Friday, September 30, 2005

The Songloving Lyre

Article in the New York Review of Books by Anne Carson, about a 'new' Sappho poem - essentially a reconstruction of a poem earlier labelled fragment 58. Carson's translation:

You, children, be zealous for the beautiful gifts of the violetlapped Muses
and for the clear songloving lyre.

But my skin once soft is now
taken by old age,
my hair turns white from black.

And my heart is weighed down
and my knees do not lift,
that once were light to dance as fawns.

I groan for this. But what can I do?

A human being without old age is not a possibility.

There is the story of Tithonos,
loved by Dawn with her arms of roses
and she carried him off to the ends of the earth

when he was beautiful and young.
Even so was he gripped
by white old age. He still has his deathless wife.

- Sappho.

Carson writes a beautiful little piece to go with this (available only to subscribers I'm afraid). Writes for instance:

"Sappho's is a naked dress. She simply inserts us into a problem of life and then opens it, on a single mythic turn, to time. Time, as metrical pattern, holds the poem perfectly and eternally in place."

I personally didn't think that much of the translation - though not having read the original it's hard to tell. Still, some of it just feels wrong.

I am reminded of three things. The first, obviously, is Tennyson's incredible Tithonus:
 The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,   
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,

Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,

And after many a summer dies the swan.

The second is from Teasdale, a poem called Erinna, where Teasdale, through the voice of her narrator, confronts Sappho:

Your words will live forever, men will say
'She was the perfect lover' - I shall die,
I loved too much to live. Go Sappho, go -

I hate your hands that beat so full of life,

Go, lest my hatred hurt you. I shall die,

But you will live to love and love again.

The third is Plath:

Empty, I echo to the least footfall,
Museum without statues, grand with pillars, porticoes, rotundas.

In my courtyard a fountain leaps and sinks back into itself,

Nun-hearted and blind to the world. Marble lilies

Exhale their pallor like scent.

In other news, it seems Mahfouz is back with a book called the Dreams, and there's a glorious article by John Leonard about Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, which Uma has blogged about (the book, not the NYR article) here (link to Guardian site).

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Bard

Do you ever have one of those days when you end up just tripping on Shakespeare?

Combination of mail from a friend of mine who's in Bard overdrive and a meme doing the rounds requiring that you put a quote from Shakespeare on your blog asap meant that this one was inevitable:

Alas! 'tis true, I have gone here and there,
And made my self a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new;
Most true it is, that I have looked on truth
Askance and strangely; but, by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays proved thee my best of love.

- William Shakespeare, 'Sonnet No. CX'

Crossing the bar

Remember Oedipus at Thebes? How's this for a pantocratic riddle[1]:

What has only one face but inspires first deceit, then resentment and then joy?

Answer: A photo id.

I got carded today. I walked into a bar to get a drink and someone actually stopped me and wanted to see some ID to make sure I was twenty-one.

There was a time, not long ago, when this would have upset me. I would have puffed up my chest and muttered indignant curses about people who didn't know a grown up when they saw one. I would have told myself (and, after a few drinks, anyone else in a four table radius) that it's not personal, that they do it with everyone, that the system is designed to be mindless.

Now I'm just grateful. I can't believe that anyone would seriously consider the possibility that I might be less than 21 (a couple of years ago I tried getting people to guess my age just based on the way I look - I stopped doing it when the median age turned out to be 30.). I mean okay, so it probably is just mechanical, but at least they still feel that they have to ask. They actually think there's a risk that I might be underage. This is thrilling news. And the fact that my designated sphinx was barely legal herself and was kind of restful to the eyes didn't hurt either. Now I can spend the next six months crowing about this and telling everyone I know (what do you think this post is about) that I've been known to pass for 21.

(I should say that some jealous audiences have suggested that the only reason she wanted to see my ID was because she was curious to know what licenses looked like back in the days they still had horse carriages, but this is mere persiflage and not worth discussing)

This is particularly gratifying since the general trend seems to be the other way - even when I actually wave my ID under someone's nose to prove I'm over age, they'll usually wave me on without looking at it, often with an amused look on their face that says 'look how quaint and paranoid these old men are - as if we could have any doubts about him being ancient'.

