Wednesday, August 31, 2005

So what if it's not my area - just raise the volume!

Sorry, I can't resist. Comments on yesterday's post plus a couple of discussions with friends off-line (the discussions were off-line not the friends) prompted a whole bunch of thoughts on stimulation, challenge and happiness, which I just HAVE to put down, if only to prove that hidden deep within everyone who makes fun of childhood fables is a pop-philosopher just waiting to break out.

So here goes.

Let me start by saying that in my view the purpose of human activity is the search for stimulation - a desire to challenge ourselves and push the limits of our own being. Where these challenges are met successfully, we experience satisfaction / happiness; where we fail we experience a sense of loss which could lead to either defeat or a renewal of energy. The key though is to continuously feel stimulated, to constantly maintain that gap between our achievements and our aspirations. If we achieve everything we want to, we experience contentment but that rapidly degenerates into boredom and stagnation. If we see no hope of achieving what we desire then we experience frustration and defeat, and that is a different kind of stagnation. Browning writes:

But what if I fail of my purpose here?
'Tis but the keep the nerves at strain,
To dry one's eyes and laugh at a fall,
And baffled, get up and begin again, -
So the chase takes up one's life, that's all.

The nature of the stimulation we seek, however, deserves closer scrutiny. Two distinctions are critical. First, the distinction between relative challenge and absolute challenge. Relative challenge is entirely internal - it is simply a question of doing better than one has done before oneself. Absolute challenge is the adoption of some extrinsic 'objective' standard, that allows us to compare ourselves to some external benchmark. So, for instance, running a mile faster than you've ever run it before could be a relative standard, running it in under four minutes could be an absolute challenge. Understand that an absolute challenge is not necessarily about competition or external validation - it's simply about wanting to have some standard greater than yourself.

Why would you want to set an absolute challenge[1]? The answer lies, partly, I think, in the second important distinction - the one between process satisfaction and outcome satisfaction. In any endeavour, a part of the satisfaction / stimulation we achieve comes from the process, from the actions we take; and another part comes from the enjoyment / stimulation of what we create / achieve. It's the latter kind of satisfaction where ability comes into play. Consider a group of people cooking pasta. Irrespective of their skill as cooks, they may gain equal enjoyment from the process of cooking, but the end result will only provide simulation to those are good cooks.

So what does this mean for the breadth vs depth debate?

To begin with, I think the whole debate is a non-starter - a total red herring. Pascal, writing on the nature of finite existence (see extract No. 72), speaks of the two infinities - that of the infinitely large and the infinitely small - limit tending to infinity and limit tending to zero. It's not that depth involves a reduction in novelty or the sacrifice of breadth, it merely implies a re-scaling of the breadth one operates on. To someone who merely dabbles in an art form (say poetry) all that art form may seem the same, but to someone who delves deep into it, the fine-grained detail becomes more apparent, and provides the same experience of infinite variety within the microcosm of that art form. For the true painter there's an unbridgeable gulf between Mattisse and Picasso, for the dilettante, they're both essentially modern art. The real question then is only what scale we choose - not whether we choose breadth or depth.

That said, how does one choose the scale one operates on, and why would I, personally prefer to operate at a more microscopic level - tending to the infinity of every thing than the infinity of Everything? The first reason is that I believe that, in the absence of serious delusion, true enjoyment of the outcome of one's work can only come from setting absolute standards. This is not to say that there is no joy in operating on relative standards, only that there is greater joy to be had by achieving something that is an achievement in some absolute self. Writing even the crummiest academic paper can be fun, but there's a sense of satisfaction you get from writing something that is truly path-breaking, that the kind of crack-filling most academic research involves cannot provide.

Why should this be? Is it entirely about external comparison? Perhaps. But also perhaps it is because absolute standards represent a higher order of stimulation than we can achieve by simply pacing against ourselves. There is a reason why the standard is set where it is - because that's genuinely a difficult line for the human mind / body to cross. The other reason that absolute standards are important, I think, are because many activities do not lend themselves to easy calibration, so that marginal improvements are almost impossible to measure, and we can do nothing more than comparing ourselves to some basic threshold. If you're running then you can measure the improvement in your time in milli-seconds, but if you're cooking then such fine-grained improvements in your performance are almost impossible to seperate from subjective noise. The use of external benchmarks / absolute standards thus becomes the only way of calibrating your own success.

Notice also that activities may vary in the level at which the absolute threshold is set. Many artistic endeavours, for instance, are discontinuous, in that being average is not significantly better than being really bad. Imagine something that looks more or less like a chi-square distribution. The mean is pretty close to the bottom here, but the top is very, very far away. Being an average piano player is not much better than being a really bad piano player - you'll never experience any real stimulation / satisfaction from your own playing. It's only by becoming a truly excellent pianist that you can begin to enjoy your own performance.

This brings us, finally, to the reason I would pick the infinity of detail. Because being really skilled at something allows you the luxury of setting yourself absolute challenges, while still allowing you to seek novelty in new and exciting endeavours within the bounds of the specialisation. To the extent that anything that is really challenging is also really difficult, you're unlikely to reach a level where you're able to set absolute challenges for yourself if you simply dabble in a whole bunch of things. To get to the stage where absolute challenges become viable you need to invest significant amounts of time and effort. But that involves getting into the details.

Take poetry, for instance. The reason there are so many really, really bad poets out there, is because people feel that they can just sit down with pen and paper and write a good poem. It doesn't work that way. It takes years and years of practise, of diligent reading, of constant effort to make a good poet (even with the great poets - just read Sylvia Plath's early poems and you'll see what I mean). You could argue that it doesn't matter if you write bad poetry as long as you enjoy it, and that's true (though I must object to your calling it poetry - something like 'spilled ink on the page' would be a more accurate description), but unless you're incredibly self-delusional you're not really going to be able to enjoy your output as poems because you'll know somewhere deep inside you that they're mediocre. So you might enjoy writing them, but you won't enjoy reading them afterwards. On the other hand, if you did put in the effort, you could get to a point where your poems were good enough to give you pleasure as a reader. And what of novelty, you ask? To begin with every new poem is a different challenge. Plus you could always experiment with new styles / forms of poetry - the point is you'd be starting from a much stronger starting point and could get to an absolute standard more rapidly than you would if you were to take up, say, touch football.

Notice that this whole argument is based on the principle of choosing between alternatives. Obviously it's better to do something badly than not do it at all (at least you'll get process stimulation from it), but if you have to choose between something you genuinely do well (and could develop further) or something you're not good at, I'm not sure why you would pick the latter. Why jump after grapes when there are rabbits around to be caught? Also, of course, if there's nothing you can get to a reasonable absolute standard on, then you will tend to keep dabbling in new things (simply because after a while relying purely on relative challenge will pale on you - we're all social creatures who need external confirmation of our own identity), but this means you'll always miss out on the joy of creating something truly new and unique in an absolute sense.

Finally, understand that I'm not saying that one should never try new things. Simply that trying new things only makes sense if you genuinely believe that they will stimulate you in ways that your existing activities cannot - implying either that the process satisfaction from them is greater than the combined process and outcome satisfaction from the things you are good at and can set absolute standards on, or that you sense the possibility of achieving an absolute standard in the other activity (perhaps after an initial learning period) and thus can hope to enjoy outcome satisfaction there as well.

Here endeth the grand lecture. Now to think up questions for the short quiz I'm giving you all tomorrow!

[1] There is also, of course, the more prosaic explanation that we are all social creatures who need external reference to define a sense of self and therefore just like competing for the sake of it. But that would be too easy, no?

Drawing the line

Nice review in last week's New Yorker (I'm still catching up on my mail) of Hilary Spurling's book on Matisse that I'd blogged about earlier.

"Picasso and Matisse are poles apart aesthetically. Matisse told his students, "One must always search for the desire of the line, where it wishes to enter, where to die away." Picasso's line has no desire; it is sheer will. Form builds in Picasso, flows in Matisse. Picasso uses colour. Colours enter the world through Matisse like harmonies through Mozart."

Superbly put.

(Paintings: On the left, Matisse The Piano Lesson; on the right, Picasso Le Piano).

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A Fable revisited / Why bother with Gilbert's Grapes

Remember the fable of the Fox and the Grapes? Some things about that fable have always struck me as being a little off. To begin with, since when do foxes eat grapes? I mean, these are foxes, right - red bushy little predators who eat rabbits and squirrels and are the preferred quarry of Quorn and co - they're not Paul Giamatti in Sideways. You don't see busloads of foxes making tours of Napa Valley to sample the grapes, do you? So how come this one fox wanted grapes? Plus, why a fox anyway? I've always thought of foxes in fairy tales / fables as being fairly ambiguous creatures. You never know how they're going to turn out. Sometimes they'll prove to be cunning wily creatures (I have a sudden mental flash of Hendrix signing "Foxy!") at other times they'll be total dupes. It's not like lions or something, where the minute they show up in the story you just know they've got some sort of come-uppance coming to them. So I think it's interesting that the fable is about a fox and not about some other animal (say a turtle or something)

Thinking about it, I realised that what's principally bugged me about the fable all these years is the implicit assumption that the 'right' thing for the fox to do would have been to humbly admit his own inability to get to the grapes without in any way denigrating them or denying his yearning for them. Some sort of "desire of the moth for the star / of the night for the morrow" (Shelley) thing should have happened.

