R. knows about gravity but wants to be told why the moon doesn’t fall down, and it turns out I can’t say; all I have is a paternal non-answer (“There's a thing called ‘stable orbit...’”). So I’m on notice that I’ll have to start looking things up.
By coincidence or very deep design I’ve been reading in Gravity and Grace after going to see Kaija Saariaho’s oratorio about Simone Weil: great music, her sweepy idiom with a chamber orchestra (a really good one, International Contemporary Ensemble) has more of a contemplative Webern sound, Julia Bullock sings like anything, and the libretto was biopic-grade sentimentalizing that ought to have just been replaced with words written by Weil herself. Which is why I’ve been reading them on the train. Notebook extracts and very short, suitable for a first sortie on the workday, if not for a desk calendar. Pour atteindre le détachement total, le malheur ne suffit pas. Il faut un malheur sans consolation.
And I like my job. But the lack of time is absolutely general, my drummer and bassist are too busy to write back, everyone is just trying to make a living out here in Pacific City, where every strongbox has a hole in the bottom. The ground itself, measured and priced, shrinks by inches under your feet....
Taking R. to a children’s museum. At the center of a large room is a small Plexiglas box on a stand. Inside the box is a lynx, sitting stomach to floor because it does not have enough room to stand or turn around. Directly in front of the lynx’s face is a small video screen on which colored patterns cohere and dissolve. It blinks; from time to time its tufted ears twitch. A sign beneath the box reads: QUIET. LEARNING.
“At least it’s learning,” I say with relief. “They wouldn’t keep it in there if this was bad for it.”
Train in three minutes, says the electric sign. I like the hills from the platform because their apparent curve is strong but completely askew from the slant of the roads climbing them; a van appearing from under the guardrail looks like it’s just driven into a picture book from the margin. Train in two minutes, says the sign.
Belly full of coffee, computer in the bag, one hand on the bike. This is what routine feels like: you don’t need to use both hands any more. Train in three minutes, says the sign. That’s a disturbance but not a large one, and provokes no curiosity on the platform. A puddle on the track reflects scraps of moving cloud in sepia tone. It’s a cheap effect, but when you look up at the wider span of gray its motion isn’t apparent in the same way.
Train in two minutes, says the sign. Train in three minutes. Frowns on the platform. The sign isn’t supposed to do this. If this keeps up, people like me will have to grab their bikes with both hands. I fucked up my taxes this year, having no experience in handling such sums; on the other hand, Turtle Diary in my bag seems to offer encouragement even amid the goat rodeo of a workday. I’m not going anywhere else, neither is anyone else on the platform. Routine is stronger than bad data. We’ll wait.
Train in two minutes. Train in three minutes.
It (the virus and everything else) is summed up quickest in saying that every time you go on vacation, the Archaïscher Torso pops out of the right margin like Clippy and says, “It looks like you’re on vacation. Do you want to change your life?”
Sick on Curtailment
“Fight’s over but I’ll fight on”—the inhibition, at 37, against simply writing down the song in one’s head is part of the problem, the lack of fluency.
In fact I don’t want to know the WiFi password. More harm than good.
The world outside, that one never got inside: it had much surface but very little volume. No one stayed long.
“You need something that makes money while you sleep.” You also need something that doesn’t steal your sleep.
I am getting old very efficiently.
Sours and sweets of exile. The schoolyard wish for retribution, never entirely softened, and the corollary wish to turn into a cactus. I can root between these rocks for centuries. No one will touch my watery heart.
I was glad to read a brief defense of rubbish by the lately passed Peter Dickinson, whose own books I never read though J. remembers them. We’re now reading Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown to R. the second time through. If she has her mother’s proclivities there will (I hear) be a couple dozen more go-rounds.
Someone put a glowing white cross on the top of Albany Hill. It must be seasonal but I am freaked out by its appearance in the rain.
The bicycle is timed to the minute. The shower. Get your pants on, kid, and no, we don’t know where your other fleece is. Out of milk. Then situate yourself in the workplace, remain in that known condition until it’s time, again, to time a bicycle to the minute, and no, no one bought any milk in the meantime. This is what we call the loom of duty; you wove it yourself.
Sometimes the days are too weighty for R. to stay awake through dinner. This evening I got to bolt back out of doors at six, spent a couple hours writing at a coffeehouse, a couple more writing with a good Belgian-style something at Schmidt’s Pub; when was the last time I spent four consecutive hours on anything? It was fruitful, yes, the way it often used to be. Came home feeling briefly very happy in the rain, a little like the hellebore that I planted out front on a slight slope not wholly shaded in summer afternoons. It would throw up shoots, the shoots turned yellow and brown and fell off, I gave it up for dead months ago. Today I noticed that the last weeks of clouds and rain had not only revived it but, apparently, generated it a whole new body from nothing. The vegetable soul, φύσις, conserves its virtue. It’s been damned hard to sprout this year.
