4/16/2020: Consideration of a Scene

Another day. Spent it as usual parsing the individual hourly anxieties with agonizing, involuntary, autoinflicted patience, drawing everything out to its utmost; the most demoniac kind of boredom.

But related to yesterday’s thoughts: I wonder if when we’re born, each of us is seeded with a bundle of call them primordial fantasies, scenes of beauty or longing or transcendence that speak directly to us in a language only we can understand, woven into our soul’s code, awaiting their triggers to come flaring up like new suns in front of our inner eyes. There are these scenes that I have within in me, to which I’ve never seen a real life corollary, but that I find fragments, flavors, vestiges of in literature, music, paintings, as if the creators purloined little broken-off chips of their essence and alloyed them into their own material.

I call them “scenes,” but I mean that only as a broad term encompassing a variety of things, at a variety of scales. Some of these scenes are barely articulated or visible even within me, but others do deserve the name “scene,” because they exist as complete frameable or filmable settings.

One of those scenes: a big clearing, surrounded on all sides by a pine tree forest (but without that piney resinous smell of pine forests – is it a pine forest? It keeps fluctuating in my head as I think about it…). It’s probably several football fields long, and two fields’ length wide. From one end to the other the clearing is carpeted in a uniform, soft, lush, vibrant grass, a high-summer grass, a Ghibli movie grass, that slopes up to a mild rise before plateauing and then dipping slightly again after. Overhead, the sky is blue, brilliant, the air aqueous and pure, with a perfectly calibrated breeze moving through it like notes along a stave; and the unencumbered sun gilds everything it touches, sits overhead like a patient miniaturist and paints every single blade of grass with filigree; and the temperature is…comfortable.

On the top of the rise there’s a big fountain, embellished around with decorative shrubbery, a mix of deep glossy green bushes and others, lighter-leaved and with flowers. The fountain is made from unblemished white stone or plaster in a classical style, and the water it pours out is so pure and clean it’s as if it were distilled from the sky.

Behind the fountain is a giant building or manor of some sort, made of red brick in something approaching the French Neoclassical style: its facade is open and flat-face with a wide porch and a fanning staircase This building is always behind the fountain, but sometimes the fountain is further away from it, or maybe there are two fountains; it’s hard to say. Sometimes on the field there are lots of other people, moving about single or in small groups: just walking pleasantly, or sitting on the grass, or even playing with a frisbee, sometimes, I think I’ve seen, even though a frisbee seems to mundane and of this reality to exist there.

I’ve never been inside this building – not in a dream or anything, I mean. Because I do dream about this place, occasionally; and there, like everywhere else I encounter it, it emits its eternal, predestinated sensation, as if it existed before I was born and was in my mind before I had the capacity to dream at all. I can imagine what it would be like inside, and have, but these imaginings never feel authentic.

And if I see some particular building’s facade in the real world, in just the right light, or if the trees in the distance are moving and lit just so, or if the day is nearing close enough to perfection, then I see this place and certain alien or archangelic feelings come into me like an afflatus, a lambent wind of power in striving, a connectedness to…what? I don’t know. Maybe just some innermost dynamo within myself.

The History of Thought is a morass of millions of contradicting certainties. Writers, painters, thinkers, spiritualists, gurus, shamans, musicians, warrior-monks, mystics, snake oil salesmen, quacks, prophets, precious teens eyeing each other across a coffee shop’s lacquered table; and more; all put build up their philosophies, delineate their schemata for the mind, draft up blueprints for the world; and they always seem so sure of themselves; were they really? What does certainty on that level feel like? I can’t pretend to certitude in hardly anything. I feel like I was born without a memory, or that I chose to allocate my capacity in other areas, so that I’m constantly forgetting my own life while I ponder arcane images lodged in my consciousness.

That comes close to sounding like self-pity, but I don’t mean it to.

I’ve got this fixation on War and Peace all of a sudden; my brain has latched onto it, I’m not entirely sure why; before now I’ve always thought I would read Anna Karenina first; but I got to thinking about W&P and now I’ve got to read it; I ordered a copy, and am not sure what I’ll be reading in the meantime. I’ve started, on a trialish basis, The Once and Future King, which taps so beautifully into scenes like the one above, but that I am not yet committed on fully pursuing; or maybe I should just read short stories until it gets here. I still haven’t finished my Gary Lutz volume but, in some ways, I wonder if his dark beautifully dismal wrecks of words are a good choice for my pandemic mindset. It’s the same reason I picked up and quickly put down Crime and Punishment yesterday: I don’t think I want that kind of bleakness repeatedly put in front of me in these immediately bleak times.

4/15/20: Travel, Towns, Lake, Lady

I love to be on the road. The always-present shabbiness of this country is most beautiful to me when it’s caught out of the corner of my eye, scrolling out of sight as I go. I love to look at the strange dire unremarkable little towns, the suburbs of suburbs, that are everywhere, and everywhere the same; but different and somehow holy to me because they’re not my dire, unremarkable little town. I don’t want to compare them to mine; I just like to be in them. I love to stumble upon their obscure fairs and traipse up and down the avenues between the tents, which have been bleached by years of the same sun into faded pastelerie. I love to stand in a sunbaked shopping center parking lot on a day so hot the scraps of clouds and the sky and the sun itself are all baked into a uniform whiteness and wonder, What is it like to live here? Who comes to these places, who knows them intimately? I want to consult these people like the last living experts on some hermetic text.

One time I was moving from one end of the country to the other. We stopped for the night in Ogallala, Nebraska. Ogallala is a weird little something between a pit stop and a tourist attraction, clinging to the interstate’s dictatorial cruciform; there’s a gas station, a car dealership, and a strip of shops done up like the facade of a frontier town; a big grinning pockmarked weatherworn mildewed cowboy sign leans on the shopping center’s marquee; his face is clean-shaven, his jaw is big and round, he looks like a strabismic Lupin the Third.

The first time I went through here I stayed at a Holiday Inn and called my dad from the parking lot. It was a mild summer evening; the day was hot, but the early evening had already forgotten it. My hotel was in an industrial/commercial area, and the blue sky peeked from behind fern-shaped clouds that lingered over one another in layers like scars. Across the road from the parking lot was a retail warehouse, long and low and ugly like these things always are; on the side facing me I saw sign for the company my dad used to work for, when we lived in Nebraska; that may have not been why I called him, but it was what I was talking to him about.