Personally, I think what the fox should have done is basically realise that grapes weren't his thing. After all, there's a reason why the fox isn't able to get to the grapes - evolution hasn't conditioned him to be a grape eater, it isn't natural for him. So rather than saying the grapes must be sour, the fox should say something like - I don't really like grapes that much anyway. I'd rather get myself a juicy rabbit. Grapes are for the birds.

Some people will argue that this is escapism - it's taking the easy way out. There is, I admit, some truth to that, but I think there's a risk of erring too much on the other side. The trouble is that there's a thin line between giving up on something too easily, and striving to make something work when it really isn't worth it, and the fable takes too one sided a view of that trade-off. One reason it does this is that it makes no allowance for the existence of alternatives. Life, I think, is seldom about such all or nothing choices - on the contrary, it is often about making one's way through a minefield of opportunity, trying to pick the one alternative from the many that will give us the greatest satisfaction. So it would be perfectly legitimate for the fox to:

a) Either not pursue the grapes at all, sensing that they were going to be difficult to get and not feeling they were worth it
b) Trying a couple of times and then deciding that the grapes weren't meant for it and making a general decision not to seek grapes any more.

Of course, the fox needs to be objective here - if it really needs the grapes then it must not dismiss them so easily but must continue to look for creative ways to get access to them. My point is simply that it is a valid response for the fox to re-evaluate its craving for grapes in the light of the experienced difficulty of getting at them, and decide that it doesn't want them after all. This is different from simply putting a brave front on things - the point is not that the fox should pretend that the grapes don't matter to him, the point is rather that he should try and get to the point where they genuinely don't.

A friend asked me the other day how I deal with insecurity. My answer - by changing my own aspirations to fit what I think I can achieve. This sounds suspiciously like what the fox does with the grapes, and in some ways it is. My point is that I often find that the things I think I want and feel insecure about not being able to get are usually expectations that society has foisted on me / conditioned me to believe in. They are not things that I truly need - I want them only because I'm expected to want them. If I really think about it, I could manage easily and happily without them and wouldn't have to go around stressing about how I was going to get them.

Understand that this is not an argument for saying that the grapes are sour - I have no doubt that many of the things I no longer aspire to are things that will bring great joy into other people's lives. I'm just unconvinced that they're right for me.

What was it Eliot said in Ash Wednesday?

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Monday, August 29, 2005

Childe Falstaff's Pilgrimage / How the West was wondered at

Just got back from amazing vacation to Utah, Nevada and Eastern California, so figured would put long, long blog about it (if only as excuse for staying away from work for one more day). So here goes:

Day 0

New York to Vegas, reading Bulgakov, coffee and Oreos on the flight. Mustn't help person on seat next to me who's making ppt for conference he's attending and clearly has never used Powerpoint before. Need distraction. Try watching television. Remember why I don't watch television. Look out of the window. Total darkness. Thank God for iPods.

Later, at Vegas, the smell of easy money already in the air, even at the airport; the taste of the city like the sheen of polished marble in the airport lounge as I wait for T. to retrieve the wallet he's forgotten in the plane. Trying to adjust to the three hour time difference. Trying not to strangle T and N who've both been to Vegas before and act like I'm three years old and have to have all the sights pointed out to me. Trying to convince the woman at the rental car counter that the tattered paper booklet that N carries in his wallet is really an Indian driver's license and not just something the dog dragged in to chew on. Then driving down the Vegas strip (after T and N have helpfully shown me the way to get lost leaving the airport - "See, this is where you take the wrong turn") all the tackiness of that city, the cheap tinsel lights, the easy escapism. The crowds, the noise, the faintly unwashed vibe of the whole place. I feel suffocated with the articifiality of this town. I can't believe people come here for fun. Only when we get into our hotel room and lock the door do I feel that it's safe to breath without risking some pollution to my soul.

Memorable Sight: Twenty minutes of incessant lightning in a massive cloud bank over the mid-west - seen from above, the flashes look like cannonfire in some besieged city. It's like watching the war footage on CNN with the volume turned low, only more beautiful.

Song of the Day: Joni Mitchell This Flight Tonight.

Day 1

Quick breakfast at the IHOP, five more wrong turns, and we're finally out of Vegas. Before us, the horizon opens up its welcoming arms, the desert unrolls like a grubby old carpet, the mountains stand waiting politely, comb-overs of sand over bald heads of rock. Two jets streak through the azure sky, their white trails underlining the sense of terrible distance. A hundred miles to the hills, to an amazing mountain highway, the curves so perfect that the car does 80 miles an hour easily. Then a quick turn-off to the right and suddenly the desert gives way to forest. We have arrived at Zion.

A park shuttle takes us up into the canyon. Great walls of red and black rock tower above us, as though the wrath of the gods had solidified into stone. We feel awed, gazing in wonder at the sheer surfaces of the rock, worn smooth with countless millenia of wind and water. Amazing to think that this little stream that runs alongside could have made something so massive. The road follows the river faithfully, holding its hand, a wide-eyed child gazing fearfully at the blank faces of strangers that tower above it.

The road ends at the Temple of Sinawawa - a gorgeous natural amphitheatre - walls of stone hundreds of feet high, with a thin stream whispering through it like the chant of some watery priest. The water is pure and cold and green here, it giggles playfully, but all around it the cliffs stand aloof. Even breathing in this place seems like a profanation. I sit in the cool of the bus stop waiting for the shuttle to return. A fat squirrel comes over and nibbles on my shoes. A child is crying for his Gameboy. I think of Eliot "Those who have crossed /With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom / Remember us - if at all - Not as lost / Violent souls, but only /As the hollow men / The stuffed men."

Afterwards the steep trail up to Weeping Rock with a dog-eared copy of Raymond Carver's poems stuffed into my waistband. And still later, sitting under a tree at the Zion Lodge, falling asleep with the book laid across my chest, dreaming of Tennyson "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". Then back down the canyon to our car, the high places rising above us again, majestic like thrones (Eliot again: "This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms"). Then out of the park and on to the the Grand Staircase National Monument.

Who would have thought the earth could have so many colours. That the dust could blossom more vivid than flowers? In the distance the cliffs stretch away - Vermilion and white and pink. Closer to hand, a meadow of brilliant yellow, bison grazing its lush grass. The landscape has changed again, narrow gorges have given way to grand vistas of mesas, scraped on to a blue background of sky with a knife that could have been Van Gogh's. As we head out towards the cliffs, the sun is setting, the clouds glow with a transient glory (Keats this time: "As when a cloud the golden moon doth veil, / Its sides are ting'd with a resplendent glow, / Through the dark robe oft amber rays prevail, / And like fair veins in sable marble flow"). Yet perspectives are treacherous here - we have driven for half an hour now and the cliffs seem no closer, the horizon eludes us. Then chance and a stranger point to a dust track leading into the desert, (Eliot: "This is the dead land / This is cactus land / Here the stone images / Are raised, here they receive / The supplication of a dead man's hand") and away we go, trailing clouds of glory (or at least of loose sand) behind us, slip-sliding our frantic way down a dirt track at speeds too fast for belief. The landscape is beautiful beyond our wildest dreams - layer after layer of colour shows through, the earth has turned into a striped Navajo blanket, and above it all the tops of the red cliffs turn slowly golden in the sunset. The road ends at a deserted town (post office, saloon, a scattering of wagon wheels), then goes on to a dry creek bed, next to which the town cemetery calls to us with its ghosts. But we have no time for these, we are haunted by a grander spectre, by the peacefulness of this landscape, by the sense of having discovered something that is for our eyes alone. Others may pass this way again, but they shall not see this light like liquid gold pouring in from the mountain ridges, the sky will be different for them, the clouds will have a different shape. This place, this moment, is ours and ours alone.

Driving back to the highway, night is beginning to fall. Wild hares leap out onto the road in front of us, ears raised like radar, then scurry back into the brush. The clouds, jealous of the colours the earth has shown us, choose this moment not be outdone. They too gleam out in every possible colour - pink, orange, red, violet, purple, indigo. A spectrum of light like a bruise growing slowly old. We linger for a few minutes by the marker that points to the town we have just visited, reluctant to leave. Behind us, the dust of our passing settles like the frenzy in our hearts. We sigh, we move on. We have promises to keep, hotel rooms to occupy, and miles, two hundred of them, to go before we sleep.