This is about as insulting as not getting pulled out of line for a special search at airports - I know it's supposed to be a random selection, but I always think I don't get picked because I don't look fit enough to be a terrorist or because I look too weak-willed to hurt a fly. I could be a deadly assassin trained in the essential arts of hand-to-hand combat. I could have great quantities of lethal explosives on my person and still be walking by nonchalantly. I could wear a gaberdine suit and have a camera for a bow tie. Hell, I even said boo to a goose once (after I recovered from the scare it gave me, of course). But no, they'll stop 80 year old grandmothers with walkers and wave me on with a smile because they look more credible as terrorists than I do.

Now if only I could get them to stop me from walking into an X-rated film because I look too innocent and impressionable. That would be the day!

[1] See Auden, 'Under Sirius'

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


Great religions are the


Poets the life


Every sane person I know has jumped


That is good for business

Isn't it


There's something very seductive about really good Sufi poetry. It's the combination of passion, humour, precision, philosophy and wit - the sense of something that is heartfelt and deeply meaningful, but that it is also laughing and playful. "Teach us to care and not to care" Eliot writes - but it is the sufis who have really mastered that art.

In one of his most beautiful poems, Hafiz writes: "I vote for you to be God". That one line conjurs up so many emotions. On the one hand, it surprises you and makes you laugh. On the other, it makes you think about the nature of God's authority and what it would mean to choose our own Gods. At the same time it is a deeply moving line, a beautiful idea for a love poem.

It is this ability to walk the tightrope between the human and the divine that makes Hafiz special to me. His unique voice is the embodiment of an attitude I have always aspired to; a rich yet easy wisdom that he shares with the other great Sufi / Bhakti poets (witness Kabir). His lines are often taut with meaning, but they are also heartbreakingly simple and display a clarity of thought that rivals the best work of the great Chinese poets (Li Po, Tu Fu).



Makes the universe admit a


"I am

Really just a tambourine,

Grab hold,

Play me

Against your warm


Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Constant Stranger

Stepping out of Penn station, the skyscrapers return like memories. The sky is blue with forgetting. I arrive in a crowd, in a tributary of haste that slides effortlessly into the great river of passersby that is Manhattan. The urgency of this city can break your heart. I walk up 7th Avenue, scanning the faces of people walking past. I am not looking for anyone I know. Rather, I am searching for the perfect stranger, that one impossible person who is always with us but who cannot be known or spoken to. There is one for everyone. I am sure of it.

Yet everywhere I turn the faces are familiar. Hidden away in each glance there is something - a line of the mouth, a turn of the head - that conjures up the face of someone else. Someone I know. Someone I am trying to escape. My guilt is written clearly in these faces - my part in the great conspiracy of being human - but these are clues that only I can read.

I stand on the corner and wait for the loneliness to come, like a crosstown bus. When it finally arrives, I climb in eagerly. There is plenty of room. I sit there, eyeing my fellow-passengers from the corner of my eye, never daring to speak to them. There are many like me - impatient spirits trying to make their way over to the other side, blind to the colours of feeling that seep into everything, stain everything, even our hands - but each one of us is alone.

I have come to New York looking for the perfect stranger. But how shall I know when I have found him? I cannot recognise him, of course, that is the whole point. If I got to know him at all, even through something as negligible as a handshake (as simple and as faithless as a smile or a shake of the hand; the words come to mind unbidden) then he (or she) wouldn't be a stranger anymore, and I would have to start again. The truth is that they could all be the perfect stranger, or any one of them could be. I may have crossed him a dozen times already, and I wouldn't know.

Or perhaps it is the city itself that is the Stranger. Distant, aloof, unknowable. Perhaps it is the city who I have come looking for, perhaps it is the city who I just miss meeting, every time I turn the corner.

