Friday, January 29, 2010

Tu B'Shevat is here

The Jewish "New Year for Trees".

The climate's not conducive to tree-planting where I live, but planting trees is very much a part of this holiday (though as it falls on the Sabbath this year, Jews who keep the Sabbath will plant the trees another time).

Soon I'll light the Sabbath candles, then go to synagogue, and then to the first Tu B'Shevat Seder I've ever attended (hosted at a local Chabad). In some respects it will resemble a Passover Seder - with people gathered at the table eating special foods and discussing the meaning (or rather meanings) of the day, and telling stories from Jewish texts and from their personal lives. There will be an array of wines, a large sampling of fruits, including the Seven Species - figs, dates, pomegranates, olives, grapes, wheat and barley (the last two as bread and cake).

Tu B'Shevat marks the day according to which the ages of different trees are determined (this is for purposes of tithing, and because a part of each tithe is donated to the poor, charity is also an important part of the day).

After a hectic week I'm looking forward to a day of contemplation, savoring, appreciation, and warmth. There's Tu B'Shevat, and also that wonderful constant in my life - the Sabbath.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

And now, some words from the Bennet sisters

[Morning walking dress, Januar... Digital ID: 1111669. New York Public Library
"I would not wish to be hasty in censuring anyone; but I always speak what I think."

[Evening dress, February 1810.... Digital ID: 1111634. New York Public Library
"I do assure you, Sir, that I have no pretension whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere. I thank you again and again for the honour you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female, intending to plague you, but as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart."

[Walking dress, October 1811.] Digital ID: 1111658. New York Public Library
"Far be it from me, my dear sister, to depreciate such pleasures! They would doubtless be congenial with the generality of female minds. But I confess they would have no charms for me - I should infinitely prefer a book."

[March 1810.] Digital ID: 1111635. New York Public Library
"I do not cough for my own amusement."

[Ball dress, July 1810.] Digital ID: 1111640. New York Public Library
"Have you seen any pleasant men? Have you had any flirting?"

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Yonder - a video

Yonder from Emilia on Vimeo.

Eerie and absorbing and delightful.

It reminded me, at some points, of Fantasia, and at other points of the animations in Monty Python's Flying Circus.

There's whimsy in it, along with beauty and mystery.

But the word "yonder" suggests distance, while I prefer to think of the sort of lovely and peculiar landscape and the creatures found in Yonder as just beneath the surface of things nearby (like opening up a dark closet, where your coat and boots are, and finding nameless colorful shape-shifters).

Thursday, January 21, 2010

One reading of 'Smell and Envy'

I thought of this poem after a conversation with a friend about the best type of place to live in, with the main contrast springing up between the city and the countryside.

Douglas Goetsch wrote Smell and Envy in the voice of a city poet scoffing at the nature poets, who think that because of where they live and what they're surrounded by, they have some sort of monopoly on the poetic.

so it blooms and withers only for you,
so all you have to do is name it: primrose
- and now you're writing poetry...

I like the suggestion here that there's a poetry just in the sound of words - like primrose - and there are many words from nature that lend themselves to this poetry. And that it's not just the poets of nature and countryside who can take those words and make poetry out of them. Though in the mind of a city poet the words take on a new form:

we dunk your roses in vats of blue

There's also a suggestion of laziness - that all a nature poet has to do is look out the window and there's the poem, right there, ready to be plucked from a tree. While a city poet has to wring a poem out of concrete.

And it's not only nature words that have poetry to them. There are urban words with poetry and music in them too, though maybe those words lend themselves only to a harsher kind of poetry (is there a word associated with city life that's comparable to, say, primrose? There might be, but it's likely more difficult to find).

As the poem continues there's also an implication of city poets being more knowledgeable about human nature (likely in a more cynical, wordly wise, "seen everything" sort of way). Not that a nature poet can't capture human character as well. Maybe it's that city poets get at the grittier parts of human nature and the greater varieties and idiosyncrasies (and downright insanity) of human personality - they can't help it; in a city everyone's crowded together. No one's flaws go unnoticed. You're nose to nose with a stranger in the subway and the wart on his chin is right at your eye level.