More than I remember many other, outwardly more important things, I remember the interplay between the light and color of the sky and the drab, unpitiable ugliness of the warehouse. Sometimes, beneath the surface of these very ordinary scenes, there’s a ludicrous beauty, one that you can almost only see in retrospect, when time begins to corrode it like it does everything else but finds something hard and immortal within it.

And this beauty, this immortality, it doesn’t mean anything; but it speaks to me, it would seem to provide some kind of an avenue between the unlanguaged yearning of my soul and the outside world, some sort of interface that would allow this energy to blow like a wind from inside me and out into the atmosphere; sometimes I feel like, if I find one of these scenes, and am there at the right time, with the right person, or rightly alone; if so, then…

Then what?

Is it possible to do anything with that? Because I have dozens of memories like this. What the fuck, then, is the real currency of life? What do we accumulate? What is an epiphany except for a thing that we can embroider in our minds like an endless sampler; do epiphanies ever change us? Do we ever resolve, can we ever resolve, to do anything or remember anything, in any real way, or hold ourselves up to that golden level we see shining for a moment when the clouds part?

I took daily walks around Sunny Lake for a long time, up until this pandemic made that not something I want to do. I’d see a lot of regulars on these walks, some of whom would try to talk to me, sometimes. But one time I saw this lady I never saw before or since, sitting at one of the covered park benches. She was probably in her late fifties. Her hair shone in that double way that gray hair dyed blonde always does. She was wearing tight-fitting jeans with rhinestones on the back pockets and prefabricated tears at the knees. She had on a tightfitting white hoodie, was sitting facing the lake, and was talking in choked sobs into her cell phone.

That was the first time I saw her, on my first lap around the lake. I always take three. On the second time around it seemed like she had sobbed herself into that place where, after a hard wracking cry, you feel lightheaded and giddy, and was laugh-talking to the person on the other end.

“I know – I know,” she said brightly, chucklingly. “I know. I been through it this last year – and you have too, and I -“

The last time I saw her she was pacing back and forth in the muddy grass beside the bench. I could see now that she wore white tennis shoes. She was pacing back and forth and was still on the phone, presumably with the same person. She was nodding, and when she was facing me I couldn’t tell if she was smiling or grimacing. Her face was creased, coarse-pored, tan. As she nodded and talked she watched the ground in front of her. She didn’t pace very far in either direction before turning to face the opposite way, and into her phone she was going “Yes. Yes. Yes. I know. If you could just. Yes. If you could just, if you could just…”

4/14/20: That Little Wasted Strip Mall

Another day, and so close to the end of Moby Dick. I’ll probably finish it tonight. I almost finished it this afternoon, but it felt off, not tributary enough. My best memories of this reading of it have been when I read it late at night, so I guess I’ll wait till tonight to finish it.

I’ve talked about my 30 pages/day regimen before, which I fell off of for more than a month this year and which, somehow, Moby-Dick helped me get back to. I have a few other rituals, forms, observances that I follow in my reading.

When I start reading for the day, and have 100 pages or less to go till the end of the book, I usually try and finish it that day.

When I finish a book, I don’t start another one immediately, even if I’m still in the reading mood. I let the finished book percolate for a day before starting on something else. Although this rule I don’t always obey.

Rituals, forms, observances…they’re so easy to write about, to talk about. Our brains seem addicted to cataloging, to schemata, lists and sub-lists. Stats. Specs. Maybe that’s why little kids become walking compendia of their crochets and interests before they really have a distinct personality (and sometimes never get one). These tangible, graspable things are so much easier to talk about, so much more superficially engageable, than the weaving, tangled medusahead of life’s irreconcilabilities that we could get sidelined for years, decades, whole lifespans having said more and thought more about, say, Porygon’s EV stats than the obscene unphraseable cruelty of reality.

I wonder sometimes if it comes down to those two things: the unnameable, and the countless distractions that prevent us from contemplating it – or that we purposely interpose between us and the unnameable specifically so that prevents us from contemplating it.

Lately I haven’t been able to deal with silence. No matter what I’m doing I need to have some background noise going, to blanket some low strumming baseline of incipient terror. So while I work I set the TV to chattering, and earlier today I put on Better Call Saul.

I haven’t seen the show before, had no real interest in watching it, but just wanted something that met Brian Eno’s Ambient 1 requirement of being as ignorable as it was interesting.

Early on, there’s a courtroom scene where a lawyer (not Saul) wheels in an old tube TV on an A/V stand to play for the jury. He drags it out laboriously and then stoops to put a tape in the VHS player on the rack below the TV; all of this is seen from the judge’s viewpoint, or near to it; looking out from the bench at any rate (I’m not fact-checking this even though my TV is playing behind me right now). When he stoops to put the tape in the camera cuts to a new shot, from right behind the VHS player, so that we see the lawyer’s bland face as he inserts the tape on the other side of the out-of-focus player.

But the shot isn’t quite centered; the VHS player and the and A/V stand aren’t quite centered in the frame. It doesn’t look bad, but it doesn’t look as deliberate as you might expect a shot like this to be; and I wondered, watching it, what went on in the director/cinematographer’s head? How hard would it have been to get it dead center? Would it have been worth it? Did they not want it dead center? And then consider other possible shots, other possible distances. Pressing on this moment a little with the mind exposes a giant sucking sinkhole: the sheer infinitude of choices spiraling out from every given creative act, million-leaved and rosiform like the form of Dante’s God.

Do you find such immensity paralyzing? What if it were applied not to acts of creation but to every single moment of every single day? Is that possible? Is it fair? Are we really so untrammeled in the each and every moment of our lives?

(No, we’re not)

I’ll abandon this thread for now, but it does remind me of the sort of things that we used to talk about. We would come together in public places and articulate vast philosophical architectures for the universe in our precocious over-articulate way. It was so casual, as if the entire spectrum of morality could be scaffolded in a single afternoon. And maybe it could. We’d also catalog people we knew according to how they thought about the world, decide who was was saved and who wasn’t, who possibly could be.

