R A L P HVolume Nineteen
The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities
Early Fall, 2003
(University Press of Mississippi)They were called "juke joints" or "jook joints." They were the seedy places along the back roads that sold beer and set-ups --- in states with regressive liquor laws you could not buy booze over the counter so you brought your own, in a rumpled paper bag. The set-up was usually a cup, three ice cubes, and a bottle of Coca-Cola or Seven-Up.
The booths had been slashed, the chairs were rickety, the pool table had gouges and cigarette burns in the felt, and the table was canted so that you had to make a scientific calculation to take the angle of the dangle into account.
The bathroom smelled of piss, vomit, and those little white candies that they dropped in the urinals along with the butts. The floors were trashy with stuff you didn't really want to examine too closely.
The regulars were a lewd lot. There was usually a brawl that was going to take place, or had just taken place, or was going on upon your arrival. Half the ceiling lights were burnt out, dead flies hung months old from ribbons of flypaper; moths circled the few lights that survived. The tables were scarred from a hundred burning butts, the juke box had three-
year- old 45s that were so scratchy that the music could barely be heard above the hiss and poppings. The beer signs were the only lively, up-to-date accoutrements in the place.
Beer was a dime and set-ups were a quarter. The barkeep didn't care how old you were as long as you could reach the money up onto the bar.
There were always hand-lettered signs on the wall. In the men's room, it was "We Aim To Please You Aim Too Please." Behind the bar it was something about not being able to get a beer in the bank, so why would you expect credit here. Another reads
Attention Please We Appreciate Your Business No Pot (double lines under the "o") Smoking OR Sale (double lines under the "a") in Here. Lucille Turner Thank You
The notion of pot is about the only change we can recognize in this gorgeous volume of photographs. It's oversized and sports almost sixty shots taken at Juke Joints in the delta area of Mississippi. Opening this was not unlike Proust's madeline. I was back there again, and as I turned the pages, I could smell the stale beer and piss, I could hear the Rock-Ola thrumming the wooden floor, I could feel the cigarette smoke burning my eyes, I could taste the ancient pickled pig's feet resting pinkly in the five-gallon jar on the counter, next to the punch-out board where for 25¢ you would stick in a metal spike, pull out a tiny piece of evanescent paper from underneath and learn that you had lost your chance to win a thousand dollars (but you got another free "you lose" punch).
Juke Joint made me pine for those hours that you and I spent in such places when we were young and rutting --- places where the music was off-key (often the 45s were not centered, Merle Travis went "wow-wow-wow") and the smoke was so thick you didn't even need to light up.
The jook joint ambiance was the best in the world for those of us who were fourteen or sixteen or eighteen, just getting out of the house, out for a night on the town, all the menace and thirst and lust running us so our glands would be popping, overflowing with the juices that were just beginning to control our days, surge through our bodies now filled with needs and wants and fantasies and angers all barely formulated, so weird and new and strange that we would do anything: get blind drunk on Seven-and-
Seven, start a fight with some guy just because he looked funny at us, barf our guts out in the bathroom, pass out on the floor, face not far from that tacky residue under the urinals, where nothing and no one aimed to please.--- S. W. Wentworth
Donada Peters, reader
(Books on Tape)Being an English Major, I had always heard tell of this one, but missed the class in 19th Century English novels (Dr. Botticelli was out one semester with phlebitis) and by the next year it was too late and I never thought I'd get around to it --- certainly not all two volumes in the Folio Society edition. But then suddenly a couple of weeks ago Wuthering Heights appeared improbably on the doorstep: eight tapes, each 1-1/2 hour, as read by Donada Peters.
Since the daily work commute is two hours, it works perfectly but --- truth be told --- sometimes I find myself so gripped by the story that I slow down, so as to not miss a word. Such as when Catherine the First goes quite mad, pulling feathers out of her pillows, identifying where each came from, or, looking in the mirror, becomes frightened to death at the visage she sees there so that dear Nelly Dean must hang her shawl over it.
And then in comes that grumpy Heathcliff, forcing Nelly to bring him to meet with Catherine and, in their short meeting, he drives her further mad. She blames him for killing her --- she tells him she will be glad to be in the grave for she knows it will kill part of him too:
Heathcliff had knelt on one knee to embrace her; he attempted to rise, but she seized his hair, and kept him down.
"I wish I could hold you," she continued bitterly, "till we were both dead! I shouldn't care what you suffered. I care nothing for your sufferings. Why shouldn't you suffer? I do! Will you forget me? Will you be happy when I am in the earth? Will you say twenty years hence, 'That's the grave of Catherine Earnshaw. I loved her long ago, and was wretched to lose her; but it is past. I've loved many others since: my children are dearer to me than she was; and at death, I shall not rejoice that I am going to her: I shall be sorry that I must leave them!' Will you say so, Heathcliff?"
"Don't torture me till I am as mad as yourself," cried he, wrenching his head free, and grinding his teeth."
The elegant dying Cathy and the dark Heathcliff, and all the while Nelly Dean is right in the middle, eavesdropping so she can narrate the whole scene to Lockwood fifteen years later. Lockwood, who opens the can of worms, the stranger in town who creates the tableau vivant, the picture of misery that he sees first-hand in dark Wuthering Heights where we meet the brooding Heathcliff --- the name so perfect, the gypsy fondling amidst those dark, barren cliffs. And the name "Wuthering Heights" which the Yorkshire accent comes out not unlike "withering."
And it is withering, all souls there in the house dying on the vine of hate, churlishness and jealousy, except for dear Nelly floating over all of it, the faithful retainer, who retains all the stories, these ghoulish stories --- Earnshaw drinking himself to death, Heathcliff running off with Isabella, Catherine's mad death, Isabella jeering "you killed her!" and brother Edgar catching, too, the rages that bedevil this whole nutty bunch, and finally Catherine II trapped set up by Heathcliff's dying son, there on the blowsy, windy, mad-making house atop the purple moors.
Emily Brontë --- dead at age 30! --- somehow, 100 years before the concept came into being, had known enough to sew together in this novel what would be called a dysfunctional family --- ruled as they are, as all such families are --- by a violence of words and passion and actions, alternating with the equal violence of broody silences, all fomented by what is now known in psychological circles as "enmeshment." Never to be free of each other, generation after generation, no matter how much they loathe, scorn, hate (and love) each other.
Thus, more than a century-
and-a-half ago our author captured the secret of family systems where brother and sister and father and mother and son and daughter and even the faithful retainers are so entangled with each other that, like cats tied at the tail, they have to maul each other to death, destroying each other with a passion so powerful that could never be resisted, nor sated. The only difference between 1845 and now being that in those days they could only treat with the shadow of a passion, not the passion itself. § § §
I have to confess to you I am no more than halfway through this one. I'll be starting in on tape #5 tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. I will be done at 10 or so. Don't try to interrupt me.
