle video-taped much of her visit and I guess one day I’ll be able to watch it.

When she returned, I was late picking her up at the airport and she was waiting at the baggage claim. It was nighttime and everyone else had left and she was standing alone.

When we saw each other I thought how healthy and aglow she looked. Her smile was radiance. I said I’m so so so sorry for being late and we hugged and hugged. I was very happy to see her. For a while, when I dreamed about her, I’d dream that we hugged, or at least touched. I felt indescribably happy and relieved.

She brought me two small cartoonish funny art objects. One, made from wood, is mostly a big nose. There’s a notched kind of thing behind it, and that’s where my glasses live when I’m asleep. (Those aren’t my glasses in the picture. Note the red lips.)

The other object is a plastic tape measure. It too involves a purposeful nose. This one functions as the tip of a measuring tape made of some kind of fabric. At the tape’s fullest extent the nose is five feet from the face. To make the tape retract, and bring the nose to its rightful place, one simply presses the button-ear.

The face is rendered in profile on the tape housing, which reminds me that on the human head the earlobes and the tip of the nose are all at about the middle of the head. I think I learned that in an art class in my childhood. The memory has just returned. Is it true that our brains totally erase our uncalled-upon memories? I seem to recall having read that there was scientific evidence for this, but I’m skeptical. I think they can come back.

The day after she died, Clara’s English teacher told me about how just a few days earlier they’d measured her head for her graduation cap. Clara was very, very devoted to that teacher, and she was good for Clara.

So. I was thinking about these objects that Clara brought. I believe she’d gotten them at an art museum in Santa Barbara. (I don’t know who the artist is.) Although they have some useful function, some utility, I think of them primarily as art works. Or, at least, as funny little objects—objets d’art, maybe, but more genial—that happen also to be available for practical application. (I use the eyeglasses-perch daily; the tape-measure, rarely.) (I mean “use” in the previous sentence in the sense of what one does with a tool or instrument. This is getting complicated.)

And so. Thinking about this has reminded me of what I’ve been reading in Heidegger’s long essay “The Origin of the Work of Art.” (I haven’t finished it yet.) In trying to figure out what a work of art is, he creates a category for the “work of art” as distinct from and above categories for “equipment” (middle) and for “thing” (lowest). The ranking of the categories relates to truth-value in some way that I don’t completely understand (or don’t yet). The importance of art seems to be in the fact that it is “truth setting itself to work.” That is, as I understand him, truth being enacted or, perhaps, truth being given life to. (Heidegger discusses at further length what constitutes “truth” and “setting-itself-to-work.” I won’t try to go into it.)

What is most characteristic of “equipment” is its inherent quality of “usefulness.” This quality is what, for Heidegger, puts equipment in that “peculiar position” that is “intermediate between thing and work [of art].” [My underlining.] Thus “equipment” isn’t a mere “thing,” but neither does it rise to the level of “artwork.”

Which leads me to wonder whether that tape-measure is “artwork” or “equipment.”

As he thinks the distinction between equipment and artwork, Heidegger pays lots of attention to a pair of “peasant shoes.” First he treats of them as “equipment,” i.e., as something having the “equipmental quality” of usefulness. Next he treats of them as “artwork,” referring to a peasant shoe painting by Van Gogh. Although Van Gogh made several peasant shoe paintings, Heidegger seems to have been referring to one in particular, A Pair of Shoes (1886), which he viewed in 1930 at an exhibition in Cologne.

Heidegger seems to say that the painting of the shoes has more intrinsic worth than do the shoes themselves, for it is “the art work” that “lets us know what shoes are in truth.” In that statement he seems to refer to “shoes” in the abstract (not “the shoes”), as a sort of Platonic form of “shoe.”

I wonder what the peasant woman thinks about that.

I wonder what Heidegger would say about the glasses-perch and tape measure. Maybe there’s a subdivision between the artwork and equipment. But what about “what glasses-perch is in truth.”

I wonder what Clara thinks about that.

I do wonder about these things.

My immense thanks to Kelsey Harrison for her photos of the glasses-perch and the tape measure. I have modified them slightly for use here.

A note on Heidegger and Van Gogh’s shoe paintings: My information comes from Scott Horton’s blog at Harper’s magazine’s website. The shoes in the picture aren’t a woman’s shoes. Horton’s blog is interesting for his discussions of critiques of the whole Heidegger-peasant shoe business by Meyer Shapiro and Jacques Derrida, and of a recent exhibition in Cologne devoted to Van Gogh’s shoe paintings. The Heidegger quotes are from Albert Hofstadter’s 1971 translation. The Van Gogh image is from Horton.

