I’m delighted to be included in this spotlight Vermont Arts Council gallery running from February 16 through April!
News of the day, one run on sentence
When the American president assassinates an Iranian General, Iran lobs missiles at a US army base. No one gets hurt, except for what is dismissed as headaches, as in ‘we can assassinate your hero but you can only cause us a headache.’ But later we learn that 50 troops are treated for brain damage. Moments later, a civilian aircraft on its way to Ukraine crashes just after take off, killing 176, mostly Ukrainians and Iranian Canadians. Iran blames failed mechanics, the airline, Boeing and the US. Thousands of Iranians gather to mourn their General and hate us. Too many, because there is a stampede where people are trampled to death. Meanwhile, a video is released. Here is the plane, here is the missile, here is the impact. Iran says whoops, our bad, egregious error. Now the protesters turn on their own government.
Trump issues statements: we will destroy your culture and the American people love you and want you to flourish. I wonder: what kind of love is it that destroys your culture? But then, videos begin downloading and I am distracted. Australia is burning. Firefighters in shorts cradle Koala Bears wearing hand knit booties over their burned paws. They are wrapped in blankets called Johnny Pouches knit by prisoners. They knit and knit until Australia is overwhelmed. There are billions of animal deaths. My brain crackles. This is a local extinction. And while I sit there, stunned, Puerto Rico is wracked by earthquakes and then a volcano erupts in the Philippines, and somewhere else, people holding babies and blankets make their way through water up to their waists while dogs swim around in circles.
Burning forests, flooding banks. The ground beneath splits like a melon.
Here it is clouds, freezing rain. The landscape waits silently under layers of ice. I sit in front of a fire at a table cubing the meat of an animal who has spent its short, bucolic life in a field eating grass until it is murdered just for me. Under the table, two elderly dogs lie romp-to-romp. I’ve never been to Australia, Ukraine, Iran. but I can imagine. Under the burning brush, new life, although it is difficult to celebrate because, at the same time, we are the burning bush.
“If, on a certain evening about sixty-six million years ago, you had stood somewhere in North America and looked up at the sky, you would have soon made out what appeared to be a star. If you watched for an hour or two, the star would have seemed to grow in brightness, although it barely moved. That’s because it was not a star but an asteroid, and it was headed directly for Earth at about forty-five thousand miles an hour. Sixty hours later, the asteroid hit. The air in front was compressed and violently heated, and it blasted a hole through the atmosphere, generating a supersonic shock wave. The asteroid struck a shallow sea where the Yucatán peninsula is today. In that moment, the Cretaceous period ended and the Paleogene period began.”
This from the New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/04/08/the-day-the-dinosaurs-died
The image of us mammals scurrying around the feet of towering, pecking dinosaurs, borrowing for safety for thousands of years, ending with one random hour-long event, is chasing me this morning as I walk around my field, feeling the emergence of what we here in Vermont call spring, which is really mud, watching the water birds staring over the melting ice at the edge of the pond, sidestepping emerging dog turds and shredded toys, my goodness, life is returning. But for an asteroid we might not be here. “We” might be unrecognizable, maybe something with feathers. Remember this, writers, even as we cover the globe with our ridiculous opinions.
Wavy Gravy said that, but someone else probably said it first. I’ll go for Wavy, though, because his embodiment of the state of our humanity is precious. He is (still, at 80) the man for whom compassion is a drug. The love child, someone said, of Groucho and Mother Theresa. He had his own bus named Further, which was, back in the day, the Merry Pranksters’ vehicle of choice transporting around all dimensions a cadre of real bozos who wished us all well. But that was then and this is now. Instead of the magic carpet throbbing with good cheer, there waits at the corner, motor humming and windows blackened, a driverless Escalade.
