Monday, October 31, 2005

The Wild Indoors

Remember how, in the olden days, hardy, weather-bitten explorers would brave the arctic cold to go hunting for food? How they would wander all day in frozen and inhospitable landscapes, returning home at sunset with their fingers numb and their bones chilled to the marrow, only to sink gratefully into the comfort and warmth of their roaring hearths?

Okay, so I don't remember them either, but I know exactly how they must have felt. Not that it's cold outside. On the contrary, it's a glorious Fall day - the sun is shining, the temperature's a breezy 70 degrees (21 C), everwhere people are walking around in their shirtsleeves, smiles on their faces.

That's outside. Inside, in my windowless cubicle, Winter rages unabated - freezing winds blow in every direction, I sit huddle up in my jacket, blowing on my hands every now and then to keep from losing fingers to frostbite. At any moment I expect little flakes of snow to come drifting down on all my files. I'm considering burning some of my case mat to start a bonfire, if only I could get my hands to stop shivering long enough to light a match. Climate control has struck again.

Don't get me wrong. In general I'm quite grateful for temperature control. I'd just have been a little happier about it if they'd actually designed the system in my building for human beings, rather than simply ripping off the cooling system of the penguin enclosure from the Philadelphia Zoo. When you get to the point where the minute you exit a building you breathe a sigh of relief and take off your gloves, there's surely something wrong.

At this point, one of you jobless wags is going to point out that if it's really that cold in my office then I should be out in the afternoon sun instead of typing this stupid post. Well, let me tell may have a point there. Aargghh! I'm out of here.

News of the Day

Finally, something more balanced than Fox News.


Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

- Rainer Maria Rilke (trans: Stephen Mitchell)

This has to be one of the best things Rilke ever wrote. What I love about this poem (and about Mitchell's translation of it - for alternate translations, see here) is the bluntness, the uncomprising air of a stated fact. Rilke's autumn is no season of mist and mellow fruitfulness, it is the beginning of an end from which there is no appeal. The very abruptness of the lines here ("Herr: es ist Zeit."; "Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr. / Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben") makes this is a tough, almost brutal poem, a poem of barrenness, a premonition of the coming winter.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Bottle

Where the darkness comes from he does not know. He turns in his chair, and there it is, a sort of heavy absence, like the static greasiness of the air before a storm. What is it Dickinson calls it? The doom's electric moccasin. That is it exactly: the sensation of footsteps, unseen, unheard, drawing steadily nearer. He feels like a blunt weapon. He has a desire to measure himself against razors, to yield himself to their sharp-edged objectivity. He has a desire to be cold, steel-like, a jagged presence in a world grown acute.

That's when he remembers the vodka. He bought it a month ago, for a friend's visit. It's been lying there ever since, unopened, nestled in the back of his underwear drawer, snug as an unhatched egg. A small glass bell of a bottle, its contents as clear and as liquid as silence. Forgotten like a mine, or an unexploded bomb.

He thinks of it now, the need growing stronger in his throat, corroding him like acid. Who would have thought that thirst could be so specific, so demanding - a petulant child. He tries to deny it. It does not do to give in to these impulses, it does not do to drink alone - that way madness lies. But there is something half-hearted in his denial, something very like defeat. He is like a man who braces himself against the seat of his car, knowing the accident cannot be avoided now, knowing that the weight of his will will not be enough against the driving engine of this urge. In the bleakness of his consciousness, the bottle becomes a talisman, a lamp to be rubbed, a friendly ghost to be conjured with. An irresistible sword set in an immovable stone.

No, it is no use resisting. Maybe just one drink. He fishes out the bottle, places it (still unopened) on the table. He finds a glass, takes out the ice-tray, pries out a few cubes. He is like the priest to some pagan rite, laying out the accoutrements of the ritual, careful not to glance in the direction of the victim until the very end. The sharp crack as he unseals the bottle is like the breaking of some covenant. The vodka coils its way between the ice like some viscous serpent. He holds it in his hand for a minute, the glass cold to his touch, staring into it like a soothsayer into a crystal ball, seeking some shape, some sign.

The first sip tightens him, bares him like a fang. The drink is a mouth biting him back. He feels the slow warmth of it spreading through him, like the glow of a bonfire, fanning out across a plain of ice. He feeds the flame then, small, quick sips burning their way onto his tongue, down his throat. Only one drink, he tells himself. I must take it slow, make it last. But he goes on drinking.

One hour later he has turned all the lights out and is sitting on the floor listening to Beethoven's Eroica. The slow movement swells. He tastes salt in his drink and realises he's crying. The bottle is half empty now. There's not enough left for another person. "Like my life", he says, to no one in particular. Then he pours himself another drink. Might as well finish it now. Might as well get it done with.

When he wakes up the next morning, the ceiling seems very far away. He realises he's lying on the floor. There's a gushing sound in his ear, like a distant waterfall. He shakes his head to clear it, then realises it's the tap in the bathroom. He must have left it running. He can hear the roar of its wounded martyrdom, protesting, nagging him. He gets to his feet slowly, his legs are trembling, uncertain. He staggers into the bathroom, turns the tap off. Stares at himself in the mirror. He looks like a wreck. His eyes are bloodshot. His clothes are terribly crumpled, his hair is a mess. His neck hurts from lying on the cold floor all night.

He goes back into the bedroom, pries the glass out from the corner under the bed where it has rolled. At least it's not broken. The ice-tray lies in the centre of the table, a pool of dead water spreading around it in sympathy. The bottle stands next to it, upright, forbidding. In the daylight, it is a warning made tangible, like an emptied hourglass. He picks it up gingerly, throws it into the trash. His temples buzz like telegraph poles, waiting to transmit the day's headache. He drinks water directly from the bottle - long, greedy glugs. He crashes onto his bed. Slowly, like a man a making his way through a tortured labyrinth, he falls asleep.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Nay sayer

Friday evening. The start of the weekend. He heads home early, knowing the new Coetzee novel is waiting for him. A quick coffee, a moment spent re-arranging his blankets, and he slips quietly into bed (it is still 5 pm, but who cares) and opens his book. As he drifts into the deliberate flow of Coetzee's prose (cautiously, feet gingerly testing the invisible rocks that lie at the bottom of the writing) an image comes to him unbidden (or at least not consciously sought) of a thin leaf trembling in the clutches of a slow yet mighty river, borne along helplessly and against its will. (Eliot writes: "I think that the river/ Is a strong brown god - sullen, untamed and intractable").

He stares into the stillness of Coetzee's pages as though they were water. As a face slowly emerges from their depths, the suspicion takes him that it is his own. He is taken aback. He starts away, then returns for a closer look. The man in the book (in the mirror that the book is) is older of course, more decrepit, yet the features are unmistakable. Here is Dorian Grey in reverse, the terrible visage of crimes he is yet to commit, of neglect he is yet to live through.

Unable to take any more, he shuts the book, lies in bed staring at the ceiling. What has happened to him, he wonders? Paul Rayment was knocked off his bike by a moving car, but what accident has he suffered, what terrible collision has left him crippled? For crippled he undoubtedly is, if only in a deeper, more inward way. Like Rayment, he is inert, stagnant. His entire self nothing more than a still puddle that clings desperately to the shrinking light of the day. He has never been like this before - he has always been strong, decisive, he has made courageous choices, he has broken away from the straight and narrow. His entire life has been a long sequence of unconventional, almost outrageous decisions, decisions that seemed inexplicable to others, but that he himself never shied away from. Why then is he now so hesitant to act? Why is he content to sit here, in this tiny room, doing nothing, trying to be nothing but what he already is, to possess nothing that he does not already have? Why does he not send the manuscripts that are piling up in his desk drawer to a publisher? Why will he not get his computer fixed, or go on a diet, or tell some woman that he loves her? Lines from Tagore come back to him:

Obstinate are the trammels, but my heart aches when I try to break them.
Freedom is all I want, but to hope for it I feel ashamed.
I am certain that priceless wealth is in thee, and that thou art my best friend,
but I have not the heart to sweep away the tinsel that fills my room

The shroud that covers me is a shroud of dust and death; I hate it, yet
hug it in love. My debts are large, my failures great, my shame secret and heavy;
yet when I come to ask for my good, I quake in fear lest my prayer be granted.

What is he afraid of?

Or is he afraid at all? He holds the word in his mouth for a moment, testing its weight as though it were a pebble, small and smooth. Is that what is wrong with him? Is it just that he has lost all his confidence? He spits the word out. No, he is not afraid. What he is experiencing is not fear, but reluctance. In Franny and Zooey, Franny says "I am not afraid of competing, I am afraid that I will compete". That is it, exactly. He has not ceased to believe in his own abilities, he has ceased to believe in his need to have abilities, ceased to believe in himself as a person who has the right, or the obligation, to have needs. What he has lost is not courage, but will. To desire happiness for himself is an arrogance he is no longer capable of. In the world as he sees it now, the need to insist upon his own presence seems childish, an exercise in mere attention seeking. He has no illusions about justice, he no longer believes that there may be things he actually deserves. If he refuses to act now, it is because he has a clear vision of himself and all his desires as trite and laughable.