I stop in front of a shop window and there he is. The stranger. Staring back at me from behind the polished surface of the glass. In that instant of non-recognition, I realise I have nothing to say to him. The sky has turned gray now. It is starting to rain. I move on.

Monday, September 26, 2005

For Starters

Writing this morning's post, I was sorely tempted to include a list of my other favourite openings, but finally decided to leave well enough alone. Except that now Veena has suggested posting favourite openings, and I can't resist. So here goes - some familiar classics, some not so much:

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice:

"It is a fact universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife."

T. S. Eliot's Wasteland:

"April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain."

Albert Camus' L'etranger

"Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know. I had a telegram from home: 'Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.' That doesn't mean anything. It may have happened yesterday."

Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" (note: translations of this line vary, but this is the one that I like the best)

Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."

George Orwell's 1984

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen"

Ernest Hemingway's Old man and the Sea

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish"

And that hoariest old chestnut of all:

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

Plus a few personal favourites:

The entire first chapter of Philip Roth's Deception.

Carson McCullers' Clock without hands

"Death is always the same, but every man dies in his own way. For J.T. Malone, it began in such a simple ordinary way that for a time he confused the end of life with the beginning of a new season."

Dostovevsky's Notes from Underground

"I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man."

Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier

"This is the saddest story I have ever heard."

And finally, as Ozymandiaz mentions in the the comment to the last post:

Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun."

"Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea."

It was love at first sight

Do you believe in love at first sight?

I believe in love.
I do not believe in our ability to see.

- from 'Interview', September 2004.

I do believe in love at first sight. I've lived through it.

The most authentic experience of being instantly attracted to something I've ever had was with The Catcher in the Rye. Remember that glorious opening paragraph:

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They're nice and all-I'm not saying that-but they're also touchy as hell. Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything."

The first time I read that it grabbed me by the throat and took my breath away. I knew immediately that this was a book I couldn't help falling in love with, and that even though with time my fervour for it would lose some of its intensity, it was a book I was never going to be able to get over.

So it is possible. To judge. To know. To fall. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.[2]

Just not with people.


[1] The title of this post is, of course, another of my favourite opening lines.

[2] 1 Corinthians 15:52.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Words for the day

New words I learnt today (I hate Banville. Every time I read a book of his [1] he makes me feel illiterate):

Gallimaufry n. A heterogeneous mixture, a confused jumble, a ridiculous medley

Pococurante a. adj. Caring little; careless, indifferent, nonchalant. b. n. A careless or indifferent person; one who shows little interest or concern.

Also, a wonderful word that I suspect Banville just made up - gonadolescent. As in "I was as gone on her as any gonadolescent on his girl". What a splendid term - so physical, so scornful.

[1] The Shroud. See my review here

Something missing

One of the things I hate about big modern bookstores (sheesh! that makes me sound like I'm 60 years old, doesn't it) is how well stocked and organised there are. I know this is supposed to be a good thing. I know I'm the same person who used to complain bitterly about how you could never find more than a few books by any given author at the bookstore - so you'd think I'd be pleased with a store where you could get pretty much everything a particular writer had ever written, all arranged in neat alphabetic order.

The trouble is that a large part of what made book shopping fun for me was the thrill of discovery that came from being in a tiny bookstore and having to hunt about for a particular author / book (see my earlier post about pavement book sellers in Bombay here). You could spend hours searching for a book that you wanted (or any book that you wanted) and there was a curious sense of elation at finding something worthwhile, precisely because the probability of this was so low. In these large modern book stores, you're pretty certain to find what you're looking for, so there's really little difference between shopping at your local Barnes and Noble and just browsing for books on Amazon (except that Amazon's usually a lot cheaper; and you don't have people talking loudly on their cellphones all around you)

The other thing that irritates me about big book stores is the sheer mindlessness that goes into arranging their book collections, the absence of discernment, the complete lack of personality. Because these stores are soulless automatons, you'll end up with Paulo Coelho next to J M Coetzee and Pamela Andersen on the same rack (heh) as Amis, Austen and Atwood. It's not just that I find this annoying (because it makes the whole collection seems like a steeple chase, with me jumping over row after row like a frenzied horse) it's also something that I find actively insulting - a blow to intelligent reading everywhere. After all, this is the same store that has a seperate section for sci-fi cartoons, so why would they club all this stuff under the general rubric of literature and fiction? They'll put Asimov and Camus in different sections, but put Sartre and Danielle Steele in the same rack?

