Wednesday, November 28, 2007
I was in greater Philadelphia, where most of my relatives, including all of my parents and siblings, still live, for Thanksgiving. I still go there about three times a year, so I usually don't think it worthwhile to record the visit on the site, but I think this time I will.
First I have to get this out of the way: There was a real northeast Philly girl working the counter at the Wawa on Oxford Avenue who had the kind of hair I like--dark, piled and pinned carelessly and luxuriously like a big swirling soft serve ice cream on top of her head, etc. It sent a wave of sensations over me that I identified as partaking of 'home' and a certain lost life with which I never connected, and which was seemingly never meant to be mine. Nonetheless I immediately felt a sentimental kinship, doubtless unshared, towards this attractive person whom I imagined as having sprung from the same patch of earth and cultural milieu as I had, who was one of the tribe, so to speak, of which I was by birth a member, though I became pretty quickly lost to it. She said "Have a good one" to me when I left in the ironic, coolly reserved manner intended to convey toughness with which many native females of that city are wont to address strangers, but I was actually comfortable with it on this occasion. It had become reassuring to me.
The more polite readers may now be thinking to themselves "all this over a cashier?" But I have always had a thing for shopgirls, though we can't even really call women of this class shopgirls anymore. Indeed, one of the various absurd trips and adventures I used to plan in my young days was going to be a driving tour of the back roads of the northeast, staying in cheap motels and luring such girls as I encountered working at convenience stores and supermarkets and K-Marts in these towns that time had passed by back to my room to drink cases of Schaefer and Genessee (these kind of girls can really put it away) in cans with the lights dimmed and the curtains pulled, occasionally picking up someone a little more upscale at the local library or bookstore to try to keep it real. Yes, while the genuinely intelligent and serious members of my generation were mastering multiple foreign languages, or the medical arts, or computers, or devising means of fostering economic growth or providing clean tap water in Africa, I was dreaming of someday being great enough to casually seduce the skinny blonde with a chronic sinus infection working the express lane at the Stop N Shop in Elmira. Surely, any mature readers must say, these are the ravings of a idiot (I prefer madman, but no one believes in madness anymore). But in all innocence, at the time I thought this was the way all the most interesting people really lived. The heroes of books and movies and songs, at least recent ones, are never depicted doing any hard work, or if they are, they are usually looking to quit and hit the road at the first opportunity.
The problem of work, incidentally, once I got to be nominally an adult, was probably the major stumbling block to my being able to remain in Philadelphia. Every job I ever had there was so miserable, and the prospects for ever getting anything bearable seemed so grim, that I began to interpret the situation as the City's gods being determined, for some inscrutable reason, to drive me away. The connections of my large extended family were, alas, of little use. One of my aunts got me a job essentially as a janitor for some small-time entrepreneur she knew, who then wouldn't pay me, and whose office I had to stalk for several weeks in order to get somebody to cut me a check, which sorts of confrontations not being the kinds of thing I get a big charge out of anyway. Another place I worked, one of those small, stuffy city offices where lifelong neighborhood men who are walking heart attacks waiting to go off like to scream and hurl invectives at each other for no apparent reason other than to relieve boredom, was under investigation by the FBI or the IRS shortly after I left. Work culture in Philadelphia generally is, like much else there, marked by a certain dogged negativity and exaggerated sturm und drang that being at the bottom of the pyramid I just couldn't endure for 40-50 hours a week. In short I wasn't strong enough to cut it there and I had to bail out--a second time, the first being when I went to college--to a softer, less demanding environment.
