5/21/05 - [ Laptop speaks ]

I was reading the New Yorker. No, I was. They had a little piece about that "Novel" installation, which I thought I would bring to the attention of our likely audience:

At Flux, each writer was issued a Mac laptop. The rules forbid the participants to watch television or leave their boxes for more than 90 minutes a day, but, perhaps unwisely, they encourage a more contemporary method of wasting time: blogging. By day three, yoga was evidently not enough to keep Laurie Stone from going stir-crazy. She wandered out of her box and began cataloguing the items in the Flux Factory kitchen for her blog: "A 15-roll sack of Bounty paper towels. A five-pound plastic jug of honey with sticky cap. A 32-ounce bottle of red hot sauce. A two-quart vat of Kikkoman soy sauce. A crate of oranges..." A novel it was not.

Vile commodification! Now, then, writing is serious business!

I'd post snippets of the fit Pica is having over this, but I locked her in a soundproof box on Valencia St. To tell you the truth... Well. They say tone is hard to communicate on the Web, but just between you and me -- she's perfectly nice, Pica, and awfully quiet for a magpie, but she takes everything so seriously that sometimes you just want to throw a bag of flaming dung at her. "Heads up! What -- were you busy? Stressed about your clothes? God, it must be hard to deal with a fiery bag of shit under those conditions!"

(How long am I going to keep you in this box on V-Street, dear? Is that what you're asking? As long as it takes. This is the goddamn Bauhaus: form follows function.) All right. I am supposed to talk to the world. Pica has been having recurring nightmares about sick and needy cats; I am about due for an OS upgrade, but this obvious inference seems to have escaped everyone. There is a lot of upheaval in the District: couches and crates carted to the curbs by tired, t-shirted hipsters as they move from box to box. And so with us --

5/20/05 - For the next few days, I have asked the Laptop to take over posting duties at this site, while I tend to business. This is an experiment, to be sure, and it may not be a good one, but there is no more diligent laptop anywhere, and it is not powered by, evidently, foul free-wifi-cafe-on-the-way-to-work coffee.

Last note from the usual voice of authority: Mr. Franzen's story in this week's New Yorker is one of several I heard him read in L.A. I was very disappointed to see that he did not, in fact, change "Starbucks in Westwood" to "Peet's in Westwood" in the final draft, as he said to us (facetiously) that he ought to do. I sure remember that Peet's in Westwood. I remember all the wrong things.

5/19/05 - The usual suspects declared today "Bike To Work Day," and the other usual suspects countered with pouring rain. I spent quite a bit of time scheming ways not to bike to work, but I came up empty-handed, figured I'd split the difference, and set off for the shuttle bus stop. Damp, I pulled out of the underpass and was met by smiling people proferring free Bike To Work 2005 tote bags, each containing a free energy bar and banana. I can't say with certainty that I would not stop for the free energy bar and banana on my way to prevent nuclear war, and once I'd taken the bag, well, I had to bike the rest of the way. I can now answer the following riddle:

Q: How long does it take the ass-end of your sweater to dry after it has been drenched in spray from every puddle in town?

A: Seven hours.

Q: But how long does that feel?

A: I can't represent the rough amount in ASCII.

This is the first odd job I've had on campus in a while, if you don't count the two-day gig in the copy center. What is it teaching me? That it is possible to make money, but you have to work much harder than I ever have, and it probably doesn't hurt to spring for a poncho.

I ran across Jorie Graham's new collection in a bookstore and was reminded, again, of how completely transformed her poems were read aloud: five years ago, in Madison, at a "soiree" sodden with fine Scotch and Lutoslawski I brought my copy of The Errancy and read, to everyone, Le Manteau de Pascal, and it was improbable magic. I haven't learned how to write poetry in the intervening five years, but I think I remember how that one goes --

5/17/05 - Don't hate anymore, I tell myself. It isn't worth it.

Let them all go: the successful who remind you of your failures, the failures who remind you of your failures, the mildly-successful who remind you of your modest successes -- don't think about them, any of them, they have nothing to do with you as exemplars.

Don't adulate anymore. No one is worth adulation. What is done well is done well, existing to fulfill a need completely: that's all. Success is complete; it creates no further need.

And if after all that you're still lonely, your hair is still unkempt, and you still want coffee too often? That is another matter entirely.

If you cannot remember the late-afternoon sunlight on the distant hills across the Bay you will never figure out how to say "the late-afternoon sunlight on the distant hills across the Bay," no matter how hard you try; if you don't remember your axioms you will never derive any conclusion.

Proust is Proust. This is 2005. I am my world.

Ariadne and her thread.

5/16/05 - More dead-horse-flogging: IreadthiscrappybookcalledSevenTypesofAmbiguityandnow there's a full-scale biography of William Empson, volume the first. No puppydog he. In fact, I think I have a new role model.

Laptop: Oh god. Here, I'm getting off the train, this is my stop --

Pica: Not really. But it made me smile. You don't want to live in San Bruno, you silly thing, do you? Come back here.

5/15/05 - Yes, I should damn well be happy that I get to live the life I always wanted in California for even a year, if by "always" you mean "when I was sixteen" and by "the life" you mean "the life of a sixteen-year-old." I can't believe how negative I've been about it, and yet it doesn't quite fall together right.

We were trying to translate "nested," which isn't a term in common parlance either in Spanish or German -- "anidar" obviously means something different, and I'm not even sure where to start with German. An engineer suggested "interlocked" or "interleaved," to better describe the situation in question, but it's amazing how quickly all words flee a particular gap in one's mind -- I try to explain "nesting," then I can't explain anything. It's almost as if I can focus positively on the unknown relationships, wrap my thoughts around inadequacies.

Zwischenraum, which I thought was a silly poetic term I had made up, was one translation given for "gap," a poor one. But all German reads like poetry to me: I learned it through Rilke and Celan and Bachmann and Neubauten lyrics, so this work feels like visiting the Roman machine shop, armed only with the odes of Horace, to order fifty separate parts for improvement of the aqueducts.

It is strangely refreshing, that old familiar sense that I'm not growing or changing enough. It presupposes that I have some idea who I am. It can also be transmuted into furious dissatisfaction with grammar, all too easily, when I write, because I do "write," although that particular two-word phrase has frightened me out of my wits for Lord only knows how long. What I do, that can't be writing -- it's clearly very similar and in some ways indistinguishable, but the center is different. The center? No, the subject. The subject is different: something is wrong with the I.

Anyway, problems today were largely technical -- I kept getting kicked offline while trying to write this -- and only towards the end psychological: I finished Within a Budding Grove. At least I think the bar is still low enough to see.

5/14/05 - So this is the art you've been starving for, huh?

Dear Character,

I'm not sure if you remember me. I'm the author of this book. I think we met once or twice, early on, and had a long conversation. Since then I've seen you around a good deal -- in fact you're really the center of the whole narrative -- but you never say much and I don't feel that I know you very well at all. This isn't to say you're just aloof -- you are very polite and unprepossessing when we do talk. I'm not sure if I bore you senseless by asking the wrong questions, or what. I thought anyway that as long as we are working together it might be good to talk about our shared goals, perhaps over coffee. I know of several good places. Let me know when you might be free -- I know you have a busy schedule and I myself have been tied up lately with other, more importunate characters. You know how it is. But it would be great to meet up before the project goes completely to shit and I write off the whole fucking year and move to Utah. You can reach me by email, phone, or physically shaking me until I respond. I look forward to hearing from you! Please contact me soon, ideally in the next hour or so! Why don't you call? You can't be that busy! What do you do with your time? Why won't you talk to me? Please, please, character! I need you!

Yours devoutly,

5/13/05 - Update: I'm home. I found a pair of response papers from a class I took two years before graduating from college. My strongest reaction was to hope devoutly that I never, never get a student like that in any of my classes. I'm not sure exactly what that ought to tell me.

