Wednesday, May 19, 2021


Sound Advice

Except in winter, my windows are open in the Hour of the Wolf, and my ears are too.  My eyes are resolutely shut.  There is a game to be played, around how much detail one can glean from just a single sense over time.  How are the ears able to distinguish so much, when at bottom it's all just patterns of vibration in the air?

It's a mere 11 miles WSW of downtown Boston where I sleep, when I do sleep, so hardly the forest primeval.  But there is a war that ebbs and flows between the natural and the unnatural even here, in hard-core suburbia.

Sometimes things are truly still.  It is a stillness that neither penetrates nor soothes me.  I don't like it.  

If all else fails and in due time, the birds.  Leonard Cohen said They will sing, at the break of day.  "Start again!" I hear them say! 

But my birds begin to sing well before dawn.   Does one species start the cacophony rudely, by waking the others?

Only from high summer on through the fall, the crickets.  I applaud them for breaking the stillness throughout the night.

Most welcome of natural sounds is the first distant rumble of thunder in the southwest.  It's an unfailing prediction.  The storm never seems to circle away.   If you hear it coming, it will come, with a powerful wind and rain, and the rain will seem to wash away every other sound as well as all of the detritus on the street, with a vengeance.

With eyes open there is a tree that can be seen, but only from my home office.  It is in the shape of a majestic tuning fork.  A single trunk rises to about 30 feet, where it splits in two and rises another hundred in perfect parallel, and straight up all the way.  When the wind comes without the rain and thunder, I imagine it amplifying the howl.  The Tuning Fork Tree.

The prevailing wind in summer is from the southwest, which is propitious insofar as it pushes away from us the noise of the old Boston to Albany and Points West thoroughfare that lies less than 1000 feet to our north -- Rte 9.

Even a gentle breeze from the north conspires to carry towards us all manner of unnatural sounds, some pleasant, some not so.  The "bell" tolling each hour from a belfry not far from where the cops shot and killed that crazy kid brandishing a knife and threatening his landlady -- the proprietor of the candy store.  There is no bell of course; it's synthetic, and maybe the balm it gives my nerves is synthetic too.

Planes, trains and automobiles.  The occasional low-flying commercial jet, in the wide pattern that ends with wheels touching down on Logan Runway 4R, which is to say with the plane's compass showing a heading of 40 degs, only used when the wind is from the north or the northeast.  The repeating whine of the whistle of a freight train, also rare (it's not the Midwest), straight from central casting.   I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.  The exhaust back pressure of a semi, decelerating to a stop at Chestnut Hill.  And more often than I would like, at 2AM or 3AM, a couple of Ducatis, fearless of the cops, ripping through the gears in a race that I can hear all the way to the Brookline Reservoir.  Some night they'll say that there's nothin' left but blood where the bodies fell, that is nothin' left that you could sell.  Just junk all across the horizon -- a real Highwaymen's Farewell.

If there were a yogi lying in bed beside me, she would, no doubt, hear something more -- a low, constant, even physical hum.  The Vibration of All of Creation. The sound that sounds, according to the Zen masters, when there is no sound.

It's not that I am too crass to listen for it.  Rather, it has a built-in filter so that it will not reach, nor be tainted by, the unenlightened.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021


C. G.  Jung, Insofar as I Understand Him

He and Freud joint discoverers of the Unconscious.  But Jung did not think that It was just the source of repressed memories, and of repressed sexual urges that were the font of adult neurosis.  He thought that the Unconscious was collective, even across cultures, and that it was the seat of the soul.

Was Jung right?  Well, surely Freud was wrong.

The pendulum is always in swing.  Psychology was "pseudoscience," and real science would triumph over it, as it has over religion and the paranormal.

But now we are entering a new age in which "scientism" is in retreat, at least as a way to engage with the world in a meaningful way.

My own bias is always that "nothing is hidden," as another son of Vienna (Jung was not one) put it.  But I do believe in the existence of the synchronicities of Jung whether they spring from the Collective Unconscious or not, and, more and more, in "things that go bump in the night."  So in this sense I think that Jung wins the battle of ideas, and also that his vision is infinitely broader than Freud's.


L'Observateur Dans L'Abbatoir

That's me.  Holding a little notebook.  And a little pencil.  Of the same general nature as those held by factory directors in North Korea who are awaiting the arrival of the Dear Leader.  To give essential "field guidance."  Here, in a photograph in Paris Match, field guidance in the operation of the abbatoir.