Maybe another contrast is that poems of nature capture the roots and foundations of human character, because we all once lived in nature; the truths of those poems seem to echo in your bones. With the city there's more a sense of displacement, distortion and dysfunctionality - maybe it's a poetry of feeling uncomfortable in your own skin. The Pleiades aren't the remote wonders of the starry night, when you're in the city:

When the moon is full
we hear it in the sirens. The Pleiades
you could probably buy downtown.

But nature can give you grittiness too, and the knots and intricacies of humanity. And maybe there are some lovely (possibly deeply resonant or maybe just uncomplicated) poems set amidst urban life; you know, the beauty of buildings, of city parks (oops, there's nature encroaching a little), and people standing out strikingly on a street corner.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Monkeying around

Only humans 'use laughter to mock or insult others' says this article (though I'm not sure if the claim is well-supported, at least based only on what's written here).

Researchers carried out "tickling sessions" on gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans and compared the sounds to recordings of humans laughing.

"How was work today, dear?"
"You know, the usual. Went to a meeting, analyzed some data, tickled a couple of apes."

And it's not just apes:

The researchers also found that other animals, including bats, made different sounds when they were tickled, but that these may not be the same as laughter.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"They have actual operating rooms... and it's just amazing."

Two videos from CNN on the amazing work carried out by the Israeli army medical corps in Haiti:

They've got a state of the art field hospital set up. They're saving lives, treating difficult medical cases that other makeshift facilities are not yet equipped to handle, and doing so with efficiency, order, compassion, and calm. There's such a disaster in Haiti, but people like these professionals, who've come from so far away and do such great work - they're a fierce bright light in an abyss, a steady strength amid chaos.

Happy Birthday, Edgar Allan Poe

Maybe Poe did manage a cheerful birthday or two in his time, who knows.

The Strangled Woman by Paul Cezanne

Why a painting by Monsieur Cézanne? It's his birthday too (Bon Anniversaire, Paul Cézanne); he was born 20 years after Poe.

So I quickly picked out a Poe-ish sort of Cézanne painting. One that might evoke the lost Lenore:

Eagerly I wished the morrow; — vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow — sorrow for the lost Lenore —
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore —
Nameless here for evermore.

The Edgar Allan Poe society of Baltimore presents his works here. Poems, prose, his groundbreaking work in detective fiction ("The Murders in the Rue Morgue").

Monday, January 18, 2010

"It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."

Here's the text of the "I Have a Dream" speech.

And posted on the same site, a video excerpt:

I'd like to highlight these lines in particular:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

There's more than one way to understand the words "judged by the color of their skin", especially these days. There's the salient meaning - that of a vicious racist judgment; there's still racism today of course, and this racism is verbalized and perpetrated by individuals all over, from different racial and ethnic groups in our society.

There's also another meaning to those words. One where the judgment doesn't have to be negative, or at least overtly negative. It just has to be a judgment, based on skin color alone. A decision, based on skin color alone. Forget looking at the individual in a well-rounded sense - as a complex person. The individual is instead seen in a superficial sense, a member of a group, like all the other members.

It's a laziness of thought, a degradation of the individual, a diminishing commitment to regard each person as his or her own unique self and help people develop to the fullest extent of their potential. It promotes divisions among people. It promotes a superficial sense of "diversity" - not a diversity of intellect, of ability and talent and temperament - but a kind of diversity that looks good in photo ops. And race is only one dimension in which this superficial and more subtly pernicious form of thinking crops up.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

Let's work towards and fight for a love of the individual - of individual merits and substance, individual complexity, each person judged on character, on competency, on word and deed.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rice Pudding, Ginger Snaps, and G.K. Chesterton

A lovely treat, especially for a cold and rainy evening.

Now reading Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday.