Once when your hair was long we met at a coffee shop, at the Arabica here in Streestboro. It was in that little wasted strip mall with the colorless facade. It’s still there, but the Arabica is gone. It was replaced by a hot dog restaurant that closed shortly after opening and nothing ever took its place. Your hair was as long as I’ve ever seen it and you wore a blue mechanic’s or worker’s shirt with the name “Sandoval” sewn in unpretentious cursive above the breast pocket.

Someone else was there with us, a good friend, but in another way he wasn’t; as everybody else was always not really there when we were together.

4/13/20: Dreams of Malls

So many dreams of mine take place in this gigantic mall. Gigantic, enormous, labyrinthine, Leviathanic; in the dozens and dozens of dreams I’ve had about it, I’ve never come close to compassing its complete acreage. Inside, it twists and corkscrews and extends like a demon’s bowels; long sloping entryways feed into giant encircling foodcourts that spin into vaunting atriums that rise up for storeys and echoing storeys; escalators and elevators and ramps and staircases spiraling and straight are hung like bunting everywhere, in unbalanced, asymmetrical festoonage. Entire other buildings exist inside of the mall, perfectly formed as they would be on the outside, with their own foundation, walls, roof, entrances and exits that lead back into the mall’s endless thoroughfares. Down deeper there are whole sublevels that are wet, humid, echoing mass bathrooms and shower rooms. Here, there are gigantic trough-like sinks that run for uncanny lengths underneath equally long frameless mirrors; here, a thousand hollow-eyed men could stare at their own sagging faces while they scrub their cold hands with institutional, pink liquid soap; and there is not enough lighting in this part of the mall. Parking garages go catacombing underneath the mall for presumably miles. I found out in a recent dream that it has its own airport.

From the outside of the mall, I’ve seen different different sides of its incomprehensible vastness. One side opens out into in the downtown heart of a full-size city; another side stands alone on a gentle rise in a sun-punished grassland plain, with a circular carpark around it baking obscenely under the ironclad heat. That side looks public-schoolish, bureaucratic, vaguely municipal; it’s all ugly squarish shapes, stacked up on one another like blocks; but another side is a sleek, black tower that rises up into the sky.

Inside, stores recur in slightly different form with an absurd, fractal redundancy: game stores, clothing stores, multiple full-sized hardware stores, kitchen stores, jewelry shops, music stores, pet stores; all repeat over and over again with the most achingly insignificant distinctions. But then again, some stores do seem severely understocked, understaffed, or even from a different era, as if they were built and furnished decades before a store ten feet away.

Oftentimes in these dreams I’m at the mall looking for some specific thing. And so I’ll meticulously peruse the racks in one of these stores. In the strange contracted capaciousness of time in a dream, a minute will pass as I spend hours looking for this thing, whatever it is. One time, I remember, it was a new Pokemon game, one that nobody else had or knew about, that I learned of through a magazine only I received. This game was a oblong red cartridge that wouldn’t fit into any system I had or that existed as far as I knew, but I still wanted it. On the front of the cartridge there was a sepia image of a Lapras swimming in the distance of a mild sea; strangely melancholic. This weird sorrow attached to the cart made me want it more.

In that case, I found the thing I was looking for, but most times I don’t. I go back and forth over the spot where it should be on the shelf, but I pass over it, again and again; or it is there, but, somehow, I’m unable to engage with the location in space and time in which it exists, like some force is manhandling my consistency in reality, pushing me back and forth to either side of the desired object. Or I’ll go to speak with the employees, and be inexplicably profoundly silent, or muddled, lethargic, unable to articulate what I want quickly enough, as if I had been shot with a tranquilizer and were trying to blurt out what I need before passing out.

In all these cases of uncontrollable failure, by the way, my mood is only ever a heavy, bland frustration that never blossoms into rage or anger, even though every atom of my being is polluted by the galling cruelty of my situation.

My journey from the mall afterwards is fraught and compromised and often humiliating also. Like maybe I’ll have to walk home, through miles and miles of head-high wheat stalks under a cruel sun. Or maybe I’ll be forced by the invisible director who orchestrates these things (and who is also myself, watching myself) to drive my car from the backseat, reaching my arms around either side of the driver’s seat headrest to grasp the wheel. And I’ll inevitably be going too fast, my breaks will not exist, I’ll have to swerve the car at high speed between other cars, around impediments, into gut-clenching turns.

Sometimes the dream ends before the journey ends.

But sometimes I end up at your house.

4/12/20

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Easter, but unremarked upon, incredibly irrelevant in this distended quarantine time.

Until recently, I used to love watching the weather. I liked, I guess, the endless changeability of it. It was indulgent, in some ways. Observing the shift and shift of the skies seemed like one way to stay aware of the ongoingness of the world’s huge mechanisms.

These quarantine days though, I stay inside and don’t watch the weather. Buried inside the house I’m jealous of it, and don’t want it impinging on my tomb any more than it has to, like when the rain came down so violently a few days – a week, more? – ago, or when the wind went horizontal and yawled through the streets and made the walls and roof groan.

Way back, though, I was afraid of the weather. I woke up one day, almost suddenly, and was deathly afraid of dying in a tornado. This started when I was 11 or 12 and stuck with me till I went to college. And because I was already laboring – although maybe I didn’t know it – under my obsessive compulsive disorder, this terror of tornadoes became an all-daily, all-consuming fear – more than a fear, but a condition of existence, as much an inescapable element of my life as the actual weather was.

I would try not to go to school on stormy or possibly stormy days. I missed school trips. If I was at school when a storm started, I would try and go to the bathroom, simply for the excuse to pace the halls, taking the long way to and from, dawdling, trying to minimize the time I would have to be locked at my desk, as powerless in my panic there, I felt, as a passenger in a crashing plane.

If I was at home, I would stand at the window anxiously and wait for to develop. If I knew one was coming it was virtually impossible for me to do anything else but stand at attention, anticipating it, pacing the parapets. I monitored them on the internet, watching the radar slowly blotch in the green, yellow, red, and orange storm cells in early-era broadband.