Monday, May 10, 2021


"The things that I used to do," said Muddy Waters, "I just can't do no more."

Saturday, May 8, 2021

 Sean Carroll

Who teaches, that is, a "Great Course" on the Mystery of Time as elucidated by the latest developments in physics.

The man is a phenomenon.   Every sentence dense with information.  Every sentence tied tightly to the next.   And never a stumble; does he use a teleprompter?

In this series, one 31 minute lecture is devoted to quantum mechanics.  How can anyone explain this exotic and completely counterintuitive subject to an educated but non-technical audience in 31 minutes?

Just two insights on this subject that he shares with us.

The first, that people often say that Newtonian mechanics describes our everyday world perfectly, and quantum mechanics describes the sub-microscopic world perfectly, and the biggest problem in physics is that the two appear to be irreconcilable.  Carroll points out that quantum mechanics describes everything.  It's just that there is an overlap because, at the scale in which we live, both systems describe things accurately.

The second more subtle and utterly like mind-blowing man!  Within quantum mechanics, the "uncertainty principle" says that subatomic particles have no fixed location.   The probability of being in a certain location may be determined, based on a "wave function," but the actual location is not fixed until an observer observes the particle!

Carroll asks whether it would suffice for a robot to observe, in order that the location be fixed.   Or maybe an orangutan I might add?  Now we are getting very much into the philosophy of science and also into epistemology -- the study of what can be known.

On what I would call philosophical grounds, Carroll rejects the idea that the universe is so anthropocentric that a simple human glance can eliminate all other possibilities and fix the location of a thing in space.  What he says instead is that the observer him or herself is embedded in a wave function, and that (s)he exists in a multiverse such that (s)he might fix the location of the particle in one of any number of locations; which location can be predicted only probabilistically.

At which point I want to ask, "Yeah but what if this piece of pepperoni that we forgot to eat in our dorm at 2AM were like a whole universe unto itself??!!!"

(No Nobel Prize for that unfortunately.)


Core Remembrances

It lay forlorn for months and sometimes years in the white metal drawer under the kitchen sink.  It was there when I reached the age of reason.  It was there when my parents decided to decamp to a rental unit across the street 20 years later, their dreams of even modest security buried under an avalanche of late or unpaid bills -- gas, water, electricity, mortgage, remortgage.

Some paint was worn from the red wooden handle; forensic analysis would have shown the palm prints of my dad on it as well as of my mum, and also my own. The connection between handle and blade, it should be said, was a little wobbly.

It could be dangerous in the hands of a child.  Even then I had seen the World War II movies in which the last Japanese soldier on Saipan disembowels himself with his ceremonial sword (discreetly in those days it's true), his rathole surrounded by GIs with flame throwers and grenades.  The apple corer would have done just as well, and perhaps some lurid Japanese blood would have filled in the spots where the paint had chafed off.

The curve of the blade was so tight that it was impossible for my dad to sharpen it with his carpenter's whetstone.  A file was needed.  Perhaps there was one.

The tricky part was the very first part -- driving the blade through the apple from stem to bottom in such a way that only the unpalatable core would be detached after the blade was twisted to make a circle.  This was usually an aspiration; some trimming would be needed after the apple had been quartered.

On the outside of the blade a parer.  On one of her good days, which came fewer and fewer, mum might have peeled a perfect, continuous curlicue of skin from the apple.  The curlicue of skin would find its way not into a garbage disposal, but into a garbage pail which a lowly workman would dump into a special-purpose truck with all of the neighborhood's other vegetable scraps and offal.  It would be driven not very far, and a pig being fattened for slaughter would have the curlicue as part of his lunch.

The apple pieces of course dusted with sugar and salt and flour and cinnamon and nutmeg, later to bubble under a crust that was one of the best of my mum's kitchen creations.

But then, after a period of years, the balance shifted, as it will.  "How could I even think about baking a pie, with the heavy burden that I bear?"  This in transition.  After that she indeed never again thought about baking a pie.

And so the corer lay forlorn entirely until it was discarded, along with nearly everything else.

Friday, May 7, 2021


A Beautiful Language

Americans think that Russian is "primitive," indeed that Russians are primitive, as some of them are.