But so what? What if ambition makes him ridiculous? Is this inertia, this sitting around, waiting to be murdered by Time, any less absurd? Is his refusal not merely a form of juvenile obstinacy, a different way of insisting upon his own independence? Is the problem not perhaps that there are no truly unconventional choices left for him to make, that no one would question or doubt any action he were to take now, no matter how bizarre? Like a climber who has reached the summit of his rebellion, he has nowhere to go but down. Could it not be that in denying choice itself he is trying once again to astonish and puzzle, seeking attention for the things he does not do because he can no longer get it for the things he does?

Or is he just making too much of this? Isn't all this gloomy philosophising simply the effect of reading a dark and thoughtful book? Is his life really that stagnant? He reads prodigiously, he goes for concerts, movies, plays, dance performances, he travels, he has a widening social circle. Most people would say he leads an active and interesting life. He would say it, has said it, himself. (A line from Eliot returns: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins"). Is he imagining it then, this void he feels? Making it up, because he must either believe that his life is somehow incomplete, or be left with no reason for living it (it's possible; he has great faith in his imagination, it's the one thing he still prides himself on). And what if he genuinely is unhappy, is discontented? He is not old, he has made no decisions that cannot be revoked. Even if this vertigo of ambition is real, could it not be simply (that most ludicrous of epithets) a phase? Perhaps he is like a cyclist who, having pedaled furiously for a while, is now cruising along on the momentum of his past; perhaps when the pace of his journey slows sufficiently, the motivation to pedal will return. Is this then, the final indignity - that even his thoughts of being ridiculous are ridiculous themselves?

Or is this, perhaps, what satisfaction feels like? Could it be that this lethargy he feels, this weariness, is actually just a form of contentment? Perhaps the only form? What does it mean when you can think of nothing your life lacks but feel that there should be, must be something it does? Like an amputee, imagining pains in a leg he no longer has. What if this state, this slack restlessness, this blankness of having nothing left to prove (no, that is not quite correct - it is not that he has nothing left to prove, it is just that he has no one left to prove it to, and no real need to prove anything anyway) is happiness?

He sits at the window, staring out over the empty streets of the city, trying to organise his own thoughts. Slowly his mind refocusses on the book, slow tentacles of curiosity curl their way towards him, he can feel himself been drawn back to the narrative. As he thinks of the book again, the temptation to think of himself in fictional terms becomes stronger, he begins to imagine his life, past and future, as the plot of some larger novel. He is young, he has said, he can change. But what if the book of his life has already been written elsewhere, and what he holds in his hand is only the published version, impossible to rewrite, impossible to alter. Is that not the real source of his ennui, the rationale for his disquiet? Not that he cannot change his life (that would be a relief to know) but that he can and mustn't. Is he not simply waiting for time to come and take these choices that are offered him out of his hands? Is that why he finds it so difficult to believe in an alternate reality where he too has settled into the coma of domestic bliss, where he has become like everyone else? Is his abiding conviction that he will end up alone and (probably) bitter, not in itself a form of fidelity?

Perhaps this is how a character in a book feels, seeing the plot carry him forward, knowing that there is no escape, intuiting already the bitter end that is to follow. One thing is for certain, there will be no happy endings here (this is Coetzee after all), no blessed reprieves. The thought is comforting - he does not think he could deal with the violence that such happiness would involve.

All this talk about the book has turned his thoughts to writing. He can feel the urge to write slowly taking hold of him, can see the phrases, obedient like legions, starting to mass into their own formidable army. Writing is the last form of magic he permits himself ("Now my charms are all o'erthrown,/ And what strength I have's mine own,/ Which is most faint"), his only mode of hope. In the absence of his laptop, he picks up pen, paper. He sits down at his desk. He begins to write.

Friday, October 28, 2005

I, Robot

Coming to work today, it occured to me that there are two kinds of people in the world - those whose work could easily be done by robots and those whose work couldn't. (well, okay, so there is a third set of people like me who do no work in the first place, but we're a dying breed).

Wouldn't it be wonderful if all the annoying and irrelevant people I have to meet every day - people who wait tables, work at check-out counters, sit at security desks, answer phone calls, clean offices, run countries - were to be replaced by machines in the next 50 years? I might actually start to believe in the human race again.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Sounds off music

When are people going to figure out that all you really need to be a good concert audience is to be quiet? Not to shuffle your feet around or adjust your seat noisily. Not to open and close opera glasses with a snap. Not to whisper sharp little critiques into your neighbours ear while the orchestra is playing. Not to make out as though the future of planetary procreation depended on it. Not to entertain your four year old. Not to drop books / programs or anything else that will hit the floor with a resounding thud or a reverberating clack. No, not any of those things. All you need to be a good audience is to bloody well SHUT UP!!

I mean okay, so maybe there are cultures where coughing loudly through the entire first movement is a sign of appreciation. Perhaps there are planets where devoted aficionados spend days, nay, weeks, finding the one lozenge wrapper that will give the perfect crackle when it's opened in the middle of the adagio. There may even be some remote corner of the galaxy where no opera is considered a success unless at least a dozen children cry out how bored they are in the course of it. But where I live, music is not a participatory sport.

How would all these candy-munching, face smooching, child trawling visigoths feel if we came and did the same to things they (presumably) care about? If we sought them out in the privacy of their sordid back-seat assignations and played Beethoven loudly in their ears just as they were getting past second base. If we went along to their labour rooms and stood around pointing and making loud comments through the entire performance? If we made them sit and listen to the William Tell overture every time they unwrapped another toffee? If all they want to do is munch and kiss and accidentally drop things, why come to a concert, why not just stay at home and watch Monday night football instead?

What amazes me about these people is the precision with which they always manage to come in at exactly the moment where the noise they make will be most easily heard. It's almost as though they have their own little score with all the best interruption points marked. So the orchestra will spend five minutes building into the sort of triumphant crescendo where you can barely hear yourself breathing - and no one will make a sound. But let the music descend to a single sustained note on the flute, and suddenly everyone will need to clear their throats or lean back in their creaking seats. It almost makes you want to jump up and ask if there's an axe-murderer in the house.

Okay, so sometimes you can't help stuff. If you need to sneeze or cough, there isn't really much you can do about it. But at least people could keep their lozenges and stuff unwrapped and not eat things during the concert that make noise (I've actually sat two seats away from someone who brought pistachio nuts, pistachio nuts! in her purse). And at least they could have rules about not bringing in kids below five (or ten. or fifteen.). And why can't concert theatres have a special soundproof box or something for people who know they have a cold and are going to be coughing a lot?

Personally, I've decided I'm going to write a symphony. It'll be called Falstaff's Symphony in F Op 1 SUNS 2 (SUNS stands for Some Unpronouncable Naming System) and will be scored for two dropped programs, two cranky brats, one horny couple, two ringing cell phones, four TB patients, a doddering old lady who sings along to everything, and lozenge wrappers. What's more, when they finally perform it, I will sit in the front row with a violin and play single notes on it every now and then just as a random disturbance. Let's see how they like that.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Have you ever had one of those mornings where you wake up and feel that the room is shaking around you? Not a violent trembling, you understand, just the thinnest of tremors, subcutaneous, as though your bed were the flank of some great animal, quivering in exhaustion.

In moments like these you look to objects for verification. Are they shaking too? For a moment it's hard to tell. You manage to imagine that there is a real earthquake happening. Suddenly the walls seem to close in on you, the ceiling becomes your enemy. You jump out of bed. As your feet touch the icy stillness of the floor you realise that there is no earthquake. The world is perfectly still. It is all in your head.

Could it be that fear, like some seismic force, lies at the very centre of all existence? Could it be that our lives, so solid-seeming, exist only on a thin fault-line of hope? Or is this purely physical? Some coincidence of muscle and bone that leaves you shivering like a leaf?

Dickinson writes:

IT was not death, for I stood up,
And all the dead lie down;
It was not night, for all the bells
Put out their tongues, for noon.

It was not frost, for on my flesh
I felt siroccos crawl,—
Nor fire, for just my marble feet
Could keep a chancel cool.

And yet it tasted like them all;
The figures I have seen
Set orderly, for burial,
Reminded me of mine,

As if my life were shaven
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key;
And ’t was like midnight, some,

When everything that ticked has stopped,
And space stares, all around,
Or grisly frosts, first autumn morns,
Repeal the beating ground.

But most like chaos,—stopless, cool,—
Without a chance or spar,
Or even a report of land
To justify despair.

So much for imagined earthquakes. For real ones, there's Mastercard. And links to organisations you can give to here and here.

One good turn-off

Yesterday's post about book snobs (coupled with Veena accusing me of being the biggest snob of them all - such praise!) made me think about this incident from 6 years back.


The setting is the IIFT campus in Delhi. Falstaff (looking visibly thinner! Sigh) has just got done with his WIMWI interview, and is hanging around waiting for a friend to finish so they can go grab lunch. As the scene opens, a Gorgeous Young Woman (GYW) comes up to Falstaff and strikes up a conversation about his interview, hoping (no doubt) to pick up a few tips for her own [1].