It's late, but I feel listless and talentless. There will be no morning paper tomorrow. I came home for the one morning in which no paper comes -- I just spent several minutes translating that sentence into German and trying to figure out why it wouldn't work in any language; well, I guess we know what the problem is here.

Emeryville Captivity, Day 3: on the matter of Caffeine.

On Day 1, I got midday coffee from the Donut Shop on San Pablo & 67th. For 75 cents, I have to say, it was far from being the worst coffee I'd ever paid for; also far from the best. I could not find any lunch, so I ate a Lara bar and by 3 or so was in a tragically altered state.

On Day 2, I omitted the extremely pleasant morning ritual of getting espresso & a small breakfast at Cafe Fanny and went instead to the Broom Bush Cafe -- I think -- where they will sell you an espresso the exact size and strength of a cup of coffee for $2.45. Because it was one of those days, I asked them why they charged more for espresso than any restaurant outside New York, and they said, "you know, coffee costs a lot of money these days." I drank it with sickening celerity outside the restaurant. No breakfast; all they had was meat and vile-looking pastries. At lunchtime, to avoid a further starving circuit of the Industrial Zone, I got another bar-of-food at Walgreen's. I lasted until 7 or so and somehow managed to fuck up ordering dinner completely by walking out of the restaurant, then going back, and getting a chicken burrito, which I didn't realize until I had eaten part of it (you know how burritos are, opaque & all). I was too, er, chicken to send it back.

On Day 3, I found the Scharffen Berger factory. The cafe serves Peet's coffee. I thought that would settle things, but in my frantic haste to get there for lunch I somehow gave my trusty bike, nicknamed "Guitar," a flat tire -- I think it must have been as I actually did the thing I constantly fear that I will do, which is to steer the wheel into an enormous crack in the road. A year after an accident that left me in the ER with a broken face, minor mishaps sometimes leave me shaking, but this caused Guitar far more physical damage than it did me. I got my cappuccino in the end, Guitar got two new tubes, a new tire, and an unsolicited and insulting trade-in quote (roughly the cost of the parts). We are both going to be more careful on 7th street.

5/11/05 - Here commences the part of my life I am going to call "The Emeryville Captivity." I have a room in Palo Alto, which I left last night in the dying sunlight -- bidding farewell to my paintbrushes and guitar and that bizarre smell I have not been able to locate -- in order to journey to EMERYVILLE where my livelihood unexpectedly migrated. It has now become clear that I am not really going back; Emeryville's demands on my time are infinitely extensible. I do have a few contacts in the East Bay, fortunately, who are willing to offer shelter, showers, Internet access and polite abstention from laughing uproariously at the state of my clothing, but exile is exile. Right:


my books are all in PA. I was going to give you the text of Exile, but all I found was a curious book. Wait... here:

Ich mit der deutschen Sprache
dieser Wolke um mich
die ich halte als Haus
treibe durch alle Sprachen

O wie sie sich verfinstert
die dunklen die Regentöne
nur die wenigen fallen

In hellere Zonen trägt dann sie den Toten hinauf

Credit where it's due. I meet the German translation team Friday. Durch alle Sprachen.

5/10/05 - The schedule for the week: yesterday - work in East Bay; today - work in PA; tomorrow - work in East Bay, then see film in PA in evening; Thursday/ Friday - possibly work in PA, or in East Bay at same time oh no. When did my life get so complicated?

Laptop: Monday, apparently.

Pica: You know what would rock? No, do you know what would really rock? Really? Living in San Francisco. That's what. Oh my god.

Laptop: Sometimes I think money is my only goal! It makes me sad!

Pica: See, that isn't the problem. I wish it were.

5/9/05 - How was I to know the guy's life ambition was to write a dissertation on Heidegger?

Laptop: At least you had long ago decided Merleau-Ponty was too insignificant to bother trashing.

Pica: Those days when I don't leave the house, I am starting to think, are the best.

The curious wanted to know what exactly I liked about Lucrecia Martel, which will require me to examine every aspect of my cinema aesthetic and find a grand, sweeping answer. I think. There doesn't seem to be a more efficient way. I know it's mostly a matter of skill with omission, but I think I need more rigor to pin the thing down precisely. Also: a man, or woman, holding a camera. No art ex nihilo, not ever. But is that even worth saying? Is it?

5/4/05 - Hi! I was going to post all kinds of things and rave about the Gang of Four show and so forth and then I found out about this, um, an hour ago. I was, in fact, going to say, "the only thing that could top seeing the Gang of Four would be seeing New Order play a bunch of Joy Division songs, and this might well be the year they do it, so I will keep my eyes peeled." God hates me.

But it's a benign, disinterested sort of hate that sustains hope by placing me before an awesome performance of my favoritest songs ever -- to the point of cognitive dissonance. "Well," I thought, "surely they can't keep playing the best Gang of Four songs. After all, this is the world." [They play "Paralyzed."] "Wow! Surely I will not now hear the expected segue into 'What We All Want'! Clearly something obscure or new must follow." [They play "What We All Want."] "My, my. Somewhere in the core of my being, I hold out a naive and invincible hope that the next song will be 'To Hell With Poverty,' but I am a doomed creature, as are we all, and there can be no confusion of divine and earthly logic." [They play "To Hell With Poverty."] Continue in this fashion through the encore's concluding number, "Damaged Goods" done better than you ever dreamed of hearing it. And then I caught the train. So yes, of course I missed the NewOrder show, that's how it's gotta be, but hey -- time enough for everything in this charmed world, I guess. I also have it on good recent authority that I "look like a Berkeley sort of person," which must mean some of the grace continues to shine through.

N.B.: the above are not, strictly speaking, my favoritest songs ever; they made an excellent series, though, and they also did "We Live as We Dream Alone" and "At Home He's a Tourist" and "Anthrax" and now I am going to refrain from thinking about performances of "We Live as We Dream Alone" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart" in the same week. Damn.

5/2/05 - I dreamt I was in New York, jumping in the river after three letters that had been lost, recovered, and dropped into the water unthinkingly: said water was foul and full of algae but shallow. A woman watched me in amusement. "Hey," I said, "I never thought I'd be two feet away from these again -- the fact that it's two feet of gross water is immaterial." They were letters I had meant to send, I think, and I thought only vaguely that they might be unsendable in the present state.

As I climbed out a man was rifling through my backpack. I broke into a run towards him. He picked up my wallet, held it to his ear like a cell phone, and feigned a conversation: "Yeah, you wouldn't believe this lady here who left her bag unattended in New York." I kept running in order to thank him, in embarrassment, but suddenly I realized his head was covered in bees--"Sir, your head is covered in BEES!"

(and woke up, sensing that the dream was about to get much worse very quickly, then fell back into it after a few minutes)

--and walked all over Manhattan reeking of stagnant water and penniless. Tried to use the bathroom at a store to clean up but the door fell open, and I fled, into the night, which was still and full of monkeys. I think I was looking for an apartment, but this quickly turned into a hunt for the bank, which never materialized because I think I did some research last year & determined that Wells Fargo hasn't got much NYC presence. Too many monkeys for their taste, I guess.

5/1/05 - In this dispiriting book review the author writes:

You don't win the Nobel Prize for writing about the inner lives of 14-year-old girls.

Laptop: This is easy. Can I take it?

Pica: Sure.

Laptop: [clears throat] Yeah, since when has the world ever been moved by the inner life of a fourteen-year-old girl?

4/30/05 - Exhibit A. Limited-time availability.

from How To Write An Acceptable Album Review

by Pica, age 13, from one of her many little journals

Coin terms as you go along-- it's so creative and fun! Such terms as "yammering vinyl-scratch/wet snare backup" are quite innovative and describe music to the minutest detail [sic].

If you haven't compared the album in question to every single punk band of the 70s, you don't deserve to call yourself a reviewer. After all, your readers always infallibly buy music on the basis of whether it has Wire-type guitar riffing.