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the story: resumed, ended.

The wooden pencil that I mentioned a few posts ago writes in four colors. I may have mentioned that fact.

So. Charlotte and I had our lunch and she presented me with pencil and bookmark. We had a nice time. I sat facing an immense painting on fabric depicting Día de los Muertos festivities. As we were leaving, she reminded me to not leave the pencil and bookmark behind.

When we got home I couldn’t find the pencil. Had I forgotten it after all. I called the restaurant and spoke with the cashier (b. 1979). She was patient and she listened. I felt it necessary to explain why I was calling about a pencil. I needed to explain that this wasn’t just a pencil.

I felt that she understood. And I felt understood.

She looked for it (talking while she peered under the very table where we’d sat), and asked the clean-up people if they’d seen it, and so forth. I gave her my phone number. I felt that she really was writing it down. I felt that. Her kindness.

She suggested that maybe I’d dropped the pencil in the parking lot. I didn’t much think I had, but I didn’t want to say that to her.

I looked in the car.
I looked everywhere.
I took a nap.
I awoke.
Darkness was about to fall.
It was a sign.
I drove back to the parking lot.
I found the pencil.

It lay on the pavement inside the lines of the space we’d parked in. It was in good condition except it looked like it’d been chewed on.

Clara was really bad about chewing on pencils.

I don’t claim to be able to identify tooth impressions, forensically, as it were. But I doubt it was a dog, because (a) dogs in that area are supposed to be on leashes, (b) it seems to me that only a puppy would chew on a pencil, and (c) a dog would have carried it off somewhere and maybe even buried it.

So I went in the restaurant and thanked the cashier (b. 1979) profusely. She really had written down my number. I explained again—not just any pencil, it’s a family thing, what Charlotte usually brings me from her many travels….

She understood, I felt. I felt understood.

I texted Charlotte later, telegraphically and joyously: “Pencil found.” She replied with appropriate words of relief and joy. I don’t recall the exact words. Her message was short. Short and joyous.

I have many text messages saved on my phone, but I’ve deleted that one.

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“Do you ever wish you were the moon?” said one hired killer to another hired killer in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.

The Fall.

Adam and Eve.

The stock market.

This is one old tree.

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I should say that while this is a story about a pencil, it also involves a bookmark:

The picture is from “The Festival,” 1875, by Sir Edward John Poynter (British, 1836-1919). It’s held by the Art Institute of Chicago.

But before continuing with the story, I’d like to share a poem by the early American Anne Bradstreet (ca. 1612-1672). Some biographical stuff in case you don’t know: She was born in England and married Simon Bradstreet when she was 18. Together they sailed to America with John Winthrop and his band of Puritans on the Arbella in 1630. She lived the rest of her life in the Boston area. Her husband Simon was a prominent in the affairs of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She had eight children. From the evidence of her poetry, she was very devoted to her husband and to her children.

She’s represented in a stained glass window in St. Botolph’s Church, Boston, Lincolnshire, England:

Here’s the poem. The meditations occasioned by the burning of the house make these indeed verses built “upon” that event. Note the reference to Ecclesiastes (“All’s Vanity”):

Verses upon the Burning of our House, July 18th, 1666

Here follows some verses upon the burning of our house, July. 18th. 1666. Copyed out of a loose Paper.

In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I waken’d was with thund’ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of “fire” and “fire,”
Let no man know is my Desire.
I starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To straighten me in my Distress
And not to leave me succourless.
Then coming out, behold a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look,
I blest his grace that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so ’twas just.
It was his own; it was not mine.
Far be it that I should repine,
He might of all justly bereft
But yet sufficient for us left.
When by the Ruins oft I past
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sate and long did lie.
Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best,
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under the roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
No pleasant talk shall ‘ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle ‘ere shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom’s voice ere heard shall bee.
In silence ever shalt thou lie.
Adieu, Adieu, All’s Vanity.
Then straight I ‘gin my heart to chide:
And did thy wealth on earth abide,
Didst fix thy hope on mouldring dust,
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the sky
That dunghill mists away may fly.
Thou hast a house on high erect
Fram’d by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished
Stands permanent, though this be fled.
It’s purchased and paid for too
By him who hath enough to do.
A price so vast as is unknown,
Yet by his gift is made thine own.
There’s wealth enough; I need no more.
Farewell, my pelf; farewell, my store.
The world no longer let me love;
My hope and Treasure lies above.

My maternal grandparents were Presbyterian missionaries in the Philippines for a long time. They survived the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II, mainly, as I understand it, because my grandfather was a Swiss citizen and they couldn’t be marched off to an internment camp.