Well, you can try, but it won't work, for I'll be far away, me and my car dawdling along the lonely moors of Yorkshire, with the cold and the wind and the darkness of a family poisoned by this gypsy-dark boy, that bleak cliff at the edge of the heath. You'll find me gone for an hour and a half (or possibly it might be longer, however long Ms. Brontë wants to keep me) so don't try to wave me down or call me on the cell-phone because I won't respond being as enmeshed as I am (as they are) in this nuthouse, as they are enmeshed with each other on the very heights that wither the soul, that shrivel the heart, that kill the innocent and the beautiful alike, kill them with love.
By-the-bye, Donada Peters reads all the parts of this book like a dream, being able to invoke the harsh voice and harsh words of that scoundrel Heathcliff, the sweet seductive (later acidly scolding) Catherine, the stolid peasant intonations of dear, rocklike Nelly, the Yorkshire accents of the pious boor Joseph, the drunken cursing scowling of Hindley, the futile battle of the younger Cathy to keep from being imprisoned. It's all perfectly contained in this one from Books on Tape. I guarantee that if you try it you'll never forget --- nor forgive, alas --- that foundling gypsy who was able to poison them all for love.--- L. W. Milam[LETTER]RALPH:
I want to purchase Sailing Alone Around the World. Can you tell me where to get it? Thanks.
This message is for the use of the intended recipient only. It is from a law firm and may contain information that is privileged and confidential. If you are not the intended recipient any disclosure, copying, future distribution, or use of this communication is prohibited. If you have received this communication in error, please advise us by return e-mail, or if you have received this communication by fax advise us by telephone and delete/destroy the document.--- Dorothy Bowles
DB@Capdale.comDear Ms. Bowles:
Your recent e-mail to us says it comes "from a law firm and may contain information that is privileged and confidential." Further, if it turns out that we are not "the intended recipient," that "any disclosure, copying, future distribution, or use of this communication is prohibited." Finally, if we did receive it in error, we are told that we must ring you up and at the same time, "delete/destroy the document." Whew.
Since we are but a lowly book review magazine and not necessarily in the book-buying referral service, we have no idea in the world if we are the intended recipient of your letter. In addition --- from what we have heard of modern computers --- God alone knows if we can "delete/destroy" the message you sent us.
We've been led to understand that nothing can be erased from these miserable machines. Even when you think your words have been sent off to cyber-heaven, old messages can hide there in the smoky backrooms of the memory bank, lollygagging around in the bowels to, some day, jump out and scare you to death. Certain peoples involved in nefarious activities have learned this to their considerable dismay.
Thus, even if we hit the delete button, your letter may still be noodling around in our computer's hyperspace, a veritable Frankenstein to rise up and haunt us sometime in the misty future.
Having said all that, we've decided to take the high road. We are thus prepared to swear, avow, and affirm that we are not now nor have been a book referral business, but, because of our passionate devotion to the cause of literature and most especially because of our affection for the book by the good Captain Joshua Slocum --- we take our misgivings in hand and inform you that despite any and all possible consequences, and to the best of our knowledge, there is a book service that we have used many times in the past, a confederation, as it were, of small book stores, just the kind of book stores that we (and possibly you) might want to support --- bookstores that survive to counterbalance those flashy chains where the clerks can't tell a Josh Slocum from a Stephen King (and neither from Oprah); and who certainly could never differentiate between Sailing Alone Around the World and Chicken Soup for the Brain-Dead.
It's called the Advanced Book Exchange, or ABE, and can be found at
We would like to affirm our sincere hope that by sharing this information with you we are not being gratuitously felonious, although, given our immense affection for books, especially old and graceful ones like Sailing Alone Around the World, we would gladly be willing to serve a limited time in the pokey if it would further the cause of bibliophilia in these our troubled times.--- Lolita Lark, EditorDear Lolita (is that your real name?):
Thank you very much for your very entertaining reply to my e-mail. I love it! People in my law firm keep telling me to C R E A T E my own fax cover sheet, instead of using the firm's, for personal faxes. And I keep forgetting to do it. But today after receiving your message, I know that I have to do it. And so I have. The next time I fax you anything, if there is a next time, it will be on a personal sheet. Again, thank you for making me laugh. And thank you for the info about the book.
This message is for the use of the intended recipient only. It is from a law firm and may contain information that is privileged and confidential. If you are not the intended recipient any disclosure, copying, future distribution, or use of this communication is prohibited. If you have received this communication in error, please advise us by return e-mail, or if you have received this communication by fax advise us by telephone and delete/destroy the document.--- Dorothy Bowles
Husbands Eaten by Ferocious TigersWipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
T. S. EliotI started my narrative of the city with a story about my encounter with a particular kind of public in a globalized Calcutta: the imaged public of the 1997 book fair, the remaking of the regime's sociocultural identity and material basis in the crucible of liberalization. I preface this closing chapter with one of my many negotiations of the pablik.One fieldwork afternoon, underneath a blazing sun, I roamed the platforms of Dhakuria station in South Calcutta, searching for commuters. As the crowds swelled, I weaved my way carefully, taking on the performative identity that marked my ethnographies: deliberately shabby clothes, ragged slippers, sweaty hair pulled tightly back, a cloth bag, no note-taking, just genuine interest. I squatted on my haunches, avoiding the filthy platform, and started to talk to a commuter from a village deep in the southern reaches of the delta.We were soon loudly interrupted by a middle-
aged man, another commuter, but one whom I fixed in my mind as a middle-class clerk. I emphasize this "fixing" because it clearly shaped how I responded, with great hostility, to his presence. "Why are you asking the 'public' questions?" he shouted at me. The question was posed in Bengali, and he pronounced public as pablik. I retorted that it was none of his business: "What makes you the moral keeper of the public?"
It had been a long day and I went on to tell him that if these women were lying dead on the platform, he would most likely simply step over them and continue with his journey. Why the sudden interest? Our shouting match turned into quite a public spectacle until my initial research subject intervened: "Babu," she said, turning to him, "why are you bothering yourself with women's issues? We are talking about women's topics. They will only embarrass you, and besides they are not really of any importance, are they?" Flustered, my middle-
class clerk turned away, and the predominantly male crowd that had gathered around us lost interest as well.
And so I began to pose my litany of questions: about her village, about her work in Calcutta, about her family. To each she replied with a continuing narrative of widowhood. In fact, she elaborately detailed her husband's moment of death at the hands of a ferocious man-eating tiger that restlessly roamed the boundaries of their village.
I had heard similar stories from other commuter women, and once again I was puzzled by this description of primeval forests and prowling tigers. I pondered the gravity of villages teeming with widows whose husbands had thus lost their lives: what a dangerous place the Sunderbans must be.
But amidst the talk of death and dying I noticed that she wore all the traditional symbols of a married Hindu woman: the sindur, the bangles. Why did her narrative of Hindu widowhood not match up with her social emblems? She was, in Shah's imaginary, marked territory. As I turned to ask her this, her train rolled in. Through the push of the crowds, she shouted to me:
"I have to get home and cook for my husband and children."
"Oh, you remarried!" I proclaimed, relieved at the simple explanation. She laughed, and while boarding the train, said:
No memsahib, I have to cook for my only husband, the one who gets eaten every day by a man-eating tiger while I wait at this station, parched and dusty, while I lose my breath on the trains, and walk through the muddy fields. He dies every day as I traverse this space. It is a terrible death for the tiger is always so hungry.