The last paragraph of your review MUST begin with "despite," as in: "Despite its detached-sounding techno-thrash and industrial-funk influences, [name of album here] succeeds better as a hip-hop oddity than as the Next Big Dance Thing." This is the oldest law of review writing.

Add "-core."

Speaking of the dialectic...

4/29/05 - Long hectic disoriented week, full of interviews, abeyance, uncertainty, but now I'm home, in a fairly joyful reunion -- and it looks like A.O. Scott adored La Nina Santa, which opens "in Manhattan and nationwide" soon enough. Go see it! Lucrecia Martel Lucrecia Martel! Woooo!

I'm now looking forward to the Gang of Four show Tuesday -- reading articles in the New Yorker and so forth about their resurgent popularity, I suddenly feel marginally hip for having bought and loved "Solid Gold" before 2000, which is weird, or embarrassing, or something more diffuse. I feel both that (having delighted me) they deserve all the hype and tributes they've been getting lately, and that they're being absurdly overrated by a musical culture that can't seem to come up with anything better. Their music isn't sublime. It's not even great rock n' roll, exactly -- it's too suspicious of the metanarrative*, and too reductive. I haven't heard much Bloc Party or Futureheads or any of their other obvious heirs, but I don't get the impression that those heirs have made the music more academic, more ambivalent or more radical, which would be the complete revolution -- I can't say I'm tremendously interested in anything that makes the Gang of Four more radio-friendly.

Laptop: Since when are you a rock critic? My god.

Pica: Since I was thirteen years old, Laptop. I took it very seriously. I wrote earnestly about Eddie Vedder and Sinead O'Connor in my little journals.

Laptop: Did you know what "great rock n' roll" was then?

Pica: No. I was very suspicious of the metanarrative. I didn't think any of these people knew what they were talking about, and I wasn't sure what to make of the fact that Rolling Stone made frequent reference to political movements I'd never heard of and used words I didn't know. Were they vastly cooler than I was, or were they showing off? And then when the rock stars complained in print about "thirteen-year-old girls" buying their albums I moped around the house reading Ibsen and wishing I had an apartment, and whacking my rented snare drum listlessly now and then.

Laptop: Well, thank goodness things have changed. Do you know what "great rock n' roll" is now?

Pica: I knows it when I hears it.

Laptop: Then you're no rock critic. QED.

Pica: But I love the Gang of Four!

The world is shrinking
And as they dance the dollar is falling --
do you love me?

The problem is that, I think, during the formative years the pop love songs about economics were actually a pretty good, unironic, heartfelt expression of my state of mind. I've never been sure how to embody the dialectic. It's so taxing.


Pica: Right.

* "A joke."

4/28/05 - If you go looking in my brain for the art that has made its home there -- the colonial art, as it were -- you find Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" and most of "Unknown Pleasures," as my typing and guitar-playing fingers have lately discovered. It could be worse, in about eight hundred thousand different ways, at least, but I suppose it could also be better.

Now I'm curious: which works of art have y'all committed to memory? Which are your bedrock?

4/27/05 - I'd been looking for this (in Spanish), just for the hell of it, and because a new acquaintance reminded me -- although I didn't know it existed until I found it. Also, if you're in the Bay Area and have time for this sort of thing, behold the SF Int'l Film Festival site in all its money- and time-sucking majesty. Ongoing!

Trans-Atlantyk was one of the first "grown-up" books I bought -- it looked cool, John Updike praised it, I fancied that I cared what John Updike thought about things since his was one of the literary names I'd come to know from the family bookshelf. (I really need to write that essay on the family bookshelf -- it's been percolating in my head for years.) It notoriously translated a particular odd, high-low 19th-century dialect of Polish into eccentric 18th century English and thus was a triple hybrid: a marked English translation of a marked-Polish novel about exile in Argentina. Nabokov might have been my favorite author that year, taking over from Camus the previous year, and games (or at least play, as one plays an instrument) with English seemed to be the thing. I knew nothing about Poland and very little about Argentina, which is, I think, not the case for most of the book's readership.

Three years later I reread it for a class and hated it -- I found Gombrowicz's grotesquerie flat, the plot paper-thin, the translation awkward and oppressive. (I don't know what happened to my copy, although I have my suspicions.) [Rest of discussion deleted for reasons of extreme incoherence -- maybe I'll have another go at it when I'm feeling less harried.]

This is prologue. I will "never" review the Byatt cycle and Ralph Ellison, from my exile.

4/26/05 - "Tomorrow" means, apparently, "never."

I thought I had more vigor. The home-base and I hit rock bottom today: I raced my bike all over the local campus and around downtown and back to the house, completely unable to settle anywhere along the way or to find any place that knew my name -- the bookstore, the Loci of Coffee, the Cantor -- the word "alienation" left my vocabulary for a while, but I think it's back: it seems to sum everything up. Well, that's an old one, then, and we all know how to wrestle it down. Sun's out again. I'll live.

4/24/05 - I can't find a perfect site on Lucrecia Martel, so I'll just give you the Google search results, and you can take everything you find with a grain of salt. I can think of plenty of examples of greater and more enduring cinematic art, but very, very few things have left me as encouraged and overjoyed as her two films, both of which played recently in Berkeley, have done: they are both universal and singular, as eloquent in omission as in inclusion, replete with all those sought-after aesthetic traits that leave me flailing and stupid in my efforts to describe them. (I like art. Look at this!)

Look at this! San Francisco! Sun and moon and rain and San Francisco! Heart whole, bright dawns!

More, tomorrow, on the past week's adventures -- they have been many & varied.

4/21/05 - New Oppenheimer books. "In this [sic?] midst of such voluminous scholarship, how can Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin's American Prometheus purport to be 'the first full-scale biography'? The reason, beyond its having the best title..." Scheisse. That's a highly disingenuous title, at best -- it makes my skin crawl a bit, in fact. I have not yet done the physics tour of the Bay Area -- I attempted a long bike ride some months ago now & got as far as SLAC. The part of my brain that tries to comprehend math on any level has gone into hibernation while I sort other things out, which is probably just as well -- all my money's on the literary ponies at the moment. I only worry about mental degradation -- more on that soon enough.
4/20/05 - Crap. I'm about to try to get a degree in comparative literature and now Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak says it's dead. Or said so, two years ago.

This is where some voice out of my past says, "No one's published a book declaring the death of chemistry." What am I getting myself into?

Laptop: You cannot possibly blow yourself up with issues of the New Left Review.

Pica: That's right! I'm timid and crave safety. That's what drives me.

Laptop: I'm just happy that Spivak "encourages linguistic competence."

In fact I do find that encouraging. It would be especially nice if it were possible to acquire linguistic competence in a university setting, as a graduate student in comparative literature, but I am beginning to wonder: at the library tonight I found the recently published correspondence of Ingeborg Bachmann & Hans Werner Henze, which veers from German into Italian and French and English and back again (they were living in Italy, largely). The Italian seemed lucid and.... peaceful, I might say. Like ripples on water. All my memories of studying Italian are happy ones. I have got to figure out how to apportion my time -- even typing that harmless statement, with its lack of fait-accompli certainty, gives me a shiver.

4/18/05 - Y'know, when they say "decaf," and "regular," I think there needs to be a quantitative chart -- if that was decaf, I shudder to think what the relative "regular" might do to me.

Done with Babel Tower; 100-odd pages into A Whistling Woman, the final volume of the quartet, at the end of which I will review all four for your reading pleasure. Right now I'm just hoping it doesn't have a goddamn Baader-Meinhof ending, because we've all heard that line about the sixties before, and on various levels that would indeed preserve thematic unity. We'll see how quickly I can be disappointed.