GYW: "Did they ask you any Math?"
Falstaff: (Sure. Want to go in the back and practise multiplication?). "No" (Ah! Falstaff's being his usual eloquent self we see)
GYW: "So what did you talk about?" [2]
Falstaff: "Oh, nothing much. You know. This and that. The usual." (Give her an answer, numbskull) "Let's see. We talked about poetry for a while".
GYW: (in panicked voice)"Poetry?! Are you supposed to know about that?"
Falstaff: "No, no, it's just that it was on my form, that's why. I hardly think they'd require a background in poetry for an MBA admit, do you? Ha! Ha!" (though come to think of it, why not? Bakul, are you listening?)
GYW: "Oh, are you interested in poetry then?"
Falstaff: (smirking. Is a fish interested in water?) "Oh, you could say that, I suppose. I dabble in it a bit" (note to OED editors: dabbling is now defined as staying up night after night spending hours on something)
GYW: "So what did you talk about in poetry?"
Falstaff: "We were talking about Ghalib, actually."
GYW: "Ooh! Ghalib! I just love Ghalib! He's so exquisite."
Falstaff: "Yes, he is, isn't he."
GYW: "I think the Ghazal is such a passionate form of poetry. I just love Urdu poetry."
Falstaff: "Yes, I'm quite fond of it myself." (Take deep breath. Push luck) "So, do you like any English poetry as well?"
GYW: "Some. I haven't read too much."
Falstaff: (smiling indulgently) "Who would be a poet you like, for instance?"
GYW: "Well. I love William Blake."
Falstaff: (Wait. This woman a. Likes Ghalib and Blake b. Is HOT c. May be coming to WIMWI! See what Santa brings you if you're good.) "Really!! So what poems of his do you like." (kicking himself for not having read the Four Zoas that fifth time)
GYW: "I really like Songs of Innocence. There's that poem in there about the Lamb, I don't know if you know it."
Falstaff: (with the air of an astronaut who discovers halfway to the moon that his fuel gauge isn't working) "Ah, yes. Songs of Innocence. Yes, they're not bad (further note to OED editors. Not bad is now defined as make you want to tighten the tie around your neck and hang yourself from the nearest rafter) But have you read some of his later stuff? The marriage of Heaven and Hell? Jerusalem? The Four Zoas? That's what I'm really into."
GYW: (looking puzzled) "Oh. No, I haven't read any of those. To be honest the only Blake I've read is the one about the Lamb. And the one about this little black boy. And wasn't there something about a Tiger." (You don't say. You're sure you're not confusing him with Winnie the Pooh, by any chance. Aaargghhh!!!)
Falstaff: (to sound of heart shattering like glass under a bulldozer) "Ah, well. There you go then. So anyway, we talked about poetry for a bit. In the interview. Oh, and I think that's my friend coming out now. I've got to run. Did you have any other questions about the interview? No? Best of luck then" (Have a nice life!) "So nice meeting you. Bye." (exits, running).

Sigh. And then I wonder why I'm still single.


[1] This was the first time it occured to me that having privileged information might make you more interesting to women. It's an idea that's left its scars.

[2] Why do people ask this? It's ridiculous that people think they can get useful information from the experiences of people totally unlike them. People are always asking me, for instance, whether I studied word lists in preparation for CAT. I didn't, of course, but my point is always that the fact that I didn't doesn't mean that they shouldn't. It's all a function of where you're starting from.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Five Finger Exercises

A while back I'd blogged about people writing fifty-five word stories and how I thought that was too easy. Now it seems someone's come up with the idea of writing fifty-five word poems, so figured I'd try my hand at it at as well.

Here are three fifty-five word poems:


A poem in fifty-five words
You say.

Why fifty-five?
I wonder.
Why not sixty?
That way we could usurp the clock face,
Make time a part of our calculations.

You shake your head.
You insist.

Very well.
I sit at my desk
Sharpening words like pencils
Counting one
For every year of my life.


I strip phrases from this poem
The way the Fall,
Impatient of poetry,
Tears leaves from summer branches.

Will beauty survive
The death of its colours?

All that remains
Of the poem I meant to write
Is the shorn defiance of these lines
Rising like branches
To where
Your understanding waits,
Treacherous as a sky.


A fifty-five word poem
Ain’t easy, you know.
No time for slow
Introductions, no lengthy proems,
You can’t to-and-fro ‘em
That way; you gotta make it flow
Right from go –
You gotta show ‘em.

Better recheck it
To make sure
You’ve got the right amount;
You’re no Becket
Just an amateur
Writer who can count.

With snobs on

Just got around to reading the Guardian article about books being the new form of snobbery. I feel like someone who's just discovered that every teenage boy in the neighbourhood has been secretly lusting after his wife. I mean on the one hand, it's comforting to know that civilisation has finally evolved to the point where the art of reading is sufficienty prized for it to be a status symbol (plus it's good to know that other people also spend their time checking out what people around them are reading - see my post here). On the other hand, these are books dammit, they are sacred, hallowed objects and should not be sullied by the fingers of cretins who just want to use them to show off.

(On a seperate note, I'm not sure how exactly being seen with an established bestseller is status-enhancing. Personally, whenever I see someone reading the latest booker prize winner or some other book that's been majorly lauded in the press, I assume they're just wanna-bes who aren't well read enough to have opinions of their own. It's the folks reading obscure Henry James novels - or poetry - who I tend to notice with approval. I realise this leaves me open to the risk of false negatives, but that's a risk I can live with.)

I have to admit to feeling a twinge of guilt about this, though. Not, of course, that I would ever buy a book that I didn't intend to read - at least at the time that I bought it. The trouble is that the rate at which I buy books far exceeds the rate at which I actually read them, so that unread books tend to accumulate on my bookshelves, rather like budget deficits. The end result is that there are at least a dozen books on my shelf that I not only have not opened yet, but that I may actually not get around to reading at all, because there's always something more interesting to occupy my attention.

Plus there are all the books that I started to read but didn't finish. This happens mostly with collections of poetry - I'll buy the collected poems of some poet and get about halfway through it, but I invariably won't get all the way through. This isn't just true for poets I'm disappointed in - even with poets I love there are usually at least a few poems that I've never got around to reading. For instance, I'm sure there are at least a few poems in the Collected Plath that I haven't read; ditto with Walcott. Plus there are the books I simply gave up on mid-way - like Finnegan's Wake, for instance. Or short story collections where I still have a handful of stories left.

All this means that I have tons of books on my bookshelf that I couldn't (and wouldn't) honestly claim to have read in their entirety, but that people would assume I had read by virtue of their being on my bookshelf. Of course, the larger guilt here is about not having read them in the first place, but there's also a smidgin' of guilt about displaying books on my bookshelf that I haven't read. Actually, guilt is probably the wrong word - it's more like the uneasiness that comes from knowing that if someone were to see the book on your shelf and ask you what you thought of it you'd have to make the embarassing confession that you hadn't actually read it and feel like a klutz as a result[1]. There was actually a period when I seriously considered keeping unread books in a seperate drawer, hidden away from the public eye.


[1] Those of you who are fond of things like logic are probably going to point out that this is an illogical point of view. This is true. What makes it even more illogical than you think is that I never, ever, invite people into my apartment anyway, so that the chances of someone actually getting to see my bookshelf are miniscule. But, as people are always saying when they want to justify an illogical stand, it's the principle of the thing.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Moonlighting in Vermont

Another weekend, another road trip. This time up to the North-Eastern United States to see the Fall colours.

Day 0

No flights to catch this time. What a relief. Sitting in the NJ Transit train, chuckling over the New Yorker article on Sarah Silverman (who is a goddess in every sense of the word!). Get to Newark Penn station at exactly 7:06 pm (as scheduled). Feel very good about myself. Such accuracy. Such pin-point precision.

Forty minutes, one 16 oz cup of coffee, one Snickers bar, two tours of Newark Penn station, six suspicious glances from station police and three almost stumbles over running brats later, I'm still at the station. Very pained. This waiting at airports / stations thing is starting to take on the dimensions of a tradition, of self-definition. "Grandpa, grandpa, what did you do in the Great War? I stood outside the station and waited." Very pained (did I say that already?). Consider strangling V and T when they finally arrive, Beethoven blaring blithely from the car stereo. Actually start to pull out belt of raincoat as they wax eloquent about awesome South Indian meal they had and which, it seems, was the reason for their delay. Then discover that they've brought me some food. Thoughts of homicide disappear amid loud munching sounds from the back seat as I make steady progress through a monster helping of chicken biryani. It's a robust and bracing biryani, the kind where the cook believes that liberal quantities of chilli powder are a valid substitute for more delicate seasoning. Half way through the meal I discover that V and T haven't bothered to bring any water. My mouth is burning with the spice. I consider sticking my tongue out of the window. I think I may have abandoned the strangling idea too hastily. Then I make the important discovery that the best way to deal with spicy food is to have more of it, thus temporarily drowning out the burning sensation. This means that I now have justification to stuff my face further, carefully ignoring the nagging thought at the back of my head that suggests that this technique may not be entirely sustainable.