Since then, on hot afternoons in breathless South Calcutta stations, I often allow myself to mistake the frenzy of the local trains and the cacophony of its public for the roar of a majestic Bengal tiger --- not one that is on display as the last stalwart of an endangered species in zoos around the world, but instead one that restlessly roams the imaginary of an unnamed woman.--- From City Requiem, Calcutta
Gender and the Politics of Poverty
©2003, University of Minnesota Press
[POEM]AmblyopiaSoon you'll be reading to me
Do my banking for me
(Slipping checks past me?)
You'll be my look-out at the beach
Tell me who is passing:
The girls in bikinis,
The boys in muscles,
The old who can still separate dark from light,
And above all, the sun expiring
A turquoise dot at the very edge
Of seeing (that I can no longer see).
You'll drive my car
And not only be my vision
But ears and heart and love.
The visions I once had
When driving at night
(Will you be driving me mad?)
The great redwoods arching overhead
Will pass without my permission.
Don't grieve for me
Don't say "brave;"
Brave only comes to those who have a choice.
Besides they say those without eyes
Can hear every sound.
You'll never escape from me.
You'll read to me eight hours a day
The ones I could never see before
With mine own naked eyes:
The Æneid, Dickens, Tolstoi,
The Iliad (Blind Homer!)
The Canterbury Tales, Dante
Paradise Found and Lost (Blind Milton!)
You'll lead me by the hand to bed
The hearth of my cooling days;
You'll speak to me of the darkening hours,
Ask if my soul is warm enough,
If this night is black enough.
The two of us can contemplate
The two dark coals of the sun.--- Reneé Gisell
A Winter Journey in
Poetry, Image, and Song
John Harbison, Susan Youens
(University of Wisconsin Press)The masters were Wolf, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss, Schumann, and Mahler. It takes some doing to fall in love with them and what was called "the Art Song." The idiom reeks of 19th Century German romanticism --- moiling on about failed love, woe, and loneliness. Once you get into them, however they can become as addictive as Fritos or a good, rich, thick, butter-
fat-full Butter- Brickle ice-cream yum. Especially the jewels in the diadem, Schubert's "Schöne Müllerin" and "Winterreise."
The two dozen poems of Wilhelm Müller that Schubert selected for "Winterreise" tell of a lonely lad wandering about, musing on his lost love, visiting the graveyard, revisiting the places of his summertime love, thinking --- naturally --- on death. The lyrics are as corny as can be. And the translations given in this book are truly faithful to the Grand Decadent style of 19th Century verse, viz.,
How different was my reception when I arrived, you fickle town!...the robust linden trees were bursting with blooms.
Oh tears, are you so tepid that you stiffen with ice like the chilled morning dew.
And then, the wurst of the wurst, Das Wirsthaus (The Inn):
My path has led me to a graveyard. Here I shall go in. The green wreaths seem to invite weary travelers to enter, as if into a cool inn. Are all the rooms in this house filled? I am exhausted and near collapse, mortally wounded. Oh cruel inn, are you turning me away? Then we must trudge on, my faithful walkingstaff and I.
§ § §
The University of Wisconsin Press's rendering of "Winterreise" consists of a CD --- Paul Rowe, baritone, and Martha Fischer, piano --- along with an oversized volume. On each page, we find one or two lines from the songs, with translation on the left and, to the right, a series of black-and-
white photographs. Many show a wan young man sprinkled with snow and misery, dressed in black coat and muffler, solemn of face, wambling about through icy fields, back roads, graveyards, fallen tree-trunks. He is accompanied at times by crows, dogs and many a hot tear.
Some of the shots show his head framed against the desolate branches; in others he's holding a hanky to his eyes. He looks not unlike a student from Heidelberg University undergoing a hectic and possibly life-threatening hangover.
Every now and again there is juxtaposed with these a photograph of a young lady with hair-braid and houndstooth jacket. At times she is vampirishly smiling at us; at others she looks to be suffering from her own vicious hangover. Ah, the misery of young love!
For all their artiness, one doesn't get the feeling that these photographs add to our affection for Schubert or "Winterreise" or the whole moist world of 19th Century passion. When Müller's verse mentions crows, we get pictures of black birds framed against bare tree limbs. One song tells of the post-man's horn, so we get a dutiful portrait of an old brass horn. There is mention of a door, so there appears an old decorative door-knob. It puts us in mind of books designed for the kindergarten set --- see Mary cry, see Bob run.
What A Winter Journey is not able to capture is the mystery of Schubert. This was a man who could take exquisitely stupid poems and put exquisite music to them, music that works because it makes us forget all this acne-filled poetasting. (Bach was able to perform the same magic: the words to Bach's Passions and many of his cantatas are either very silly or overly doughty, but the music rises well above that.)
It takes a certain suspension of disbelief to get through this balderdash. To devote any time at all to Müller's verse --- much less an entire volume --- is a grave mistake. Performers know this well. I have yet to hear someone sing these songs in English without breaking down or breaking up. In German it's just bad poetry; in English it's a howl.
For the CD that accompanies this volume the editors enlisted one Paul Rowe to sing these songs. I've never heard him perform before and I hope to never again. I am crazy about "Winterreise," but I had to take this one off the CD player after Wasserflut, "The Flood." It was up to my knees. In keeping with the mood of Müller's musings, Rowe decided to go pale, thin and wan; he ends up sounding like one in the throes of a pneumothorax.
If one wants to hear the Winterreise with its necessary vigor albeit exquisitely restrained tragedy, one must seek out the bellwether: the cycle as performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, accompanied by Gerald Moore. It's available on EMI. Fischer-Dieskau here manages to con us into forgetting the lyrics, makes us concentrate on the music. Moore, as experienced an accompanist as there ever was --- he once wrote a very funny book about just such a job --- is quick, precise, and at the height of his powers in the 1962 recording.
Those who have any interest in Schubert or this form should pay especial attention to the final lyric in Winterreise. It is certainly one of the most mournful that Schubert penned --- one that crowns this cycle and, indeed, crowns Schubert's musical life. The poet rendered it as,
Drüben hinterm Dorfe
Steht ein Leiermann
Und mit starren Fingern
Dreht er was er kann.
Barfuß auf dem Eise
Wankt er hin und her
Und sein kleiner Teller
Bleibt ihm immer leer.
Keiner mag ihn hìren,
Keiner sieht ihn an,
Und die Hunde knurren
Um den alten Mann.
Und er läßt es gehen,
Alles wie es will,
Dreht, und seine Leier
Steht ihm nimmer still.
Soll ich mit dir geh'n?
Willst zu meinen Liedern
Deine Leier dreh'n?
The translation rendered by Louise Urban in the University version is anemic and, at times, more awkward than it should be, so I pulled another off the internet, done by scholar Celia Sgroi:
Over there beyond the village
Stands an organ-grinder,
And with numb fingers
He plays as best he can.
Barefoot on the ice,
He totters here and there,
And his little plate
Is always empty.