Song of the day: Big Bill Broonzy singing Keys to the Highway

Day 2

Starting off from Vegas again. Had to come back last night because N forgot his passport in the hotel room. As we have breakfast in the same IHOP (chocolate chip pancakes with coffee - all the essential food groups for a happy, if not healthy life) and head out on the same highway a strong sense of deja vu grips us - it's the same road, the same mountains, the same sky. Even John Hurt's voice on the stereo singing Avalon Blues is the same.

At some point in Utah we leave the past behind. The landscape is different here, yet also familiar, as though every painting of Western landscapes you'd ever seen had been about this view. (Agha Shahid Ali writes: "Certain landscapes insist on fidelity". That is so true.) We are headed to Bryce Canyon this time. On the way we cross Red Canyon, The landscape seems soaked in blood here. The hoodoos rise rebellious into a sky of brilliant blue. We are lucky - the weather is perfect.

A quick meal at the Bryce Canyon lodge, and we're all set to go exploring. N and T decide to brave the Navajo trail - an ancient track that leads down into the canyon and through the rock formations (including an area of the canyon called Wall Street because the rocks seems like skyscrapers - sheesh!). I, learning that the trail has just been opened this very day after being closed for a month because of rock falls, decide to stick to the easier Rim Trail along the canyon's edge. It seems comfortable enough - a nice paved track with a high wooden railing running along it and convenient benches along the way. I figure I'll have a leisurely little stroll. Then I turn a corner and find myself on a steep track of loose rock that skirts along the edge of the canyon (I'm afraid of heights - looking down from a two-story building makes me dizzy - you can imagine what being on a broken trail along the edge of a 1500 foot drop to the canyon bottom does to me!) all the way up to Inspiration point (500 feet up). I decide to brave it anyway. By the time I get up to Inspiration point, I'm gasping like a beached fish, my heart is pounding like a psychopathic woodpecker and the book in my waistband is soaked through with sweat (Ford Maddox Ford's the Good Soldier). I finger my three day stubble and feel like Kerouac.

The view from up here is amazing. Down in the canyon, hoodoos huddle together, like an army of abandoned chess pieces. Taken together, they look like the spires of some intricately carved temple (think Khajurao) except that the forms are more varied here, and the only sculptors are water and the wind. Bands of colour run through the hoodoos. The sky is an electric blue, and white clouds march away in well-ordered ranks to the horizon. From inspiration point, you can see the country around for miles in all directions - before you the wilderness of rock that is the canyon, behind you lush forests of pine and mountain meadows.

An hour later I'm at Bryce Point (another stunning view, this time complete with little arches like windows in the wall of the canyon) reading my book when T and N return, panting, out of breath. They have gone down 900 feet to the bottom of the canyon, climbed up to the top of a ridge, then gone down to the bottom of the canyon and climbed all the way up to the top again. All in a distance of about 3 miles. They look exhausted. We head back to the visitor's centre, get our car, drive to Rainbow Point. The view of the canyon from here (an elevation of over 9000 feet) is impressive, but we're beginning to get a little tired of hoodoos. More impressive is the view from the adjacent Yovimpa point - here the horizon is literally hundreds of miles away - you can see all the way to the Navajo Mountain. This is distance as you've never seen it before.

It is time to move on again. As the darkness gathers, we play Jasraj and Shakti and watch the mountains pass by on either side. We are headed for Highway 50 - claimed to be the loneliest road in America. This is not hard to believe. The road map shows a stretch of 120 miles of road without the slightest hint of habitation, not the smallest town, not a single gas station. Just miles and miles of emptiness. We grab a quick dinner and head out.

An hour later we pull over to the side of the road and step out of the car. All around the silence is complete. The road stretches straight for miles, but there is no traffic on it. In fact, there isn't a speck of artificial light to be seen anywhere. We are totally, inalienably alone.

And then we look up. In all my years, I have never seen so many stars, or known them to be so brilliant. The infininity of the universe gleams above us. We can see, as clear as though it were a streak of paint, the arm of the galaxy curving over our heads. For the first time I realise why it is called the milky way - I always thought it was a hyperbole before - but there it is, a liquid spiral, a highway of light running through the night's wilderness. And the stars! It occurs to me for the first time that if the universe is truly infinite, and if the farthest reaches of it were not retreating away from us at speeds faster than light, then there is no reason for the night sky to be dark at all - every point in the sky should have a star corresponding to it, the entire sky should be one solid block of gleaming light. The sky here is not like that, but it's close. I'd never imagined that there were such riches hidden away above our heads - that the sight that the lights and pollution of the city kept hidden away from us was so grand, so densely packed with pinpricks of light. The sky seems to be raining needles. This is the way the sky must have looked to our forefathers - to the apes who first climbed down from the trees, to the cavemen fleeing the advance of a new ice age, to the first farmers walking out into their tentative fields, to the sailors and explorers for whom the clear sky at night was their only map, the one they carried always with them, even to the cowboys and settlers who first came to settle this land a little over a century ago. This sense of connection to the ages of man is also a terrible sense of loss - what profit it a man if he gain the earth but lose the heavens? I think of Whitman "Rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, / In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, /Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.". So this was what he was talking about.

Then, just as the wonder of the sight threatened to completely overwhelm us, the moon arrived as a rescuer. There, leaning against our car on the floor of the Utah Desert, we saw the moon rise golden over the top of a nearby mountain, like a rose opening, or a yellow chick being born - the first little beak peeking out at first, and then little by little the rest of the three quarter moon following, till it hung, large as a doubloon in the sky, bathing the desert around us with its ghostly light (Shelley now: "And like a dying lady, lean and pale, /Who totters forth, wrapp'd in a gauzy veil, / Out of her chamber, led by the insane / And feeble wanderings of her fading brain,/ The moon arose up in the murky East, / A white and shapeless mass.").

Another hour and we were in Ely, Nevada, desperately trying to find a night clerk to let us into the hotel room we'd booked. But the memory of that glimpse we'd caught of the majesty of the universe stayed with us, will stay with us forever.

Song of the day: Yeh Raat Ye Chandni Phir Kahan

Day 3

Looking for a place to grab breakfast in Ely. Welcome to the West. The Silver State Diner. Elk steak specials and coffee as dilute as dishwater. T orders cereal - thus moving five year old inventory. I sit there with a hodge-podge of Tarantino and Oliver Stone films running through my head, wondering when the shooting is going to start. A man at the next table is extolling the virtues of the Yankees. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Then out on Highway 50. Miles and miles of road running absolutely straight to the horizon. Endless valleys of grasslands between parantheses of low mountain ranges - the only signs of human habitation here being a line of electricity poles marching to infinity. It's blazing hot outside. We stop to get gas in Eureka, Nevada and there are T-shirts on sale saying 'I survived Highway 50'. We hope we do.

It's amazing that there are still places so remote in the heart of the United States. There is no cell phone connectivity in these towns, the gas stations could come straight out of 70's Hollywood, the bars and restaurants are still wood panelled. One coffee shop in Eureka proudly advertises a Cappucino machine, but that's about it.

As the 50 comes to an end, the desert goes in for a final hurrah. White sands stretch on both sides of the road, the monotony broken only by the graffiti in black rock that strangers have left on the highway shoulders. Bono is singing Unchained Melody. Fifteen minutes later we are in the middle of lush green fields, and we can already smell California ahead. It will take us another two hours to get there, though, the highway is not lonely anymore, but rather jam-packed with vehicles. We inch our way past Carson City, climb up the mountains (another change of landscape - this time to pine forests - this country is incorrigible) to Lake Tahoe. We come upon it suddenly, the flash of blue like a kingfisher's wing, then the wide expanse of the lake stretching out below us. We stop at a vista point and take pictures. The lake is not one, but three incredible shades of blue. Given that just two hours ago we were in the middle of the desert where the only water we saw was the mirage of heat shimmering on the horizon, so gratuitous a landscape amazes us.

By the time we get down to the town of South Lake Tahoe, though, our enthusiasm has evaporated, like water spilled in the desert heat. There are too many tourists here, too much of a crowd. We decide to have lunch and drive on. We find an natural food place and have organic sprouts and salads along with exotic fruit juices (I have something called a Bugs Bunny - carrot and apple and celery juice). I feel like I've stepped into a Thomas Pynchon novel - I seem to be surrounded by people who haven't realised that the 60's are over. Welcome to California.

Leaving Lake Tahoe we head out into the mountains again. Our destination is Sonora Pass, 9600 feet high. On the way we go through a couple of other high passes. The views are spectacular, and, frankly, unexpected. The roads climb steeply here, for the first time in the trip we can hear the car straining.