I'm still caught up in his introduction to the suburb of Saffron Park, which "lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset". And the people who inhabit it, who aren't exactly poems (but look like poems) or scientists (but look like the kinds of creatures that a scientist would be thrilled to discover).

And now "the two poets of Saffron Park" are arguing about whether poetry shares a common spirit with anarchy or with order. I like the Underground Railway example, with one poet saying that people always look so unhappy on the railway because one stop follows another predictably without chaotic excitement, while the other poet says, no, it's exciting that the stops are so orderly, because think of how badly it could all go and what a triumph it is that people managed to build something that works so well:

"You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hair-breadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word 'Victoria', it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest."

So far my sympathies lie with the poet who favors order (what can I say, I find anarchists to be pretty dull on the whole and incapable of thinking things through). Though really at this point I know next to nothing about the characters (and the poet favoring order, Gabriel Syme, does have an annoying line about "books of mere poetry or prose"); I don't know where this is all going (in these cases, yes, I do like unpredictability), and this looks like it will be a really good book.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ben Franklin and formative books

I've been reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Ben Franklin and thinking about the descriptions of Franklin's childhood in Puritan Boston, including books he cited as favorites or key influences:

- John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress
"A central theme of Bunyan's book... was contained in its title: progress, the concept that individuals, and humanity in general, move forward and improve based on a steady increase of knowledge and the wisdom that comes from conquering adversity." (Isaacson, pg. 25)

- Plutarch's Lives
"... also based on the premise that individual endeavor can change the course of history for the better." (Isaacson, pg. 25)

- Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good by Cotton Mather
"'If I have been,' Franklin wrote to Cotton Mather's son... 'a useful citizen, the public owes the advantage of it to that book.'" (Isaacson, pg. 26)

It's interesting to consider how these books shaped Franklin (and also what ideas he accepted, and which ones he ultimately disregarded and discarded, such as Calvinism's notion of predestination); remember also that Franklin did not come from a wealthy home - his father was a tallow chandler, and Franklin did not have any sort of extensive schooling - these books were available to him at home, and at age 10 he started apprenticing at an older brother's print shop (an education in and of itself and an experience that influenced the course of his life). A lot of personal initiative then, from an early age. And while his knowledge and intellectual endeavors expanded throughout his life, these books seemed to form the germ of his later thinking and his attitude towards an individual's personal development and civic responsibilities (undertaken out of a sense of personal duty).

I wonder what books are considered foundational by modern young readers. There are different religious texts; and what about secular books? Which books did you find left a lasting impression on you, helped shape your ideas (to whatever extent and for whatever duration), impacted decisions you've made or values you've cultivated and considered important? Did you find these books in your home, on your parents' bookshelves? Were they given to you by a good friend or teacher?

Also, to what extent were the books influential - did you recognize them as being important or life-altering shortly after reading them? Or only years later? (or do you mostly just say they were, as part of the narrative you're constructing of your life and how you got to where you are?)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

One reading of 'Wild Geese'

From Mary Oliver's 'Wild Geese', I love these lines towards the end -

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination

But how does the poem get to that place?

'Wild Geese' starts with -
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You do not have to be good. Is it really a matter of having to be good? In regards to goodness I don't think it's a matter of having to be but a matter of choosing to be that's most crucial. And actually acting in that way, immersing yourself in life instead of sitting in front of a mirror in a remote room wondering, "Am I good? Am I worthy?" And gazing fixedly at the troubled reflection you see.

Then the next line, implicitly linking goodness with what seems to be an unendurable amount of self-flagellation.

Repenting is not a mindless wallowing or indulging in self-affliction. It's interesting to consider, though, how focusing on one's guilt becomes harmful after a certain point, a self-obsession that impedes one's ability to be active and purposeful (both generally in life and in the specific actions undertaken to redress one's wrongs).

And then -
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

That can't be all there is to life. Though it's a part of contentment - those moments when you just want to enjoy some harmless pleasures, or be loved and cuddled and embraced with affection, or find a warm quiet place to lick your wounds - it's still not everything, it's not the best answer to living life wholly and well.