Three hours of driving and we're in Saratoga Springs. The temperature outside is now about 38 F (3 C). And it's going to get colder as the trip progresses. Begin to realise that one light raincoat and a thin sweater may not be quite sufficient. Oh well.

Day 1

Off at dawn. Starting from Saratoga Springs we drive up to Lake George, where a winding, tree-lined road skirts the edge of the lake. The first light of morning shimmers on the water. All around us tiny private roads dart off into the forest, like shy animals taking cover. It's early still, and the landscape seems empty and waiting, like a set carefully laid out, in preparation for the day's performance. There is a sense of anticipation in the air here, as if a great battle hung in the balance, and these tiny townships waited for news, waited for the armies of Fall to come marching home, their livery glistening in the sun.

We stop at a tiny cafe at the lake's edge, grab a quick breakfast of bagels and muffins and scrambled eggs. In the quiet of this village morning, our enthusiastic urgency seems alien, as if we were intruders from some planet where time ran faster. We finish our coffees, head out. The road is a temptress now, promising breathtaking vistas of the lake at every corner, then affording us little more than a flash of water, before drawing a veil of trees across the sight. As we head north, the colour of the leaves changes reluctantly, like the colouring of a bruise. Before we are quite aware of it, the leaves around us have changed from light green to yellow and then to dark orange. Here and there, a tree explodes into the colour of flame, it colours vivid against the green of its compatriots.

Half an hour later, we are at Lake Champlain. We park our car, go down to the lake's edge. The water is transparent here, the stillness at the bottom seems other-wordly, ghost like, as though the spirits of those who were absent rose to the surface to greet us. Behind us, far away in the distance, the Adirondack mountains (such a beautiful name) rise blue into the mist. We drive along the edge of the lake, accompanied by a single railroad track that measures the quiet dignity of its parallels against the great stretches of open water.

On our way we stumble upon Ausable Chasm - a sudden rift in the land where sheer walls of rock plunge hundreds of feet to the bottom of a narrow gorge hollowed out by the river. The landscape here is almost alpine. Waterfalls pour themselves into the gorge, graceful as swans. Rainbows dance in the rising spray. We walk across a quaint stone bridge and look down on a watermill, looking for all the world like a tiny castle, completely unphased by the fury of the river tearing into the rock all around it. The trees here are golden and orange and flaming red. It's a scene straight out of a fairy tale.

Further north, we stop at a sweet little roadside bakery, pick up fresh scones and cookies (and some of the best Cappucino I've had in a long time). The stereo is playing Bismillah Khan. The shehnai swoops and peaks with the control of a true master; as we listen, the music takes over, we close our eyes, hang suspended in its shrill, swooning universe, in the endless labyrinth of its variations.

Our drive north ends at Rouse's Point - which is on the border between the US and Canada. Here a great bridge shoots across the water in a low arc, taking us to the islands that lie in the centre of Lake Champlain. Gulls wheel around us as we get off on the edge of the lake, practise skipping stones across its surface. Our road leads down through these islands now, stunning views appear on either side. The sun is out in earnest, and on both sides of us the lake gleams a shimmering blue. White clouds stretch away into the distance. Small, low meadows of brilliant green stretch away on either side of the road, their edges lined with trees that have turned gold and crimson with the Fall. This is a landscape that Gauguin could have painted.

Coming down from the Champlain Islands, we stop at Burlington for lunch. With the nose of a true-bred bloodhound we make our way to an intersection that boasts cuisine from all across the world - Indian, Caribbean, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Thai - there's even an Irish pub! We pick Thai.

An hour later we're headed out to the Green Mountain National Forest. The stereo plays Gundecha Bandhu now, the formal lines of the dhrupad folded carefully together, the sound as mellow as the landscape we are driving through. Distances are larger here, the world has opened up. The highway is lined with a myriad colours. Everywhere we look, one tree or another flounces forward, like a young girl at a wedding, showing off her finery. The scene dazzles with excess.

Halfway down, we decide to take a small side road into the forest. It is the best decision we make the entire trip. Here the fall colours close in, so that we drive through tunnels of flaming yellows and golds, falling leaves drifting lazily through the air towards our windshield. There are not individual trees now, there is just this blur of vivid colour that we exist in, the light exploding electric all around us. We are away from the highway now, signs of civilisation have died out [1], there is no traffic. This is El Dorado, land of Gold. As we drive through the flaming forest, I think of Hopkins: "The world is charged with the grandeur of God./ It will flame out, like shining from shook foil".

By the time we get to the other side of the mountains though, the richness of the foliage has died out. The trees here are stripped, almost bare. (I think of Frost: "The desolate, deserted trees / The faded earth, the heavy sky / These beauties she so truly sees / She thinks I have no eye for these / And vexes me for reasons why"). The clouds have turned darker now, and as we exit the forest and make our way towards New Hampshire, a light drizzle begins to fall. We drive for a while along the banks of the Black River. The scene would be beautiful if it weren't raining - the wide, swift river flowing relentlessly forward, its banks lined with maroon and crimson trees.

By the time we cross over into New Hampshire night has fallen. We drive to Concord, listening to Jasraj sing Om Namo Bhagwate Vasudeva for twenty five minutes, only to find ourselves in a drab, wind-swept town. The temperature is in the mid-30s now (1-2 C), the rain is an endless drizzle - it's a miserable evening. We manage to find an Indian restaurant (thanks mostly to T's eagle eyes), so feel honour bound to eat there even though they have run out of dal and the dishes, when they come, are all bathed in the same violently red sauce. Meal over, we retire to our hotel, turn in, planning to make an early start the next day.

Day 2

Sunday does not start well. It's raining buckets now and it's shiveringly cold outside. As we drive out of Concord, the sun refuses to put in an appearance, so that we end up driving through what would have been some truly breath-taking scenery, but now seems faded, dull. Breakfast is coffee and doughnuts at the local Dunkin Donuts - the only thing we can find open at 7 o clock in the morning on a Sunday. As the rain dies out, we make a few desultory stops on the way, pausing to admire the odd stream or a scenic panorama, but our heart isn't really in it. Every where we go, the world seems flooded this morning, small brooks run foaming at the mouth, fields and meadows lie sodden and water-logged. Small, anonymous lakes swell their pregnant bellies at us. By the time we get back to Vermont, the suspicion is beginning to grow on us that the day is turning out to be, literally, a washout.

Fortunately, Vermont has some surprises to offer. As we head into some high country, we are amazed to see a thin layer of snow covering the ground. This is fresh snow, it shines white and glorious from the earth (I think of Frost again: "And the ground almost all covered up with snow / But a few weeds and stubble showing last") and lies lightly upon the branches of the trees. The contrast is thrilling - all around us the gold and orange of the fall leaves underline the blank purity of the snow, while higher up in the mountains the snowflakes lie sprinkled over the tops of the pines like frosting on a cake, so that the entire picture reminds one of illustrations from Christmas Card. Here and there a small lake breaks through the forest, affording us sacred glimpses of winter wonderlands, the inverted image of a log cabin set between the pines reflected in a lake as still as a mirror. The land here has a palimpsest like quality, it is as though we have chanced upon the re-writing of the seasons.

We stop at a high point, make our way gingerly through the freshly fallen snow (flakes drift down around us, the temperature is below freezing now) to look out on the great valley spreading below us and the mountains crouched in the distance, bracing themselves for winter. This is a particularly fascinating sight because it is entirely unexpected - as our shivering bodies in their thin coats bear witness, we did not expect to see snow this early in the year. Coming down from the hills, Sarah Vaughan sings Moonlight in Vermont on the stereo. There is the same magic in the air now, the same sense of something tranquil and drifting and idyllic.

By the time we get down to the plains the rain has stopped and the sky is lighter though still overcast. As we drive towards Bennington, through alleys lined with golden trees that wind through sparse, puritan little hamlets, past little country graveyards and small monuments to the dead of many different wars, I am reminded of Lowell:

On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

At Bennington, a massive 306' stone obelisk rises defiantly into the cloudy sky, dominating the landscape with its presence. Past it, as if finally liberated from the tyranny of the hills, the land opens out into great fields of dark, brooding green. Spectacular vistas roll away on either side of us, great breathing plains of grass, from which low hills rise like the crest of some sleeping animal, their trees feathered with an infinity of colour. This is the scene as Pisarro would have painted it, or Seurat - the foliage rich and deep and textured, like a tapestry of painstaking colour.

It is impossible to describe in words, how exquisite these colours are - the very range of shades is enough to dazzle you. From the lightest of greenish yellows, to sunny blonde and flaming gold, and on to blazing orange and delicately veined crimson and brooding maroon. Here and there, we catch snatches of violet, of magenta. Some trees seem made entirely of brush strokes, others have the delicate weblike complexity of something structured and infinitely branching, still others have the dense, almost opaque presence of something stamped into the air itself. Now and then there is that rare tree where the leaves look as if the sunlight had simply stuck to them, so that the leaves are both green and fiery red at the same time.