On Saturday we went to a model train show in one of the now disused stations (Ogontz for anyone familiar with the area) in my old neighborhood. The state of Pennsylvania in general is mad for anything connected with trains, real or toys. Apparently I am too, for while we were invited to this exhibition by my brother-in-law, Mrs S pointed out that this was the third model train-themed attraction we had gone to in PA in the last two years. The first was the almost incomparable Roadside America which is out beyond Reading, and which I cannot recommend enough to anyone passing through that area on I-78, as it takes an hour at most to see the whole display. This is the kind of place that has framed and autographed photos of Pat Boone and Fox News personalities (that guy with the glasses and the stiff wall of blond hair especially stands out in my mind) hanging in the lobby. The many hundreds of buildings and other constructions which constitute the miniature world were built individually by hand by one man from the 1920s to the 1960s. The result is an idealized version of what Pennsylvania, especially the mountainous and industrial towns of it, looked like around 1943, which seems to be generally agreed upon in PA model train circles as having been the state's golden age, for all of the competing exhibitions are set in this same period. Usually at least once in your tour around the great room where the set-up is, they will dim the overhead lights and make it nighttime in Roadside America, there being however many hundreds of little street lamps, bridge lamps, lit-up stations, etc that you do not have to fear being groped or pickpocketed. At this juncture too there is a little light show projected onto the far wall of the building, featuring Kate Smith's version of "God Bless America" accompanied by shimmering juxtaposed images of Jesus and the American flag.
The third place we went by the way was the Pennsylvania Railroad Museum in Strasburg, which is out in Amishland (the Amish have a longstanding and I suspect twisted relationship with trains and railroad culture). This place is actually mostly real trains.
Since I do drive back and forth between New England and the Mid-Atlantic so much I get very tired of taking the same roads all the time, and am always trying to find different ones so long as they don't add too many hours to the trip. Lately I have been going on state roads all the way across Vermont and picking up I-87, the New York State Thruway, in Albany. I don't quite know why, but I like this road. Going west I have been on the Thruway as far as Utica, to which I took my ever suffering family on a weekend trip a few years ago because I had never been out that way, and I wanted to see what it was like, and I liked that too. The Thruway makes my old home highway, the PA Turnpike, to which it is similar as far as conception, very limited access, the exits 20 miles apart and all that, really look like a dump. Besides being surprisingly (to me )well-maintained--the roads in Pennsylvania have to be the worst-maintained in the country, and I would have assumed that New York would have even more problems in that regard--the lanes appear to be wider, or the merging traffic on-ramps better designed, or something. One never feels, even in pretty heavy traffic, that the other cars, or barriers, are anywhere near you, which is a source of constant stress on other highways. One of these days I will probably do a series of comprehensive articles on my favorite roads, bridges, train and bus stations, bus lines, airports, rest areas, etc, but I will spare my public those ruminations for the present.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
I was thinking the other day about how when I was a young boy, say from 1975-1982 or so, and my understanding of the world was highly influenced by my circa 1962 atlas and other reference books that I am constantly referring to in these pages, how remote the entire continent of Asia seemed to be to me. China, Siberia, Japan and Korea struck me especially forcefully as being a long, long way from home, moreso even than the wilder, more tropical nations, which were so unlike what I was familiar with that they did not register to me at that age with any vividness as real places. With Russia and China one could deal with statistics and images that made a real impression. The temperature had once been -71 degrees in Verkhoyansk, a town I could imagine myself having been born in more readily than I could a jungle. Train rides between cities which appeared to be neighbors on the map were 22 hours (I don't think I took a trip longer than 4 hours until I was 16). When I was a little older I had pen pals in the Soviet Union and the letters would often take a month to be delivered each way. This was in the 1980s. The seasons and the landscape in Japan and China that the pictures showed resembled ours enough to be identifiable as a reasonable place for human habitation but, like Turkey and other lands of great human antiquity, the colors and texture of the earth and the rocks and the sky seemed older and careworn. One knew in looking at them that the places they depicted did not belong to one, a sensation that is peculiarly absent from pictures taken more recently. Also it was always the next day in Asia, all the countries on the other side of the world were always ahead of us in time, which used to bother me a great deal when I was about eight, though I didn't complain about it to anyone, for I had once made the mistake of commenting to one of my teachers who had lived for a time in Washington state (which was pretty remote itself in my mind at the time) that I would not want to live there because there was no history in the place (compared to Pennsylvania/Mid-Atlantic Region), and I was duly assigned to read a book about Chief Seattle, whom I have always confused with Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, though I believe both of those chiefs were reputed to love peace, and one I think loved learning. Though the history lesson was perhaps lost on me at the time, the deserved chastisement for making a foolish and ignorant statement has remained with me to this day.