My friend had a belly ache, the cause unclear, so his doctor ordered two Cat scans, one abdomenal, the other pelvic to be done together for a full picture. Because, as the docter knew, we are not divided by the belly button into scanable parts. The insurance company approved the top half but not the bottom and the hospital scheduled one scan, the one at the top, for a month away. The doctor then went to bat for my friend. He nudged the agency until the pelvic scan was approved to be done at the same time as the abdominal. But then the hospital refused to do the scans together and wouldn’t schedule them separately until a whole new set of requests were received. Which would delay the tests even further. Meanwhile, my friend, urged by his doctor to go to the emergency room to get the tests he needs, refused to do so. Instead, he yells at the hospital scheduler, the clinic’s receptionist, the insurance representative, drinks bone broth, swallows Tylendol and Ambian, and finally, like any good American patient, gives in because we are all bozos on the bus and noone has any idea what to do about anything.
Another friend went up on her dentist’s website where, to her horror, she saw a positive review written by me, with my picture, and a statement that I had five children, three of whom she took to this dentist. Now, I do go to this family dentist, but I never have written a review, nor do I have five children, nor would I ever give my dentist permission to post my toothy image on their website. My friend suggested that I call a lawyer and at least get free dental care for the rest of my life. My lawyer, however, never called back. So I went over to the practice and said hey, you have no right to steal my identity to boost your revenue, to grab my photo and by the way I don’t have five children. Oh, said the dentist, the web people get all that stuff from Google.
I suppose, although it’s hard to face, that maybe it’s true that we get what we deserve. We get Google and Google gets us, and this brings me to Donald Trump. The world is running on some kind of algorithm that fakes humanity the way it fakes the news and it’s out of control. Wavey and his pals were then and Donald Trump is now, two bozos on opposite poles. Yesterday I was cheering AEO and, yes, Omar, weighing my love of Bernie with my lust for Beto, but today I think the reality show guy could win the 2020 election because the bus keeps breaking down.
The last time I was in NOLA – way before Katrina – I dismissed the city as a theme park. This time, I’m not here as a tourist. I’m in a real neighborhood at a residency established by the people responsible for the first Free Tibet concerts back in 1995, in a little house behind their own.
This is the Bywater, formerly the Upper Ninth Ward. It runs along the river bordered by the French Quarter and Treme. I stand in front of the levee looking up – I am beneath the river! Enormous freighters with names written in foreign alphabets crawl back and forth along the Mississippi. I climb the the steep rusty bridge over the freight train tracks and the levee and come back down to a pretty green walking trail called Crescent Park. The day is gowing hot. People wearing spandex ride fast bikes toward the French Quarter while others, heads down texting, are walking their dogs. Dogs are everywhere and they are lucky dogs because New Orleans has hundreds of dog parks made out of empty lots when the river broke the levees, buildings collapsed and eventually the rubble was taken away.
I ran into one dog today, in a voodoo supply store, a fat hairy dog riveted by something on a top shelf.
NOLA is a bowl in a swamp, where it seems the apocalypse has already happened. The survivors are in various stages of getting over it, standing up and falling down, like a Laurie Anderson song. It is a port – freight trains run along the commuter lines. it is commerce and joy, voodoo and nunneries, community and desolation. People on the street smile, they nod, they say,”how’s your day goin'” and sometimes they stop to tell you how their day is going. The clothes! Prints on stripes, dresses over shorts – this is a city that loves its skin. Po-boys are delicious, gumbo not so much, hipster cafes painted shades of orange behind shutters next to drink dives and one-stops, BMW’s with Jersey plates drive behind construction trucks and Havana Chevys and then there’s the Bark Market that sells pet supplies on one side and art supplies on the other. And the Death, Pharmacy and Chicken museums. An Improv theater in the Healing Center along with the food co-op and trance making supplies.
On my (white) side of St. Claude, soft bellied bearded men sit in cafes eating cake and reading novels, while on the other side an emaciated Haitian rides a stolen bike around in circles. The Quarter is a 20 minute walk away, as is Treme, as is downtown. It is a city of writers. Walter Percy lives on, his old writer’s group still meeting every Friday at a certain bar.