No one listens to him,
No one notices him,
And the dogs growl
Around the old man.
And he just lets it happen,
As it will,
Plays, and his hurdy-gurdy
Is never still.
Strange old man,
Shall I go with you?
Will you play your organ
To my songs?
Schubert died at the age of 32 of syphilis. As Susan Youens relates here, syphilis was the AIDs of the time: easily spread, no cure, leading one to an acutely painful death. Schubert knew as early as 1823 that he had contracted the disease, and knew that he would die of it soon enough, and, in the process, probably go mad. Thus, we would guess, the bleak nature of his later works.
Some have seen "Der Leiermann" as a portrait of Schubert himself: the isolated music-maker, ignored by the world, surviving the bitter cold of his last days with only the "snarling" critics circling about him. But they are wrong. The vision of the organ-grinder has here been turned on its head. The hurdy-gurdy is the stuff of fairs and joyful street life. Here it has been transformed into the macabre. The piano accompanist of the song repeats and repeats a series of notes not out of the merry street fair but sounding more like the tolling of the church bell.
This street musician is the messenger of death, going 'round and 'round, surrounded by the dogs of hell. His plate is empty --- it's always empty --- and, in his rounds, he has all the time in the world to wait for the young man. "Willst zu meinen Liedern?" --- will you play my lieder, asks the young but dying Schubert.
There is here a joining: the mournful sufferer-
in-life, soon to be united with the angel of death --- the old man who "lets it happen as it will" as he grinds out life's dying message that can never be still. Together the two of them will be setting forth; leaving the cold world behind, bound for the place where loneliness and suffering no longer exist.--- Lolita Lark[PARADOX-OF-THE-MONTH]
"Yo. I'm astounded by people who take 18 years to write something. That's how long it took that guy to write Madame Bovary. And was that even on the best-seller list? No. It was a lousy book, and it made a lousy movie."--- Sylvester Stallone as quoted by
Sara Peretsky in Booklist, 1 May 2003
Sleeping with the Dictionary
K was burn at the bend of the ear in the mouth of Remember. She was the fecund child burn in her famish. She came into the word with a putty smoother, a handsewn farther, and a yodeler cistern. They were all to gather in a rosy horse on a piety sweet in Alligator Panorama... When her smoother and farther wrought her chrome from the hose spittle, her cistern fought the piddle ably was a girly heeded bawl. A bawl that dank silk, booed, burgled, rabbled, fried, and tweed in wipers...I picked this one up to flip though it and became enraptured (and entrapped) by it. "Burn at the bend of the ear in the mouth of Remember..." I say aloud. "Born at the end of the year in the month of December," I translate --- but I am thinking I prefer it in the original. "Bend of the ear," I say. "That could mean something," I think.
"When her smoother and farther wrought her chrome from the hose spittle," I read out loud. "When her mother and father brought her home from the hospital..." I translate. But I still prefer the original. "Smoother and farther..." I think. Perhaps mother was a "smoother." Or a smother. And perhaps her father was "farther" away. "Yaws I lark that jest find," I begin thinking.
And so Ms. Mullen entraps us in her words because this is what we've been doing with words all our lives, children twisting and stretching the vocabulary into puns; Dylan Thomas and his "craft and sullen art;" William Empson and his Seven Ambiguities; Hamlet's "Too much i' the sun;" Lewis Carroll and the gyres and gimbels; Gertrude Stein, Mencken and Perelman and Benchley bending clichés around; "Puns and Anagrams" in the august New York Times Magazine. The play of words, the words for play.
Ms. Mullen catches the reader in her great game, makes us children again, so that latter in the dray, I thanking O'Reilly muss I go down stares, into the ketchup to stert our donor? Whale have T Boone Pickins and grain salutes, I wont a battle of whine, maybe sum mere loot, maybe shiny blank --- with desert able bye. These world gam place catchers mitts your mine, won't foggin' lave you a lone.--- A. W. Allworthy
REF: Your review of Star in the East: Krishnamurti --- The Invention of a Messiah
This is misinformed but at the same time it is forgiven.
For seventy years that super energy --- no --- that immense energy, immense intelligence, has been using this body.
I don't think people realize what tremendous energy and intelligence went through this body...
You won't find another body like this, or that supreme intelligence operating in a body for many hundred years.
You won't see it again.
When he goes, it goes.--- firstname.lastname@example.orgThe review in question is located at
Pedaling Like Crazy after
Life Goes Downhill
(Crown)Suzy Parker lives with her husband Ralph in North Oakland, California. They spent many years hiking, rock climbing, and biking (they met during an extended bike trip through Baja). A freak bicycle accident in Berkeley in 1994 caused Ralph to fall and break his spine at the high C-4 vertebra, which renders him a complete quadriplegic (no use of legs, feet, torso, bowel, bladder, arms, or hands). Tumbling After is Suzy's story of what happened to her, and to him, over the succeeding years.
Ralph was a scientist by trade --- a nuclear physicist --- a meticulous man who did the shopping, cooked the meals, and kept the house in apple-pie order. After the accident, he is a man in a wheelchair, who uses a mouth-stick to perform a variety of activities, including use of the computer. He can talk and sing and shout and cry and think and sleep --- but little else.
This is a pretty hum-drum review and I am going to stop it right now because this Tumbling After is a goddamn gem and I don't care if you are interested in quadriplegics or chance accidents out of the blue or disability rights or the secret lessons the body has to teach us --- forget your prejudices or even your interests and get this one and settle in with it and shut up.
Because Susan Parker writes like an old master, and she has a way with words that is as rich and funny and sad and lonely and mad as one could ask. She is a stylist who manages to strike the perfect balance between despair and wonder, the curse of fate and hilarity, stoicism and genuine soul-cracking honesty...
...So much so that when I got done (I did it in one day, not because I had to but because I wanted to) I felt like I should call her up just to be sure that everything was still OK with Ralph and Mrs. Scott the plump lady from down the street and Harka from Nepal who gets mugged on the streets of Oakland and goes into a funk for six months and last but not least Jerry the Personal Care Attendant, the black man with ghastly eating habits (cheeseburgers, Tasty Cakes, candy bars, popcorn), a funny man with a mysterious past who ends up --- have mercy! --- sleeping with Suzy.
They all came so alive for me that I wanted to check to see that what she calls her "makeshift family" is still going on, that she is still snuggling with Jerry, that she still cares for Ralph: picking him up after he falls and flossing his teeth and watching for bedsores and drying his eyes when he cries and taking him out from time to time and fighting with people who set them up with a party that's up ten stairs with no elevators and then when they are back home telling him about the fact that she is sleeping with Jerry and apologizing.
This is a woman who didn't volunteer for the job (she just wanted to go rock-climbing) but one day found herself with someone who couldn't get it up anymore, hell, who couldn't get in or out of bed or even turn over by himself, much less get up to go to the bathroom alone. This is her new job and these are the new people who came along with the new job, people who live there in the low-rent district of North Oakland who become part of her new family, what the therapists would call "her support group."