4/15/05 - Last night I took a badly-needed break from A.S. Byatt (Babel Tower, it turns out, is completely terrifying) to revisit Alexander Cockburn's two books of essays, Corruption of Empire and The Golden Age is In Us. They always cheer me up. In the years since college (see "radical days," below) I have lost patience with CounterPunch and the rhetoric of the left, but Cockburn has always been sui generis: his convictions are his own (one can scarcely imagine a single other person sharing all of them), his interests wide-ranging, and he can balance columns on pension plans with columns on Angelina Jolie and the Directoire, to cite two favorites. The books are similarly eclectic, very funny, and occasionally profound -- they gave me inestimable comfort during that last year at Chicago, when I spent most days alone walking around my studio apartment belting "To Hell With Poverty!" at the top of my lungs, and meticulously stacking yogurt containers in the kitchen to be disposed of, at some future date, when a recycling service for No. 5 plastic was located. When it came time to move my father picked up the little tower -- it was by then about 3 feet high -- and dumped it into a garbage bag. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Caltrain fiscal crisis! Oh no! We had a model for a while of the various Bay Area transit systems as a semi-dysfunctional family: VTA as the overachiever with a chip on its shoulder, Muni as the rebellious punk teenager, SamTrans the friendly & outgoing conformist, AC Transit rather the Benjy of the group. I don't recall whether Caltrain or BART had a role.

4/13/05 - Suddenly I feel (web-)shy.
4/11/05 - April has been brought to you by the goodness of the Larabar, now provided by the Coupa Cafe. Try the cherry pie flavor!

Laptop: Have you considered applying for a "Coupa grant" to visit the Coupa Cafe in Caracas and study la literatura venezolana?

Pica: What? Where?

Laptop: Made you look.

It is also Don't-Take-Your-Library-Books-Back week, apparently, although this may have to be remedied now that I'm done with Still Life and lack a copy of Babel Tower, which I hear is mediocre. I don't know how she does it -- for all the awkwardness of her interpositions on literature, and art, and novel-writing, the characters are so vivid that I dreamt about them.

P.S. also "hypochondria" 1, "real problems" 0; thanks for playing

4/7/05 - "Or anywhere."

But I can go to the Cantor Center. Absorption time, roughly 1 hour: I think I've talked before about my loathing for most European art before about 1870, but for some reason today my aesthetic faculties were feeling historicist and generous and everything looked new, forgiveable, odd: portraits of terrible or insignificant people now dead, paeans to the sea, misshapen and monstrous infants and suddenly, in the midst of the Renaissance, an almost photorealistic Madonna in perfect proportion -- not great art but so technically skilled that I stared at it for two minutes in awe. Kokoschka and a few nudes put me off, one Congolese mask held me captive (du musst dein Leben nicht zerstoeren!): terrible assemblage of leaves, cowrie shells, nuts and paint. Oh my God and the Rodin at the end: what the hell's better than Rodin? I felt inadequate in my joy.

It feels important to turn one's face up to the light again slowly. (Oh, someone was looking for Balzac recommendations, I think: Pere Goriot was lively enough and Ursule Mirouet too dull to finish. Illusions perdues, perhaps his longest work, seemed the most worthwhile, but other things (modernisme anglaise, as I recall) intervened before I could attempt it. None of it stuck with me long. I enjoyed Zola more, and Flaubert more than that or nearly anything. My father tried to get me to counterpose Huysmans to Zola, unsuccessfully, and anyway I spent that whole summer writing a fantasy novel and learning Italian, too busy for heavy reading. That's all I know.) I am considering an emergency reading of the Divine Comedy, by the way, which I totally haven't read and don't own. Just considering; I've got so many books in process that... aaaargh.

Later, at a talk about global policy and Third World suffering and Bush's Millennium Challenge aid plan for Africa or whatever it's called and the unvoiced uncertainty that there will be money for anything at all in the Treasury in 20 years, I smirked to myself and thought (with no interlocutor to receive the transmission): I am become debt, destroyer of worlds -- without realizing it was either a pun, or wrong, let alone marginally clever.

4/6/05 (2) - OKAY. HI, EVERYBODY. I HAVE JUST QUIT my job again -- the third job I've had in 4 months, if you don't count the two-day stints in Sacramento and the Materials Science dept -- because it was completely, dispensably unbearable in a way few jobs have been since I toiled in the General Store at Furnace Creek at 18, because they cannot pay me enough money to make humiliating customer service worthwhile, and most of all because I can't afford to be this jaded and hateful towards people. Any work that makes me that misanthropic in five days is neurotoxic.

So you ask me what I will do next, and I tell you: it looks like, despite all my best efforts and my best intentions, I cannot in any meaningful way "accept" poverty and underemployment and soul-sucking work even in the short term. I also feel it prudent to mention that I moved to Palo Alto to write my book. That's why I'm here. The thing wanted to be written in Palo Alto -- God knows why. I didn't move here to torture myself with proximity to Stanford, because I really wanted to be ten blocks from any civilization or transit at all, because I thought commuting for an hour each way each day to the San Jose job or carlessly-arbitrarily to any of a number of South Bay temp jobs would rock, because I wanted to be destitute in a sedate upscale suburb where I only half-know one woman I almost never see and the only people my age go to school across the train tracks and yearn to live in the city, because I wanted to live in a house with no broadband and loud animals and spiders in the shower and travel for two hours at the crack of dawn to get to whatever job I've got from the place where all the people I know and/or love are anchored: I felt a bond to the university, to a lot of trees and scrub jays and a few restaurants, sure, but I'm here because I came up here on the bus last August and wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and the first person I met said, what do you do? and I said, I'm working on a novel, and she said: ah -- that's what you do. It was true. But I can't, it turns out, temp too.

So fuck it. Here is the revised game plan -- it's bad, but it's necessary. I will pay my rent through May, apply for financial aid (like, tonight) for next year, see if I can get any kind of financing to move up to the city in June and start my coursework in the summer, which they are happy to let you do (as far as I know), and spend the next two months reading and doing research and writing and being as decent a person as I can. If the agency sees fit to offer me another job, I will give it a reasonable shot, but I'm not going to flip out and do a massive job search for two months of down time.

The book wants to be written in Palo Alto, so I am giving Palo Alto two more months, which really seems at this point to be more than it fucking deserves. But I will miss the jays and the trees and the silence at night, and the sunlight on the art museum, if I run away. It is a terribly beautiful place. You just can't live here like I live.

4/6/05 - Why, says the voice of judgment, don't you post more about the fruit flies in your bedroom? Everyone else is posting about fruit flies in the bedroom, or very similar things. I have no answer. I am inadequate, no blogger I.

More on The Virgin in the Garden: it seems amazing to me that Byatt would have any readership at all with this book, though I guess it was a clever Victorian romance that made her reputation -- Virgin is clever, somewhat Victorian, and anti-romantic to the point of deep bitterness; it is awe-inspiring and virtuosic as well. But it is heartless, and its heartlessness seems deliberate. I am not sure there's an easy way around that from a composition point of view -- I think if you tried to feel your way through a text of this complexity and depth, you'd perforce have to draw on resources usually limited to the manic-depressive or otherwise chemically skewed, and it isn't exactly a human tragedy that only a few people are equipped to do this for any length of time at all. I admit I'll take the desiccated version over a lot of texts of lesser range that pull more strongly and effectively at my heartstrings. [Update: a certain degree of romance & sympathy kicks in quite late; it may be evanescent. We shall see!]

Well, I am about due for the anxiety of influence/anxiety of confluence discussion -- Saul Bellow is dead at 89 -- you can find obituaries aplenty in the papers. I'm not sure I have anything eloquent or insightful to say about him on this specific occasion, unless you want me to run on for 40,000 words about my undergraduate college. No? Really, it's your loss...

4/5/05 - Do I remember signing up at any point to be notified by email about readings/book signings by Jonathan Safran Foer in New York? I do not. I guess this is the point at which I quietly remove myself from the Labyrinths mailing list, for which I must have volunteered on the specious grounds that being made aware of literary events

Laptop: New York, New York! Neeewwwwwwww York! Noo-hoooo York!

Pica: My God, what has come over you?

They face each other for a moment without speaking.

Laptop: Er. I'm sorry.