Our drive up north through Vermont brings us back to Lake Champlain. This time we cross over at Crown Point where a historic old fort still stands. We wander around the fort for a while, admiring the contrast of its sparse, almost skeletal structure against the lush green of the meadows around and the sizzling orange of the foliage on the distant hills. There is a bitter wind coming off the lake here, the cold cuts into us like a knife. By the time we get back to the car, our teeth are chattering, and we are beginning to understand where the expression 'cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey' comes from.

T and V have a severe case of deja vu by now. Apparently they drove through this part of the country exactly a year ago on another fall colours trip. When they see the same Subway they ate at the last time around, they gag in protest so that we end up eating undercooked pasta and some really crummy sandwiches in a pub somewhere in upstate New York. It is time to head back to New York now. We hit the interstate and set off back. It has been a good trip all in all - the weather has not been the best, but we've seen some wonderful sights and have a pleasant, if not overwhelming sense of satisfaction. We sit back and prepare to relax on the long drive home.
Nature, however has other plans. Just outside Albany the sky finally clears up and we begin to see the first hints of sunshine. As we look around us now, we realise that some of the richest, most spectacular fall colours have been waiting for us right here, on the I-87 down to New York city. The trouble is that we're tired now, and also a little jaded. As the stereo plays the third movement to Beethoven's 9th and the sun comes streaming through the clouds, we exert ourselves to admire the the kaleidoscopic wonders flashing past on either side, but the glory of the sight leaves no real impression. The sky is gorgeous though. As the clouds disappear, thin patches of blue wear through the cloud cover, and you can actually see each individual sunbeam streaming down from heaven. The effect is transcendent, almost biblical.

Three hours of driving and we're within striking distance of New York City. That's when the jams begin. Stranded in a glacier of traffic, we crawl forward at the pace of a snail - it takes us 45 minutes to travel a distance of ten miles. By the time we get to Manhattan we're burnt out, exhausted.

V and T head home. For me, though, the journey is still not over. I still have a two and a half hour trip back to Philly to make. I get to Penn Station, grab a muffin and a large cappucino for dinner. The station is really crowded - the frequency of trains is really low, and there are loads of people heading back to the suburbs after a weekend in NYC. I sit on the floor, my back to a pillar, my legs stretched out, listening to my iPod and watching the people go by. Couples holding hands, tired looking executives, their ties loosened, clearly frustrated with having spent the day working, college students with large backpacks headed back to their dorms, the occassional traveller, strolley in tow, looking hopelessly lost. The station hums like a great machine, alive with the intricate and interlocking gears of humanity. A pigeon flaps down to the floor in front of me. It does not belong here, it has flown in by mistake and now flutters around anxiously, trying to find a way out. I feel a terrible sense of kinship with the pigeon. When the platform is announced, I get up slowly, walk down to where the train waits, go all the way to the end of the platform and climb in. As I sink into my seat, Louis Armstrong is singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. I am ready to head back home.


[1] The one thing that's painful about the North East is how densely populated it is. It's almost impossible to get away from signs of civilisation.

[2] As you've probably figured out by now, the trip was a major Indian Classical fest as well - this is all thanks to T who's been loading copious amounts Hindustani and Carnatic classical on his iPod and felt that he had to show off.

To sleep, perchance to dream

The first time he tries to sleep a little longer, the dreams return. Like shadows gathered around a dying bonfire, drawing closer as the flame dies.

In the forests of his sleep, the nightmares hunt in packs.

He senses them waiting for him, their shapes flickering at the very edges of his vision, their thin, darting bodies the colour of woodsmoke. They are in no hurry, they know they have him now, they know he cannot last out the night.

He makes no effort to tell one from the other. His recognition of them is general and absolute, the apprehension of an ancient evil, come menacingly back to life. They are all there, he knows. Missed appointments, trials failed or lost, botched surgeries and other crimes that involve his bleeding body, the death of loved ones, precipices, monsters, rejection - every form of humiliation or anguish known to his soul.

He is not afraid of them. What he feels is a great weariness, the terrible tiredness of a man faced with Fate. He makes a half-hearted attempt to stay awake. He knows it is useless, though. As the fire dies inside him, the circle of light that he calls himself shuts like an eye. They are closer now, more immediate. Slowly their faces resolve themselves from the mist. A man is sitting at a piano, in the pouring rain, the ruins of a house all around him. He is playing a tune that he, the dreamer, recognises but cannot name. Then the man is himself and the piano has disappeared and he is in a classroom trying to explain the terms of trade between the US and England in the Second World War - but the examiners will not listen to him, they want an itemised list of everything that was exported before they will discuss his theory. He is trying to reason with them when a young girl stands up at the back and he realises that she has no hands and the blood is pouring from the stumps where her hands used to be and the floor he is walking on is sticky with it and he lifts one foot to keep his shoes from getting dirty and the other foot plunges through the floor which was not a floor at all but an abyss all along and he is falling, falling...

When he wakes his throat aches and his lips feel puffy. He gropes for the alarm clock, brings it up to his face. Five am. He climbs out of bed, stumbles his way blindly to the bathroom. His instinct draws him to the mirror the way a thirsty deer is drawn to water. Blinking in the sudden light of the bathroom he stares at the stranger whose face appears in the glass. Yes, the eyes are bloodshot, the lines of the face haggard. He dare not go back to sleep now. As he prepares to shave, the razor trembles in his hand, as though with some obscure longing. He feels unprepared for the sharp edges of the world.

This only happens when he tries to sleep for a long time, though. That is why he only sleeps five hours a day - that way when he finally goes to bed he is too exhausted to sleep anything but dreamlessly. In the borderlands of tiredness his sleep is a blank, a dark tunnel he emerges on the other side of, reclaiming his consciousness as though it were daylight. He pretends it's because he's busy, because he has things to do, because he doesn't need the eight hours. But the truth is that complete physical collapse is the only way he can keep the dreams at bay.

I must not sleep so much, he tells himself again, putting the finishing touches to his shave with quivering hands. I must go to bed late and wake up early. With that thought still in his mind, he heads for the coffee machine. It is going to be a long day.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Truth / Something totally out there

The truth is a conspiracy that we are all part of. All belief is deception.

It is in this that we are culpable, our crime a betrayal of the self. If there is a reason for our guilt, it is that we have taken the easy way out - that we have chosen to believe in the one Right Answer, the one Proper Way, the one True God. To demand certainty in everything is to become mortal.

There is no forgiveness for this. There is only creation as mutiny, the pitched battle of the imagination, mustering its guerilla squadrons in defense of the soul's country. Our punishment for failing is the discovery that the truth is unalterable; that the truth is actually true.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


"Of many magics, one is watching a beloved sleep: free of eyes and awareness, you for a sweet moment hold the heart of him; helpless, he is then all, however irrationally, you have trusted him to be, man-pure, child-tender."

- Truman Capote

So much has been said and written about Capote's status as a celebrity, as (dare I say it?) a social phenomenon, that it's often hard to remember that he was, also and more importantly, a writer of considerable talent. This line, from an extract from his newly discovered first novel 'Summer Crossing' that appears in this week's New Yorker (sadly unavailable to non-subscribers) is a good example of the almost playful richness of his prose. It's a line that's simply thrown away in the middle of a crowded paragraph, but that nevertheless manages to sing with its own quiet exuberance. For anyone who's ever watched a love one sleeping the connection is immediate, exact.

I am reminded of an Atwood poem:

I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head...

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.

Sigh. That's one more book I'm going to have to buy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Timeless Classics

Just saw Time Magazines list of All-Time top 100 movies. Think the critics at Time have seriously lost it. I mean, who in their right mind would pick The Purple Rose of Cairo as the one Woody Allen film that made it to the list? Or pick Notorious as one of Hitchcock's two best films? Or Smiles of a Summer Night as one of Bergman's?

And don't even get me started on the sheer idiocy of including Jackie Chan films but leaving out A bout de souffle. And have these people ever heard of Italian cinema?

I know it's easy to carp about lists in general - there's always going to be tons of good stuff that gets left off. But at least most lists give you the satisfaction of knowing that everything that's one there is good stuff. I'm not sure I can say that for this list.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Chapter Two: The Fall

In whiche our Heroe discovers the lande of Washington and of the diwerse Adventures he encounters there.

Day 0

In high spirits. Bags all packed. Ready to go. More enthusiasm than even John Denver songs can kill. Congratulate myself on actually looking forward to a trip for once. Check flight status. Discover that my flight is delayed. Aaarghh! Discover that this means I will miss the last flight out to Seattle from Chicago. Double Aarrghh! Try explaining to woman on Southwest helpline that I can't possibly connect to a 6:40 flight from Chicago if my flight to Chicago leaves Philly at 8:10. She disagrees, informs me that flights can sometimes make up time in the air! I briefly consider discussing relativity with her, then hang up and head to the airport. Manage to get myself scheduled on the next morning flight to Seattle. Get back home exactly two hours after I left it. Talk about short weekend trips. Realise I have absolutely nothing to do but wait for 4:00 am next morning when I can leave for the airport. Again. Read Amis. Check and re-check that I've packed everything. Mope. Sulk. Mope some more. Sulk some more. Sigh.