§ § §
There are diversions. Four or five times, Suzy alone or Suzy with Ralph in his chair go off to therapists to find out why she is so depressed. The first gives her Prozac which makes her break out in hives but also makes it possible for her to survive without wanting to dump it all so she ignores the hives. Then she goes to another therapist who asks her about her new part-time job working in an indoor climbing gym. The therapist wants to know if she is attracted to the men there:
"Do they know you want them?"
"Do I want them? No, I don't want them. I'm into big, bad, older black men. Haven't you been listening to me?"
§ § §
Tumbling After is crawling with quotable lines, lines like:
- On people looking at Ralph. I knew what they were thinking. They were thinking, if it were I, I'd shoot myself. But they didn't know that was impossible. Shooting Ralph was my responsibility, because Ralph couldn't lift a gun to his head. I'd have to do it.
- On a possible intruder in their house. I stood frozen in the dining room. Ralph, of course, was permanently frozen.
- On her new friends in the ghetto. Collectively, the ages of my new girlfriends totaled approximately 2,000 years. They all appeared 150 years older than I, but that didn't matter to them. I was the one with the car and some spare change.
- To the supervisor at the DMV who says her husband has to file papers on his own for a disabled license plate. "But he can't write... he can't move his legs, he can't move his hands, he can't even take a shit on his own."
- On charity being offered to her. I didn't mind accepting charity once in a while. In fact, I wouldn't mind accepting a lot of charity: a few free movie tickets; someone else to drive the van and fight for a parking spot; enough money to redo the bathroom, buy an electric door, pay off the credit-card bills; a new house with wider door frames and no steps; a van that was reliable and had a radio; extra cash to buy a plane ticket and leave Ralph at home with Harka and Jerry.
Great grief, great tragedy, demands great writing. Many who try collapse into bathos --- where drippy sentiment, ill-kempt sentiment, rules. Or, worse, they try to convey the reality of it in a style that is icy, dispossessed, well separated from the heart. There are very few who have learned to merge the agony and the comedy and the woe of it. Suzy Parker has figured out how to do it. Rather than reading my words about it, you should be reading it.--- L. W. Milam
Of the World
(Norton)You and I travel around and about to look at cathedrals and castles and eat strange foods and speak (or try to speak) strange languages. Thomas Pakenham travels around the world to look at funny trees.
His journeys have taken him to Australia, South Africa, Washington State, Kekova, Turkey, Napier, New Zealand, and the California Desert. He carries a camera, makes gorgeous photographs, and has stories about each of his arbolic friends.
For instance, the Baobs of Derby, Australia can exceed eighty feet in girth, and may be over a thousand years old. One was used as a jail for Aboriginals who had been accused of stealing cattle. This was possible because the trunk was commodious, mostly empty, and round and fat.
A page of the book is given over to bonsai. Seems that these trees, the Tiny Tims of the hardwood set, demand as much loving care as Elizabeth Taylor, with the same result. You have to clip off the older roots and manicure the trunk, because
Bonsai experts believe that a bonsai might become virtually immortal --- or at any rate live for thousands of years --- if properly disciplined.
A popular new magazine, Bonsai Discipline, opines that these minuscule trees should be beaten daily along the base of the trunk with tiny whips made of pussy willow. This will keep them in line.
The lumpiest trees are the camphor trees --- Cinnamomum camphora --- and the Baobab --- Adansonia rubrostipa. The latter grow with the most fecundity in Madagascar. There are six varieties, "taking the form of demons, skulls, bottles, and teapots." Bottles are the most common and, says the author,
it's quite an experience to see a family of 40-feet-high bottles, the colour of pink elephants, advancing silently towards you through the long grass.
Aficionados of The Little Prince will recall the duties on his planet involved caring for a fox, cleaning a volcano, and watering a Baobab. It's understandable why Saint-Exupéry chose that tree: next to the Boojum of Baja California, it's as weird looking as you could want. The author tells us that the "Avenue of the Baobabs" at Morondava is a sight for sore eyes:
The trunks rise like tapering metal tubes; the branches crown the trunks like propellers.
When he finally got a photograph of the dozen or so Baobabs, he asked himself,
Was it for this that I have queued in the airless corridors of 89 airports, circled the globe on 12,000 miles of dusty and dangerous roads, stayed at 62 seedy motels in 18 countries? Was it for this I had risked my neck climbing up gum trees and under razor-wire fences?
Evidently it was.--- S. J. Worthington
Finding Christ in
The Heart of the Poor
Gary Smith, S. J.
(Jesuit Way/Loyola)Towards the end of Radical Compassion, Smith makes a list of the "afflictions" visited on his clients. It includes,
- black eyes caused by physical abuse
- fury over not being able to access the system
- long-term alcoholism and its debilitating side effects
- murmuring, maddening voices in one's head, brought on by schizophrenia
- frustration with a body that will not function correctly
- malnutrition and its side-effects
- heroin withdrawal
- the weariness of old age
- fear of having to sleep on the streets.He concludes with three that struck this reader as particularly poignant:
In his day-to-day, Smith puts up with alkies, people with the screaming-meemies, dope-heads, pimps, aggressive schizophrenics, babblers, and those who want to kill him. He works out of the St. Vincent dePaul Center in the poorest part of Portland, Oregon.
- the need to talk
- the need to be held
- the need to weep
Radical Compassion tells of his daily interaction with some hundred souls who he seeks out when he knows they are at-risk --- or who seek him out. For instance, there's Dan, who is "scruffy in appearance, mercurial, dreadfully serious, and defensive." He meets him at a bus stop. Smith had a suitcase, and Dan said, "Oh I see you are leaving us. Whatsamatter, don't have enough time for the poor anymore?"
I ask him why he was so angry. Wrong question. He spent the next ten minutes lambasting me for being "Mr. Psychologist" and for being indifferent to the homeless and the issues of the homeless. It was clear to him that I was a priest in the inner city for the sole purpose of pimping the poor, hiding behind my middle-class education and my mighty Jesuit graduate degrees.
Smith concludes, "I think I have learned over the years how to finesse the madness of the streets in all its many-headed forms. I rode him out, knowing that deep down he was hurting and saw in me something that he was not able to be anymore."
We get to follow Smith into the most pestiferous downtown areas of Portland, the SROs --- the single-room occupancy hotels, where most of these people live. Some of his "parishioners" are so scabrous that you and I would have trouble meeting with them, much less hanging out with them. One day, he meets with Enrique in his office, and he says, dryly, "I had to ask him to leave OMB premises because cockroaches were crawling out from underneath his coat collar."
When we inspected the coat outside, we discovered that he was a walking cockroach den. And these weren't babies. They were big, fat, well-fed.
AIDS, schizophrenia, long-time alcoholics, chronically depressed, people whose whole lives are the nightmares that you and I only have at night. And then there are the drugs. "If evil had another name, it would be crack."
The drug brings out the most selfish side of human nature... Life becomes a matter of finding the drug, preparing the drug, using it, and going on a mission to find more. Nothing can stop its voracious demands --- not lovers, not mommas, not anyone or anything.