In those days of course few people from the West ever went even to India and Japan compared to today, and about as many went into outer space every year as went to China and Siberia. One also of course almost never met people from these countries here before about 20 years ago. At least I didn't. I don't presume to speak for the cool smart people, who are always attuned to great changes and intellectual developments and make the appropriatement mental adjustments years before I realize what is happening. I am pretty sure I never met a person from India in the flesh before about 1990. The same with Russia. Consequently these parts of the world will always retain some sense for me of being faraway and exotic that would obviously be impossible for anybody growing up now to have in the same magnitude.
I'm not sure what point I am trying to make here. I was watching an excruciatingly slow-paced, quiet, somber, at times almost elegiac movie about Japanese teenagers called Linda, Linda, Linda which I could not stay awake long enough to finish and there was a scene in which some girls are sitting on a balcony of one of the upper floors of their high school which had a view of some distant green hills in a late afternoon sunlight that was evocative of a wet sky in which a rainbow would be seen, and I thought, "ah, that is my image of what Asia looks like from the photographs in my 1962 Time-Life atlas", an image that I had not had evoked in some time. Japan of course, as well as Russia, South Korea and several other countries in the region, are experiencing extremely low birth rates and consequent steep declines in the population of young people, which does seem to lead to real doubts about the direction and purpose of the society even among people who nominally favor such declines. The sense that something very serious is missing, or has been lost, of what I will call spiritual as opposed to economic or political value is an undercurrent in many of the productions coming out of nations that can feel themselves to be in rapid decline--though many Americans, including me, talk a great deal of decline, it has not permeated the arts and polite discourse yet to the degree that it seems to have in Japan or Italy, where it is increasingly the subject even when it is not the subject because it is unavoidable. How does this relate to my photographs and the images they evoke? It has to do with a sort of life that seems more or less organic and natural but at least recognizably human in some way conrasted with a life that comes to seem ever increasingly artificial, even down to its fun, its travelling and consumption and dancing, etc. But you all knew that years ago.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Documentarians have long known that ragtime and big band music are perfect accompaniments to footage of baseball games contemporaneous with the eras when those genres flourished. These same genres also frequently turned to the game as a subject matter and source of inspiration for many famous songs and even entire musical productions, the sport at that time being celebrated as one of the delights of the national culture without being weighed down with the ponderousness of middlebrow consciousness, which the move of the Dodgers and Giants to California in and the subsequent nostalgia which suburbanization, television, the mass extinction of minor league teams and the demise of the old inner cities and the classic stadiums where the teams had been playing forever began to unleash in the late 50s and 60s, and from which the game, and perhaps the spirit of the people, have never quite recovered. Back to a happier note, my personal favorite song ever recorded about an athlete has to be "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio" by the Les Brown Orchestra (Here is a mini version, with an all too brief glimpse of the peppy singer Peggy Mann, who looks to be the kind of gal I like). The song is especially poignant because it belongs to the world in which Joe DiMaggio was really Joe DiMaggio, before the war, before television, before Marilyn Monroe, before Simon & Garfunkel, before Mr Coffee and paid appearances at autograph shows, before the old man who was trotted out at so many anniversaries and old-timers' days who had nothing to say to anybody in the present generation because he was increasingly a relic from an utterly foreign world that was supposed to be important but that nobody, including him it seemed, could really remember anymore.