One wonders, where do the people who get pushed out go? Houston? Katrina didn’t do them in, they say, it was the government building substandard levees and infrastructure, the broken pumps; it was America that almost killed them. NOLA, they explain, nodding wisely, is a blue dot in a red state.
The cats, however stayed and multiplied. You see them everywhere, in the stores, on stages, grooming their tails in art galleries, hunkered down on stoops, sneaking out of alleys. Always single, They patrol grocery stores, pose on cafe counters and have serious expressions. On every other porch there is a plate of half eaten food. They don’t need water because, as I said, NOLA is a bowl in a swamp.
My computer pings. It’s a weather alert but not for me: a blizzard is sweeping West to East across Northern Vermont.
I’m deeply involved in a writers community in my city. It’s a Meetup group that has maybe 200 active members. When the founder disappeared (who knows the real story behind this), they (who are they?) formed a 501C3 that required a Board, so that was formed, and after their terms ran out, a second Board came forth but a year later almost all of them quit in a huff without telling anyone why, without a transition plan. Then a transitional team tried to form, but they too quit (what is it with quitting boards?) and now there is an emergency community meeting because we have to pay the rent.
This has been going on for months, and now half of us who used to be copasetic in community don’t speak to the other half: being writers, we started sending each other overly long, acrimonious, analytical and philosophical emails and neglected our own novels.
I unapologetically fled. I was able to get out of town to a residency where I determined to convince my novel to forgive me.
I’m thinking of something that happened to a famous writer whose name I’ve forgotten. She tells the story of having thought of writing a novel about – I’m quoting from Amazon here – “a researcher (female) who sets off into the Amazon jungle to find the remains and effects of a colleague who recently died under mysterious circumstances.” But she never wrote it, and in due time her idea went away and settled in the brain of another writer, Anne Patchett, who actually wrote that story, which she titled “State of Wonder”. These writers met and kissed, or something, and became best friends.
This story of course sounds too good to be true, but even if it isn’t, there’s a lesson behind it, which is more or less that there are only so many ideas floating around the universe and if you don’t write your novel, someone else will.
Kavanaugh won. The deficit rose 17 percent. Mitch McConnell says he’s concerned, but no problem, we’ll just pay for it by cutting entitlements.
I’m reading Moby Dick.
to conclude that no religion was more interesting than any other because all was chaos and “it is better to sleep with a cannibal than a drunken Christian.” I agreed with both conclusions and brought the book straight back to the library. Reading Moby Dick was not then cool.
Forty years later, I picked it up on the night of September 11th. This time, I read all the way to the end. Savoring the metaphors, instructions, alliterations, the mood swings. The book obsessed me. Ahab was the fury sacrificing the ship for revenge in swirling metaphors. The imagery was so potent, so contemporary, so driven that I spent the next three years painting them.
My images were of submerged cities where inhabitants sat in restaurants eating at tables while whales watched through broken glass. I have to say no book has inspired me like this since. September 11th 2001 was insane, and so far an anomaly, except for Donald Trump who could be the Ahab of our century.
This time around it occurs to me that Ahab is, in some infernal way, as much the hero of the book as is the whale:
He asks Starbuck, “how can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?” and answers rhetorically, “To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white wale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun it it insulted me.”
This statement is appalling and yet it is profound. While Ishmael is content to explore without malice a ride on whatever spiritual vehicle he encounters, Ahab is the personification of defiant despair beyond comfort. The whale is his personal personification of evil, to kill the whale is to purify humanity from radical evil. If there be an evil God, then the way to freedom from that evil is to “thrust through the wall” that is the white whale. So his obsession is not only for revenge, but also to learn for himself if God be evil, even if he fails and learns nothing.