Pica: Was that from "All That You Can't Leave Behind"?


Pica: [guffaws]

Laptop: You were going to move there. Briefly. That's all.

Pica: [teary-eyed with mirth] Don't you know any songs from Boy?

Laptop: [with great dignity] You were addressing the matter of literary events in the Metropolis of Books.

Pica: Yes; I thought it might at least point me towards interesting new academic and literary titles, but the messages are hard to read in plain text format and I turn out to get all the literary reinforcement I need from the web and the local shops. And, um, I had heard of Mr. Foer. [slyly] Do you want me to let you know if he goes on tour with U2? I could get you tickets! I bet they'll give a laptop a discount!

Laptop: Hey, look over yonder. Oh, my! I seem to have your novel and all your mp3s! How did that happen?

We get loopy in the spring. My apologies. I'll post more about serious matters soon enough -- not that the future of literature isn't a serious matter. Snark snark snark. Hey, it's easier than getting my life in order, in which regard I think the insight that "if I put fewer books in my backpack every morning, I'll have more room for the ones I buy on campus" is perhaps unwarranted. It also just made me hallucinate Evanston. Evanston! Yikes.

4/4/05 - I have been entertained for the last 5 minutes by my total failure to locate Uruguay. I thought it was due south of Bolivia, and landlocked. (I know Paraguay is landlocked; I thought they both were.) I bought this giant map for my wall for exactly this reason -- I began reading books about sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and realized I had no idea which country bordered on which, or where the cities lay, a concern which would overcome my general distaste for maps and their ahistoricity and cartoonishness. You gotta learn somehow.

Literatura de Uruguay: web, what can you tell me? Eduardo Galeano, Juan Carlos Onetti, familiar names, yes... oh, and por supuesto, Horacio Quiroga! El almahadón de plumas! (Alas, they do not have my favorite, "Juan Darien," about the boy who was a tiger -- but you can read it here, gracias a la Universidad de Chile.) I was an active member, in high school, of the Spanish Honor Society, capítulo Horacio Quiroga, because my Spanish teacher was like that: he made sure we all read La familia de Pascual Duarte, too, right before winter break: so I associate the more uplifting stuff, like Sabato, with the coming of spring...

Latin American lit, nonstop, for the next two years. This will be a great adventure.

4/3/05 - The word "pabulum" always makes me think of this image, although the reproduction in my head is better -- but in practice it refers to the dull routine of reading dull academic blogs with their familiar right-left debates and parade of snarkiness. I can only assume this plays the role for me that watching minor sports on ESPN-2 plays for others: if I didn't waste a little time, I would spend every day staring wild-eyed at my bookshelf worried that I can't type fast enough to write a full dissertation that very night, sleep three hours every night, fall asleep on my bike crossing El Camino Real and be stuck in some kind of limbo, I guess, trying to make a short list of Ph.D. programs until the last trumpet. And y'all don't want that.

Girl, you say, enough angst, tell me what to read! What should I read? I'll have to defer for now to my companion on the newest Ian McEwan; I've been making slow progress through A.S. Byatt's Virgin in the Garden, of which the first 20 pages were so awesome that I was sure I had finally found a contemporary novel which satisfied nearly all my major criteria for good literature. Over the subsequent hundred-odd pages, however, her deep misanthropy begins to wear, as does the static nature of her descriptions and tendency to digress into feuilletonish discussions of modern art -- experience indicates that I have a much higher tolerance for that sort of thing than most people, but it was a bit much even for me. Lack of compassion for your characters is absolutely deadly -- but she dedicates the book to her son, who died six years before its publication, and the finely-tuned, constrained anger and contempt might well just be a matter of grief -- which makes it even more painful to read. (Just as Nietzsche, sometimes, is painful to read, but more on that at some later point.)

Celestial Harmonies is out in paperback, but I haven't had time yet.

3/30/05 - I am going to go ahead and blame Peet's for the fact that I am up at 12:30 a.m. looking at calls for papers. If I put my feet up, the knee-jerks don't cause any damage; I guess I would just assume it was mania if I found myself salivating over conferences on... no, there isn't anything to single out. Looks like "cities and spaces" are still as fascinating as they were to me at 18; the ecology-and-literature thing is new to me; and there are several conferences about war, which must make for interestingly tense banter. Oh, and I guess I'm missing Patagonia: Myths & Realities, but it turns out not to be in Patagonia, so I'll dry my weepy, distressingly unsleepy eyes.

3/29/05 - [Well, 20 minutes before midnight.] I was rendered jobless today for about four hours, after which a new full-time job in a nicer location appeared felicitously, to begin tomorrow. It's very unlikely that I'll have time or equipment for posting here daily; I'm also a little worried about the energy drain of 40-hour work weeks, but an extremely helpful article in "Bust" magazine reassured me that I can tend to my art and scholarly commitments via 15-minute "art breaks" over the course of the work day.

In all seriousness, no one ever, even if they are writing a three-volume scholarly study of my oeuvre, needs to read the things I write in fifteen-minute intervals -- like the drug a friend enthusiastically recommended for inducing aphasia, I can't think of a more efficient way to elicit bad writing from me than giving me fifteen minutes of free time. I mean, I've tried writing while waiting for buses or trains, or on breaks from work -- all I can say is that I put a devoutly concentrated effort into mental poverty and general incompetence whenever I'm working for pay or dealing with stressful quotidian nonsense.

On sojourn in the Mission tonight, mildly transfigured by a haunting CD on the Dog Eared Books stereo, I asked its name at the counter & whether they had copies for sale. "Sure," said the clerk with a nod: he turned it off, tossed the house copy into its jewel case and handed it over. I felt a real twinge of guilt in the ensuing near-silence, as the credit card receipt shrilled out: as if I'd pointed imperiously at a rare bird's nest and been summarily handed its clutch of eggs. Konsum-terror, sez Ulrike Meinhof, my sometime namesake. Later the outbound train was packed with hipsters; I scanned my Proust desultorily, then wasted a goddamned hour trying to avoid the train gap -- no go. Bay Area, Bay Area ... I weakly shake my fist in your general direction.

Update: Well, the musical ecosystem of d.e.b. remains intact: I don't know what they were playing, but it does not seem to have been the CD I bought, although this is a fine CD notwithstanding. There was a banjo and a woman's voice, understated and cool: free associations include the Pacific Northwest, Cat Power, "indie," and other features that would identify it as any of five hundred thousand bands. Rats.

3/29/05 - Hm. Has the rain stopped?

Adesso che il tempo sembra tutto mio
e nessuno mi chiama per il pranzo e per la cena,
adesso che posso rimanere a guardare
come si scioglie una nuvola e come si scolora,
come cammina un gatto per il tetto
nel lusso immenso di una esplorazione, adesso
che ogni giorno mi aspetta
la sconfinata lunghezza di una notte
dove non c'`e richiamo e non c'`e piú ragione
di spogliarsi in fretta per riposare dentro
l'accecante dolcezza di un corpo che mi aspetta,
adesso che il mattino non ha mai principio
e silenzioso mi lascia ai miei progetti
a tutte le candenze della voce, adesso
vorrei improvvisamente la prigione.

Mr. Proust, could you not have written that book in Italian? It would really make things easier for me. I've been browsing lists of other grad students in my field at fine research universities, noting their fine research interests and capacities, because I like to make things as hard for myself as possible, thank you. Suddenly I have cold feet: I'm going to fail, oh Lord. I'm totally going to fail.

Laptop: Can you read? Can you write?

Pica: In bursts.

Laptop: Would you like to hear about my thesis on Cold War television, anime and Gustav Klimt?

Pica: [blanches]

Laptop: No no, don't go pale like that. Have some chianti.

Pica: [mournfully] This won't help my French. Do you have any Bourdeaux? Did I spell that right?

Laptop: Hell if I know! I wrote this awesome thesis on Cold War TV, anime and Klimt! You've read Luce Irigaray, right? Zizek? Oh, goodness, you knocked over the vase.