Meanwhile we are running out of fuel. We'd planned to refill in a couple of towns along the way that we'd seen on the map, but they turned out to be little more than a cluster of houses (average population: 50) with no gas station in sight. On the top of a 7500 feet high pass the warning light flickers on - we have less than two gallons of fuel left. We climb down the mountain warily, N barely touching the accelerator so as to save fuel. The map shows us a town just two miles after we come off the mountain. This turns out not to have a gas station, as does the next one. We are now dangerously low on gas. The last town for miles around is Walker - if there's no gas pump there the next town is at least 40 miles away - we won't make it. We pull into Walker and see a battered old gas station. Never before have three grown men been so ecstatic to see so fundamentally ugly a building!

With our tank topped up again, we head back into the mountains again - climbing close to 4000 feet up to get to Sonora Pass. The air turns cold - there is still snow on the mountains here. From the top of the pass the view is not particularly spectacular, but there is a strange sense of accomplishment in having made it up here - the landscape is one of loneliness and desolation - we are in one of the highest, most remote places in this part of the world. It's an amazing drive, skirting the top of the Yosemite forest, a beautiful winding mountain road through thick pine forests. As we head back to the valley, the sunset flames like a wild fire over the tops of the trees.

Song of the day: Mark Knopfler Sands of Nevada

Day 4

Breakfast in Stockton. N convinces us to try Denny's - T and I crib, he sits happily eating grits. I discover to my horror that if you order toast in a diner it comes with a half inch thick layer of butter. I have to go find the waitress and tell her that I just want plain bread. She looks vaguely offended.

Today is Yosemite day. A quick two hour drive and we're heading into the Yosemite Valley. As we approach the main valley, majestic rock formations tower above us. We've been told that we pass the mountain called El Capitan on our way to the main information centre, so we spend our time imagining that every little rockface is El Capitan. Then we see the real thing and know. The mountains are fascinating here - the highlight being the Half Dome - a mountain cut neatly in half by a passing glacier. There is the same sense of awe here that we felt in the other canyons, the sense of ancient and powerful forces having left their imprint on this place (how many million years to make this valley, how many billions of tons of slowly lumbering ice to carve out an entire mountain). The waterfalls are a little disappointing, if only because there is little water in them, but the sheer colossal majesty of the granite mountains amazes us.

Yosemite valley itself turns out to be fairly disappointing. We sit in a shuttle and go all around, but there are no new sights to be seen. The park is crowded with visitors, everywhere we go there are crowds. The information provided is poor, so that we end up wasting a fair amount of time just trying to find our way around. We leave the valley two hours later having had a meagre meal of sandwiches and power bars picked up at a grocery store and with the sense of having wasted a precious hour or two.

Our next destination is Glacier Point, a place from where the Yosemite Valley can be seen in all its glory. On our way there we stop to admire the view from the mouth of the Tunnel - this is a spectacular landscape, but there are just too many people here. As I stand in a crowd of a dozen other tourists all taking the same picture from the same spot a feeling of suffocation grips me. I need to get out of here.

We escape towards Glacier Point. Another mountain drive waits for us here, we spend the time discussing the evolution of rock music (just think of it as our own special brand of geology). Glacier point itself does not disappoint us, the view is beautiful. From here you can see the Nevada and Vernal waterfalls, as well as a whole set of other mountains. I am thinking of Tennyson again: "The splendour falls on castle walls / And snowy summits old in story: / The long light shakes across the lakes, / And the wild cataract leaps in glory.". There are no castles here, of course, but there should be.

Unfortunately Glacier Point is also overcrowded with gaggles of tourists. People are standing at opposite ends of glacier point shouting inanities to each other and laughing. I hate people. I have dim fantasies where I imagine them falling down a sheer cliff face. The noise these people are making annoys me so much that I pull out my iPod, play Sabbath at full volume. This drowns out the voices of the others, and I can finally begin to enjoy the sights. On my way back to the car I spot a beautiful bird sitting on a tree just by the parking lot. It's blue all over - light azure in the wings, and a darker navy head. I watch it till it flies away.

The next stop is Mariposa Grove - a small grove of Giant Sequoias on the southern tip of Yosemite. Here we gawk at massive trees - over 200 feet high. T informs us that the Redwood National forests are far more impressive, but I'm still bowled over by the sheer size of these trees. We walk about the grove for a bit until we get a crick in our necks from always staring up. The light is starting to fade - it's another hour or so to sunset. We are tired now, and a little jaded. We decide to drive to Fresno and have a hearty dinner, before heading over to Bakersfield to spend the night.

In Fresno, we decide to look for an Indian restaurant. Just for the heck of it. Ten wrong turns, two sets of directions and a lot of borderline illegal driving later, we still haven't found one. It's getting late now, and our final destination is still a couple of hours away. Tired of searching we finally give up the hunt outside a trashy chinese joint, where we end up eating the buffet. It's amazing how the smell of slightly stale Chicken Teriyaki is the same all over the world.

By the time we get to Bakersfield, we are all exhausted, but there's a sense of having accomplished something now. It has been a good trip.

Song of the Day: Kishori Amonkar singing Hansadhwani

Day 5

Back to Vegas today, to catch our flight. Breakfast at IHOP again (T puts his foot down). Chocolate Chip Pancakes out of sheer nostalgia. California waitresses. Then the long dry road across the desert, past a ridge covered with windmills, skirting the edge of the Mojave national preserve, a flat landscape of almost unbearable heat (thank God for air conditioning), back into Nevada again (the border marked by a sudden rash of casinos). Then another half hour circling Vegas, looking for a gas station to top up the fuel tank in, a final check of the car, and before we know it we're back in the airport. I feel like an impostor - leaving Vegas without actually having seen it. There's a board up announcing an exhibition of Impressionist paintings at the Bellagio. It's called 'From Corot to Van Gogh'. Who would have thought it? In Vegas, no less! I feel depressed.

Then sitting on the flight, watching the darkness curve towards us, finally catching up with it over Chicago. The couple on the seats next to me spend all five hours of the flight watching some sort of World Poker Tournament on TV. I try reading my Gogol, then settle for three hours of music on my iPod. I'm depressurising now, losing momentum. All those nights spent away from home, all the distances that I've escaped from, are all coming back to me now. I arrive at JFK with my head full of tiny warning bells - e-mails, chores, meetings, all flooding back like flotsam on an incoming tide. On the A train headed back to T's place (I will head back to Philly the next day - I can't stand the thought of another two and a hour train journey at this point; besides it's one in the morning) I feel wrung, ready to be hung out to dry.

Song of the Day: The Beach Boys California Girls

Day 6 (Aftermath)

I wake up in the morning feeling more positive. Thank God it's Sunday. I check mail, scan my blog for comments. I can already feel life returning to its usual round. T and I have bagels and cream cheese for breakfast, with espresso to follow. It feels so good to be back in civilisation. Riding the number 1 train into Penn Station I have the sense of coming home, or rather of the return to something familiar that is not quite home - the feeling you get when you step out of the airport and see the remembered sights of a city you've lived in, and know instinctively that home is not far away now. It's a wonderfully warm and safe feeling.

I spend the next three hours on the phone, catching up with the world. This feels good, because it's me doing the catching up now - I'm gaining on the world, it's not the world overtaking me anymore. Once I'm home I check my fridge and find the fruit I'd forgotten to eat before I left has gone bad, I need to get more water, I'm out of milk. There's a pile of laundry to get done. The regular grind is starting again. Tomorrow I will sit and download my pictures and blog about the trip. 2300 miles of highway, a 2,500 mile flight (going and back) and ten train switchovers later, I'm finally home. And content.

Song of the Day: Simon and Garfunkel Homeward Bound

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The ultimate flight

Have you ever thought about how airplane lavatories would be the perfect place to kill yourself? Think about it. You pick a trans-atlantic flight (out of New York, for instance). You slip half a razor blade into the waistband of your jeans (just under your belt buckle - they're hardly likely to catch something that small at security). You wait patiently for the seatbelt sign to switch off, make sure you're properly over the ocean, then you slide quickly into the lavatory, shift the sign on the door to occupied and slit your wrists. Okay, so people will line up outside. They'll probably curse you for taking so long, they'll complain bitterly about people who hog public rest rooms. Then after about twenty minutes (maybe half an hour) someone will bring the whole matter to the staff's attention. They'll come knock politely - wait for an answer. This will go on for five minutes. Then there'll be another ten-fifteen minutes while they consult with each other and decide to do something about it (they won't want to create a commotion after all, not with everyone as jittery about terrorist scares as they are nowadays). They'll go on trying to knock, they'll try and figure out how long you've been in there, they'll be afraid that you've just fallen asleep and it'll all end in embarassment. Finally they'll decide to try and force the door open. This will take another five minutes (more if your body happens to be jammed against the door).