When my mother died in 1997, she had nearly completed a memoir of her time growing up in the Philippines. I have a copy saved a couple of places, and I’ve wanted to try to get it ready for publication, but I haven’t ever done it. And here it’s been thirteen years. Her 80th birthday is soon, August 22.

During the war their house burned down. When I was a kid and our family would return from a trip, my mother would always comment that “well the house is still there” as we pulled into the driveway. I have the same sort of thought even now when I return from being away.

My grandfather, Swiss and Presbyterian, may have had a view similar to the Puritan Bradstreet’s about the burned-down house. He said that that was at least a good way to get rid of one’s junk. I suspect he meant that in a spiritual sort of way too.

(The text of the poem and some bio information on Bradstreet are from Representative Poetry Online, which I highly recommend for its breadth of coverage and attention to textual details and issues.)

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This is a story about a pencil. Lost, then found.

Charlotte went to Chicago this summer with her mom and uncle. They drove. Actually, from her reports anyway, it sounds as if she did most of the driving. Or a lot of it anyhow. She even drove on the Chicago freeways. That’s a big accomplishment for a sixteen-year-old from Birmingham, in my opinion.

The day after she got back (it was a Tuesday), she and I had lunch at a place called Cantina. It’d been highly recommended to us for its imaginatively authentic Mexican cuisine. She and I went to Austin a couple of years ago and we discovered what a real taco was all about. There was a sidewalk place just outside our motel that had breakfast tacos and coffee. I was hoping Cantina would have real tacos.

Our trip to Austin, by the way, was one of the best times we’ve had together. We stayed the Austin Motel on South Congress—THE place to stay when in Austin as far as I’m concerned. It has a pretty long history. I’m not sure if the designers of their sign meant it to be as suggestive as it is. Or consciously meant to.

At lunch, Charlotte presented me with the obligatory souvenir from her trip. She’s well-traveled. The Philippines a few years ago, Santa Barbara several times, Chicago once before.

We ordered with the cashier. They had the right kind of tacos. I ordered two, one fish and one veggie. The bill came to $18.65. I remarked to the cashier that that (1865) was the date the Civil War started. Charlotte immediately corrected me. OK, it was the ending date. She’d just taken AP US History (and got a perfect 5 on the AP test, I might add). Well, I ought to have known that, especially given my grad school focus of study. Really though, self-respecting American citizen ought to know that.

Well. On the subject of cash-register totals and years, I digressively recalled for the cashier and Charlotte, and with apologies to a women waiting behind us, a memorable experience with cash register totals: a long time ago, on two consecutive visits to the grocery store, my totals were $10.66. And I hadn’t even bought the same items. I never could remember exactly what happened in 1066, but I knew it was important. (Norman conquest? Spanish Armada? no that was Queen Elizabeth…or was it? Now I’m thinking it was that Norman Conquest, thanks to which thankfully we have some Romance in our language.)

That had really struck me, that it would happen twice in a row. I think they weren’t particularly impressed. Maybe slightly bemused. The cashier said that she didn’t pay much attention to the year/check-total connection, except when $19.79 came up. That being when she was born. That’s when I graduated from high school. (Or college? No, definitely high school.) So that means she’s around 31. I thought she looked younger than that. Charlotte disagrees.

I often notice year/check-total connections. Same with street numbers. Our house, for example, is 1612. Do you know of something interesting that happened in 1612? I do, but it took me a while.

Charlotte got some kind of fish sandwich, with fries. We’d planned to share the fries, but she kept on giving them to me even after I said no.

This is a story about a pencil. And it has a point. About which more later.


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Giordano Bruno

This Sunday midday I finished reading Ingrid Rowland’s biography of Giordano Bruno, subtitled Philosopher, Heretic. The  final sentence in the book describes his philosophy as “joyful, generous, thoughtful, and surpassingly beautiful.”

Rowland is a “frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books.”  She’s a professor at University of Notre Dame School of Architecture in Rome. I’ve enjoyed reading her articles in the NYReview.

The book itself is excellent overall, but there are indications of editing oversights (e.g., repetitions within adjacent chapters) and spots where more details would help (where in Antony and Cleopatra does Bruno’s philosophy appear?).

Things I learned from this book:
Galileo read Bruno’s books.
Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome on 17 February 1600. My Clara died on 16 Februay.
A bunch of other things that I haven’t yet written here. There’s a big deal among Romans on February 17 at his statue in the Campo di Fiori in Rome. I’ll have to tell you about it.

This is what his statue looks like (from Wikipedia):

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