My response to all this is what I call negative browsing. I no longer spend time in book stores looking for books they have - I spend my time searching anxiously for the books they don't. This means that I will trawl through their shelves, looking for a) authors they don't have, b) books they don't have from authors they do or c) books that are in the wrong place. It's childish, I know, but there's a sense of great satisfaction I get from being able to outthink these big corporate behemoths, in being able to find fault with them.

So, for instance, here are the five things that are missing from the Barnes and Noble on 66th and Broadway (I mention only the most glaring omissions. I'm not going to talk about how they had Byatt under S, for instance):

1) Flaubert's A Sentimental Education
2) Henrich Heine's poetry
3) William Golding's Rites of Passage
4) Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico Philosophicus
5) Carson McCuller's Reflections in a Golden Eye

Instead, what they do have is a book called Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle ran Hogwarts. Is nothing sacred anymore? Surely one should be able to browse the Philosophy section without having to be assaulted by J K Rowling and her ilk (Harry Potter forsooth!).

I love being pedantic.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

I have a dream

Is it just me, or do other people's dreams seem cinematic as well? Maybe it's just that the movies have completely taken over my visual imagination, but it seems like every time I have a dream I can remember, it comes complete with camera angles and backlighting. I mean I know Steven Spielberg is gradually trying to take over everything, but couldn't he at least have left my dreams alone? (isn't there a line in The Catcher in the Rye about this? Something about how the movies just slay you? It's somewhere in the middle - he imagines this shooting scene - I HATE not having all my books with me!).

Take last night. I have this big dream about some sort of revolutionary war. As I remember it, there was a coherent plot to the whole thing, complete with passionate discussions on important moral issues as well as a sub-plot of treason and intrigue, but I can't for the life of me remember anything about this. (It's one of the things that bugs me while reading Homer - how all these characters are always waking up saying how this or that God appeared to them in a dream disguised as someone else. I can't even remember who was in my dreams, let alone list their various aliases. If Pallas Athene ever showed up in my dream I'd probably end up confusing her with Paris Hilton. Not that I would ever dream about Paris Hilton of course. Further digression: have you seen Klimt's glorious portrait of Pallas Athene? It's awesome).

Anyway, what I do remember of the dream are two scenes:

Scene 1

Afternoon. Paratroopers wearing caps with long flappy ears (don't ask) are dropping into a crowded town square (the scene is vaguely reminiscent of The Longest Day, except that it's bright daylight). They hit the ground on their feet, firing, then their chutes close over them and they fold away into the earth, disappearing, never to rise again.

Suddenly the camera switches to an aerial shot from the perspective of a paratrooper. I can see my feet stretching away and the ground far beneath me, covered with scurrying people. Only it's not really me - I'm sitting still - it's the camera that's falling. As I go lower I lift up my gun, start firing, trying to correct for the angle. I know I have only a few precious seconds before the chute billows orange over me. I fire and fire and then the darkness closes in.

Scene 2

A soldier, running, out of breath. As I watch the camera zooms out, widens, until the figure of the running man is an afterthought against a misty horizon, a tiny squiggle in the left corner of the shot. The scene is a beautiful prairie, ankle high grass stirring softly in the wind, the sky a miraculous blue in the foreground, dissolving into a neutral haze that devours both it and the earth. The camera pans right, deserting the running soldier (he is carrying a very important message to the high command - I can't remember what), and lingering lovingly over the landscape.