More works, more days
KALX was playing a Hibernophile song called “Six Whiskies in Me”: not a great song but a great refrain, the internal near-rhyme and then in me, the satisfaction of a thing done.
I dreamt that my department at work had gotten involved with an engineering professor who had an incomprehensible piece of hardware called the ES-98765DX or some such; it was huge, no one understood what it did, my job was to write a driver for it.
We had a pet bilby living in the house. It was happy whenever R. was around. Alone with me it was distrustful and slunk off along the wall.
I did the pencil, R. the marker and watercolor. I’m pleased with how it came out, but she has impossible standards, and I hope they never change.
Very Short Cycles
At Rialto Beach, about as as far west as you can get in the mainland states, five thousand miles of ocean throw down their weight and foam sideways like milk. The sand drinks everything but the topmost skin, which turns transparent and retreats in a solar scatter until it’s drawn beneath the flickering curtain of the next wave’s shadow. In the late light their undersides come high and midnight blue.
I spent three nights on the Olympic Peninsula, trying to fix a pivot to the end of this novel that’s been going on almost five years. J. had sent me John Luther Adams writing about his studio, so I thought about that, and about Xie Lingyun, ate a lot of salad and Greek yogurt from the local grocery and was able in general to keep my head quiet. I had brought a couple of books but the American ones were too close to my own project and I ended up taking refuge in Das Schloss, which I’d grabbed on impulse on my way out the door, not having read it end-to-end in twenty years and never in German. It turns out to be a good text for a hiatus from a job.
»Es ist schwer mit euch«, sagte K. und verglich wie schon öfters ihre Gesichter, »wie soll ich euch denn unterscheiden? Ihr unterscheidet euch nur durch die Namen, sonst seid ihr einander ähnlich wie« – er stockte, unwillkürlich fuhr er dann fort -, »sonst seid ihr einander ja ähnlich wie Schlangen.« Sie lächelten. »Man unterscheidet uns sonst gut«, sagten sie zur Rechtfertigung. »Ich glaube es«, sagte K., »ich war ja selbst Zeuge dessen, aber ich sehe nur mit meinen Augen, und mit denen kann ich euch nicht unterscheiden. Ich werde euch deshalb wie einen einzigen Mann behandeln und beide Artur nennen, so heißt doch einer von euch. Du etwa?« – fragte K. den einen. »Nein«, sagte dieser, »ich heiße Jeremias.« – »Es ist ja gleichgültig«, sagte K., »ich werde euch beide Artur nennen. Schicke ich Artur irgendwohin, so geht ihr beide, gebe ich Artur eine Arbeit, so macht ihr sie beide, das hat zwar für mich einen großen Nachteil, daß ich euch nicht für eine gesonderte Arbeit verwenden kann, aber dafür den Vorteil, daß ihr für alles, was ich euch auftrage, gemeinsam ungeteilt die Verantwortung tragt. Wie ihr untereinander die Arbeit aufteilt, ist mir gleichgültig, nur ausreden dürft ihr euch nicht aufeinander, ihr seid für mich ein einziger Mann.« Sie überlegten das und sagten: »Das wäre uns recht unangenehm.« – »Wie denn nicht«, sagte K., »natürlich muß euch das unangenehm sein, aber es bleibt so.«
(as Anthea Bell puts it:)
‘I’m going to have a hard time with you two,’ said K., comparing their faces yet again. ‘How am I to know which of you is which? The only difference between you is your names, and apart from that’—he hesitated—‘apart from that you’re as like as two snakes.’ They smiled. ‘Oh, other people find it easy to tell us apart,’ they said. ‘I believe you,’ said K. ‘I’ve seen that for myself, but then I have only my own eyes, and I can’t distinguish between you with those. So I shall treat you as a single man, and call you both Artur, which is the name of one of you—you, perhaps?’ K. asked one of the assistants. ‘No,’ he said, ‘my name is Jeremias.’ ‘Well, never mind that,’ said K, ‘I shall call you both Artur. If I send Artur somewhere you’ll both go, if I give Artur a job to do you’ll both do it, which from my point of view will be a disadvantage in that I can’t employ you on separate tasks, but also an advantage because then I can hold you jointly responsible for everything I ask you to do. How you divide the work between you is all the same to me, only you can’t make separate excuses. To me you’ll be just one man.’ They thought this over and said: ‘We wouldn’t like that at all.’ ‘Of course not,’ said K. ‘Naturally you’re bound to dislike it, but that’s how it’s going to be.’