Smith has been attacked by those he is trying to help. He has had to perform funeral services in cheap taverns. He has been chased down dark streets by those who want to rob him. One of his clients, Robert, "has a crush on me, but it has become clear to him that however suggestive he might be, I simply am not on that planet when it comes to the reasons why I entered his life."
I felt that if we got past all his usual ways or relating to men (flirting, drugs, sex, adios) he might begin to discover the part of his heart that had gone into hiding when he was a young man. All of his sexual behavior is an entity, disconnected from the heart of the man himself. Some of his behavior leaves me disgusted, and I have to fight through my feelings in order to meet him on a level that communicates care.
Smith speaks candidly and lovingly of his religion --- but he does not lord it over us (the reader) or those (the poor) who come to him for help. Indeed, in one of his few scornful passages, he speaks of meeting on the Burnside streets "two Bible-packing, perpetually smiling, glazed-eyed gentlemen," one of whom "put his hand on my shoulder and said, with the smarmy assurance that only 'The Saved' seem to have down cold, 'It's okay, brother, Jesus still loves you.'"
"Yeah, you are right, my friend," thinks Smith, "Jesus does love me, but the means and story of that love are so different from anything you can imagine."
This is not a quick-fix world, despite God's power. And when the poor don't get it right away --- that is, that sweet Jesus loves them --- the born-againers leave the scene, shaking the dust from their feet. Rather than listening to the Spirit of the poor, these proselytizers listed to their own safe, untested selves and to their own self-
congratulatory gospel of salvation. In doing so they miss the bruised hearts of others. They miss, I think, the heart of Jesus, so complex, open, and long-suffering. § § §
If I were sixty again (if I were sixty again!) I think I might give up this whatever-
it-is-I'm- doing, pack up my old kit bag, and take off for Portland and the Outreach Ministry there in Burnside --- see if I could convince Smith to take me on for a few months, work together with him with the poorest of the poor. It is not that I am so fond of the Mogan David/Cockroach set. But it would be a trip to work with the good father --- perhaps not all that different from working with Dorothy Day or Mother Teresa. Learning from those who have a certain light.
Oh, we might have a few tussles. I am not all that sure that his God is my god. His seems to be there on call whenever Smith needs Him; he sees Him in the heart of any one of his drunks, pimps, whores, dopers, and nut-cases. Mine is a bit more reclusive; did his work creating us a few jillion years ago and then took off to build other universes.
But I think Smith and I would get along just fine, as long as I, without complaint, trailed along with him, offered succor to the likes of Darnell, the schizophrenic who yells, Frank who hears voices coming in the walls of his room, James who whines, Melinda who might be back on drugs again, Frank, who says that the CIA will be killing the three of us.
It won't be a piece of cake. It stinks in many of those SROs --- the roaches are big and mean, as are those folks hanging about who might be tempted to take us out. But I figure with someone as saintly as Smith, I would probably have a good chance of surviving, learning a bit about the poor in whom he still has faith; for some wonderful reason, which he believes to be "God's creatures," and therefore deserving "the love and awe intrinsic to all creatures."
What do they want? What would we have to be to them?
A good and steady listener; a friend; a father; an interested, yet not patronizing, party; a compassionate priest; a truth teller; a companion they can rely on to walk with them through the darkness; and a trusted individual who will make the case for them in their fight for professional mental health care.--- Ignacio Schwartz
Serve It Forth
Mary F. K. Fisher
(North Point Press)Those of us who were raised in the depression had lots to be depressed about: bad economy, bad world situation, and worst of all --- bad food. Fried steak. Vegetables boiled to a mush. Spaghetti was Chef-Boy-
Ar-Dee. Salads were made with marshmallow and pink jelly. The only wine available was a smelly brew called "Three Sisters."
For lunch, all we could expect ham on white. And, as Ms. Fisher says, "In the same way water or drippings may be designated as the basis of English cuisine," America's was "the flavor from innumerable tin cans."
Ms. Fisher was sent from food-
heaven to deliver us from this scandal in the kitchen, and Serve It Forth, first published in 1939, was the bible. In it she traced the history of the kitchen, the use or abuse of food, and the coming of good taste and classic cuisine. These history lessons alternated with memories of her time in France, where she learned to love such exotics as truffles, good wine, testy chefs, and snails. One of my all time favorites is this, as quoted from "Le Menagier de Paris:"
Snails, which are called escargots, should be caught in the morning. Take the young small snails, those that have black shells, from the vines or elder trees; then wash them in so much water that they throw up no more scum; then wash them once in salt and vinegar, and set them to stew in water. Then you must pick these snails out of the shell at the point of a needle or a pin; and then you must take off their tail, which is black, for that is their turd; and then wash them and put them to stew and boil them in water; and then take them out and put them in a dish to be eaten with bread. And also some say that they are better fried in oil and onion or some other liquid, after they have been cooked as above said; and they are eaten with spice and are for rich people.
"Le Menagier de Paris" was first published in 1394.
The joy of cooking à la Fisher is the very rendering of her words --- words cooked in butter, garnished with parsley and chives and a bit of white wine. "Do you remember how Claudine used to crouch by the fire," she will write --- even though you and I don't know Claudine from Harvey Mudd --- "turning a hairpin just fast enough to keep the toasting nubbin of chocolate from dripping off?"
Or in mid-winter, eating a tangerine heated on the radiator, the maid in the background who "mutters of seduction and French bicyclists who ride more than wheels, tear delicately from the soft pile of sections every velvet string."
You know those white pulpy strings that hold tangerines into their skins? Tear them off. Be careful.
Her words are as magic as her taste in foods --- even to the point of describing the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, where they ate "scrambled rats and potted poodledog meat."
Her chapter on "Eating Alone" should assuage those of us who have often feared to be seen in a restaurant in such a solo act. She quotes Lucullus --- who told his majordomo: "It is precisely when I am alone," he said, "that you are required to pay special attention to the dinner.
At such times, you must remember, Lucullus dines with Lucullus.
I once wrote Fisher a fan-letter, extolling her way with words. She wrote me back, a letter typed not by some anonymous secretary but by the good lady herself, in which she spoke gently of the love for another person, intermixed --- love being what it is --- most wonderfully with the love for good food.--- Lindley Watkins
[ANOTHER LETTER]Dear Miss Lark:
Two great literary magazines are celebrating anniversaries this year: The Paris Review and RALPH.
Of the two I prefer RALPH.
Paris Review has grown old and stodgy over the years, but RALPH is ever-new. Let us celebrate its 100th issue!
in- Chief, Lolita Lark, has a superb understanding of what makes a magazine tick. RALPH reviews not only the books of the major publishing houses; it reviews books from small houses, independent publishers, university presses, paper backs as well as hardbacks. It's only criterion is, is this book of interest to our readers.
And what reviews it gives us! They are shrewd and lively, often quite funny. They get to the nub of things. Their reviewers are often distinguished in their own right.
The widely published Lorenzo Milam writes often. He has a comfortable, pithy style which many have compared to E. B. White. Ignacio Schwartz, an American born in Mexico whose novels are popular South of the Border, offers both reviews and essays on the changing mores he has seen over his long and lively life. Lolita Lark herself provides comments and critiques of the contemporary literary scene. She is not kind and she is razor sharp in her observation.