Pica: [from the floor] I'm going to fail.

Laptop: It's much easier than you think. When you walk into the room, take a quick surreptitious look around at first to locate the wine glasses, the vases, the tables and chairs sturdy enough to grip for the duration of a conversation. Stand up and do it once with me. Allora.

Pica: Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Laptop: That's what the web is for.

Pica: I have this funny feeling that no one gets my jokes.

Laptop: So Gilles Deleuze, Slavoj Zizek and the prime minister of Slovakia walk into a bar --

Pica: [listens politely]

Laptop: See? You'll do fine.

Pica: There's a Kafka punchline, right?

Laptop: Watch for it every time.

3/28/05 - There's some poem by Patrizia Cavalli which begins (in English) "Now that the time seems all mine..." and ends, I think, with a line about prison. I can't think whether I'm conflating two poems or not.

Laptop: Man kann nicht rückwarts leben.

Pica: No, that's not it. It's Italian, first of all.

Laptop: L'uomo non puo vivere... al reverso?

Pica: Got me. That was years ago.

Laptop: My point exactly.

I don't know if I'd like Cavalli now. I met her, briefly, at a seminar in Chicago; the memory never fails to surprise me. It must have been in 2000-01, a year in which I am in fact constantly and sincerely surprised that I ever left the house. During winter quarter I got a terrible cold and only finished two of my four classes; I had to get by on less than $300 a month (no credit card) from my student job for most of the year, a perennially fun adventure; in the spring my boyfriend and I took the train to Ithaca, NY, to buy the one car he thought worthy to replace his old car, and I picked up a grad school brochure from Cornell before we hit the city, and in the city I purchased, from Posman's moribund NYU store, two novels by Bryher, whose last work has just been rereleased.

And oh hey, I just got laid off. Jesus. Nothing I could have done, it seems; efficiency is a curse.

3/25/05 - The Laptop and I are in Long Beach through Sunday. Regular posting should resume sometime next week.

3/22/05 - Ah! Understandably, nobody weighed in, so I'll give you all something no one wants -- on second thought, even I didn't want that, so I'll give you, oh let's see, the heroic Ms. Kakutani -- I wanted to throw it across the store, I swear, I've endangered shoppers in two different counties with the man's books -- and, um,

I am far too braindead, at 1:50 a.m., to post anything else.

3/21/05 - I'm having another Moment of Doubt. If you are reading, pls weigh in: do you like (or hate)

  • the more personal narrative content
  • the more general book-review-y content
  • the old multiple authorial voices
  • things I don't regularly do, like daily snarkiness or linking to oddities
  • none of it as it's currently done; any of the above were it done better. (Okay, that's my answer, but it's a hard thing to tell someone.)

In particular, would you prefer to read a post about Edward Said or a post about vaguely poetic impressions of snails, rain, tea, and probably ultimately something bleak and troubling? See, that's why you've been getting all the Edward Said and so forth. From me, that is -- not that he isn't good for what ails ya. Oh, um, I guess you can send those votes to jbfergus [ at ] freeshell, because gmail hates me and my alter egos.

3/18/05 - If only you had been with me at the local library today to see the 1987-vintage printout of Library Holdings By Subject Heading -- I didn't have the patience or the gumption to photocopy the whole thing. I did manage to scribble down this pair of headings:

Bees     548.79
Bees and Wasps     627.1

or whatever the numbers were; I'm sorry to say I didn't check the shelves. I had Important Not-Novel-Writing to do which did not, for the moment, involve hymenopterans, and then the branch unceremoniously closed on me at six; at least I didn't have to explain to the express checkout computer that I was working on a book called "Reading Faulkner In Tehran, Until You Get Bored and Once Again Go Somewhere Else."

How much do I wish I'd listened to the friend who gently pointed out, when I was bike shopping, that I might like a fender for the rear wheel? "Bah," I thought. "I can handle snow, or rain; I will cover myself with a film of oil every day and the water won't touch me. Easy." No, but I ingeniously rigged up a hands-free umbrella/backpack propping system this afternoon with one critical flaw: the umbrella hung over my eyes like the bangs of a rebellious young rock star, and as much as I longed to rock every semi-controlled intersection in town with haphazard skidding blindness I had to dismantle it after a few blocks, in shame, and ride damp. The life of the mind, I tell you.

3/17/05 - I really can't slow my mind down enough to post: Eavan Boland put out translations of German women poets; I scanned the Bachmann selections and they were painfully, painfully off. She did "Exile" even! Badly! Quel horreur! The bookstore is full of book-pheromones; they make me want to know everything, and when I leave in a fever, my pulse and thoughts racing, for a minute I could tell you all manner of things. But how quickly it decays!-- by the time I race home all I can think of is my shoulders, and the dog, and the lack of furniture to sit on in my room. (I am posting from the floor.)

3/16/05 - Two years ago today Rachel Corrie, a peace activist from Olympia, Washington, was killed in Rafah defending a house from demolition. The polarization surrounding her is predictable -- I tried to find a link to the email she sent her family, which was published a few days after her death, and nearly every site I found was either awkwardly dewy-eyed or hateful. (Update: here it is; thanks, loyal reader!) I will say, for lack of an adequate discursive response, that I literally can't remember crying as hard about any other thing as I did that day, that I swore to work directly for justice thereafter, and I have not worked for justice directly since then. So I shall reflect: my life is changing, and this is a good time for it.

[Later] Reflection. When I was in my third or last year in college -- I don't remember which -- I was very militantly left-wing and thus went to a pro-Palestine rally in downtown Chicago, I think alone. I couldn't tell you who organized it; they gave me a sign, although I'm not sure I held it up, I just wandered around with the crowd and half-chanted, half-watched. Most of the protestors seemed to have brought their families -- there were a lot of kids, running off to get food from the vendors and teasing one another and then rejoining the fray. "Free, free Palestine!" they said. "Er, free Palestine!" I whispered in unison. "Down with Israel!" they continued. I was silent. It's one thing to take a position on fairly abstract moral grounds; another to be fully aware of the culture surrounding it. I didn't know a damn thing about Palestine, really, or Israel, not as places, as anything but moral agents. It wasn't long after that culture and socialization began to loom much larger for me, as far as action was concerned, than abstraction, and I didn't raise my voice on issues like these -- although I protested the impending war in New York in 2003 and marvelled at the sheer number of people (hundreds of thousands) who could be thwarted, silenced and made irrelevant in a single city in a single day.

I spoke of the mixed vituperation and content of Elahiyeh below, and then of my plans to go to grad school in a relatively politicized humanities discipline (the little school to the south is hosting an intriguing conference on one aspect of the politicization, which I have been scheming to attend). The conclusion I always come to is that I don't know myself adequately, that this is a material concern, that the conflict in my particular odd elite part of the culture is subtle and complex and buried and requires sustained contemplation to bring to light -- or something similar.

The pro-Palestine elements in the towns I've inhabited have overlapped considerably with the lunatic fringe -- people either too creepy or too dopey to take seriously, and most of them like me dissociated from any realities of the region. I'm honestly uncomfortable these days linking to any materials on either side of the conflict -- it gets wrapped up in too many other things, people leap to conclusions, misunderstandings result, and my official position is that I am woefully ignorant anyway (as it is on most things!). Inasmuch as Rachel Corrie is "a victim" or "a martyr," a figure of myth, I can't take a strong interest. What affected me so profoundly at the time, I think, was that I briefly lost that numbing, neutralizing sense of cultural difference -- Corrie & I were the same age, we had similar academic backgrounds and similar interests (she wanted to be a writer and artist as well as activist); the letters she wrote to her family read like letters I write to my family; the statements her parents later made reminded me of my own mother and father. For a few days it seemed all those contingencies that separate me from the rest of the world lifted, like curtains, to reveal in all its horror the whole interlaced network of global forces, and the laces I was holding in my own hands.