One early evening I looked out the narrow windows on either side of our front door at a sky that was green, weltering, stormsick; stood there watching in a blank, almost bland, yet still overwhelming fear, like a submariner watching some immense and unclassified monster swim its bulk past the porthole. My dad came up behind me.

“You see that tree?” he said, pointing at the one in our front lawn, shorn of leaves and wetly black, moving back and forth in the wind like a rune trying to peel itself away from its stone.

“You see that tree?” he said. “You know when you have to start worrying? When that tree is pthlurp!” – he made a farting sound – “upside down out there.” I heard my mom laugh from somewhere in the house.

It was a problem then in me and is still one now, that when I’m afraid in this way I can’t accept any comfort from others. It doesn’t translate, doesn’t make it past the barriers into my skull.

Tornadoes were the second of several major fears that each, in their turn, defined big sections of my life. When I still lived in Omaha I saw a story about e. coli on the news and became horribly afraid of dying from eating raw or undercooked meat. I obsessively checked my and my family’s meat for pinkness (representing potential rawness), before any of us ate it; once we went out to dinner with another family and I was convinced the opposing dad was going to die, because his chicken, to me, looked pink from across the table.

Fears follow their own internal logic. That’s the secret to the horrible sway they have over us. They’re worlds unto themselves, separate from this one, but you inhabit both their world and this one simultaneously, attempting to abide by the weathers and rules of both; consequently you become, despite your best efforts, absurd. Once, I refused to use the butter on the dinner table because the light of setting sun, coming in through the dining room window, made it look pink to me.

As the tornado fear continued, also I started to believe that I had cancer. This was actually one of the smaller fears, small enough that it could exist concurrently with the tornado fear; a moon to that one’s planet. Each morning I woke up and anxiously checked my pillow, to see if my hair had started falling out because I thought that was a symptom of the disease, not a side effect of the treatment.

It probably wouldn’t’ve mattered if somebody told me the truth. Fears brook the intrusion of no other logic than their own.

One time I went on a school trip, a day trip to a space center in West Virginia, against every inclination inside me. I was blandly bullied into it by a bland, bullying, insensitive science teacher named Mrs. Franklin, who always had a sort of expansive disappointment stamped into her face.

I realize that’s not a way in which you can physically describe a living or once-living person. She had curly brown hair, done up in an outdated, loose 80s perm. A small chin, brown eyes. A mole somewhere on her face; I can’t remember where. She was in her 60s, probably.

The space center was in West Virginia, somewhere out in the rugged hilly part, away from towns and other buildings. The bus ride took us on a winding road through the mountains – broad, forlorn, half-crumbled mountains, standing like widows in long gowns of russet and moss, trussed in bodices of evergreens and still-dead trees; the unbloomed bones of early spring. The weather was gray, hot, humid, pregnant.

The space center was empty except for we students, the teacher chaperones, and the center employees who shepherded us through the days activities. They told us about Apollo 13. They had us recreate crudely the Mailbox that the crew used to filter the air they needed to breath. It was while we were doing this that it began to storm.

I knew it was going to because I saw the sky darkening in the smeared reflections on the closed blinds over the windows in the room. The storm broke in that way that spring and summer storms have, coming down in a furious all-powerful onset of wet and light and noise and color, spectruming from dark to lighter and lighter as the wind howled and the clouds emptied themselves over every millimeter of exposed surface in that weird, lonely place.

I tried to appear casual while giving my fear maximal rain; I feigned a casual interest in the storm, so that I had some excuse for going over to the window and looking out at its omnipresent motion outside.

The storm drained itself quickly, and changed nothing fundamentally. The rainlashed, soaked trees were in a stupor, drooling from all their mouths, and the mulchbeds were blackly wet, but not long. The sun half-shone through whitened, lightened clouds, burning the moisture back up in the air, rehumidifying it. Only in the places where the sun couldn’t pry its weightless fingers did the water linger a while longer.

And, now it was over, I felt like my mind expand in all directions, shooting outside the circumference of my skull, unfolding like a massive lotus and lavishing its benediction on every inch of this earth, which had just weathered its 100 billionth storm. My chest swung open like the doors of a mausoleum, exhuming itself, letting the corpses of fear tumble out into the unfreshened air. My fingertips were as long as the jetstreams; my eyes burned with unsleeping excited fatigue. I became jocular, giddy almost. We finished our Mailbox.

We got back in the early evening and the sun still lingered behind the clouds, turning everything a soft soporofic lavender-purple. Mrs. Franklin stood at the steps of the bus, not to bid us goodbye as we departed, but because she felt that was where she had to stand. She stared vacantly at one thing or another, smiled vacantly at one thing or another, as we passed.

When I went by, she asked, “Well, are you glad you came?”

“No,” I said.

[Image: Approaching Thunder Storm by Martin Johnson Heade (1819 – 1904)]

4/11/20

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I’m going to try and write these looser pieces when I am so inclined.

We don’t need to discuss the obvious. But even before the mind-numbing onrush of March and the coronavirus catastrophe, I wasn’t reading much. My mind was on hiatus, or suffering a kind of shallowing out. It’s a thing that happens to me from time to time.

(In describing this sensation I almost unconsciously purloined, wholesale, a presiding metaphor of Cyril Connolly’s, that of the rock pool that fills and drains with the tides; it only sounded familiar to me once I had finished roughing it out, and was ready to start the refining process; and then I remembered where I had been furnished with the image to begin with.)

It happens to me from time to time: my brain becomes flat and shallow, my interface such that I can engage only superficially with things, and almost by necessity with several things at once; thus when I’m in a mood like this, I tend to watch a lot of different TV shows, play a lot of different games, start many different books in random seizures of intent that fizzle out, so that I make minor ingress into three, four, five novels, possibly never to finish any of them at all, ever, and certainly not then.

Now, however, I feel like I’m transitioning into the opposite brain-state, which I envision artlessly as a narrow channel or fissure shooting into the earth, filled with cold, dark, reaching, unsounded water. This is the mood for obsessive pursuit of single things, which is why, probably, I’ve been absolutely tear-assing through a reread of Moby Dick.