Then suddenly, from somewhere in the distance, shells come streaking past, missiles of some sort, hissing like snakes, their flat, white arcs burned across my vision. Tracer bullets follow them, skipping lightly over the meadow as delicate as butterflies. There is no sound to the shot, the shells and bullets stream by in perfect silence, barely disturbing the serenity of the scene. The enemy remains invisible. The camera turns with the flying shells, seeking their destination. And there it is - in the shadow of a great mountain, a cluster of small huts, amid which the shells explode with the flash of a tourist's camera. Surely bullets cannot travel so far, I think, even in my dream. It doesn't matter, the barrage is natural, the landscape almost demands it, the entire shot has the artistic inevitability of a ballet. The town is burning now. The runner (yes, he is in the shot again - a tiny figure, high up on an overlook into the valley) has stopped to look.

Sigh. Where's Freud when you need him?

Note: If you're wondering why I'm rambling on about my dreams all of a sudden, blame Salvador Dali (whose painting - the Invention of Monsters - appears in this post). I figured this idea of using your dreams as material to get creative with might be interesting. Now all I need to do is start eating butterflies.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Anyone for a refill?

I can't resist. I know I promised myself that I wasn't going to make this blog about my own poetry (such as it is), but this morning's post and the comments on it made me go back and look through some of my old poems and I can't resist sharing this one.

They never get it right.

Real joy is dark and a little bitter
Like a kettle whistling in the heart.

Thin like a song
It can burn your lips,
Scald your tongue,
Get into your head
And make you ache
With its smell.

That’s why you've got to be careful,
Not drink too much.

It isn’t everyone who can make it, though.

Real joy must have the colour
Of partings on black water,
It must have the light of moons
Remembered through smoke
And words like sediment
At the bottom of a white goodbye.

It must have regret
And no sugar.

- from 'Espresso Joy', May 2003.

Wake up and smell the coffee

I finally did it. I finally went and bought myself a coffee maker [1]. And not just any old coffee maker but one of those ones where you can pre-program it to brew at a certain time, so that I woke up this morning to the smell of freshly brewed coffee filling my room (now there's an alarm clock I could live with), the day dripping slowly into my consciousness.

I just love the smell of coffee. There's something acute and finely balanced about it, something witty and almost ironic. Like the smell were smirking at you. It doesn't perk me up - it sharpens me as though I were a pencil, bringing my alertness to that fine, thin point where I'm ready to take on the world again. Instant coffee doesn't smell this way - it has a sterile, almost plastic smell - the smell of machinery and processing. Freshly brewed coffee, on the other hand, has a fragrance like polished metal, like smelling the grease on the railway tracks after the train has just passed.

Of course, this also means that despite myself I've ended up with one more possession to take care of. Worse, with the coffee maker in place I'm actually considering abandoning my all styrofoam policy and actually buying something non-disposable to drink out of. Like a mug (see picture above - it's a real mug shot. Heh). Next thing you know I'll be wanting to own land. Or sofas. Sigh.

[1] Technically I bought the thing a week ago on the Internet - it just got delivered yesterday. This meant that I spent most of last week suffering withdrawal pangs from not drinking the coffee from the coffee maker I hadn't got yet. It's such a wonderful feeling when the world finally catches up with you.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The bearer of glad tidyings

Tidylation n. Feeling of excessive happiness that immediately follows the clearing / tidying up of something, often accompanied by rash resolutions to maintain unrealistic standards of neatness. Notoriously short-lived.

Have you ever had one of those days when you finally get tired of all the clutter that's been lying on your desk for decades and clear it all up in a burst of adrenaline? Or where you decide that for once you're going to be organised about things and so you arrange all your papers properly, complete with three-ring binders and seperators and stuff?

And you know how you sit there, looking at how everything around you looks human and is all in its proper place (which, for some 84% of the stuff on your desk is the trash can), and there's this queer glow of pride running through you, and you sit there thinking: 'Aaah! so this is why my mother was always tidying up my room so I could never find anything in it. It's all starting to make sense'. And you smirk at all the suckers who still have last month's doughnuts lying on their desk or are carrying all their papers around all jumbled up in a plastic bag and you think - I used to be like them, but I'm not anymore. I'm an organised person now. I've got my life together. It's the first day of the rest of my life, etc, etc. (Is there a Messy Person's Anonymous? "Hi. I'm Falstaff. I used to be a Messy Person. Then one day I left my girlfriend on my desk and couldn't find her afterwards. That was the day I realised I had to change my entire way of life. Now it's been two months since I last threw junk mail on my table and I have a file where I keep all my latest bills, neatly indexed with the due dates marked in different colour inks on my table calendar" Sound of applause. A couple of people at the back are crying. I feel like I'm among my own.)