RALPH is a magazine by readers and for readers who love books. Nothing stuffy about it, RALPH, provides good fun of high quality.--- Hugh Gallagher
HG1932@aol.comDown & Out
The Life and Death of
Minneapolis's Skid Row
(Minnesota)Post-WWII Americans had to live with a triple whammy. One is that we had a government --- complete with War Department (renamed "the Department of Defense" for public relations reasons) --- that saw nothing peculiar in an aggressive foreign policy that would reduce the citizenry of this nation to radiation-infested animals living in the rubble of our once proud country.
However, the coming World War III was set up so that when the missiles started flying, presidents and congressmen and the military and all their wives and children were to be moved to special bunkers in Colorado so that they would be safe from the annihilation, would be then free to repopulate America in their image. The rest of us would have to make do with whatever it was that nuclear radiation left us in the way or arms, legs, or bodies.
The second was that there were those of us who thought that having a foreign policy built on ashes and uranium waste was not necessarily the best way out. However, if we chose to protest, we were labeled "Communist," found ourselves investigated by the FBI, and more likely than not lost our jobs and our standing in the community.
And speaking of community, the final insult was that while we were waiting around for the warheads to descend, there came into being another kind of warhead --- something cooked up by the federal government, the mortgage bankers, the Chambers of Commerce and real estate moguls. They joined forces to destroy the oldest and grandest parts of our cities, operating under the rubric of "Urban Renewal." Unbeknownst to most of us, it was slipped in under the door disguised with the benign-
sounding title of "The U. S. Housing Act of 1949" and sold to the rest of us under equally reassuring labels: "upgrading the downtown area;" "beautification;" or, most favored of them of all, "slum clearance." Thus, if the Russians didn't get you, the financiers would.
Swag for buying up these older areas of town was provided by the Feds, matched by city and state taxes. The local cash provided for destroying older buildings. The land would then be turned over at less than cost to private developers so they could build banks, retail establishments, office towers, and in general, rob the rest of us of our heritage. Thus we were all given the chance to contribute to the rich so they could get richer.
§ § §
What the planners called "slums" turned out to be homes and mostly viable living areas for the poor. Their apartments --- many grand, older buildings from the turn-of-
the- century --- were to be trashed under "eminent domain." This is a provision of state and local codes in which our normally laissez-faire government quietly shuffles aside property rights so the very wealthy are awarded land at a highly discounted price. It's socialism for those who own the banks, the mortgage companies, or the city council. They get the goldmine and the rest of us get the shaft.
The Housing Act, originally put together in 1939, had set aside funds and land for low-income housing. But by the time the federal and state and city lobbyists got through with it, only about 10 of the net was to be dedicated to that purpose. Even more ruinous was a codicil introduced in 1955, which stated that any parts of cities near to these "slum" areas could be designated for destruction as well. According to one critic, "In practical terms, this made it possible for a plan to encompass areas that were not run down by claiming they would become slums if they were not part of the redevelopment program." In some cities, fifty to eighty percent of livable downtown areas were destroyed to make way for new edifices of the icy International Style, banks and motels and business offices and government buildings --- none of which contributed to the necessary street life of cities, what Jane Jacobs had called "the eyes of the city." The Russians could not have sent a smart bomb as effective in destroying our cities and their culture.
You don't have to look far to see the result of these decades of "urban renewal." Perspectives of scale, variety, and architectural interest were all sacrificed. Go to your public library, look at pictures from your downtown area the years before the 1950s and weep. Or, you can see it laid out in photographs of a representative city --- both before and after --- in this new volume, Down and Out: The Life and Death of Minneapolis's Skid Row.
Thanks to the late Edwin Hirschoff, we have a permanent record of the tearing down of the heart of Minneapolis. Called the Lower Loop, some twenty-five blocks of 19th and early 20th century buildings --- 200 of them in all--- fell to the wrecking ball. It represented more than 40% of downtown Minneapolis.
The press of the time called it "an occasion for civic rejoicing." By 1965, most of the area had been turned into parking lots and buildings of pure glass and steel. The poor had to find housing elsewhere.
§ § §
Hirschoff took more than 400 photographs: the buildings before the onslaught, the buildings being destroyed, and the flattened areas after demolition. As the editor of this book recounts,
His photos leave the impression of empty streets, abandoned buildings, massive piles of rubble --- and of the strange, contemporary structures constructed upon the ruins.
Fifty or so of his photographs are included in this volume, along with earlier shots of life in the Lower Loop before it was ravaged. Too, there is narrative by Joseph Hart which tells of the history of this area: its early days as living and employment center for the poor, the decline into what people liked to call "Skid Row," and the final denouement.
What would be there today if the real estate interests had not had their way? Probably Minneapolis would have followed the lead of cities like San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, where many older buildings were rehabilitated and used for restaurants, living --- some of it low income apartments --- and working space. In these downtowns, we get a feel for what it must have been like a century ago when the streets were thronged with life, buildings were of a scale to encourage human interaction, and the lively world of downtown city life was a reality.
I was going to reproduce five or six of the photographs in this volume, but after two, as I leafed through the book and I got too weepy to continue. I am easily moved by unnecessary vandalism and destruction of our history which, in my case, was brought to a head by a shot of the now defunct Soo Line Building, with its glorious tower, columns, mansard roof, and arched windows. The Minneapolis Tribune editorialized at the time: "The ugliness of blight is ... disappearing and a new beauty and orderliness replace it." But a local architect said that it was "the most inexcusable act of civic vandalism in the history of Minneapolis."--- Cyrus J. Taylor, AIA
The Right Word
"Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words in a book or a newspaper the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt: it tingles exquisitely around through the walls of the mouth and tastes as tart and crisp and good as the autumn-butter that creams the sumac-berry."--- Mark Twain on William Dean Howells.
From Quotable Twain,
David W. Barber, Editor
© 2002, Sound and Vision
So Many Books, So Little Time
A Year of Passionate Reading
(Putnam)I think it is fair to describe So Many Books, So Little Time as a literary Tobacco Road. It's quick, and trashy, and has more than a hint of incest. It's obviously something that Nelson and her agent cooked up while having a power lunch at The Four Seasons. One can hear the gears clanking, the wheels turning, the pumps groaning: People who like to read books are going to be people who like to read books about people who read books, she opines. I love it! he purrs."Mark Reiter ... saw the possibilites in a book about reading almost before I did," she reports in her acknowledgments. The agent's aboard, how about a publisher? "My editor, Neil Nyren ... generously jumped at the chance to publish it." All her many friends at Glamour and The New York Observer think it's a corking good idea.So she wades through a year's worth of books, slaps a manuscript together in a few weeks, and with her many connections in the Manhattan publishing stew pot, we know this one is going to go to the top of the heap.
However, we reviewers, those us of outside the cappuccino belt, find ourselves with a burdensome problem amidst all this razz-a-ma-tazz. It's that Ms. Nelson --- how can I say this in a genteel fashion? --- is a stinky writer.