But the language is not primitive.   We only think that because native speakers of Russian whose English is not very good carry into their English grammatical idiosyncrasies of the native tongue, most notably the complete absence of articles as well as a word order that seems eccentric to us simply because it is so different from our own.

Rather than primitive, Russian might be said to be elegant and economical insofar as it does without superfluous things and only says what is necessary.

No one writes letters anymore.  But back when we all did, Russians did not close a letter to a dear one with "Yours" or "Sincerely" or even "Love."   They would close it with «Целую.»   "Tse-loo-yoo."  "I kiss."  But the "I" is not a separate word; it is embedded in the first-person-singular verb form.  And even the "you" is understood!  Where English would have three words, Russian gets by quite well with one.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021


Taking Liberties

Leon Wieseltier has forgiven himself, it seems.

The long-time literary editor of The New Republic, banished a few years ago for admitted sexual improprieties, licked his wounds for a while and came back at us with a rather stunning new journal of "culture and politics" carrying that name.

Volume 1, No. 3, which was just released, includes very disparate pieces, all of them written beautifully, by people of whom I had not heard, except for Leon himself, who closes out the 344-page issue with an argument why America must continue to assert itself in the world.  

Also, everything you need to know about Vladimir Putin's authoritarian re-making of the Russian state, courtesy of "opposition politician" Vladimir Kara-Murza.  Trenchant criticism of a new genre -- "sanctimony literature," from a young Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Harvard by the name of Becca Rothfeld.  A remarkably revelatory essay by University of Chicago philosophy professor Agnes Callard whose title speaks, more or less, for itself -- "Romance Without Love, Love Without Romance."  Film critic David Thomson's fantasy of creating a long movie reel in which film stars, present and past, are matched or mis-matched via the wonders of computer programming in the moments leading up to, but under no circumstances including, a first kiss --  a first kiss of the most meaningful kind, the kind that may not exist anymore.  For example, Louise Brooks in the arms of George Clooney; who would not want to see that?

Leon in an extended interview a while back tried to make the case that it need not mark him as a throwback that the physical form of each issue of Liberties is an essential part of the project.  It is paper bound in paper, it is true, but each of the highest quality.  The cover, at least of this latest, is a soothing light blue/purple in hue.  The inside front cover, which, like the back, serves as a perfect bookmark, quotes Maimonides -- "Accept the truth from whoever utters it."  And the logo, which appears often, is a very contemporary-looking series of swirls cribbed from a presumably more representational 15th century Botticelli illustration that the artist executed for Divine Comedy.  

It's a volume, in other words, that you might lend to a friend, but one that you would only give for good to a very good friend.

Should we regret nevertheless that Leon has forgiven himself to such an extent that he has not remained in the shadows permanently?  What would his old friends Barbra Streisand, Twyla Tharp, Shirley MacLaine, Lionel Trilling, Leonard Cohen and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have to say about this?  Would they forgive him as well?  Or would they prefer that he have gathered up his money and repaired to the Patagonian Plantation that I took pains to describe on November 6, 2018?

Monday, May 3, 2021


The Power of Place

Philip Roth is much in the news, with his authorized biography having been yanked by the publisher not because Roth was a bad man, but because his biographer is said to be a bad man.  Do you get it?  I don't.

After having read "Human Stain," I have been reading "American Pastoral," which some consider his best.  The protagonist is "Swede" Levov.  (A Jew carries that nickname because of his athletic prowess.)  

Swede is a man who knows how to sacrifice.  To make his father happy, for example, he takes over the family business.  The family business is Newark Maid, manufacturer of fine gloves.  For gloves to be "fine," every step in the process must be according to plan, and Roth walks us through all of these steps.   It must have taken intense research for him to have learned about them.

It did not take intense research for Roth to be able to describe all the ins and outs of Newark, both before and after the riots of 1968 permanently burned out the core of the city, because he lived it.  He grew up in the Jewish section of Newark, and Newark can be said to be a principal character of the book.  In a critical scene, he meets his fugitive daughter Merry, who has ruined his life, hard by an old aqueduct/railroad trestle in the Ironbound Section of Newark.

I couldn't help wondering, then, whether Roth, born in 1933 and tagged always with misogyny, ever was exposed to Suzanne Vega's beautiful feminist anthem set in the very same neighborhood:

Fancy poultry parts sold here.

Breasts and thighs and hearts.

Backs are cheap, and 

Wings are Nearly Free.

I think he would totally get it.  And she him.