And even after they get you out (how long does it take to bleed to death anyway - surely it'll all be over in an hour), what are they going to do about it? Maybe there'll be a doctor on board, maybe there won't. At any rate, he / she is unlikely to be carrying any equipment with them. Certainly there'll be no blood, no glucose to give you. And you're halfway across the Atlantic by now. By the time they get back to land and get you to a hospital it's almost certain to be too late.

Why not just kill yourself at home, you ask? Well, for starters, there's the novelty value of it (hasn't anyone ever thought of this before, I wonder?). There's something exciting about killing yourself at 30,000 feet above sea level, as if the thinness of the air outside had something to do with the thinness of your life. You could start a whole new mile high club.

Plus there's the finality of the whole thing - it's a good way of making sure that you die, and that's really important. Even if you wanted to back out, get help, you couldn't really do it. And it's a convenient event to fix killing yourself on - if you're just sitting at home you could always put it off till the next day or the day after that, but if you're up on the plane flying to an unknown city with no reservations and nothing to do there, then there's a momentum driving you to end it all right there. Oh, and also, there's the sense of a journey, if only a pointless and aborted one, that is so poetically apt for the whole endeavour. I have this vision of my soul like a suitcase, going round and round on a carousel somewhere, unaware that there is no master left to claim it.

P.S. I'm back!! Had amazing vacation. More on that in the coming week.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The fine art of bullshit

Article in last week's New Yorker:

Bullshitting can involve an element of artistry; it offers, as Frankfurt acknowledges, opportunities for “improvisation, color, and imaginative play.” When the bullshitting is done from an ulterior motive, like the selling of a product or the manipulation of an electorate, the outcome is likely to be a ghastly abuse of language. When it is done for its own sake, however, something delightful just might result. The paradigm here is Falstaff, whose refusal to be enslaved by the authority of truth is central to his comic genius. Falstaff's merry mixture of philosophy and bullshit is what makes him such a clubbable man, far better company than the dour Wittgenstein. We should by all means be severe in dealing with bullshitters of the political, the commercial, and the academic varieties. But let's not banish plump Jack.

At last - someone who understands.

Restless Farewell

Is it just me or do other people get last minute travelling blues as well? Take today. I'm off on a one week trip to some obscure parts of the West. I've been looking forward to this all week. Yet today, with two hours left to go before I set off, I'm sitting here thinking "Why did I do this to myself? I could have just spent the time vegetating at home, reading a book. Instead I'm going off traipsing through god alone knows what wilderness. All sorts of terrible things could happen. I could get in an accident and die, I could get arrested for some crime I didn't commit and get lynched by vigilantes (I don't even have a cousin Vinny!) - worse, my iPod could run out of battery. Why, oh why am I doing this to myself? Is it too late to cancel?"

Of course, there's a part of me that knows that I'm just imagining this - that I'm going to have a great time and everything's going to be fine. But I swear - if it wasn't for the fact that I'm going with friends and that Jet Blue won't refund my money, I would seriously have considered cancelling, even now.

You know how some people have wander lust? I have stay-at-home lust - the restless feeling you get when all you want to do is stay at home and relax and you can't.

Oh well. As Dylan would say:

Oh, ev'ry thought that's strung a knot in my mind,
I might go insane if it couldn't be sprung.
But it's not to stand naked under unknowin' eyes,
It's for myself and my friends my stories are sung.
But the time ain't tall,
Yet on time you depend and no word is possessed
By no special friend.
And though the line is cut,
It ain't quite the end,
I'll just bid farewell till we meet again.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Hold

It was the first time they had held hands.

On their way back to Philadelphia, the night train crawling from the cocoon of New York like a defeated caterpillar, they emerged from the darkness of the tunnel into the softer half-light of an autumn dusk. Far away, the lights of the traffic lay like decimals on the water, dividing the creek between them. She sat by the window, her body half turned to him, her back wedged into the corner between seat and wall. Her eyes had the bleary look of the ring a glass leaves on a table when it has been left out too long. She had been crying. She looked exhausted.

The conductor came by and checked their tickets. The carriage wasn't particularly full, but there were the usual strangers - some dozing lightly on their seats, others reading, still others staring out of their windows into the day-dreaming vacancy of space. He noticed none of this. The sadness he saw in her face drew him like a newly risen moon, to which the other passengers were as the pricking of stars. Setting the bag out of his way, he moved closer to her, began to stroke her hair. Again and again his fingers traced the outline of her skull, as if hoping to discover in it the shape of her grief.

His other hand slipped into hers.

Afterwards, neither of them would remember how it happened - when he found her, how he unclenched her, what passed between touch and touch. It was just there - the moment coming together somehow, past and future locking like two sets of lonely fingers, a triumph unconsciously achieved that neither of them, had they noticed, would have had the courage for.

Newark, Elizabeth.

He realised he had been babbling. The empathy in his voice was real, of course, but his words made little sense. Logic danced through them like a shadow, ready to retreat should she turn to them like a searchlight, seeking the truth in what they said.

She had no such light. Lulled by his words, she rested her head back, slipped slowly into sleep. Her mouth fell open a little, her shoulders gave way. Now and then she twitched a little, as if trying to struggling out of a dream. But otherwise she was still.

Staring at her, he felt a wave of affection wash over him. He felt deeply protective of her, almost possessive. As if this plain, almost clumsy body was his to hold and comfort, his to defend. There was no real attraction here, there was only sympathy, and the need to have something to care for. On the seat behind them a little boy jumped up, waving his toy bow. He scowled at the boy, willing him to try something so that he could leap to her defense. He must keep her safe, he decided. It had been a long weekend. It was the least he could do.

After a while, he became aware of being watched. People were staring at them. Slowly, trying to appear casual, he removed his hand from her head, stopped stroking her hair.

Rahway, Metropark.

Ten minutes later, his arm was beginning to ache. He realised how uncomfortably he was sitting. In the ardour of the moment he had paid no attention to this - so that the hand that held hers was at an awkward angle for him - the arm crossing his chest and turned a little outward. He tried to ease his hand away from her, but she was holding it too tightly. If he pulled it away now it was sure to wake her. He must keep still.

That was proving difficult though. Now that he had noticed it, the discomfort increased rapidly. His muscles were beginning to tighten, ache; he felt a cramp coming on. He must pull it away. She seemed to be deep in sleep by now, surely she wouldn't notice. He tried again, a little more forcefully this time. His hand started to slip free. Then, instinctively, she tightened her grip on his fingers, like one clutching on to a slipping blanket on a cold night. It was no good. He would just have to leave his hand there.

A stab of pain shot through his arm. He gritted his teeth. This was it, then, the test. He mustn't let her down. Let's see - they were already at Edison - that meant another half hour before they got to Trenton. He would have to wake her then. Surely he could hold on for that long? For her?

The thing to do, of course, was to take your mind off it. Think of something else. Do something else. His book! He eyed his bag, lying in the overhead, and realised there was no way he could reach it without taking his hand away. A cigarette perhaps? But you probably weren't allowed to smoke on the train, and anyway, how would he strike a match with only one hand to do it with? Gingerly, with his one free hand, he reached over and grabbed her magazine. The Economist. He leafed idly through it, a cacophony of figures leaping out at him from every page.

His arm was starting to go numb now. He was sure he could feel the circulation shutting down. How long could you not move an arm before it froze in place and gangrene set in and they had to amputate? What rot! Gangrene, I ask you! He was losing it.

But maybe he should wake her anyway. After all, she probably hadn't noticed that they were holding hands when she fell asleep. He certainly hadn't. What if she were embarassed afterwards? Shouldn't he spare her that? If he just yanked his hand away now, she would wake with no memory of them holding hands, and only a vague sense of what had woken her. Surely that would be best. Not that he cared about the ache in his arm. Of course not. He was only thinking of her.

He looked at her face. She looked so peaceful, so relaxed. He couldn't disturb that. He sighed and went back to his magazine.

Now the conductor had come over again. What did he want? He signed to the conductor to keep his voice down - pointing to her and miming sleep. What do you want, he mouthed? He wanted the tickets; apparently you were supposed to leave them clipped to the seat after they had been checked. Very well. Where had he put them? In his wallet. In his back pocket. On the wrong side. Damn. Very slowly, with the conductor watching in amazement, he half stood up, twisted his body in a grotesque corkscrew (the other passengers were watching now), reached back to his pocket with his one free hand, pulled out his wallet, opened it, yanked the tickets out with his teeth, dropped the wallet in his lap (he was sitting again), took the tickets from his mouth and handed them to the conductor who eyed them suspiciously and then took them gingerly from one edge. And all this without moving his other hand away.

As he eased back into his seat, he was aware of people staring at him. He could feel the sweat breaking out over his brow. New Brunswick. The movement to get his wallet out had jogged his arm out of its numbness. It screamed with pain now. It was excruciating. He brought his other hand over to massage it, but it did no good. Princeton Junction. Only ten minutes more. He gave up on the magazine and sat counting the seconds. One hundred and one, one hundred and two. Time crawling across the floor of his mind slow as an ant.