(By the way, the “obsessive pursuit” is not a conscious reference to Ahab pursuing Moby Dick; anyway the book is about, arguably more about, so much more than Ahab’s obsession; actually in this current reading I’m kind of astonished at how little Ahab there really is, and re-impressed by Ishmael, who is probably actually the best, most memorable creation in the whole book.)

I’ve written, briefly, about the way Moby Dick made me feel the first time I read it. Sometimes I worry that I don’t have much of a memory. That is, on the surface level of my mind, I can’t remember with any sort of exacting clarity much of my life; very few scenes return to me with the stage-managed clarity that we are told, or somehow otherwise come to expect, the big moments in our life should/to have.

But I remember in inalienable gravure this one night when I was reading Moby Dick, on the couch in the walkway lounge between the two honors dorms at Kent. It was late, I didn’t live in those dorms but my girlfriend at the time did, and I would loiter in the semi-public spaces of Johnson Hall while I waited for her to get back from whatever journalism things she was doing.

(I’ve always dated people who are busier than me).

Nothing prepares you for Art’s first intrusion into your life. It falls on you like a delicious curse, marking you with a savage discontent for the rest of your life. Delicious, because nothing compares to it. For some, maybe lots of people, that intrusion never comes; and to try and communicate the feeling to them is like attempting to convey the texture of your particular depression to another mind outside your own: a forlorn and hopeless task, as ungraspable as Cassiopeia.

Moby Dick wasn’t the first time that Art broke into my heart like a burglar in reverse, though. That came earlier, possibly across several closely-related instances (instances that will not be related here); but, as anyone who has had that vivifying communion with Art knows, you’re always afterwards looking for things that sensation again; and, for me at least, those Agains come seldomly, and maybe, eventually, evaporate altogether; I still get much profound pleasure from literature, but it’s not ever these days ecstatic and bright like it was those first times.

But that time when I read Moby Dick. I was probably about halfway through the book at the time, and found myself vibrating with that feeling again. In fact, if anything, it was clearer then, nearer, than it had been before; I was pinned to the couch in the lounge; I think of that night as a stormy one, not because it was actually storming out (was it?) but because reading those words on those pages, that night, was like hurtling to the rim of the cosmos to touch, barepalmed, Lightning’s livid brand. And when you’re that close to the dynamo, you know – you know – that Art and Life are somehow one and the same, or inextricably linked like two separate strands of the ancient root the gyres reality together. Life is motion with an endless craving for Art. Art is the aether that underpins every meaningful instance in Life.

Last month, I finished The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a wonderful book that was precisely not what I needed during the mindstate I found myself in at the onset of this coronavirus pandemic. Was it too perfect? Too wise? Too…something? No, it was just itself, and, simply, not what I needed at that particular moment. Upon finishing it I picked up Moby Dick on a whim, and within a few days I knew I was reading it again For Real.

It turned my mind deep again, or corresponded to a deepening that was happening already, a pervading leaden heavy obsessiveness that is conducive to two things: swinging anxiety around my head like a flail and, evidently, reading Moby Dick at a reckless pace. At my normal rate, it would take me about a month to finish it; at my current clip I’ll have finished the whole thing in about two weeks.

“Does it hold up” seems like a deeply irrelevant question, but yes it very much does. It isn’t able to do to me now what it did to me then, but that’s no fault of the book. I’m finding it so rich, deep, and variegated, so almost inexpressibly gloriously weird. It’s the easiest book in the world for me to read, right now. I can finish thirty pages in about as many minutes.

I wonder what I’ll read next. I feel like my current horror-soaked mood wants me to gravitate towards the Big Ones, the unqualified masterpieces. I want to deeply inhabit and feel oh so small in the Big Churches of Literature. I’ve been considering Anna Karenina.

[Image: Moby Dick illustration by Rockwell Kent]

“Letters to Santa” from Little, Big by John Crowley

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Different families have different methods, at Christmas, of communicating their wishes to Santa. Many send letters, mailing them early and addressing them to the North Pole. These never arrive, postmasters having their own whimsical ways of dealing with them, none involving delivery.

Another method, which the Drinkwaters had always used though no one could remember how they had hit on it, was to burn their missives in the study fireplace, the tiled one whose blue scenes of skaters, windmills, trophies of the hunt seemed most appropriate, and whose chimney was the highest. The smoke then (the children always insisted on running out to see) vanished into the North, or at least into the atmosphere, for Santa to decipher. A complex procedure, but it seemed to work, and was always done on Christmas Eve when wishes were sharpest.

Secrecy was important, at least for the grown-ups’ letters; the kids could never resist telling everybody what they wanted and for Lily and Tacey the letters had to be written by others anyway, and they had to be reminded of the many wishes they’d had as Christmas neared but which had grown small in the interim and slipped through the coarse seine of young desire. Don’t you want a brother for Teddy (a bear)? Do you still want a shotgun like Grampa’s? Ice skates with double blades?

But the grown-ups could presumably decide these things for themselves.

In the expectant, crackling afternoon of that Eve of ice Daily Alice drew her knees up within a huge armchair and used a folded checkerboard resting on her knees for a desk. “Dear Santa,” she wrote, “please bring me a new hot-water bottle, any color but that pink that looks like boiled meat, a jade ring like the one great-aunt Cloud has, for the right middle finger.” She thought. She watched the snow fall on the gray world, still just visible as day died. “A quilted robe,” she wrote; “one that comes down to my feet. A pair of fuzzy slippers. I would like this baby to be easier than the other two to have. The other stuff is not so important if you could manage that. Ribbon candy is nice, and you can’t find it anywhere any more. Thanking you in advance, Alice Barnable (the older sister).” Since childhood she had always added that, to avoid confusion. She hesitated over the tiny blue notepaper nearly filled with these few desires. “P.S.,” she wrote. “If you could bring my sister and my husband back from wherever it is they’ve gone off together I would be more grateful than I could say. ADB.”

She folded this absently. Her father’s typewriter could be heard in the strange snow-silence. Cloud, cheek in hand, wrote with the stub of a pencil at the drum-table, her eyes moist, perhaps with tears, though her eyes often seemed bedimmed lately; old age only, probably. Alice rested her head back against the chair’s soft breast, looking upward.