That's not where the poem leaves us either. Immediately after those lines, there's talk of despair:
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

But what lifts us out of it?
Meanwhile the world goes on.

Here the poem lifts away from the self and towards great broad things - the rhythms of the world, the language of nature, the sweep of rain and cry of birds. Beyond your own body, the sense of your own isolation and the limits of your pleasures is a whole world; enough of the inordinate self-scrutiny, navel-gazing, obsession with personal faults. Look around - send the mind and senses outwards. When we contemplate the world, study it, hear it, we live a richer life. We become better, and better understand where and how we belong.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Video poetry - one year in 120 seconds

One year in 120 seconds from Eirik Solheim on Vimeo.

That was 2009 right there.

It starts and ends in snow; the trees swell and recede. I love the beauty of the seasons and their patterns.

But it goes by so quickly, that one year; feels like one slow complete breath, just one.

Whimsical Pursuit #2

Imagine what's going on in the heads of Jeopardy contestants.

The neuronal machinery sparking and firing away, currents racing through networks of facts, associations, minute details (now worth hundreds of dollars apiece).

Also whatever crosses their mind as their focus slips, as they choose their wagers, scribble down their Final Jeopardy answer, or recount some personal anecdote that will elicit an indulgent chuckle from Trebek (and maybe only from Trebek).

Show's wrapped up. Now I know that the premiere of the Flintstones was sponsored by one-a-day vitamins and Winston cigarettes.
(Weren't cigarettes once considered a form of one-a-day vitamins?)

Yes, those are actually cakes

Edible cakes, and by the reports of those who buy them, delicious too.

Though it seems like a crime to cut apart and eat these cakes. Good thing lots of photos are taken in advance, or videos showing how the cakes were crafted.

Pink Cakebox posts a list of their top ten cakes of 2009.

Here are two:

Spooky Haunted House with pumpkins and ghosts

Party Form Dress Cake

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"...only one of you in all of time..."

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

-- Martha Graham
(Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham; though I found the quote in Rosamund and Benjamin Zander's book, The Art of Possibility)

Martha Graham in Soaring at Ma... Digital ID: DEN_1475V. New York Public Library

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Sherlock Holmes, Dorian Gray, and a dinner at the Langham

Wilde left with a commission to write his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which appeared in Lippincott’s June 1890 issue. And Conan Doyle agreed to produce a second novel starring his ace detective; The Sign of Four would cement his reputation. Indeed, critics have speculated that the encounter with Wilde, an exponent of a literary movement known as the Decadents, led Conan Doyle to deepen and darken Sherlock Holmes’ character: in The Sign of Four’s opening scene, Holmes is revealed to be addicted to a “seven-percent solution” of cocaine.

Excellent article on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, his writing, his characters, his London. And the article touches on Doyle's meeting with Oscar Wilde in 1889, at a literary dinner with an editor. I like reading about moments like these - creative, imaginative people who make an impression on each other and, if only in a subconscious or inadvertent way, influence each other's work (though here the critics don't speculate as to how Doyle might have influenced Wilde - maybe he didn't). Are the critics right? Would Holmes have been a different character, had Doyle never encountered Wilde?

Regardless, "For both writers, the evening would prove a turning point" - securing commissions for major works in their careers. I wonder who else was at that dinner, which other writers (whom we likely haven't heard about today) and what happened with their careers and writing.

Another interesting point to the article is how Doyle wanted as time went by to rid himself of Holmes - but never could. That's an interesting disconnect, between the demands of the fans and the needs of the author.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Keeping Things Whole

It's a meditative poem by Mark Strand.

These lines stood out:

Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

(There are many ways of looking at this, including the more depressing one of "I'm just a space-filler", a collection of atoms interchangeable with those of, say, a warthog, which could also fill in what is missing, as could an intestinal worm or a mudsucker. But I don't get that feeling from this poem. I get the feeling of completion, that we're in this world to help complete things, and what that means may vary from one person to another.)