Day 1

A miracle! My flight actually leaves on time. Two hours of dozing and reading Chekhov, the words to Daysleeper running through my head. From the plane, Chicago is a city of ghosts - a mysterious island of tall spires rising out of the morning mist. I stare across the breaking dawn at the Hancock building and dream of Minas Morgul, of the towers of Camelot. I feel as if the day were a huge door that I stood at the bottom of, timidly knocking. "'Tell them I came, and no one answered. That I kept my word', he said."

Half an hour later I'm eating a bagel sandwich in an airport cafe and wondering what this yellow stuff pouring in through the windows might be. Could this be the sunlight I've heard so much about? I used to know, but it's been a while. The girl on the table across from me is reading Franny and Zooey. I'm in love. We're both taking the same flight, only she's boarding with the A group and I'm in B. This means that she ends up sitting right at the front of the plane, while I end up squeezed into a window seat at the rear next to a 300 pound stranger who proceeds to spill his ice water all over my pants. If I end up staying single the rest of my life it's all the fault of the Southwest check-in algorithm.

Finally in Seattle. I can't believe it. I'm actually stepping out of the airport at exactly the time I was supposed to - no delays, no long, extra waits. I feel strangely triumphant. I lean against the airport exit and wait for M to come and pick me up so we can get going.

One hour later I'm still waiting. Clearly M has decided to take pity on Harry Wainwright and spare his life one more time. (M, incidentally, has a truly unique sense of direction. You know how most people, when they're in a strange city, will drive around asking for directions, and still end up getting hopelessly lost? Not so M. She can get lost in a city without any help at all. Just put her behind the wheel and before you know it she'll have managed to get you exactly where you didn't want to be. It's a gift.)

Once M finally shows up, we decide to head for a scenic drive through the area east of Seattle. This is picturesque country, where the autumn renders every landscape in loving detail, her pallette blending the dark emerald of the evergreens with the shimmering yellows and oranges of the fall, with a hint of blazing red thrown in for good measure. (I am reminded of Shelley - "yellow and black and pale and hectic red"). Tiny cabins dot the countryside, small hamlets appear in the distance as though they had been placed there simply to provide perspective, every now and then a little stream runs alongside the road, its cold, clear water, chuckling merrily over rocks worn smooth with age. There are no Starbucks here, no malls, but all along the road we see tiny little kiosks with signs offering the dark, bitter promise of freshly brewed espresso or little fruit stands built out of wooden crates, brimming with red and golden apples and tart, juicy pears. As the road meanders its way through the country, offering fresh vistas around each bend, we have the sense of returning to an older and less urgent time, of being drawn into a simpler, more rustic idyll. When we stop at a roadside stand to buy fruit, there's a warmth in the air that has nothing to do with the temperature - it's the sense of things ripening to fullness, to peace. A huge shaggy dog runs up to greet us as we get out of the car, strangers wave hello, ask us where we're headed. We take our time sampling the different varieties on offer, finally come away clutching two big paper sacks of fresh, juicy fruit.

It's this sense of calm, perhaps, that makes us take the turn-off to Deception Falls. Here, a hidden little path winds away into the forest, taking us deep into the heart of the Skykomish woodlands. We skirt along the edge of a small river, following it down to where it suddenly cascades down a sheer rockface. The fall itself is not so impressive - what is beautiful here is the sense of having finally escaped into a blessed solitude. The ground beneath our feet is thick with fallen leaves and pine needles, the breath of the forest wafts sweetly over us. The only sound we here is the roar of the falling water, or (where the water quietens down again) the solemn hush of the 600 year old forest. This is the world of our ancestors, and walking in it, seeing the dying autumn sunlight making its way through its branches, you begin to realise why our forefathers worshipped trees. I think of Arden, of Eden. Tennyson writes:

"Sighing for Lebanon,
Dark cedar, tho’ thy limbs have here increased,
Upon a pastoral slope as fair,
And looking to the South, and fed
With honey’d rain and delicate air...
...With such delight as theirs of old, thy great
Forefathers of the thornless garden, there
Shadowing the snow-limb’d Eve"

It is this sense of wonder that I experience, this sense of authentic and natural magic.

Back on the road again, we reach Leavenworth, a small town made up to look like an old German village. The effect here is quaint but also a little grotesque. Some of the inns look authentic and beautiful, but there is also the anomaly of a McDonalds, its signboard written in Gothic letters. We turn back towards Seattle here - the sky has grown darker and we figure we may as well see something of the city.

On the way back, the mountains tower over us, their obsidian faces surprisingly stern in the twilight. The mountains are different here - craggier, more desolate - as though some giant hand had reached down to the earth and broken off great crags of rock. To our left Lake Keechelus stretches itself out along the highway, its waters yawning and lazy. A thin spiral of woodsmoke rises from a distant campfire, hangs over the lake like some protective spirit. It's as though the landscape, having won us over with its warmth and colour, now wished to show us its more desolate, more haunted side.

An hour and a half of driving (and a few wrong turns) later we arrive at our hotel in Seattle. We check in and decide to head out to see the city. I ask M if she thinks it'll rain and she confidently says it won't. I wear my raincoat anyway, but neither of us bothers to take our umbrellas. On the way down, M tells me about the new rainjacket she's bought - it's really trendy and compact and folds up into an easy to carry pouch. She promises to show it to me when we get back.

Just as we reach First Avenue (where we intend to hunt for a nice place to eat - M mutters something about wanting Mediterranean food), the rain begins to pour down in torrents. Half drenched in under a minute, we run into the first restaurant we see. This turns out to be a tacky little Sushi bar, more or less deserted. We're apprehensive, but decide to make the best of it. M orders sashimi and soup, I order sake. When the soup arrives we make the mistake of asking the waiter for spoons to eat it with. He looks at us as if we'd just offered to include his mother in an S&M orgy. Apparently true Sushi Eaters do not need extras like spoons to eat their soup with. Presumably they either eat it with chopsticks or lap it out of the bowl like a cat. You can see that he's about to offer us his samurai sword so we can commit ritual suppuku before we lose more face by making another such sacrilegous request. Finally he decides to take pity on M's bedraggled state and condescends to bring us two soup spoons (which it takes him five minutes to find). We can still hear him sighing in disgust as he heads back to the kitchen for the main course.

The result of this is that I don't have the courage to ask him for a fork when the main course arrives. This means that I spend the entire meal trying valiantly to eat with chopsticks. Bad memories of trying to use dividers in school return. M watches in amusement as I poke, prod, balance and ultimately destroy my food, managing to get it everywhere except in my mouth. The sushi's fairly ordinary but with generous doses of wasabi (which is the only reason I eat sushi anyway) it goes down well enough. By the end of the meal I'm still hungry but I'm too exhausted to try another bout with the chopsticks. We pay the bill and leave.

It's only when we're outside that we remember the reason why we'd gone in there in the first place. It's still raining. We think about going back in, then decide to walk down the road looking for a cab. We decide to 'share' the raincoat. This means that for the next ten minutes residents of Seattle are treated to the strange apparition of a giggling four-legged monster with black, flapping wings, a dark lump of a head and complete lack of any sense of direction. Four blocks, 12492 raindrops and no taxi later, we see a sports bar and decide (spontaneously) that we want to get a drink. Soon we're seated at a corner table, a slow pool of water spreading out around us, watching the Untouchables on HBO minus the volume because that's the only non-sports channel we can find on our table-top TV. Abandoning any attempt to be urbane and cultivated, we eat buffalo wings, drink beer, and wait for the shuttle from the hotel to come pick us up. So much for Seattle nightlife.

When we get back to the hotel, M proudly shows me her new raincoat. I consider strangling her, then realise that I need her to drive me around.

Day 2

The next day arrives and we're out before sunrise, headed for Olympic National Park. A few U-turns more than strictly necessary and we're driving onto the ferry that will take us across the Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island. We end up parked right at the front of the ferry, so that just sitting in the car you can see across the sound to where the islands rise out of the fog. We get out of the car and go stand at the edge of the ferry looking out. The sun hasn't really risen yet, and there's a biting wind coming at us over the sea. It's chillingly cold. As the ferry starts, I can feel the thrum of its engines under my feet, feel the slow leviathan motion of its screws spinning us out over the water. The ferry moves with the slow deliberation of a juggernaut, of some massive giant lumbering surely towards its distant prey. Seagulls weave in the air above us. One hangs suspended for a minute over the ferry's prow, an ethereal figurehead, its spread wings trembling like scales in which the wind balances. Standing here, at the head of this great boat, with the seagull like the flag of some snowy country above me, I feel like Magellan or Ahab, tasting the first salt of the wind on my lips. As we move forward, the mountains ahead reveal themselves, drawing aside their veils of mist. A speedboat runs the blade of its wake across the water, chopping it in two. I feel the bracing chill of the wind invade my bones and feel exalted, purified. There is a sense of defiance in standing here, the feeling of matching oneself against the elements, of daring the sea and the wind to do their worst. Tunes from Wagner fill my head.