Of course, all this euphoria doesn't last. No matter how much you tell yourself that from now on you're going to pick everything off the floor the minute it drops and not just let it lie there till the next time you vacuum or the next ice age (whichever comes first - after all there's no point hoovering if some stupid glacier is going to come along in a million years or so and leave its muddy tracks all over your carpet, now is there?), but there's always that critical moment where you're just too tired / too lazy. You think: 'It's just one little piece of string, for god's sake, no one's even going to notice. I'll pick it up some other time'.

Or take junk mail. You'll always tell yourself that you should throw it away as soon as it comes. And for a while you will. Then there'll be the day you'll think 'I don't have the time to sort through this now. Why don't I just leave it out here in the open so I'll remember '. Or: 'Hmmm. I'm not sure. Let me just leave it here and I'll decide tomorrow'. Then by the time the next one comes along, you're thinking 'hey! I haven't even cleared the last one. Why don't I add this one to the pile so I'll remember to do both together'. By the third one it's 'Oh good! I can just put this where I put my other junk mail. I bet no one who looked at this mess on my desk would be able to figure out that I have such a wonderful system' By the time the fourth one comes along your desk is this impenetrable jungle of paper. You have enough unopened mail there to design the next NASA space shuttle using back of the envelope calculations (i.e. >5). It hardly seems worthwhile trying to be neat with this new thing, does it?

Anyway, I just had one of those days. My papers have all been organised into (neatly labelled) folders. Every redundant scrap of mail has been thrown away. Books have been put back in their shelves, CDs returned to their rightful covers. My table is so clean you could eat off it (oh, wait!). I feel lifted and glorious. I feel the way God must have felt at the end of the fourth day after he'd got this Eden thing all set up and before all these birds and beast and fowl and apple munching humans showed up to mess the place up (I've always thought of God as a sort of fussy housewife - try talking to her about something important and meaningful, and she looks kind of spaced and nods along vaguely; but get a little spot on her tablecloth, or show up one minute late for dinner when the food is on the table and you've had it). I feel like going out and finding myself a broken column somewhere and waiting for the sunlight.

I know it won't last of course - that already the forces of messiness are gathering against me, that the empire of the ordered will go the way of all empires, crumbling into the dust of the centuries until another historic moment (or a feather duster) comes along. What was it Auden said: "Beauty, midnight, vision dies: / Let the wind of dawn that blow / Softly round your dreaming head / Such a day of welcome show / Eye and knocking heart may bless, / Find our mortal world enough".

I'd better take a picture of my desk while it's still this neat.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Newer Orleans

Interesting article by George Friedman in the current issue of the New York Review of Books about the potential fall-out from the Katrina disaster. Friedman essentially compares Katrina to a nuclear strike on New Orleans, arguing that the economic impact of the disaster could be pretty much the same. His argument is basically that the New Orleans Port is critical for the US economy, as it is a important and unique shipping point, both for foodstuff going out of the country and for raw material coming in. While the basic shipping infrastructure seems more or less unharmed, Friedman's point is that without a city to support it this infrastructure may not be able to run - with catastrophic results for the US Economy.

While I think the overall article is interesting, especially in the way it focusses on the strategic and economic significance of New Orleans rather than its cultural significance, I think there are several flaws in the argument. To begin with, the comparison to a nuclear strike is fairly ridiculous. Friedman writes: "It is in this sense, then, that it seems almost as if a nuclear weapon went off in New Orleans. The people mostly have fled rather than died, but they are gone." Most people would consider that a fairly important difference.