That flickering vision of power dissolved into iconography within a week, and two years on the meaning of her death has become, among other things, a terrible lesson about action and complacency. In her death, she can hardly do more than I am doing now to work for peace. But I can do more, and I should.

3/15/05 - Nice: Google News juxtaposes a call for the IRA's dissolution with Bush's encouraging Hezbollah to become part of the political mainstream in Lebanon. Although I feel like the lesson there should be obvious, I suppose it isn't -- the IRA issue is getting international press, & being dealt with more or less democratically, so maybe it would be progress -- though I don't think we have a conditional mood in English to reflect the likelihood of that.

[complaints about work excised -ed] Also, the weather has been just sickeningly gorgeous: California gleams like a shiny new nickel in the unseemingly bright early March sun.

Oh, and wow -- Ides of March aside, it seems I've been accepted to grad school for the fall.

A reader (quote) wanted to know how I plan to spend the next six months, correctly surmising that the plans involve Proust. They do indeed, as well as, like, the entire Western canon, a lot of criticism, and everything I won't have time to do when I'm a full-time student and possibly still working part-time -- i.e. writing this insanely complex novel -- did it never occur to me to attempt something simpler? I found a "synopsis" of an early effort last spring which concluded "pretty weak story, so unlikely to exceed 50 pages -- exercise in avoiding cliche," or something like that: the contempt and ennui were manifest. Short novels, short stories -- why bother with the runts? We need a strapping 1000-foot roll of vellum with which to hang ourselves -- that's what we need.

3/14/05 - This looks like it could generate much hilarity, but I'm afraid to try it at work.

3/12/05 - Ernesto Sabato hated Borges, which is too bad: if you take on Borges, of all the writers in this world, you doom yourself to certain defeat. In high school, around this time of year, I read El tunel (after "Las ruinas circulares" and other things that made me not hate Borges); it terrified and haunted me and placed in my mind the persistent desire to see Buenos Aires. Sobre heroes y tumbas is his masterpiece; I began reading it in 2002 or 2003 and worried that it belonged to an age I'd left behind; I still haven't finished it. I would like to believe it contains some elusive quiddity, but who can guess at these things? What it probably doesn't contain is any solution to the problem of literature and politics, which is, perhaps, just as well.

3/11/05 - Hey, what a treat: Clarice Lispector in the morning paper. Among all the other unfinished papers I tried to draft when I wasn't in school, a comparative study of Lispector and Bachmann -- the hunt for a third subject was a consuming occupation for the better part of a year, but I never did find one. It might have been better if I'd had a clear idea of what I was looking for. Extreme restlessness, uncertainty, questing, pessimism, paradoxical theses -- a sense of being completely situated in the world, its cities and airports and cafes, and standing in absolute multifaceted resistance to it. Anyway, she's absolutely great: a short story collection called Family Ties serves as a fine introduction, if you can find it -- if you can find me, you're welcome to borrow my copy.

3/10/05 - It turns out the place to get free wifi near work, other than the break room at work, is this cafe in the sports complex, which is full of jocks and university paraphernalia; it is also the place to get breakfast if you went up to the city all dewy-eyed and exuberant because the Symphony was doing Mahler's 7th and oh, oh, oh Mahler's 7th is so wonderful that you don't need to consider transit home even for a second until you realize that if you're on the BART train that apparently comes "down to the wire" vis-a-vis the Last Caltrain For Two Hours at 10:31, it is the BART train that despite prayers and crossed fingers is scheduled to make the connection at 10:33, thus necessitating a 40 minute wait for local bus, hour ride on same, and -- best of all -- 50 minute walk home from last bus stop, assiduously avoiding the many snails that crawl onto the sidewalk in this town at night to contemplate the moon and stars and the beautiful equilibrium of the world, in slow motion.

You know what? I've about had it with poverty. This is nuts. In my bleariness I forgot my keys this morning: if you're on campus, please don't steal my bike.

and now a real entry

In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, Christopher de Bellaigue (1)

Like Joe Lelyveld's book on South Africa, this is something I wish I could hate: de Bellaigue does the jaundiced imperial eye of Lelyveld's work one better by living in upscale Tehran and snarking about the local cars and the local faith, in the context of geopolitical analysis. But Lelyveld's excellent account of a horrible dance club in Jo'burg was as indelible as this passage, quoted by Pico Iyer in the NYT Book Review:

Elahiyeh's present inhabitants are an uncouth upper class. They have done well in recent years out of high oil prices. They inhabit marble-clad apartments in escapist blocks and enjoy the view during the rare instances when smog hasn't settled in the lap of the Alborz mountains. Many of them have residence rights and property abroad...

It continues, in an increasingly savage fashion, and then--

In a strange way, Elahiyeh's social vacuum suits us [the author & his wife], too. We like the traditional notion of an Iranian community, but are not sure we could inhabit one. Unlike almost anywhere else, you can live in Elahiyeh as you can in a Western city: in peace and anonymity.

After 8 months in the Bay Area, that mixture of vituperation and unapologetic acceptance hit the bull's-eye. I have seen plenty in the past few years to compel me to give up nearly any misty-eyed notion of pure ethical communities obverse the horrors of political and economic regimes nation- and worldwide: there is no way a community small enough to uphold its ethical commitments sustainably can fail to grow incestuous, dogged and irrelevant over very little time. But you need the vituperation too. The wine and cheese and Mahler and Peet's and Cody's is all fine -- the view from hill-houses is indeed restorative, organic produce frequently tastes better, the virtues of clean space and light and [for you, German cars; for me, the Cervelo road bike] are all manifest -- but you must keep the larger picture in your sights, always & ever. There is no excuse for lost conscience, which is to say consciousness itself, from which apologies cannot be formed. But this aside.

I read somewhere that Thomas Carlyle, writing his "French Revolution," tried to approximate the nervous and hectic spirit of the times in prose -- if de Bellaigue's startling and choppy rhetoric leaves any clear impression, it is of a parallel instability for an imagined parallel reason: the logic of revolution is the logic of scores of voices raised, past stoppered ears, in the general direction of the Future -- not of reasoned argument, judicial proceeding, deposition before committee: the sorts of discourse dull books on policy do justice. So far the book is largely concerned with the revolution, although early chapters dealt with day-to-day life in contemporary Iran, and de Bellaigue strikes an uneasy balance between anecdote, historical summary, interview, diary: none of these approaches get at the truth wholly on their own, so one must shuffle them up. If there's a more quotidian explanation for the jerky narrative, that's it. He is capable of writing straight, and well: see the link below. Trustworthiness is something I can't assess without comparative sources: more on this in (2).

From the things-lying-around-the-office files: Hey, neat! Not the international cooperation, although that's awesome, but, um, just desert ecosystems. I love them. The underrated third mode of engagement, between consumption and condemnation.

3/9/05 - Post about "Persian Bites," a restaurant, to follow this article about Iran.

3/3/05 - Because it seemed appropriate, I tried something today I'd never done before: retail therapy.

I can't really overstate the extent to which I hate to shop. It's much more far-reaching than just disliking dressing rooms, or walking, or choosing from rack upon rack of ugly overpriced clothing -- I won't go into all of it here; just take my word for it, for now. Similarly I won't go into the series of decisions that led me to the Stanford Shopping Center on this fine drizzly Thursday evening, for that too is tiresome. I will tell you that the store I finally patronized, "Express," a franchise that has historically been good to me, divides its pants into three styles (taxa?): "editor," "correspondent," and "publicist." (No lie!) I don't know what to make of the implicit hierarchy, in that the "editor" and "publicist" pants were uniformly low-rise -- low-rise pants and I have never had an easy time of it -- and thus the best option for me turned out to be the sensible, serviceable "correspondent" pants, presumably tailored for sending reports from the ground. I bought two pairs; I had to leave with something. I guess I'll write you all letters from these pants, but they will be choppy and misspelled and, er, "curvy sexy."