As we draw closer to the opposite shore, the forest in these parts is revealed in all its dark glory. The colours are deeper here, more sombre - dark lush maroons, and washes of woolen green. The overall effect is of something dense and woven, like staring at a thick carpet. As we drive across Bainbridge island and out to the coastal town of Port Angeles, the landscape makes me think of Lowell (remember Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket) even though the sea that Lowell wrote of is thousands of miles away, all the way across this great continent. There is that same sense of scale though, of deep and sweeping grandeur.

Four hours later and fortified with information from the ranger station at Port Angeles (and breakfast from a nice little cafe) we're driving along Crescent Lake. The sun is out for the first time this morning, and the water shimmers aquamarine. Stray clouds drift over the thickly wooded hills. The scene has the polished look of picture postcards.

We stop by the lake and take a two mile trail to Marymere falls. This is Tolkien country - tall trees rising all around us with a thin, leaf strewn path leading through. Great trees spread their branches over us, their leaves a golden orange. I think of Lothlorien and of Tinuviel dancing in the elvish forests. As we walk along, a hint of movement draws our attention. There, not ten feet away from us is a tiny fawn, munching contentendly away at the undergrowth. We stand still for five minutes staring at him - he looks up every now and then to stare at us, then goes back to his breakfast. Reluctantly, we move on, crossing wooden bridges one log wide, climbing a steep and slippery path to the viewpoint from where we can look down on the falls. Once again, the fall is beautiful, though not mind-blowing - the real point of this walk is surely the glorious forest that it leads through.

Our next stop is Salmon Rapids, where we are treated to the spectacle of salmon thrashing their desperate way up a cascade to spawn. I am reminded of Lowell again ("O to break loose, like the chinook / salmon jumping and fall back / nosing up to the impossible / stone and bone crushing waterfall - // raw-jawed, weak-fleshed there, stopped by ten / steps of the roaring ladder, and then / to clear the top on the last try, / alive enough to spawn and die."), watching this terrible fight for existence, the great-heartedness of the fish as it makes its flapping, desperate way against all conceivable odds.

Then it's on to Rialto beach, where I finally, finally, get my first real look at the Pacific. This is a proud, almost religious moment. I feel "like stout Cortez, with his eagle eyes / he stared at the Pacific". All around me twisted shapes of rocks rise out of the water, lending character and perspective to the infinity of the ocean. As we walk along the beach, headed for the far away headland, I realise that there are two infinities here - the sprawling infinity of the ocean, in which all other distances vanish and dissolve, and the miniscule infinity of the rocks on the shingle beach, their surfaces polished to perfect smoothness, their colours as rich and varied as the waves that have brought them here. I see pastel stones and speckled stones, stones of brilliant green and blood red and final, irrevocable black. It is strange to think that even as we walk, our feet sinking into the shingle at every step, we tread on so various, so endless a treasure.

Before long, we find our path blocked however. A swift stream of water cuts across the beach, making it impossible to go further. We are disappointed. We cast around for ways across the creek (eyeing dubiously a couple of fallen logs) then finally decide it's not worth it and head back to the car.

A quick trip to the Hoh rain forest later, we're back on the shore - this time at Ruby Beach - just in time to catch the sunset. As the sun goes down, the sky is bathed in gold, with great swathes of purple cloud drifting across. The rock formations around us seem ossified and timeless, set in an endless twilight of stone, trapped in the shapes of their sorrow. I think of Lot's wife. As the sun vanishes and the sea gleams in waves of gold, these rocks are the only thing that can resist reaching out to the sunset, going forward to the very edge of the tide to try and touch the glory of the sky at dusk.

Here at last is the moment made timeless, and I begin to finally understand the vision, the intuition that drove Yeats to write Byzantium. Here it is - the dolphin torn, the gong tormented sea, here are the golden smithies of the Emperor breaking their flood, here is the flame "that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit, nor storm disturbs". In this shining, spectacular instant all you have to do is to open your heart to the distance in order to fully experience the majesty of the Pacific, its ageless, immutable presence. That this is the high point of the trip is unquestionable, just watching the changing colours of the sky and the shoreline would have ensured that.

From Ruby Beach we drive down the coast to Olympia, gazing in silent wonder as the moon, almost full, drifts between the clouds. The car stereo plays Ghalib. We talk of moonlight and Urdu and all things silver.

Once in Olympia, we stop at a nice little cafe for dinner. The best thing about this restaurant is the coffee - where else can you find a place whose menu includes a double shot of espresso added to a mugfull of regular fresh brewed coffee. That's coffee the way it's supposed to be!

Day 3

The next day, we start early again, but can't resist the temptation to drop into the IHOP next to our hotel (the first we've seen the whole trip - talk about fate). One large stack of chocolate chip pancakes later, we're on our way to the Mt. St Helens National Monument. The road to the volcano leads through the Gifford Pinchot forest, a beautiful woodland of thick, lush trees, giving way (as we climb higher) to tall stands of conifers towering above the road. This is a more or less deserted road (at least at this time of the day / year) - we cross no more than one or two other cars. The way is misty now, low-hanging clouds cover the highway, so that visibility is poor and we have the illlusion of floating through the forest like ghosts. We have little hope of being able to see the mountain itself - visibility seems too poor for that, but the drive is so pleasant that we go on anyway.

As we come nearer to the volcano, the landscape changes drastically. We are now in the country that was devastated by the 1980 explosion of Mt. St. Helens. Here there are no tall trees, but rather a dense undergrowth of shrubs in a range of wondrous colours (reds, oranges, maroons, yellows) dotted with blackened stumps of burnt out trees. The effect is achingly desolate. This is a true wasteland, a burnt-out land that speaks eloquently of the terrible beauty of destruction, a landscape of loss. Eliot writes:

"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

There is shadow under this red rock"

This effect of desolation is made sharper by the whiffs of cloud drifting about us, like spectres crying out against the destruction of the ancient forests. As we drive through, we have the sense of violating some sort of consecrated ground, as if we had accidentally wandered into some sort of ancient burial ground. This feeling is made worse when we come across Spirit Lake, an eerily still expanse of water, like a great silenced tear, its edges lined with the rubbish of dead trees.

Finally, we arrive at Windy Ridge, the main viewpoint for Mt. St. Helens. As we had expected (but never quite admitted to ourselves) the cloud cover is too thick for us to see much, though by straining both our eyes and our imagination we can just about make out the shape of the volcano. Just as we are considering going back, though, a stranger points to a tiny little stairway that leads up to the top of a nearby hill. Enthusiastically we set out to climb. Ten minutes later we're regretting it. The path is dizzily steep here - the steps go up and up, so that you climb a thousand feet in what is probably less than half a mile. By the time we get to the top we are winded, gasping for air. This is a burnt out-hill, its surface the colour of ash. We walk along to the main viewpoint at the summit, and the view is stunning - a vista of total devastation. We stay up there a while then make our clumsy breathless way down, trying not to look beyond the next step or two for fear of vertigo.

From Windy Ridge, we head North to Mount Ranier National Park. Again we are treated to long avenues of majestic trees. As we enter the park, we come across a doe and her fawn standing in the road. We stop, take pictures, being disgustingly touristy and enjoying ourselves thoroughly. By the time we get through lunch at the Park lodge, it is starting to rain. M is happy because she finally gets to use her raincoat. We take a trail to the Grove of the Patriarchs, our feet squelching through mud and fallen foliage. Another walk through the forest by a stream, only here the forest is taller and the light drips down on us from a great height, like raindrops of a benediction. We end up in a grove of imposing and ancient trees, an apt setting for druidic ritual and the dance of satyrs. Once again we are reminded of our own insignificance, the ephemeral nature of our existence when it is compared to these stern, silent elders. We drive up through the park, stopping at a succession of waterfalls, taking in views of Reflection Lake. These are pleasant sights, but there is something missing - the thick fog all around us means that we cannot see into the distance, and we are conscious of missing the grand views that are the park's chief attractions.

Then, just as we are leaving the park, we see it! A sudden clearing in the road, a small window of clear sky among the clouds, and there it is - Mount Ranier - towering over the surrounding landscape in all its awe-inspiring majesty. M slams on the brakes and we jump out and stand by the side of the road, drinking in the view. There is the sense of some great truth revealed, of some mystical secret finally apprehended. We leave the park happy, satisfied at having seen what we had come all this way to see. It shall take us a while to get back to our hotel in Seattle. There will be wrong turns, a convuluted excursion through the bowels of the airports rental car return system, the painful details of clearing out and vacuuming the rental car, but we shall be sustained through them by the knowledge of another successful vacation, another pleasant weekend getaway.

Day 4

M's flight leaves at 7 in the morning today, so we are up way before dawn. I travel to the airport with her, see her off on her flight, then find the nearest Barista and sink gratefully into a Venti Cappucino and an apple crumble. My own flight is to Phoenix via Reno and then on to Philadelphia - this means that I pretty much spend the whole day travelling. I nerve myself for the ordeal.