Second, while Friedman begins by painting a cataclysmic scenario - he's soon forced to backtrack. As he acknowledges, the port facilities in New Orleans seem reasonably intact, and one could argue that if there really is so much economic value to shipping from New Orleans then the city (or at least the port) will be revived quickly. Friedman seems to believe that no one will ever come back to New Orleans - I'm not entirely convinced of this - one would think the employment opportunities would draw people back. Basically the free market would operate to create incentives that equilibriate the supply of these services with their value.

Which brings me to the third question - how valuable is New Orleans as a port? a) Is the stuff shipped up the river really that critical to the US economy? and b) surely there are other ports that could be scaled up and used. I don't know the answers to this, but I'm sceptical about the sort of doomsday pronouncements Friedman seems to make. It's interesting that Friedman provides no real figures / projections to back up his case.

Altogether, I thought the article lacked both depth and perspective. It felt like Friedman was so desperate to find something new to say about New Orleans that he picked an off-center topic and just tried to make it stick.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Stiff Supper Lip

From a NY Times article about Little Chef restaurants:

"Little Chef is still living in the past, evoking memories of a time when no one went to a British restaurant expecting to eat well, when food was universally overcooked, canned, covered with fat and bread crumbs or drowning in a floury, glutinous sauce."

Hey, they said it, not me. No wonder the British were the most successful colonists - they had to go as far as possible to escape their own home cooking.

Do read the full article, btw - it makes you realise how close the Onion is to being true.

What DO I do?

A Mystery

People say, 'What are you doing these days? What are you working on?'
I think for a moment or two.

The question interests me. What am I doing these days?
How odd that I haven't a clue.

Right now, of course, I'm working on this poem,
With just a few more lines to go.

But tomorrow someone will ask me, 'What are you up to these days? What are you working on?'
And still I won't know.

- Wendy Cope

One of the chief pitfalls of being a doctoral student is that everyone and their aunt feel they have the right to question you about your thesis. Complete strangers (most of whom think a dissertation is a french word for the pastry cart) have no hesitation asking you what the topic of your thesis is and how it's going.

What is it with these people? To begin with, asking someone about progress with their thesis is roughly like asking someone how things are with their spouse in bed. It's not just that it's as intensely personal, it's also that the chances of touching off a sore nerve are equally high. And I mean, look, I'm going to spend YEARS of my life writing the damn thing. Do you really think I want to spend my social life talking about it as well? James Bond doesn't have to deal with this sort of stuff. People don't come up to him in parties and say, "007, old chap, how's the new assignment going? M giving you a hard time? What's it about, anyway?" and expect him to explain this to them.

Of course, the fact that I don't actually have a thesis topic yet makes this even more difficult. (This is entirely NORMAL, btw, so you lot can just wipe that pitying look off your face). Every time I try to explain this to people they will always manage to produce some relative / friend / neighbour's hairdresser who is also doing his / her PhD and does have a thesis topic - has apparently always had it, was undoubtably born with a research question in his / her mouth. At this point you either launch into a long-ish explanation of how the academic system works in the US (which no one's going to believe anyway), or you break off the conversation and head for the bathroom.

Academics themselves, are, of course, the most vicious of the lot. How else do you explain the fact that the polite "how do you do?" line has been replaced, in academic circles, by the far more direct "what are your research interests?". The trouble is that everyone else seems to have a pat answer for this. Most people, asked this question, will say something like "I'm studying paradigmatic changes in value chain economies among tertiary service providers from a metaphysical perspective" in a clear, ringing voice. I, on the other hand, will answer it in my choicest mumble - muttering vapid generalities while desperately trying to find a way to change the subject. Admitting that you haven't actually defined a research area for yourself yet is roughly like confessing your virginity in the locker room of a pro-football game.

But lack of overall direction in life can still be lived with (by arguing that you're open to experiences, and you're just going to take things as they come, for instance). What really ruins me is the question "What did you do today?". I have fantasies where I actually have something interesting to say to this question - like I robbed a bank, or I finished my 30,000 line epic poem in iambic pentameter (called Ajax Agonistes), or I collected money for Arctic wildlife preservation, or I made mad passionate love to Charlize Theron. None of this ever happens, though (in case you were wondering). Instead I always end up saying something like "oh, nothing really." Is it possible for all these nothings to add up to a meaningful life, I wonder, like the weightlessness of raindrops adding together to make a deluge?