The cabin sat among huge ahistorical trees and had a river for its backyard; the whole peninsula is full of rivers. I've never lived near moving water except in Iowa, and that river was wide and slow, not at all the same thing. I spent hours writing on the bank while the morning mists burned off, dew collected on leaves, small gray birds (I still don’t know what they were) skimmed the water for bugs, and fogs blew in that were almost rain, though real rain fell only at one point overnight. The first night was the difficult one, settling in alone next to the electric heater mocked up to look like a wood stove. I don’t know if Xie Lingyun had a family with him in his retreat, but I suspect it. I know that Bai Juyi did:
When I look up, there are only clouds and trees;
When I look down--only my wife and child.
It was Bai who seemed prosaic and weak on first reading, but after some time seemed to be working toward an opening up of the ordinary, like Wordsworth. I don’t know; those comparisons stretch pretty far. It can’t really be accurate to take “Chinese recluse” as “disengaged modernist” either. I can’t do nothing, nor can I leave nothing undone; one can’t stay alone indefinitely among the ferns.
It was a “writing trip,” not a “hiking trip” (either alternative utilitarian in its way, a habit from years of scant time); still it was hard to call a halt at any particular point on the rainforest trail, hard to take my notebook out of my bag and treat the trail for that hour as another river instead of a path whose purpose was to lead somewhere; this although I knew perfectly well that it couldn’t lead anywhere in particular, since I wasn’t going to make the fifteen miles to the glaciers.
I did get far enough up the Hoh valley to glimpse Mount Olympus between the nearer peaks. The west-facing glacier seemed small; I don’t know its history but I must be one of the last to see it. Impossible not to call up a Hölderlin picture of the gods in their ice halls preparing to turn into vapor, Sublimierung. And what’s left is moss, and the elk that both Roosevelts in series set up the park to protect.
I was surprised that their movements were so much like smaller deer, but I’m always surprised at how deer move. A fellow I met on the trail told me it was a lucky thing no bulls were in the herd; this was rutting season. I once had a dry spring a year long, when I had moved back to Arizona, spent days in the mountains at liberty and put them to work on a novel that was an imitation of novels I didn’t even like much. Summer was farther afield, espresso and wine at sidewalk tables paid for with strange colorful money, in a more or less haltingly borrowed language; all those bookstores (llibreria, Antiquariat, charmed words) that went into the library which we’re still trying to figure out how to shore against the quake; and I got The Drowned Library out of it.
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
Autumn is earthier and gets mud on your shoes. All in all I’m glad of the feel of it, and of the assurance that there are longer cycles and slower movements detectable under the quick flux of water. The bank that seems fixed meanders a long way in its life. When land and sea shift such that there’s no longer a river, that also is in the nature of things.
Neko Case, Mountain Winery, 9.4.15
“Thank you for coming to see us at this… mountainside… citadel, brought to you by the cheapest wine from the eighties. No, really, I used to drink so much Paul Masson—I know it's not his winery any more—”
“That was Eric Bachmann. He was a-shreddin. Acoustically. Kind of. He practiced that.”
“John’s laughing at me. I have this picture where I stuck a bunch of tampons in John’s beard. It’s like having a German shepherd around—‘okay, you’re doing that, whatever, just stick a bunch of tampons in my fur.’”
“The beards are back! They’re framing me like I’m the emperor Justinian or some shit. Like lions—it’s called heraldic grouping. That's art history class. We are heraldically grouped for you.”
“I wanna sex you up!—that’s one of the melodies that is in my head at all times.”
“I’m doing these two songs one after the other just to prove that I can still tune a guitar. That’s the thing about letting dudes tune your guitar, you look like a total douchebag when you try to do it yourself.” [Starts, stops song.] “Shit.”
“I lost it during that one. ‘I touch, comma, touch you’; only Scott Walker can say that. Seriously, some lines are so cunty, you need this man who looks like the guy from Logan’s Run before the run, holding a tiny, catheter-sized microphone—”
“Dan Hunt, our drummer, is not here. When he joined the band I asked him, so what, are you going to have kids or anything, and he said, I don't want any fuckin’ kids. So, he has a one-month-old baby at home. I reminded him and he said, I knew I had to say that to get in your band. She's very cute. I’m kind of glad he had her.”