And he knows he cannot succeed alone. Like any totalitarian power obsessive, he is precise, and he accomplishes his goals with various strategies, i.e. winning over Starbuck’s “soul and mind” – that is, subjecting the ego to a mob obsession, gathering a military and prophet (Fedullah and friends), pretending his motive is mere capitalism, giving his men heroic significance in his campaign to purify the world of evil. And in moments of rage and sniffle, he demonizes the entire wet world…”Panting and snorting like a mad battlesteed that has lost its rider, the masterless ocean overruns the globe” and anoints himself and his ship as the vehicle worthy of plunging into this chaos.
What a line.
This is, of course, the argument of totalitarianism, in the mid 19th Century as Europe headed towards reactionary nationalism that would explode decades later, and is resonant today as our world slips ever deeper and deeper under the weight of kleptocratic oligarchies.
You noticed the twitch, right? Left upper lip triangulating towards the nose, eyebrows arched and rapid eye blinks? Looks like a snarl, but of course, it’s not, because our nominee is just a regular beer drinking basketball playing judge who went to YALE.
Susan Orleans once said she was sick of old dead white men. Too bad, because new ones keep getting born.
The twitch bothers you, right? You wonder about the odd facial tics, the tongue in his cheek, the tears squeezing out when he’s talking about football camp. Like how old is he? The pursed lips, staring eyes. He looks like Mr. Potato Head on crack, a raving teenager someone should send to his room. Something really weird in the mouth. He wants to talk over everyone, shout, make his sniveling points and go home for a beer. You think this guy is having some trouble with the truth. The judge is a liar and a smooth one, the kind that deflects questions, knows the value of a righteous rant and above all deserves the job because, well, he is Brett. He was born for this job of a Supreme Court Judge! Mamma was a lawyer, Daddy kept up his calendars. Didn’t his very own daughter ask to pray for the woman? That woman who is destroying his life by her accusations which no way should be investigated? Somebody screwed that lady up but wasn’t me. A guy without blemish, gosh, everyone has told him so, even women have remarked on his fairness, and all he wants is a FAIR PROCESS that will get him the career plum he absolutely deserves. If it doesn’t, it’s because of the conspiracy: “Thanks to what you on this side of the aisle have unleashed” ….. I may never be able to coach again. Jesus. Never mind that we don’t want this guy as our coach,
Is he not showing us what a despicable judge he will be? Consumed with paranoid, partisan rage. The ranting Lear. Weren’t you the were the pornographer on the Starr team who asked Bill Clinton if he’d stuck a cigar between Monica Lewinsky’s legs? The guy denying a refugee the abortion she begs for? Your body isn’t yours, woman, it’s mine.
Yes, Brett. You blew it for me, but you’ll likely be nominated because you’ve spent the last four days being briefed at the white house by Donald Trump. Be my Donald clone on the Supreme Court. The judiciary is MINE. the house is Mine. the FBI is Mine. Congress is to do MY bidding, We are not going to vet your character because character is, as we know, overrated; what is important is stopping the other side from usurping our power. The entire Republican party just wants to stay in charge by lurching behind the flapping feet of a contemptible, stupid, illiterate, blasphemous, raging pitbull even though at any moment, in a bad mood, he will kick open the doors to the zoo and blow you away by lions, even though he’s a disaster and you, by impliction…..
When I first began to comprehend how Empire that rises inevitably falls, I thought, OK, that’s not so bad. Let America back off already, it’s time. I thought we were making progress, spreading horizontally towards decency. That our goodwill, incredible resources, diversity, and astonishing landmass would let us settle into becoming a generous place to live and flourish. We had only to let go of our exceptionalism, learn how to spread the wealth, give up the myth of The Greatest Military Power On Earth because really, it is ugly. I thought we would shake off the oligarchy. That the Empire would fall gracefully as a landing seabird when its time came.
What fools we are, spooning around the soft spines of this dream, hoping to keep warm and dry while out in the real world, our elected raging, paranoiac spews seeds through our laws, courts, safety nets, decencies, hope, and here’s one more fungus ready to fatten himself off of me.
Moby Dick has inspired visual artists always and these prints are superb. I think it’s the language, the way images roll through the story. Like water. Like whales.