DiMaggio retired from baseball in 1951 at the relatively early age of 37 and continued to live on as a very slowly and gracefully fading celebrity and iconic figure until his death in 1999, but most of his best years as a player, the years for which a generation of Americans actually fell in love with him, were when he was very young, from 1936-1941. This period belongs to baseball's mesozoic era, pre-integration, with the pro game, apart from a few superteams, the Yankees in particular, struggling to stay afloat during the Depression (the 1935 St Louis Browns drew 81,000 fans--the whole season). My impression is that these years have not been mined so thoroughly for analysis and grand themes by baseball's tenured historians and poets as those of others, and therefore the details of the personalities, seasons, games, etc. retain a certain freshness, a still interesting because largely unmagnified quality, that has been drained out of other eras. The legend of DiMaggio originated in the character of the late Depression. He was never a colorful figure by current standards, but right from the start he always projected supreme competence as well as a stately working class son of an immigrant dignity that perfectly suited the needs of the time. He seems to have always been regarded as "one of us" who happened to be a great ballplayer and was able to display various admirable qualities on the ballfield that however did exist among, indeed sprung from the mass of the population, rather than as a genetic freak who had little in common with ordinary human beings and whose exploits bore little relation to anything that went on in their lives, as is increasingly the case with modern superstars.
DiMaggio did play almost all of his career in an entirely segregated league however, and his own team the Yankees did not have a black or any other non-white player until seven years after he retired. The proposition has increasingly been raised in recent years that the Negro League superstar Oscar Charleston, who was also a center fielder and played around the same time, a man who never appeared on a magazine cover, and would never have been heard of by the majority of white baseball fans in 1939, was a better all-around player than DiMaggio. Given what DiMaggio represented in the culture of the time and for many years afterwards, this would certainly be ironic if it were the case, and of course it is far from implausible, though it is hard for me to believe it all the way through. DiMaggio was not regarded by his fellow white players and white fans of the time merely as a great player but almost as the ideal player, the guy who attained the finest possibilities of the game as it was understood/conceived of by the age's cognoscenti. Perhaps they were wrong, but I can't believe they were entirely wrong. It is commonly stated that Americans always go for the attractive lie or fantasy over the inevitably less pleasing truth whenever they are given a choice, but this implies that A) the truth, where Americans at least are concerned, must always be unpleasant, or it has not been properly experienced or understood and B) that myths, which have been employed by every substantial polity in human history, are of no benefit to individual humans as well as societies, which, while perhaps counterintuitive from a purely logical standpoint, seems to be quite demonstrably false.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
James Joyce-"The Dead"
Jean-Paul Sartre-No Exit (this is the one in which the famous line "Hell is other people [l'enfer, c'est les autres] appears)
In the comparative fire of my youth I inwardly took great offense at the Garrison Keillor comparison and fantasized momentarily about spraying the person who made it with machine gun fire but I have cooled off since that time. The resentments, jealousies, indignations, etc, with which authors are commonly supposed to be consumed towards their superior or more successful fellows don't make a lot of sense from the point of view of production once one is well past adolescence. I understand that if one is protecting a professional livelihood or a precarious spot on the rolls of fame it would be easy enough to be emotionally affected by the recognition of one's inferiority, but I think it is made too much of, and treated by the more secure authors as an amusing occupational hazard when dwelling on it really does no one any good. Also Keillor's attempts at reviving poetry by reading Eugene Field and Edward Arlington Robinson and so forth on his radio program make me think we are probably on the same team in the great existential struggle for America's soul. I doesn't look like it's going to be a winning team, but if one is on it one has to accept the mission to a certain degree.
Joyce's stories, along with Dickens's earlier and effusive efforts, were the first conscious models I took for my own writing, so it is not surprising that one could find hints in them in what I do.
Superficially I don't write anything like Thomas Pynchon--he's so zany and brilliant and all of that--but actually it seems like most American male authors under 45 or so ending up writing a little bit like Thomas Pynchon whether they want to or not--the over the top contrivances, the mishmash of cultural references pulled from anywhere, the sense that modern life as experienced by any human sensibility is actually insane. These attitudes, relationships towards language and knowledge and society, etc, seem to permeate the atmosphere.
Like a lot of modern French writers, Sartre seems to me to have a much more instinctive talent for writing novels and imaginative works than philosophy but seems to have considered himself more of a philosopher, especially as he got older. In Nausea, for example, which is a novel whose pages are mostly taken up with philosophical ruminations, I am confident in asserting that the more novelistic, imagistic, etc, parts, are by far the better parts of the book. Kierkegaard, for the sake of offering a counterpoint, does some similar experiments where the philosophy is more clearly the stronger component. I actually have more of a formal academic background in philosophy than literature, and people in the field who have primarily BAs in English and MFAs complain that this influence tends to, in their opinion, negatively intrude upon my fiction writing.