Just after Hamilton she awoke. Her hand slipped out of his easily, quickly - it took him a couple of seconds to realise that it was gone and he could draw his suffering arm back. He looked at her, waiting to see what she would say. Was there a hint of embarassment in the way she looked at him now, a sense of shared intimacy? She said nothing. Could it be that she hadn't noticed? Surely not. He scowled, slowly stroking his arm back to life (the pain was flowing out of it fast; he would recover after all).

As they drew into Trenton, he felt like screaming at her. "You ungrateful, unfeeling...thing!", he felt like saying, "do you realise what I did for you? All that time - one whole hour - holding your bloody hand while my arm MOANED in agony. Risking amputation, or at least severe muscle strain. Not being able to get to my book, not being able to smoke. And the people staring, and the conductor. Do you have any idea what it took out of me? Have you nothing to say about that? Nothing?!"

Behind her, the darkness had turned the window into a mirror. It showed him his face. He realised suddenly how ridiculous he seemed, sitting there so indignant. As they drew into the station, he smiled. "Better grab your luggage", he said, turning to face her, "this is where we get off".

Friday, August 19, 2005

The End of an Affair

It's always tough when relationships end, isn't it?

For years now, this woman has been an integral part of my life - day after day I've woken up to find her smiling face peering out at me over my morning cup of coffee, night after night her laughing eyes have been the last thing I've looked into before going to bed. She's the one person who's always been there for me, always welcoming, always reliable (except for the occassional network outage) - no matter how foul my mood she's always stood by me, always accepted me for who I am (as long as I remembered my password, of course). As relationships go, my friendship with her has been one of the most pleasant and most long-lasting of my life.

So imagine my shock when I logged on to check mail this morning and found that her wonderful face had been replaced by a bunch of random pictures of people having fun on a beach. Why? Why did it have to end this way? No word, no mail, just this awful absence staring back at me from the homepage, the laughing pictures on the screen serving only to mock me. Did I do something wrong? Did she, perhaps, find out how much time I'd been spending with G? I'm devastated. I can't think straight. I type in the old log-in and password and my mail opens, but the words have lost their magic now and my inbox seems empty, so empty. How can I find her? Where shall I look for her? I have nothing - no name, no phone number, just the indelible memory of that charming smile beaming out at me. Is this how Love ends - not with a bang, but a whimper? What was it Janis Joplin sang: "I'd give all my tomorrows / for one single yesterday" - but it's impossible now, it's too late.

YahooMail woman - please come back. Please don't leave me this way. I know I should have appreciated you more when I had you. I know I should have spent more time paying attention to you, instead of always brushing past you so rudely, in a hurry to get to my mail. Forgive me, you must. Think of all those hours we've stayed up together, waiting for someone to e-mail us. You must come back. Or if you can't just tell me where you are and I'll follow you to the ends of the earth (or well, to the furthest Starbucks - which is the same thing really). My obssessive mail checking just isn't the same without you. [breaks down and sobs]


Contracked, adj. (given to) excessive reliance on contracts, (person who) believes that verbal and written agreements are the only way to solve things

Was talking to a friend the other day about the importance of having the 'relationship conversation' - you know - the one where you agree that things are going to be 'exclusive' and 'committed'. Her point was that she wished she didn't have to make all of this explicit, but that she couldn't live with the insecurity of not having that verbal commitment.

Personally, I've never understood why people do this - what exactly do they hope to get out of such verbal contracts?

First, the contract can never be complete. I mean it's not like you can sit down and define exactly what each person will and will not do in every conceivable situation that presents itself. You're still going to have to trust the person, believe in their good intentions. And if you're doing that anyway, then what do you need some kind of verbal commitment for*?

On the contrary, I think part of the problem is that definitions mean different things to different people - the interpretation you put on the word 'boyfriend' for instance, may be very different from the meaning the other person ascribes to it - so that by scaffolding yourself to a definition you actually risk more confusion than you solve. It's like trying to walk across the country with a fictional map. If you didn't have the map you would take it slower, be more attentive to things around you and more willing to explore and discover the lie of the land. As it is, you're likely to go falling into ditches and then looking up in indignation to say "but that's not on the map!"

Second, it's not like the contract is enforceable. To begin with, just because someone says something doesn't mean they're actually going to stick to it. It always amazes me how people will not trust the actions of those they're in relationships with, but will trust their words - though you would think actions would be harder to fake than words. And it's not just that the other person might be lying to you - the point is that there's enough uncertainty in the system that the other person might not know either. What does it mean when someone says they will love you forever, or could never feel about someone else the way they feel about you? Only that they lack imagination.

Of course, the one thing the contract will give you is evidence of having been wronged, should things fall apart. And perhaps the satisfaction of knowing that it wasn't all about you deluding yourself - that at best you were not the only person deluded and at worst you were actively deluded by someone else. But this is a chimic pleasure, surely. First, being able to prove that the person claimed to love you / promised you commitment doesn't mean that you weren't wrong, only that your culpability is of a different kind - you're not self-delusional (thank God!), you're just a really bad judge of character! Second, if this is someone you truly cared for, then presumably the biggest problem here is the hurt of losing them - whose fault it was is hardly relevant (I wrote once: "Guilt is just another way of arranging the furniture"). If you've just been hit by a bus, is it really going to make you feel better to know that it was the driver's fault?

The key point, though, is that contracts cannot change how people feel. You cannot legislate desire, you cannot order the heart about. Loving someone is not like delivering the paper every morning - you can't say, "you promised to love me so now you have to". It's this ungovernable nature of human passion that is what makes all relationship contracts irrelevant.

Which brings me to the third argument I have against relationship contracts - even if they were enforceable in a superficial sense, even if you could somehow bind the person to you with a contract and make sure that they never left you, would you really want to? Do you really want the other person to be in a relationship just because he / she promised at some point and now HAS to comply, or would you rather that the other person was with you because he / she really wanted to be**? Even if you could legislate the fact of the relationship (and to some extent that's exactly what marriage - shudder! - does) you could not control its quality, so that you'd end up tied to a stifling and unhappy relationship where both people participated more out of a sense of duty (or pity) than out of any genuine desire for each other. People will argue that the fact that there are high exit barriers will pre-dispose you to make compromises and make the relationship work. Perhaps. But why would you want to compromise? I, for one, have no desire to coerce someone into loving me - I would be loved voluntarily, or not at all.

The problem with these contracts, I feel, is that they lull people into a false sense of security. This means both that they begin to take the other person for granted - feeling that they no longer need to put in the effort to make themselves interesting to the other person (and thereby lowering the chances of the relationship actually working) - and that they now have expectations about future security that leave them open to disappointment. You could argue, of course, that being in a relationship should not involve putting in effort in the first place, but this is just laziness, and it ignores the reciprocity of the argument - if you're not putting in effort for the other person, then chances are they're not putting in effort for you either - and that's something you're losing out on.

Another common argument that people make for relationship contracts is that the high exit barriers keep you from making rash / hasty decisions. This is true, but it's an argument for children. What you're essentially saying is that you're too irresponsible and immature to handle a relationship yourself, so you'd rather that society handled it for you***. But people who can't be responsible about their relationships shouldn't be in them in the first place. And again, one would hope that what would give you pause before doing something rash would be the value you place on the other person, not the value you place on some larger social norm / public opinion.

Understand that I'm not saying that one must avoid getting into contracts as a matter of principle. Only that one must recognise the contract as irrelevant and see beyond it. I can see why it's important to have a sense of security in a relationship that you're hugely emotionally invested in - the point is that for your own good you'd better make sure that that sense of security is based on more than some verbal agreement on the 'rules' of the relationship. Because the contract doesn't really mean anything.


* There's the seperate point here about why people (still) value sexual exclusivity over, say emotional or intellectual exclusivity, but that's another post.

** The answer to this could be yes, of course - given social conditioning / pressure, people may want to be in a relationship for the sake of being in a relationship and most of what I'm saying doesn't apply in that scenario. I just think that people are too needlessly afraid of being alone - and it saddens me to see people ending up in dead-end relationships simply to escape being with themselves.

*** It's also, of course, a great way of making society a scapegoat for your own bad decisions. Why admit that you didn't have the guts to break off an unhealthy relationship when you can blame society for it?

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Dark Side

I love dark chocolate.

Actually, I really love chocolate per se (Nikki Giovanni writes: "The reason I like chocolate is / I can lick my fingers / And nobody tells me I'm not polite") I love the sensualness of it - the gooey taste of it in your mouth, the richness of it coating your tongue, the way the pleasure melts slowly into your bloodstream.