Above her, Smoky charged with rum-tea sat down in the imaginary study to begin his letter. He spoiled one sheet because the rickety writing-table there rocked beneath his careful pen; he shimmed the leg with a matchbook and began again.

“My dear Santa, First of all it’s only right that I explain about last year’s wish. I won’t excuse myself by saying I was a little drunk, though I was, and I am (it’s getting to be a Christmas habit, as everything about Christmas gets to be a habit, but you know all about that). Anyway, if I shocked you or strained your powers by such a request I’m sorry; I meant only to be flip and let off a little steam. I know (I mean I assume) it’s not in your power to give one person to another, but the fact is my wish was granted. Maybe only because I wanted it more than anything, and what you want so much you’re just likely to get. So I don’t know whether to thank you or not. I mean I don’t know whether you’re responsible; and I don’t know whether I’m grateful.”

He chewed the end of his pen for a moment, thinking of last Christmas morning when he had gone into Sophie’s room to wake her, so early (Tacey wouldn’t wait) that blank nighttime still ruled the windows. He wondered if he should relate the story. He’d never told anyone else, and the deep privacy of this about-to-be-cremated letter tempted him to confidences. But no.

It was true that what Doc had said, that Christmas succeeds Christmas rather than the days it follows. That had become apparent to Smoky in the last few days. Not because of the repeated ritual, the tree sledded home, the antique ornaments lovingly brought out, the Druid greenery hung on the lintels. It was only since last Christmas that all that had become imbued for him with a dense emotion, an emotion having nothing to do with Yuletide, a day which for him as a child had had nothing like the fascination of Hallowe’en, when he went masked and recognizable (pirate, clown) in the burnt and smoky night. Yet he saw that it was an emotion that would cover him now, as with snow, each time this season came. She was the cause, not to whom he wrote.

“Anyway,” he began again, “my desires this year are a little clouded. I would like one of those instruments you use to sharpen the blades of an old-fashioned lawn mower. I would like the missing volume of Gibbon (Vol. II) which somebody’s apparently taken out to use as a doorstop or something and lost.” He thought of listing publisher and date, but a feeling of futility and silence came over him, drifting deep. “Santa,” he wrote, “I would like to be one person only, not a whole crowd of them, half of them always trying to turn their backs and run whenever somebody”—Sophie, he meant, Alice, Cloud, Doc, Mother; Alice most of all—”looks at me. I want to be brave and honest and shoulder my burdens. I don’t want to leave myself out while a bunch of slyboots figments do my living for me.” He stopped, seeing he was growing unintelligible. He hesitated over the complimentary close; he thought of using “Yours as ever,” but thought that might sound ironic or sneering, and at last wrote only “Yours &c.,” as his father always had, which then seemed ambiguous and cool; what the hell anyway; and he signed it: Evan S. Barnable.

Down in the study they had gathered with eggnog and their letters. Doc had his folded like true correspondence, its backside pimpled with hard-struck punctuation; Mother’s was torn from a brown bag, like a shopping list. The fire took them all, though—rejecting only Lily’s at first, who tried with a shriek to throw it in the fire’s mouth, you can’t really throw a piece of paper, she’d learn that as she grew in grace and wisdom—and Tacey insisted they go out to see. Smoky took her by the hand, and lifted Lily onto his shoulders, and they went out into the snowfall made spectral by the house’s lights to watch the smoke go away, melting the falling snowflakes as it rose.

When he received these communications, Santa drew the claws of his spectacles from behind his ears and pressed the sore place on the bridge of his nose with thumb and finger. What was it they expected him to do with these? A shotgun, a bear, snowshoes, some pretty things and some useful: well, all right. But for the rest of it. . .He just didn’t know what people were thinking anymore. But it was growing late; if they, or anyone else, were disappointed in him tomorrow, it wouldn’t be the first time. He took his furred hat from its peg and drew on his gloves. He went out, already unaccountably weary though the journey had not even begun, into the multicolored arctic waste beneath a decillion stars, whose near brilliance seemed to chime, even as the harness of his reindeer chimed when they raised their shaggy heads at his approach, and as the eternal snow chimed too when he trod it with his booted feet.

Image: The Magpie (1868-1869), by Claude Monet

“The fire of fall was on them…” from Omensetter’s Luck by William H. Gass

 

Fall Wyeth

“The path took Henry Pimber past the slag across the meadow creek where his only hornbeam hardened slowly in the southern shadow of the ridge and the trees of the separating wood began in rows as the lean road in his dream began, narrowing to nothing in the blank horizon, for train rails narrow behind anybody’s journey; and he named them as he passed them: elm, oak, hazel and chestnut tree, as though he might have been the fallen Adam passing them and calling out their soft familiar names, as though familiar names might make some friends for him by being spoken to the unfamiliar and unfriendly world which he was told had been his paradise. In God’s name, when was that? When had that been? For he had hated every day he’d lived. Ash, birch, maple. Every day he thought would last forever, and the night forever, and the dawn drag eternally another long and empty day to light forever; yet they sped away, the day, the night clicked past as he walked by the creek by the hornbeam tree, the elders, sorrels, cedars and the fir; for as he named them, sounding their soft names in his lonely skull, the fire of fall was on them, and he named the days he’d lost. It was still sorrowful to die. Eternity, for them, had ended. And he would fall, when it came his time, like an unseen leaf, the bud that was the glory of his birth forgot before remembered. He named the aspen, beach, and willow, and he said aloud the locust when he saw it leafless like a battlefield. In God’s name, when was that? When had that been?”

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Images: Autumn by Andrew Wyeth, 1984; Long Limb by Andrew Wyeth, 1998

Every Mention of Boiled Leather in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire

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A Game of Thrones

 

“He wore black leather boots, black woolen pants, black moleskin gloves, and a fine supple coat of gleaming black ringmail over layers of black wool and boiled leather.”

“Her son was dressed in boiled leather and ringmail, she saw, and a sword hung at his waist.”

“His armor was iron-grey chainmail over layers of boiled leather, plain and unadorned, and it spoke of age and hard use.”

“Under black wool, boiled leather, and mail, sweat trickled icily down Jon’s chest as he pressed the attack.”

Robb was seated in Father’s high seat, wearing ringmail and boiled leather and the stern face of Robb the Lord.