Monday, November 05, 2007
In addition to the old literature I am fond of typing about in this space, I also go on periodic binges of taking out books from the library which I skim through when I eat my toast or am sitting with my children as they fight and demand food and so forth. Most of these books, whether they are art surveys or travelogues or current events tomes, I must confess, are pretty light, though some of them certainly aspire to be serious. I get them out because they promise either to amuse me, make me think I am keeping some kind of contact with the outside world where things happen, indulge my dearer prejudices (though I must have very peculiar prejudices, because it is rare I find anything that satisfies me in this area), or, more commonly, my perverse ones. Those in the latter category tend to be such works as forecast the imminent doom of the United States, Western Civilization, or even the entire human race, by all of which entities I have a sad and, as I say, perverse inclination much of the time to feel unloved and unvalued, such that at a very base level of my mind the idea of their collapsing altogether--as if this were somehow going to render me a more valuable and significant and loved person--is fascinating to me. Thus I read a lot of books about peak oil, the various impending economic crises, cultural decline, demographic implosion, the perfect girl/woman phenomenon, the listless underachieving boy/man phenomenon (these are very titillating/borderline pornographic for us old men as they describe scenes like college campuses where the male/female ratio hovers around 1 to 2 and the women, gorgeous, toned, brilliant and impeccably dressed, are reduced to competing for the attentions of a bunch of slovenly, inarticulate, fast-food inhaling cretins--most of whom by the way have half the sperm counts their grandfathers did at the same age--who would rather play video games and look at porn on the internet than interact, sexually or otherwise, with real and very willing women. We certainly would never have presented such pitiful excuses for a manly spirit!!!), and anything generally concerned with how stupid almost everybody is compared to the author and other similarly ideal people, usually from the past. The more negative the books are the more I am usually left with the suspicion that their authors' motivations for writing them are the same as mine are for reading them; which in both cases are urges that would almost certainly have been better off being resisted.
For the most part I don't read a lot of books about global warning and its close cousin, the trashing of the environment, mainly because I find the kind of people who write those sorts of books to be completely devoid of humor or any other specific indication of human feeling, though also because, with the exception of things like Venice possibly being wiped out before I get to go there again, I can't seem to bring myself to get very fired up about it. Emotionally I don't feel I have much at stake in the movement, I think because, though it purports to be otherwise, the overarching strain of anti-humanism implicit in it is still too strong. The fun people, or the wise people, or the true artists, or even the genuinely kindly people, from my vantage point, have not, for lack of a better word, internalized the ethos of this movement enough yet to wrest some of its spirit away from the fanatics and the earnest bores, and infuse it with real life. Therefore to get me to read a book about it requires a more or less outrageous premise. Predicting the death of hundreds of millions of people or the extinction of the human race through greed and stupidity, and even implying that this might not be wholly undesirable and to some degree even ought to be promoted, is at this point pretty standard; what grabbed my attention regarding the book below was the totality of the author's attitude that human life was not only essentially purposeless, but had been a catastrophe for the planet earth, which its presence had thrown into complete disorder for no good reason. These are hard ideas for me to get my admittedly unathletic mind around.