I wrote once:

Who dreamt
That joy could be this dark?
That love could be bitten in half
So easily?
That guilt was a girl with sticky hands?

Who knew regret could taste like sunlight?
Or that the defeat of an entire summer
Would dissolve in a single mouth?

When you give yourself equally
There is no surrender
There is only the certainty of being melted and glorious
At the instant of your destruction.

- 'Chocolate'; December 2003

But dark chocolate is a special favourite of mine - there's something about the intense bitterness of it that makes it, for me, the concentrated essence of everything chocolate-y. A really good dark chocolate is like fine wine - that first insistent rosebud of flavour that blossoms slowly into the full, rich flower of an aftertaste. The same heady feeling flowing straight from your palate to your brain, the connections in your head resolving themselves into a network of intense, almost infinite joy.

Some people, I know, don't like dark chocolate - they feel it's too bitter. For such philistines there are many alternatives - milk chocolates, peanut flavoured chocolates, granola bars, even (shudder!) fruit candies. But for the true chocolate connoisseur there is only one true taste of chocolate - and that is the subtle, delicate and amazingly concise flavour of genuine bitterness.

P.S. A friend of mine brought me two huge slabs of dreamy dark chocolate this weekend, hence the rapture. This post is most definitely dedicated to her.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Did he or didn't he?

Forgive me, I couldn't resist.

At the risk of offending people who take hip-hop seriously, I have to admit that I died laughing reading this article about the rapidly changing nomenclature of a certain popular 'artist'. I can totally see how people who listen to hip-hop could have problems dealing with the incredible complexity of names over two syllables. How were they to know that the P was silent.

For what it's worth, I think this is a bold and dynamic artistic move, that many other artist should emulate. Think of all the other people who could have names that were so much more evocative, if they just chose not to mind their Ps: Britney Sears, Ink Floyd, The Artist formerly known as Rinse, The Retenders, Jimmy Age, Charlie 'Arker, Aul McCartney; not to mention the Red Hot Chilli Eers or Dee Urle.

Photo Finish

What do passport photos have against me? I mean, okay, so I'm no Cary Grant to look at, but my homely little visage is serviceable enough - useful for being recognised at my favourite coffee shop and for being cooed over by myopic great aunts (the only people in the world who continue to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that I am a 'handsome young man'). But put this same mug on a passport size snap and you instantly have something that will have every self-respecting homeland security guard reaching for his gun, and editors from the National Enquirer clamouring for permission to use it as part of their lead story on 'Signs of Extra-Terrestrial Life'.

This has been true for as far back as I can remember. In college, my black and white passport snap became the subject of much concern at the UNHCR, and some little know African country was almost put under sanctions until someone pointed out that it was just my normal face - not the grim rictus of some fiendish warlord's half-famished victim. In b-school my photograph gained acclaim among ornithologists as depicting (in the shape of my hair) a wonderful example of the nest-building technique of the common Indian crow. My yearbook photograph is an intense exploration of the artistic possibilities of roadkill, as inspired by Paul Klee. The snap of me in my passport regularly gives pause to the most stalwart immigration officials, causing them to blanch in shock and giving the phrase 'undesirable alien' a whole new meaning. When I applied to grad school the photograph I sent in had the media trumpeting the return of the Michelin man, complete with three spare tires under his chin. As for the photograph on my current security ID - let's just say that every time I swipe it, it takes the automated doors an extra three seconds or so to decide to let me in. And even then they're pretty reluctant.

The one good passport-size photograph I ever had taken (my collar was straight, my hair looked combed, my eyes were open, I was ACTUALLY smiling) was one of those instant four piece things (so that I couldn't get copies) of which one snap went into an application for a gym that I never visited, a second was given to my travel agent who then proceeded to lose it and two others got destroyed accidentally when someone didn't bother to check whether there was anything in the envelope before tearing it. I sometimes think the gods are jealously guarding my face from the general public.

What is it about passport size photos that makes them so difficult? To begin with there's the smile. Look, I'm as happy a person as the next guy and am capable of laughing like a madman when the spirit takes me, but I just can't turn it on and off at random. And what self-respecting person is going to go around saying the names of dairy products in public at four o clock in the afternoon? So there I'll be, sitting in the photographer's studio and the person will say "smile" like it's an order, only I'm not feeling like smiling - I'm nervous and on edge and there's very definitely nothing funny about this. Still I try. I put on what I fondly imagine is my sardonic, half amused, half whimsical grin (an exotic expression that is supposed to be marked by the slightest up-tilt of the corner's of my mouth, but usually ends up looking like someone has pinned the sides of my face into a straight line with a couple of drawing pins). The photographers says "Smile" again. I'm miffed. I am smiling, you cretin. Give a man a camera with a phallic looking lens and suddenly he's an art critic. What does he know? Did Mona Lisa have to put up with this sort of thing? By now my lightly amused smile has become a scowl. I feel like snarling. The photographer starts to say something else, then sees the tips of my canines starting to peep from under my lips and decides to let it be. He takes the snap. I come out looking like I'm biting down on a 440 Volt wire, but at least it's over.

Digital cameras have made this even worse. At least in the old days there was hope. The guy took your snap and told you to come back in a couple of days to collect them. You spent the time in between checking out the faces of models in apparel ads, fondly imagining that's what you would look like. You had some vision of carrying the photographs in a special X-ray proof case so women wouldn't see them and go wild. Then you went back and were handed four intimate close-ups of your bathroom mop. This, it seemed, was you. You sighed. Life went on.

Now there's no such hope. Ten seconds after the crime has been done, there it is on the computer screen, staring back at you with an expression that says "it's your face that's done this to me! I'm going to sue!". Worse, there's actually the choice of trying again. Like that's going to help.

Take yesterday. I'm in the license centre getting a new photo ID. The woman at the counter tells me to sit back in the chair and takes a quick snap. Next thing it's up on her computer screen (with all the ten people behind me in line watching) and she's asking me to check it. What am I supposed to say? No, that's not me. There must have been some mistake with the paperwork somewhere. I'm actually Brad Pitt? If I say "yes, that's fine" she's going to look at me like - is THAT what you really want to look like on government records? So you're admitting that that's your actual FACE? Do you know what the penalty for being so gawky is in the state of Pennyslvania? If say ", could we try that again?" I'm practically admitting to being both vain and deluded. I sigh and say, that's fine. She prints my photo ID out, hands it to me. I am now officially a ghoul. I imagine emergency medics checking to see if I'm an organ donor and then taking one look at my face and deciding that it's not worth it.

Once, just once, I'd like to have a passport photograph that didn't look like a cat taking out its frustrations on a badly stuffed sofa. Is that too much to ask?

P.S. On a seperate note, I've never really understood why people are so obsessed with the way their passport size snaps come out. I mean it would be nice to look good in the snap, but I wouldn't put actual effort into it (like combing my hair, for instance - a ritual I undertake on a strictly quarterly basis). I know people who will get a complete facial done just because they need to have a photograph taken. Or will buy a new shirt so that the collar looks freshly starched. This seems a little excessive, to say the least. I mean at the end of the day as long as people can recognise you it doesn't matter how you look, right? I mean they're not going to take a look at my ID in a bar and say "We're sorry, you're the right age, but you're too ugly to drink". They won't, will they?

Where's a New Year when you need one?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Sins of Omission

A combination of yesterday's post and a post on a friend's blog that quoted an Ogden Nash poem, made me think of one of my favourite distinctions - the concept of sins of omission vs. sins of commision. Ogden Nash puts this brilliantly:

Portrait Of The Artist As A Prematurely Old Man

It is common knowledge to every schoolboy and even every Bachelor of Arts,
That all sin is divided into two parts.
One kind of sin is called a sin of commission, and that is very important,
And it is what you are doing when you are doing something you ortant,
And the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.
I might as well give you my opinion of these two kinds of sin as long as, in a way, against each other we are pitting them,
And that is, don't bother your head about the sins of commission because however sinful, they must at least be fun or else you wouldn't be committing them.
It is the sin of omission, the second kind of sin,
That lays eggs under your skin.
The way you really get painfully bitten
Is by the insurance you haven't taken out and the checks you haven't added up the stubs of and the appointments you haven't kept and the bills you haven't paid and the letters you haven't written.
Also, about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn't as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn't get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forget to pay a bill;
You didn't slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let's all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of things you haven't done,
But they are the things that I do not like to be amid,
Because the suitable things you didn't do give you a lot more trouble than the unsuitable things you did.
The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing,
Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.