“It was soon revealed that the new recruit had brought his own armor with him; padded doublet, boiled leather, mail and plate and helm, even a great wood-and-leather shield blazoned with the same striding huntsman he wore on his surcoat.”

“There were no heralds, no banners, no horns nor drums, only the twang of bowstrings as Morrec and Lharys let fly, and suddenly the clansmen came thundering out of the dawn, lean dark men in boiled leather and mismatched armor, faces hidden behind barred halfhelms.”

“A round scarred face and a stubble of dark beard showed under his steel cap, and he wore mail over boiled leather, and a dirk and shortsword at his belt.”

“How well would boiled leather jerkins and mailed shirts protect them when the arrows fall like rain?”

“He wore only a shirt of black oiled ringmail over boiled leather, a round steel halfhelm with a noseguard, and a mail coif.”

“The red cloaks wore mail shirts over boiled leather and steel caps with lion crests.”

 

A Clash of Kings

 

“They were clad in shabby skins and boiled leather, with long hair and fierce beards.”

“A scarred face and a stubble of dark beard showed under his spiked steel cap, and he wore mail over boiled leather, dirk and shortsword at his belt.”

“The prospect of food brought other men out of the houses, near all of them wearing bits of mail or boiled leather.”

“’My brothers are long dead, and my sister . . . well, they say Asha’s favorite gown is a chain-mail hauberk that hangs down past her knees, with boiled leather smallclothes beneath.'”

“‘I wonder if I still have that chain-mail gown I like to wear over my boiled leather smallclothes?”

“‘You have fewer than four hundred horse, my scouts tell me—freeriders in boiled leather who will not stand an instant against armored lances.'”

“Like Davos, the king was plainly garbed in wool and boiled leather, though the circlet of red gold about his temples lent him a certain grandeur.”

“Catelyn had ordered garments sewn to her measure, handsome gowns to suit her birth and sex, yet still she preferred to dress in oddments of mail and boiled leather, a swordbelt cinched around her waist.”

“A jerkin of boiled leather and a pot-helm at his feet were his only armor.”

“The men stood in their mail and fur and boiled leather, as still as if they were made of stone.”

“Beneath his black surcoat and golden mantle was a shirt of well-oiled ringmail, and under that a layer of stiff boiled leather.”

“About half of them hid their faces behind crude helms of wood and boiled leather.”

“The rider’s helm was made from the broken skull of a giant, and all up and down his arms bearclaws had been sewn to his boiled leather.”

 

A Storm of Swords

 

“Chett felt it too, biting through his layers of black wool and boiled leather.”

“Jon took their measure with a glance: eight riders, men and women both, clad in fur and boiled leather, with here and there a helm or bit of mail.”

“Elsewhere two bearded youths in boiled leather were sparring with staffs, leaping at each other over the flames, grunting each time one landed a blow.”

“With his own eyes Jon had beheld the Hornfoot men trotting along in column on bare soles as hard as boiled leather.”

“Ygritte slammed the heel of her hand into his chest, so hard it stung even through his layers of wool, mail, and boiled leather.”

“No shield, no breastplate, no chainmail, not even boiled leather, only pink satin and Myrish lace.”

“And under the roughspun was boiled leather and oiled mail, Arya knew.”

“Satin, they called him, even in the wool and mail and boiled leather of the Night’s Watch; the name he’d gotten in the brothel where he’d been born and raised.”

“The Thenns carried shields of black boiled leather with bronze rims and bosses, but theirs were plain and unadorned.”

“Almost every wagon had its guards; men-at-arms wearing the badges of small lordlings, sellswords in mail and boiled leather, sometimes only a pink-cheeked farmer’s son clutching a homemade spear with a fire-hardened point.”

“Beneath the trees were all the wildlings in the world; raiders and giants, wargs and skinchangers, mountain men, salt sea sailors, ice river cannibals, cave dwellers with dyed faces, dog chariots from the Frozen Shore, Hornfoot men with their soles like boiled leather, all the queer wild folk Mance had gathered to break the Wall.”

“On either side of the giants came a wave of horsemen in boiled leather harness with fire-hardened lances, a mass of running archers, hundreds of foot with spears, slings, clubs, and leathern shields.”

“Beneath that would be boiled leather and a layer of quilting.”

“The point punched through mail and boiled leather.”

“He wasn’t wearing mail or even boiled leather, so it went right in, the same way Needle had when she killed the stableboy at King’s Landing.”

“When he turned, they were all around him; an ill-favored gaggle of leathery old men and smooth-cheeked lads younger than Petyr Pimple, the lot of them clad in roughspun rags, boiled leather, and bits of dead men’s armor.”

 

A Feast for Crows

 

“Tarly wore mail and boiled leather, and a breastplate of grey steel.”

“Even in mail and boiled leather, she felt naked.”

“His ringmail was old and rusted, worn over a stained jack of boiled leather.”

“Payne seemed as comfortable in his silence as in his rusted ringmail and boiled leather.”

“They wore mail and boiled leather, with here and there a bit of dinted plate.”

“His armor was a studded brigandine and a cap of boiled leather.”

“Underneath his steel and wool and boiled leather Jaime Lannister was a tapestry of cuts and scabs and bruises.”

“This one still has her maidenhead, I’ll wager, Cersei thought, though by now it’s hard and stiff as boiled leather.”

“’Armed men in mail and boiled leather, and yet the beasts had no fear of them.’”

 

A Dance with Dragons

 

“Jon could feel her heat, even through his wool and boiled leather.”

“The rest of him was wrapped in layers of wool and boiled leather and ringmail, his features shadowed by his hooded cloak and a black woolen scarf about the lower half of his face.”

“The other had a stiff roof of boiled leather to keep the wind off.”

“Next came Rattleshirt in clattering armor made of bones and boiled leather, his helm a giant’s skull.”

“Ser Rolly shrugged into his mail and boiled leather.”

“’Boiled leather will suffice,’ said Ser Godry.”

“Both were clad in boiled leather and mottled cloaks of brown and green and black, with branches, leaves, and brush sewn about their heads and shoulders.”

“She pushed her dirk into a northman’s chest through fur and wool and boiled leather.”