I then went to a second store where the clothes were hideous and appalling and wrong wrong wrong, so that was that. They say laughter is the best medicine, though, so I guess it worked out -- in which respect seeing a schedule listing at work for "interlectural property summit" cured all my ills for the afternoon. Where are my interlectural pants?

3/2/05 - Because I know the self-censorship gets tiresome, here's a draft: half earnest attempt at a book review, half muddle-headed expostulating on History and Society. (Adorno et al may have overrated the dialectic, but it is the only rhetorical strategy apparently native to my thoughts, I'm afraid.) Also, anyone read F. Sionil Jose?

Weekend reading: OUR VOTES, OUR GUNS: R Mugabe & the Tragedy of Zimbabwe, by Martin Meredith, a journalist & author of several books on southern Africa. If the regime has anything to say in its defense, Meredith doesn't give it a chance: the account he does provide is both damning and entirely believable. It gives almost no background on Rhodesia; for that presumably one looks to Meredith's earlier volume, The Past is Another Country: Rhodesia, UDI to Zimbabwe. It's a short book probably meant for course adoption: the last "chapter" is a bizarre little summary of everything that has gone before, in case readers didn't get the picture the first time around, or need a refresher before the exam. It's sketchy on the "big picture" overall: while Meredith's accounts of the machinations of Mugabe's party, Zanu-PF, speak for themselves, the daily experience of living in a country as it descends from late-colonial stability into postcolonial chaos is left for the reader to infer. But journalism serves to inform without rigor, to lay facts bare without untangling their implications and contingencies.

I mentioned facilely that the book helped to crystallize my irritation with liberals who condemn Bush for his malapropisms: I'm not unduly impressed by Mugabe's eloquence, but he fares better than Bush and it doesn't do any good: clear language, alas, does not foster clear ethical thinking. This isn't original, of course -- "Hitler was a great orator, so what?" -- nor does it do justice to the contorted and insane thinking that finds expression in the man's reasonably-wrought sentences, but Meredith does emphasize the extent to which everyone put their faith in Mugabe in the first two years of independence largely on account of these intellectually palatable characteristics, and how horribly wrong they were.

But on the subject of journalism: I have been steadily drifting from any sort of teleological theory of history, I think with most of the academy behind me; I don't know to what extent there can be global or categorical solutions to the problems of any particular nation, except insofar as there are global/categorical needs (food, medicine, economies). Here one can say: the government is corrupt, racial tensions continue to be exploited, the courts have been sidelined and silenced, the infrastructure of the country is crumbling. But no one is going to invade or rise up. The narratives we see in Western papers like my ever-present NYT try to tease out themes of human behavior: desire for freedom, material goods, quality life for children, self-expression, and so forth, as though these motives are immanent. On the day-to-day level these accounts omit, of course, people are always willing to settle for less than what is good, deciding anew every day to be safe rather than courageous, to take the shortcut to work, to sleep in, to complain about the price of gas. Nothing coheres or connects; no population-level drives evident in quotidian experience, but at the same time so much happens every day that those absences have as much "cause" as the corresponding drives.

Communication theory, a la Habermas & others, is a flimsy way out of ethical dilemmas, but it also seems to me to lead invariably to deep pessimism and to the extent that the pessimism is warranted, any hope you can summon must derive from other quarters. You can't expect anyone to do anything; they will just as soon burn villages as build mobile networks: okay. People have placed their hope in great men, imperialism, economics, mass movements, or a combination of all four: in every case this is silly, and in every case there is no alternative.

2/28/05 - The theory here was that, during my as-it-were convalescence, I would post more articulate, readable things that had less to do with groceries and transit and more to do with the state of the world and the state of the written word. For reasons near enough in spirit to the proscribed themes of groceries and transit I have not had time to bring this plan to fruition. But I will. I promise. I will find time to update the site, perhaps weekly, and you'll have a cornucopia of choice linguistic morsels, delivered with flair, gusto, piquancy and other cliches. I will not again do this:

oh no no no no no no no no. When he records a duet with Conor Oberst, just throw me in the well. I cannot imagine the NYT magazine spread. --

Speaking of bookstores: although I can take or leave Paul Auster's fiction, I hold his nonfiction very dear and it has now been collected in a single volume.

Laptop: Um --

Pica: Shut up.

Laptop: [delicately] He looks a bit like Conor Oberst on the cover of that book. Was this supposed to be the "standards" part of the site?

Pica: [head in hands] It's only a matter of time before I take it down again, I know. I hate the Internet.

Laptop: Well, it's completely indifferent to you!

Pica: Tra-la.

Laptop: Hey, I'll bet you can send a thousand outlandishly eloquent emails to a reporter too. I'll let you know if I spy any cute ones.

Pica: Let me work on my glamor shot. Does the black jacket work with the white shirt?

Thanks for playing, y'all.


2/24/05 - Right: I have very sporadic internet access, & consequently posting anything substantial has been difficult for a while now. I was going to inform you all that I can't sing, at least not "along with 80s songs at top volume," but--

Well, okay. I can't sing. I can report that the guy from Versus has a new band featuring a bass player who looks, from a distance, a bit like Fontaine Toups, and it was mildly awful to walk in halfway through a set I had scrupulously avoided in order to forestall terrible show-fatigue and realize that it was possibly Versus, I had paid to see it, and I had missed most of it. But no. Unless they covered "Angels Rush In" while I was picking at a Burrito of Roasted Vegetable Mediocrity at a nearby Mediocrity restaurant, I have zero complaints about the Mission of Burma show; zero. I had never really heard Mission of Burma before, which was a terrible omission, apparently -- they rocked so hard it, um, literally hurt me -- I spent the hour before bed trying to unkink my upper back, with some success.

Rock-n-roll on Wednesday, hence laundry and roomcleaning Thursday. Jane has been pruning her book collection; I don't think I've taken half of what she's given up, but who can sneer at a free copy of Garcia Lorca in Spanish or Invisible Man after one's own edition disappeared, or even three volumes of Pauline Kael's film reviews? Hell. It's been a fair week for free books, in fact -- a friend & I were walking past the odd little bookstore on Cal Ave and glanced at their free pile, which contained a fat collection of the essays of George Orwell, now at home on my bed. I mean "in residence on my bed;" it takes extraordinary force of will to move these things once they get comfortable. I've fought the dictionary to a standstill before.

"More soon," as always. I should just make a "more soon" graphic.

2/23/05 - I'm back. Why? For a couple of reasons, but most immediately because the Times actually ran a story, after all my complaining, about "snobbery" (the meta-Times, at last!) which concerned the French Women book, the Tom Wolfe book, the prep school book, and more; I stopped reading before I could determine whether it mentioned Lawrence Summers, and I couldn't justify emailing anyone about this.

Hey mom, How are things? Here's what I think about the situation in Darfur!

I recently got screwed by transit yet again, as well. Same story.

Huzzah! More to come.

archives temporarily suppressed; look for redaction in coming days

The unsuspecting masses:


Google news
Die Zeit
more soon...

hey, who are you?

25-yr-old Bay Area academic in exile. I write & temp. Further back, I haunted the Upper Midwest with my backpack and my bike, scowling at the masses & wishing I could uplift them. I'm unconvinced that the bike is really hampering war-over-oil efforts, and I certainly hope the U.S. never goes to war over the coffee supply -- I will look pretty poor then.

reading ref. list

Within a Budding Grove, Marcel Proust
A Whistling Woman, Babel Tower, Still Life, The Virgin in the Garden, A.S. Byatt (roman fleuve)
Orientalism, Edward Said
The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro
Shah of Shahs, Ryszard Kapuscinski
In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, Christopher de Bellaigue
Our Votes, Our Guns, Martin Meredith
Jacob's Room, Virginia Woolf
The Waves, Virginia Woolf
Swann's Way, Marcel Proust
Seven Types of Ambiguity, Elliot Perlman. DO NOT READ THIS BOOK.
other things, here & there. These were the easy ones to get through.