The World Without Us is typical of the current school of "popular" (i.e. general audience) non-fiction books about science, history, etc, written by journalists or scholars who like to write for mainstream magazines and appear on television as pundits or experts of one kind or another. It is filled with facts and figures as well as episodic travels to out of the way places (Belarussian forests, Mexican archaelogical sites, the Korean DMZ), and recollections of forgotten figures from history (guys who collected and labelled dirt samples for 50 years in Victorian England, the Polish counts who over 400 years inadvertently preserved the only ancient growth forest remaining in Europe) that promise both to reveal insights for our current interpretations of the pertinent questions as well as dazzle the reader with the thorough reasearch and polymathic learning of the author. I am fairly ignorant of natural history, so there was much that was news to me in this book. I was not aware, for example, that North America was once teeming with great wild beasts including numerous varieties of elephants, camels, enormous sloths, a species of buffalo much larger than the bison which survive today, gigantic birds larger than ostriches, until they were slaughtered by human beings (which depletion of the food supply also forced the people living on these continents 11,000 or so years ago to learn to grow and live more off of corn, potatoes and other plant life. Think a lesson lies embedded there for us?) I was also unaware of the massive extent of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, which as recently as the mid-1800s blackened the skies of the eastern U.S. as far as the eye could see in their annual migrations, as well as that an estimated 2 billion birds a year continue to lose their lives as a result of human interference, power lines, glass windows, cats (if humans are the main villains of this book, cats are regarded as sort of our secret police wing, killing small animals pitilessly and indiscrimately and living well above their natural consumption level [Fancy Feast beef and salmon platter, etc] as the fruits of the unholy alliance). In one of the more entertaining sections of the book, the author ruefully speculates that if humans were to die out, cats would be most able to survive in the new wild conditions of all our domesticated animals. Dogs would be in trouble, as they would be forced into competition with wolves and other more ferocious species; cows would be wiped out by hungry predators in an ecological eyeblink. I don't anticipate pigs and sheep would fare much better. The section on New England's forests, now that I hike and spend a considerable amount of time in them, was especially of interest. Most of the woods in New England, with the exception of northern Maine, are regrowths upon abandoned famland, which anyone who goes into them will find evidence of in the long stone walls that are still standing all over the place though in the middle of an apparently wild forest. Because the farms were for the most part abandoned before 1900 however, before widespread use of pesticides and introduction of foreign plants, the regrowth has been almost exclusively of the originally native trees--birches, beeches, maples, oaks, etc. This is apparently a rare phenomenon in the modern world.
Towards the end of the book--the section in works of this type where possible solutions to the seemingly intractable problems facing the thinking segment of society are posited--the author (Alan Weisman) pushes for a drastic reduction in human population, currently projected to reach a peak of 9 or 10 billion by the year 2050 before levelling off, by limiting all women on the planet, or at least attempting to, to a maximum of one child. He does concede that this is unfair to the women of countries like Ethiopia, where it takes 310 children to wreak the environmental damage over a lifetime that can be expected of one American tot. Next we are introduced to the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, a group of people who, whether they are serious or not, sound like a exhilirating bunch to run with. They evidently have no capability, and less desire, to be persuaded that there is any intelligent justification for propagating the human species, as human beings collectively, in their view, given their advanced consciousness and intellectual capacity, have failed to justify their existence or adequately define its purpose. Underneath this proactive and outwardly confident stance toward extinction however is a sense that the bloated population, though momentarily still growing, is on the edge of a catastrophe that will cull its numbers involuntarily, to the point where recovery to the present state of civilization will be impossible, and without the ability to manage it comfortably and without suffering.
While I don't want to be too obvious in my self-interested attempt to defend the continued propogation and existence of the species, such sentiments as those above are not exactly what used to be spoken of, and occasionally understood, and occasionally admired, as the human spirit. The advocates of extinction are saying in effect that humanity has gone as far as it can hope to go, that its life is a dead end, that no more meaningful knowledge or other advancements offering illuminations on its purpose are to be expected, and that it is time to give up. This is a view that can only be reached by a mind that is so oversophisticated as to be capable of regarding itself a little too complacently. Surely there is more, not less, to life and the capacities of the human mind--and soul--than what it has for the most part attained awareness of so far? I do not feel that I have done much more than begun to be vaguely aware of the more exalted possibilities of existence, even such ones as are commonplace experiences among the brightest and most beautiful of my contemporaries, or are at least closer to being accessible to them, and consequently I still would like, and still have hope, that other people, my descendants, to be blunt, will have the opportunity, pointed in the right direction perhaps by me as much as possible, to go further along this path of understanding, enlightenment, humanness, whatever one wants to call it.