The flight from Seattle to Reno turns out to be a revelation though. It's a clear day and from the great height of the airplane I can see for miles. As we skirt the Western coast of the United States, I not only take in breathtaking views of the two mountains the clouds had hidden from me the day before (Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Ranier - ironic, isn't it, we drove the whole day to see them and barely got a proper view, and then half an hour into a flight I fully intended to sleep through, there they were) but also of Crater Lake and a whole bunch of other snow-capped peaks whose names I have no way of knowing. It was a wondrous flight, made all the more thrilling by the fact of the sights being entirely unexpected.

The rest of the flight home seemed even more boring by contrast. Lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Phoenix airport fortified me a bit, and reading Plutarch on the flight kept me awake through most of it, but it was a dull and uneventful experience nonetheless. It's strange, though, how the momentum of a good vacation keeps on going. Waking up this morning and heading out to office, I couldn't shake the feeling of walking through an alien city, one in which I am a stranger. I felt as if I must observe the city more carefully, weighing and judging it, even though it's been over a year now since I started living here. Even as I write this, it's hard to believe that I'm going to go back to my own room tonight, that the end of this day won't be a new arrival, another hotel room discovered, another city occupied and crossed off the map of places I've never been. There is a sense of relief in this thought, but there is also disappointment. I have come home, it is true, but there is a part of me that is still out there, in the Washington wilderness, wondering what the weather will be like tonight; whether the moon will be full and whether the stars will shine brightly over the Cascade mountains. The sights I saw, the places I visited, were not unique or spectacular enough for me to claim that the memory of them will haunt me. But they were rich with a sense of nostalgia, with the sense of world rediscovered, of a time returned to, which means that there is some part of me that will continue to haunt them for as long as I live.

Heaven and Middle Earth

Just got back from a fun weekend in Washington. While I try and nerve myself to write about it, here's a quick aside - looking through the NY Times Archive, found this gem of a review - it's Auden reviewing the Fellowship of the Ring.

Clearly I was born about forty years too late.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


From the Reuters News Service:

Philadelphia, 10/13/05, 7:00 pm. Heavy rain in the North-East delayed air traffic from Philadelphia to Chicago by five hours this afternoon, making it impossible for travellers on this sector to catch the last connecting flight to Seattle. These travellers were thus stranded in what one person described as "bloody Philadelphia" - their only hope being a flight that would leave at 6:30 next morning. Meanwhile, rumours abound as to the further delay of flights out of Philadelphia given the continuing forecasts of rain. Speaking on the occassion, a traveller identifying himself only as Falstaff said that he would now officially be spending more time in the airline system than he would on his vacation. "I hate my life", Falstaff added.

Meet Harry Wainwright. Harry Wainwright is not, on first impression, a particularly impressive guy. Most people would describe him as an average Joe with an average Wal-mart job, an average, desperate-housewives-watching spouse, and average aspirations. Harry spends average weekends in his average house gambling over the Internet and always losing because he insists on playing the averages. There's absolutely nothing remarkable about Harry.

Except for one thing. Harry Wainwright is officially the someone who it would kill if, just once, a flight I was on were to leave on time. Harry, of course, does not know this. He goes through his average work days completely unaware that every time I head for the airport, bags packed, ticket in hand, his life hangs in the balance.

So far, of course, the airlines have taken good care of Harry. The time I flew to Greensboro (don't ask) they took a risk and delayed my flight by only half an hour, but made up for it by delaying the flight of the people I was meeting there by three hours, so that I spent two and a half hours in the masoleum that is Greensboro airport at 11 o clock at night. Then, on the way back, just to make sure that Harry was in good shape for the softball game with his son the next day, they made my flight leave another two hours late. The next time I flew, to Chicago, they ensured another four hour delay. And another hour on the way back.

And today, in a move that ensures that Harry will live to see his grandkids, the airlines effectively cancelled my flight for today and gave me a ticket for tomorrow.

Now, don't get me wrong. I like Harry. I wish him well. But would anyone really notice or care if he wasn't around? I mean it's not like his kids are going to college anyway, and one less checkk-out clerk is not going to bring Wal-mart crashing down. Just once let a flight I'm on take off on time and I swear I'll write his widow the most beautiful, heartfelt condolence letter you've ever read. I'll use notepaper with little wreaths on it. I'll even write some moving poetry, for godsakes. Just once I want to get to an airport and not have to spend hours waiting. Just once I want rapid check-in to mean something. Just once. Is that too much to ask?

HWSNBF: are you happy now?

My Weekend State

Another weekend. Another road trip. This one to Washington (no, dammit, not the city, the state. Yes, Seattle, that's right. Yes, I know it always rains there. No, I'm not visiting anyone. Yes, I know there's nothing to see in the city. I'm not going to the city, I'm travelling to all the National Parks around. Because it's supposed to be beautiful with the Fall colours and stuff. No, I have fall break. No I've never been there before, it's a part of the country I've never seen before - that's why I'm going. How does that matter? Yes, I'll take photographs. What? How do you expect me to know until I get there? Sheesh.)

See you when I'm back.

A Pint(er) of Happiness

At least someone knows how to read.

Given the Booker disappointment earlier this week, I was sure that the Nobel was going to go to some obscure feminist poet from Luxembourg. So it's a pleasant surprise to learn that the Prize is going to someone who I've not only heard of, but actually like.

Harold Pinter is one of the writers who make it hard to resist using the term 'sparse' to describe their work. I've always admired the sheer accuracy of his writing, and am thrilled that he's won.

Oh, and I can't wait to hear the acceptance speech.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

I can't help saying this

I've always wondered why determinism is not a more widely accepted view of the world. As Talcott Parsons argues [1], determinism is the logical consequence of all positivistic theory. If we believe that human actors are rational empiricists, then either there is one right vector of actions for us to pursue (so that our actions are rationally deterministic) or our actions are pre-determined by evolutionary processes at both the genetic and social levels. In either case, choice as we like to think of it is an illusion, we think we are making our own decisions ("The red slayer think he slays" - Emerson) but these decisions are already coded into the entity we call the self, so that what appears to be a voluntary action is, in fact, simply a sort of higher order reflex. There is no choice.

Parsons (and others) don't really seem to have a good argument against this view of the world. The usual idea seems to be [2] that determinism is incompatible with the human condition because the absence of choice is a truth unacceptable to the human mind. There are three problems with this argument. First, it's not really an argument against the logic of determinism, is it? We may not like the idea that we are little more than genetically determined computer programs [3] but that doesn't make it untrue. Just because I can't stand, say, Dan Brown novels, doesn't mean that they don't exist. If anything, the fact that "Humankind cannot bear very much reality" is a good reason for why the theory has low acceptance. From an evolutionary perspective, it may be important that we not believe this if we are to continue to remain stimulated and productive, which is why we are not capable of believing it.

Second, I'm not sure that the difficulty of accepting determinism is not largely social conditioning (and especially social conditioning in the Western Protestant tradition). It's not clear to me that the inability of man to accept the absence of choice is an innate quality of human nature rather than just a sloppy intellectual habit we have let ourselves slip into.

But how can one possibly enjoy a life in which one has no choice? That is the final reason why I think the argument against determinism is flawed. It's not clear to me that we need to have choice to enjoy something. Imagine riding a roller coaster. Once you're on it, you certainly don't have any control over the ride - you're going to stick to one rigorously defined track that you've probably traced out in advance. Yet, the sensation of being whisked along on the track can still be a thrilling one [4]. In the same way, I would argue that life can be experienced even if it is not discovered. Even if you knew (as in a movie you've read the book of) how things were going to turn out and what the main character (you) was going to do at every turn, you could still enjoy the process of the truth you already know unfolding. If anything, you may be able to enjoy it more because you don't have the stress of having to make decisions about it.

Bottomline then, I think it is possible to live with a deterministic view of the world. All you need to do is think of the world as one big hostel canteen - you don't get to choose what food you get, there's no menu, but you can still spend a happy life either enjoying what you get or (even more fun) complaining about it.

P.S. I should say that there is a second and more nuanced argument against determinism that derives from the fact that determinism fails the acid test of falsifiability. After all, how do you prove that what happened could have happened differently after it has already happened (or, to take it to the second order, how do you prove that the proof of determinism being falsified was not something that had to happen!). In one sense, this is a serious problem for the theory from the perspective of scientific theory. In another sense, however, it is re-affirming - if we were ever to arrive at the real truth about the world, after all, it would almost certainly not be falsifiable.


[1] See Structure of Social Action
[2] At least, I've never come across a better argument - I'd be interested to hear of one.
[3] There's a movie idea for you - a sort of reverse Matrix - the world is real but the human beings, the things we call the self, are just computer programs. How does a program like that recognise itself - it cannot - and therefore it defines the world as illusion and itself as fact. Welcome to Intelligent Design.
[4] At least some people seem to think so. Personally I can't stand roller coasters or rides of any sort.