I opened Moby Dick the day the towers went down on 9/11 and spent the year making 100 wax prints, painting over images appropriated from the web. Seeing Stella’s “Extracts” pings my heart – where he used lattice, I used images of the towers’ twisted grid. My city was freeze-framed under water, images of whales watching diners through broken glass.
The book is a volcano of inspiration. What is it with us and the whale? We hunted, dismembered, idolized and ate. A tremendous price for our unchecked population as we gorge ourselves on the earth’s resources.
Rereading now with the Burlington Writers Workshop lit group. Joyful! Overwhelming. Capricious. Universal. Scary, all of the above.
After coming to the end of the delicious, rapturous, repetitive, raving, magnificent most-engaged-knight-in-the-entire-world Don Quixote, I’ve become obsessed with Rachel Cusk’s trilogy; Outline, Transit and Kudos. She’s the anti-Cervantes, the “dissociate artist for a dissociate age, asking from the back seat; ‘is this real life?'” So writes Patricia Lockwood in the London Review. Like so many others, I started off disliking her, and still do, but I read on.
Probably it’s the Voice. It drones seamlessly from one person’s story into the next, commenting when it feels like it, then going on to the next like a distracted, OCD dog. The voice is monotonous, without nuance. At times, it’s indistinguishable from the person it’s supposed to be conversing with. You get the sense that the Voice listens, but that it can only respond to what mirrors itself in the teller’s stories. When the Other Voice, the one telling a story (mostly men strutting their stuff) stops for breath, the Cusk Voice comes out like the cuckoo in the clock, presents its rebuttal, or its insight, which are at times so embedded with “it seems to me” and “in a kind of way” and “perhaps” as to be unfathomable, pretentious, as if ones point of view is the only proper response to a story being told by someone else.
Lorrie Moore says this: “We see that we are experiencing a presentation: a midair collusion of storytellers and pronouncers. Faye’s voice and those of the characters she encounters sometimes merge—and that is the point. However underperforming our lives may be, the stories of them are always performances. Faye makes statements that seem to announce the book’s narrative strategy: “I was beginning to see my own fears and desires manifested outside myself, was beginning to see in other people’s lives a commentary on my own.”
The Voice is hypnotic. I’m mesmerized. Cusk is traveling, and her fellow travelers are as mundane as mine are.
I’m also reading Sigrid Nunoz, The Friend, Houellebecq’s Submission and I’m paging through Karl Ove to see if it’s possible to commit to The Struggle, which I’ve been saving for when I’m convalescing from flu. Strangely, I find no pleasure reading these authors. With some exceptions, mostly their sentences ring pithy as hammers banging through rock, stripped of imagery, lacking sensuality, self-involved with their own drama. And yet, and yet – they are driven, relentless, trance inducing.
I came to Cusk late because along with Sheila Hati and Claudia Day (whose recent article in the Paris Review begins with “I wrote the first draft of my novel Heartbreaker in a ten-day mania in August 2015” – I’m supposed to want to read this?) she was part of the New Motherhood, what it means, what price you pay, how to write a novel with children hanging from your clothing sucking your blood. I admit that the topic doesn’t interest me, I simply don’t care; the topic brings out the worst in me, the me that says, Yes, giving birth is a big deal, yes domesticity is the death of freedom, yes, it is the birthing of the death of another and yes, it’s also a big deal to write a novel while a mother. Yes yes yes, there are consequences for everything, get over it, find something else to write about. Aside from Patty Smith and Keith Richards, who have a ball writing about their =interesting, demonic lives, I can’t think of a memoir worth writing.
What it boils down for me to is this: Everything in life is someone’s drama, and eventually, unless it is transformed into language, paint, color, rhythm, movement, conversation; story; into beauty, it feels like just one more voice grinding away in the background with the clothes dryer.
Which, if you’re DeLilio, or Robert Altman and maybe Rachel – well, drone on.