There are, for example, 19 I's and 10 my's or me's on page 78. There are 20 on page 103, 12 on the less than half-page 36 --- and on pages 4 and 5, when I went back to check, I lost count. This disease is known to editors as I-itis. Not Ileitis. I-itis. It is endemic in the writers of a tiny, crowded area, mid-town Manhattan, where the infection rages non-stop It usually isn't fatal --- but it is highly contagious to artists, writers, editors and other poseurs who infest the area.
Nelson also has a problem with parenthesis. She metes them out endlessly and tiresomely. It's a pity she didn't spend some time with the elegant H. W. Fowler who might have done wonders for her style. In Modern English Usage, he says that "...the parenthesis is as disconcerting as a pebble that jars one's teeth in a mouthful of plum pudding."
Then there are the throw-aways. This is Nelson's take, complete, on the great and grave Adlai Stevenson: "What was it about that guy?" On Madame Bovary: a friend of hers "never knew Emma commits suicide." Norman Mailer? He's "a dancing bear." That's it for one who wrote one of the great books of WWII --- changed, probably forever, our view of the life --- and death --- of the foot-soldier.
Finally, there are her very words. "His folly was revealed in some meet-cute way." Hello? "I'm not much of a foodie," she reveals while reviewing Kitchen Confidential. Then what are you? "I'm a sauce-on-the-sider." She tries to keep away from "those open cellar-step things," whatever they may be. She does, thank god, admit to being a bodice-ripper. "You know how bodice-rippers always say things like 'every waking hour was consumed by thoughts of ...him.'" Never having been a bodice-ripper meself --- nor even a sauce-on-the-sider --- I have to pass on this one, Sara.
§ § §
It looks like a book, it smells like a book, but So Many Books is something else again. It's one of those barges, filled with detritus, drifting out the dump, down the coastline, emitting a bad smell. So Many Books lists over a hundred writers who should be described with reverence or, alternatively, dissected with wit. In Cold Blood? "Never read it, never --- if you can believe it --- saw the movie," Nelson grunts. Walt Whitman? "I remain chronically, deeply poetry-challenged," she whines. Disgrace? "...[A] surprisingly readable novel about racism and family in South Africa." Which leaves one with the thought that books about racism and family in South Africa mostly will not, in the course of human events, be readable --- so eat your heart out Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton, Doris Lessing, Peter Abrahams, Athol Fugard. "I even liked Sabbath's Theatre. So sue me." Sorry, Nora --- we just ran out of lawyers. And patience.
Anyone who presumes to be one of the literati yet who only made it to page three in Ellison's astounding Invisible Man and merely to page one in Ulysses has got such a bad case of bodice-ripping smugness that we must begrudge the fact we gave this one a minute's time, much less a whole review.--- Lolita Lark
Breath Sweeps Mind
Jakusho Kwong Roshi
(Sounds True Audio)Jakusho Kwong tells many a tale out of traditional Zen. For instance, there's the one about the young seeker who goes on a journey to find a roshi and it is night --- this is hundreds of years ago --- and it gets so dark he has to crawl on his hands-and-knees and he develops a burning thirst and he thinks that he would give anything for something to drink and he stumbles over a cup and the cup is full and so he drinks it and then he lies down and goes to sleep.
When he awakens he sees that he was drinking from a skull, and what he thought was water was, ugh, bugs and blood and creepy-crawlies and he throws up ... and finds himself enlightened. Gack. Only in Zen could you wake up barfing and get enlighted.
After awhile these tapes get to you such that you have to ration yourself --- at least that's the way it worked for me. I grow so fond of Kwong I want him to keep on talking all day and well into the night. I ignored his directive telling me to listen to these in a quiet room, not while doing anything. I took them and my Walkman on the bus with me to work. Sometimes the street noises would blot out his words --- he mumbles a lot --- but because it's Zen it doesn't make that much difference.
Even when he gets to the paradoxes, they make good sense, in a paradoxical sort of way, if you know what I mean. "The Sourceless Source," for example. He tells us that if he just called it "The Source," we'd figure, "OK. I know what that means." But "The Sourceless Source." What in god's name is he talking about? That's it.
We know that Zen is built on paradox and intense meditation with its very specific rules. Sometimes it sounds to us to be gilding the lily: there are rules on how you should sit, how you should walk, how you should cook, how you should make rice gruel, how you should beg, how you should serve tea and how you should sew. They are so exacting, Kwong says, neither to punish us nor to give us pain but so that we will know that this is serious business.
The job of Zen is to get us away from "what our education, what our culture teaches us --- that is, duality." When you begin, says Kwong, you think of "the mountain over there." But when you say that you are separating it from you even though, in truth --- you are it and it is you. "If you see the mind and the body as one, you are wrong," he says. "If you see the mind and the body as two, you are also wrong."
And when sitting, he tells us, remember "It's not you sitting, it's the Buddha sitting." When you sit, he explains, if you have one thought that's a thought. But if you have two thoughts, that's thinking. That is the time to return to counting the breath, and even when one becomes calm, one must always continue to count the breath. On the exhale: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 --- and then back again to 1 --- although, for most, if you get to 5, you've made good progress. I'm still working on 1.
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The key, Kwong tells us, he learned from his first teacher, Suzuki Roshi: "Things as it is." I'm hearing that I can't figure out what he's saying. And more than that it's bad English. But after not thinking about it for awhile, I figure that if he says it's important, then I'll go for it. "Things as it is." It means just that. It's not unlike the unborn. "If something has never been created," he tells us, "then it cannot be destroyed."
He tells stories, wonderful stories, about his roshis. One of them decided to do the begging practice on the streets of San Francisco. He put on his robe and the straw hat that hid his eyes and picked up his begging bowl and told the sangha that he was going out to beg in the Fillmore, the black section of San Francisco.
The students were concerned, but he refused to take anyone else along with him. Kwong wondered how the people of the area would respond to this tiny man in his robe with his great straw hat and his begging bowl. When he returned several hours later, he had in his bowl "two silver quarters and a pomegranate."
There are times when Kwong has the ability to make us merry --- he comes across as a very merry person --- as well as touch the heart, touch it deeply. One night he was returning to San Francisco with his family and they arrived at a street corner where a car had just overturned, virtually split in two. One of the two passengers had been thrown out, and was lying in the street, on his back, lying in a pool of blood. Kwong ran to his side and knelt down. He tells us that the young man's eyes were open and bright and he was looking up at the skies. He looked at Kwong and said, "The stars are bright tonight." Kwong responded, "Yes --- they are very bright."
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At first these tapes --- there are six of them, twelve programs in all --- are somewhat off-putting. It may be Jakusho Kwong's breathy, intimate style --- close to the microphone, as if he were hovering just above your ears.
But quickly you figure that this is good stuff. The key message he has for us is that he is teaching us something we know already. It's all there in our minds, just waiting for us to access it. When we are ready. It's quite simple. It's Things as it is.
Got it? No? You just did.--- Carlos AmanteaThis printout contains what we think of as the best of RALPH, which appears on-line at
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