- Ogden Nash

While this may seem like a flippant distinction (and certainly in Nash's ever capable hands a hilarious one), I think there's an extremely important point here. One of the central tenets by which I try to live my life is the idea that it's better to try something and not have it work out than to not try it at all (WARNING: anyone who even thinks of quoting Tennyson at this point is just ASKING for a juicy punch in the eye). The reason for this is that the things you don't get around to doing are easily idealised. If you try something and it doesn't work out you then know that it hasn't worked out and can put it behind you; but if you don't try it at all it grows quickly into something larger than life - a spectre that blots out the meek sun of your happiness, a regret that will not go away*. Thoreau writes in Walden:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. "

That's it exactly - it's not the life you live that you regret, it's all the lives you don't. Empson writes:

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.


* I don't really agree with the whole notion of regrets anyway - but that's a topic for another post

** Some of you will see the similarity between this and Type I and Type II error - false negatives and false positives. I guess my overall philosophy is that it's better to have false positives than to have false negatives - purely because the really important and wonderful things in life are much rarer and so missing out on those is much more costly then being taken in by a few mirages along the way.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Of gnomes, trolls and other tabled beings

One of the most lingering side-effects of working for the Firm is an undeniable fascination with putting things into 2x2 matrices. No sooner has a thought occured to you or a problem presented itself than you start casting around for ways to express it in two dichotomous dimensions. There's something strangely comforting about being able to fit everything into those four little squares - as if the world were at once controllable and interesting. This is not about trying to be clever - it's just how some of us naturally think. The average Firm employee will not spend time plucking petals from flower saying 'she loves me / she loves me not', he will make a 2x2 matrix with 'She loves me' one one axis and 'I love her' on the other and classify all the women he knows along those two dimensions!

So comments on an earlier post about the difference between trolls and gnomes made me instantly start thinking of ways to make the distinction more interesting by expressing it as a matrix. The result draws heavily upon an apocryphal classification scheme prevalent in the Firm - only the names for the individual cells are my own.

Essentially this elegantly simple classification scheme has two dimensions: Taking yourself too seriously and trying too hard. The interaction of the two gives us the following figure.

Trolls are dull, silent creatures, secure and self-righteous. Typically lacking in any sense of humour whatsoever, Trolls are usually content to live their own insular and smug lives, and rarely inflict their opinions on other people. However, they are extremely sensitive to things that they see as attacking their values / beliefs and are quick to take offense at things that are said against them. They have an almost morbid fear of being made to look ridiculous and are unappreciative of jokes at their expense. These fears / hurts express themselves as disengagement rather than confrontation, however - Trolls are the ultimate passive-aggressives. Because they are afraid of being shown up, Trolls will tend not to react openly to negative stimuli, preferring to let a simmering resentment grow within them. Interestingly, Trolls are often pious and 'sincere' though this is a fake sincerity that is based on complacency rather than humility. Because their puny brains are often incapable of dealing with contradiction, Trolls have trouble respecting / considering other people's opinions and prefer a 'simple' if suffocating world view where they are always right.

Gnomes are possibly the most annoying of all creatures in this matrix. Opinionated and belligerent, Gnomes will seek out views that run contrary to their own without provocation, and proceed to attack them with all the bitterness they can muster. While Gnomes may often be full of biting wit, they have no real sense of humour, simply because they will never make (and usually cannot take) jokes at their own expense - humour to them is more a weapon than a toy. Driven by insecurity, Gnomes will constantly seek opportunities to assert their own points of view, but will be unwilling to listen to others and will react to opposing positions based more on emotional frenzy than on rational thought. Gnomes will never admit to being wrong. Logic is wasted on gnomes because they are selective listeners and will use it only to support conclusions that favour them - never considering how the same argument could be used against them. Gnomes are incapable of seeing things from the other point of view. The average Gnome suffers from a strong persecution complex and is extremely self-involved - to the point of assuming that everything in the world is somehow about him / her.

Pixies are the featherbrains of the world. Generous and good of heart, Pixies are anxious to please and desperate for acceptance. Rather than being self-involved, Pixies are infact almost entirely externally involved - they often have no discernible opinions / talents / personalities of their own, but always seem to be in search of external validation. While they are the most likely to make jokes (including jokes about themselves) their jokes are usually more notable for their quantity rather than their quality. Pixies are wanna-bes - strivers have no real personality and usually an extremely limited depth of understanding about the things that they talk about - yet silence makes them uncomfortable and they are often uncomfortable being alone. Unlike Gnomes, who are convinced that everyone hates them, Pixies cannot stand the thought that anyone could hate them and are therefore almost self-effacing in their desire to please - they arrange away confrontations. While pixies may have little faith in their own worth, they may often be convinced that other people find them charming and intelligent and believe that effort is all it takes to be respected - not realising how silly and cloying they may seem. Pixies can be annoying, but you cannot bring yourself to hate them - you know that they mean well and you often like them, but you cannot begin to take them seriously.

Elves are, of course, the most aspirational of all the life-forms in this model. Like Trolls, Elves are little concerned with what other people think about them, but unlike Trolls they are secure enough to admit that other people could be right. Elves have a great sense of humour and will laugh at themselves as much as they will laugh at others - they are intensely aware of both the world's absurdity and of their own ridiculousness. Frequently clever and talented, Elves use these gifts in a whimsical manner, often more interested in the effects / process than in the final meaning of what they come in with. Relativists by nature, Elves are uncomfortable with moral absolutes, and tend to take a more contingent view of the world. While they may often be interested in arts and culture, Elves seek these out more for their own pleasure than in order to impress others / be accepted by them. Even though they recognise that they might be wrong, Elves are not afraid to state their opinions on various issues, though they may be willing to change this opinion if they find a convincing argument that suggests a better one. Open and friendly, Elves have strong personalities, but see no reason to inflict them on other people unless asked to.

Friday, August 12, 2005


Interesting article about Matisse's life in the New York Review of Books.

Hilary Spurling writes about the terrible irony that the one place where Matisse is least revered is in his own home town.

It was a shock to find, on my first visit to his home town of Bohain-en-Vermandois, that nobody had ever heard of him. "Matys? Mathis?" asked the local lawyer, whose firm had once represented Matisse's father from an office that still stands a few hundred yards from the house where the painter grew up. "How are you spelling that? With an h, or with a y?" Gradually I began to meet an older generation, people in their seventies and eighties whose parents and grandparents had talked about the Matisse boy as a kind of village idiot—le sot Matisse—a dropout with a record of successive failures, who ran away to Paris in the end to be a painter. "Madame, have you seen his paintings?" one old lady asked me in 1991. "A child could paint better than that, Madame." At the art school in St. Quentin, where the young Matisse enrolled in secret for drawing lessons without telling his father, the elderly college principal was still so bitterly ashamed of his only celebrated ex-student that he could barely bring himself to pronounce the name.

(Note to future terrorists: If you are going to attack some place in France, could you take this town out first? Thanks awfully. )

Spurling argues that to disassociate the artist's life (especially the life of a painter as raw and emotional as Matisse) from his work is to rob that work of a critical emotional context. Spurling's new biography of Matisse attempts to move beyond this artificial barrier and look more closely at Matisse as a human being.

"The invisible man who emerged from my researches was passionate, generous, and driven. Far from being humorless or heartless, he could be extremely funny, a first-rate mimic and raconteur (Matisse potrayed himself in private all his life in a stream of absurd, scratchy, self-mocking cartoons), as well as a loyal friend, endlessly and unobtrusively kind to those in trouble, especially to fellow painters. Admittedly, he was also almost impossible to live with. The sheer relentless force and intensity of his energy at close quarters made him intolerable at times. "

I'm not sure I agree with this. That is to say, I think it makes sense if you're writing a biography of the man (certainly his emotional life is more than relevant then) but I'm not sure why you would do so in the first place. The point about Matisse is not whether he was humiliated by scandal or made miserable by war, the point about Matisse is his art. Matisse's paintings don't need to be provided with emotional context, they make their own. The raw energy bursting out of his canvasses is a context enough, if you open your heart to it.

I guess I've always been sceptical about the whole genre of artist's biographies. I think they're an interesting form of writing in themselves, but I'm chary of claims that say they enhance or inform your appreciation of the artist's work. I see them as a sort of sophisticated voyeurism. Art, I feel, should be evaluated on its own terms and not in terms of what was happening to the artist at the time. What was happening to the artist may be interesting in itself, but it has nothing to do with his art.

Novelty Seeking

Reading the Booker Long List made me realise how incredible an year it's been for novels by writers I care for. At least half the authors still writing whose work I love have published in the last 12 months. 2004-05 has seen new books by (in descending order of importance to me): J.M. Coetzee, Derek Walcott, Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson, Imre Kertesz, Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith, Colm Toibin and Julian Barnes. Not to mention the new Marilynne Robinson. And the new Irving and Ishiguro novels (both of whom I find readable but far from exciting).

My cup runneth over.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Why me?

In other news, Sitemeter informs me that if you go to google and type in "asexual relationship" it gives you a link to this blog. Great. So much for my dating life.

And to think of some of the things people complain about.