“The wildling wore a sleeveless jerkin of boiled leather dotted with bronze studs beneath a worn cloak mottled in shades of green and brown.”

“Obara, rusted nails and boiled leather, with her angry, close-set eyes and rat-brown hair.”

“Before them marched the clansmen from the hills; chiefs and champions astride shaggy garrons, their hirsute fighters trotting beside them, clad in furs and boiled leather and old mail.”

“Even in sleep she wore ringmail under her furs, boiled leather under that, and an old sheepskin under the leather, turned inside out for warmth.”

“Wooden clubs, stone axes, mauls, spears with fire-hardened points, knives of bone and stone and dragonglass, wicker shields, bone armor, boiled leather.”

“Some dressed in fine soft furs, some in boiled leather and oddments of armor, more in wool and sealskins, a few in rags.”

“Across their backs they bore round wicker shields covered with hides and boiled leather, displaying painted images of snakes and spiders, severed heads, bloody hammers, broken skulls, and demons.”

“For all her layers of wool and fur and boiled leather, Asha felt naked standing there.”

 

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If you decide to buy the A Song of Ice and Fire books on the strength of this post, please consider purchasing them from a local used or new bookstore, or from an independent bookstore’s online storefront.

28 Separate Impulses

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Haven’t read much this week, but I’m on the verge of finishing Suldrun’s Garden. I have just under 100 pages left; once I get under the 100 page demarcation, the next time I pick up the book I almost always commit to reading to the end in one go.

Naturally, I’m going to read The Green Pearl next. But there’s been an oversight: I thought I had a copy of it already, thought I picked it up in my first rush of enthusiasm for Jack Vance back in – it might’ve been as far back as 2010 or 2011. I was buying any Vance books I could find and a copy of Madouc, the third volume, has been sitting on shelf since then. One of my strange book-hunting peccadilloes is that I won’t usually buy volumes out of order, even if find volume 4 before volume 2; so I assumed that because I had Madouc, I must also have The Green Pearl.

But I don’t have The Green Pearl, so when I finish Suldrun’s Garden there’s going to be a short but tantalizing mercenary time frame wherein I can’t read what I intend to be reading next, and so can read anything while I wait.

These little lacunae are intoxicating, but also daunting and almost always ultimately futile, because they mean my mind will be buffeted by the thousand contrary winds of moment-to-moment reading impulses, like a sad pennant in a strong storm. In the short span of time since I became aware of this impending gap, I’ve had to watch an endless parade of desires to read this book, this book, no this book, wait this book…..

I want to read Imperial by William T. Vollmann, and I want to read his climate change book Carbon Ideologies. Basically I want to start reading Vollmann generally, and refuse to start doing so on any but the grandest scale.

And I want to read The Path to Power by Robert Caro, while simultaneously not feeling obligated to immediately continue with the volumes that follow it.

Desperately I want to read Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley. Finding this book was the golden moment of my recent book-rich excursion to Charlotte, and I really am getting late summer/early fall vibes from this one, so I want to fit it in after Lyonesse and before October when I switch over to a meat, blood, and shadow diet of horror novels.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t, also, want to read those horror novels now: I was so happy to get a copy of The Fisherman by John Langan, and I’ve been slowly accumulating interest in The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay. I couldn’t finish Disappearance at Devil’s Rock but A Head Full of Ghosts is still the scariest book I’ve ever read. Also I paid for $15 fucking dollars for a pleasantly soft and worn mass market paperback copy of The Ceremonies by T.E.D. Klein. That’s not the book’s fault, and I’d do it again, but it was the first thing that came to mind after I remembered I want to read it too.

Silence by Shusaku Endo was one of the best books I read in 2018; I want to read two of Endo’s other works in particular: The Samurai and Deep River.

Listening to the audiobook of The Stand by Stephen King has replanted an interest in post-apocalyptic fiction in me. So I want to return to an indelible classic, Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, and also finally check out Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. My interest in the post-apocalypse comes and goes like an eclipse so I feel an especial drive take care of this one while the innate enthusiasm is there.

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich by Danilo Kiš. Found this recently in Coventry in a cover so bland and nondescript that it borders on deeply charismatic.

Peru by Gordon Lish. Don’t know much about Lish other than that he was Carver’s (controversial?) editor; but I’ve read only one Carver story (a fight, a baby) so that fact doesn’t move me one way or the other. I did read the opening paragraph of this one and loved it so I’m intrigued.

My Struggle Vol. 1, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. I’d seen the spine of this book many times – it’s a definite regular in second-hand shops, the same way you always saw copies of Mark of Kri in used game stores – before I dug any deeper, read anything about what, precisely, it is. And now that I have, it seems like something I’d be very interested in, but I’d have to pick this one up being demiready to commit to the whole six-book sequence.

Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. I group Lethem with Franzen, Eggers, and Chabon, whether right or wrong – and I suspect it’s wrong, although I also don’t entirely know what this grouping indicates about any of them, or who it’s bad or good for. I just want to read this book at some point.

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the Haymarket Books edition with excellent notes and commentary by Phil Gasper. I’ve been dipping into this in an ambient and rambling fashion, and want to do a minor extended study of it.

Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon by Spider Robinson. I’ve actually been reading this one for a bit now, dipping in when I need to be cheered up. There’s something intensely therapeutic, almost supernaturally serene and calming, about these stories. There’s definitely, eventually, going to be a full-length piece on Callahan’s from me because it deserves it.

A-and I still want to read Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima.

And The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki.

A Dark Night’s Passing by Naoya Shiga.

Buddha by Osamu Tezuka. Phoenix by same.

Berg by Ann Quin.

I was supposed to read Crime and Punishment last winter. And The Magic Mountain in the spring.

I absolutely have to reread The Tunnel this year. And read Omensetter’s Luck for the first time. I lent it to you, and you read it in that industrious focused way you had, that way I always admired. You read my copy of Anna Karenina in the same way.

Which I also want to read…

 

Image Credit: The Green Pearl by Jack Vance. Cover art by Thomas Canty.

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If you decide to buy any book on the strength of this post, please consider purchasing it from a local used or new bookstore, or from an independent bookstore’s online storefront.