Enough said. Must get back to work. Whatever that is.

P.S. Reading Cope. What an amazingly light-hearted treat!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Plato's Cave Revisited

Imagine that the Earth had not one, but four suns. Imagine that these suns were so arranged that at any given time at least one of them was in the sky, so that mankind lived its entire life in brightness. The deepest darkness men would ever have known would be the greyish twilight of an overcast day. There would be no night and day, no stars (since the stars would never be visible), no real concept of darkness at all (except perhaps that tiny blackness that rests behind each man's eyelids).

Then suppose that one day a man from such a world stumbled upon a cave and discovered what true darkness was. How would he react to this? How would he explain it to his fellow men? Explaining a greater presence (of light, for instance) is hard enough, but how does one describe a greater absence; how does one explain, in fact, the complete inability to see (for men who have lived their entire life in light, this would be like not being able to breathe). And even if they believed him somehow, even if they came with him to the cave, would it not frighten them, the emptiness. Would they, who would have no night vision at all, not panic at being thus suddenly blinded? Would they not turn against him then, shut him away in his cave like Merlin, blocking the way out with a great stone, making, ironically, his darkness complete?

If there were no darkness, how long could we live in the glare of the truth?

Sunday, September 18, 2005


He was still talking when she put the phone down. The sound of the receiver slamming home sounded as loud as a gunshot. The silence surprised her. It had been only ten minutes since he had called, but she had forgotten, somehow, that the silence was there as well. Waiting. Now that it reasserted itself, she didn't know what to do with it. She fingered it absently, the way one fingers a tablecloth when one is thinking. She kept her eyes shut for a minute, then it occured to her that he might call back and she opened them suddenly, stared at the phone. Watching it carefully the way one watches a freshly killed animal for signs of life, afraid that it will leap out at us, attack.

She realised she was trembling. Her breathing was quick and shallow, like the breathing of someone who has just climbed a steep cliff and stands panting at the top, too exhausted to take in the view. Why did she do this to herself, she wondered. Why did she keep trying to speak to him when it always ended like this, with her at once humiliated and guilty, standing in a room made peaceful by contrast, staring at the phone. Even this thought was not original, she recognised, it was the same thought she had after every phone call, but she still kept on making them, still kept answering when his number flashed on the ID screen. Why? Didn't she know how it would turn out?

The pattern was unvarying now. Five minutes of polite platitudes, then a few fumbling attempts to be genuinely kind, efforts (on her part mostly) to be grown up about this; and then the accusations would start. They were always the same accusations - that is to say, the specifics were different each time, but the tone of desperate belligerence was always the same. And the main message never changed - she was too demanding, she had too many issues, she didn't understand him, she wanted too much - it was all HER fault. In her lighter moods, thinking back on these conversations, she would imagine them as a game for children, a sort of pin the blame on the donkey. She had a mental vision of him, blindfolded, holding a long paper tail (with the legend "Your Fault") in his hand, trying to make it stick to a wall size picture of her.

Why did she keep calling him back then? Did she really believe that one day, one of these conversations, she would say the magic word and he would be instantly transformed into the person he used to be - that kind, generous, sensitive friend she once treasured enough to fall in love with? Or was it precisely the ghost of that friend she was trying to banish through these phone calls, using them to remind herself (when memory failed her and the old longings began to return) that the man she used to know was dead, and in his place she was left with this snivelling, self-righteous impostor?

Why does one go to visit the grave of a loved one?

The silence was becoming oppressive now. It had been ten minutes since she slammed the phone down. Surely he wouldn't call back now. She forced herself to relax a little. Music! That's what I need, she thought. Something to calm my nerves. She opened her cassette drawer, pulled out a tape at random. She was already starting to take the cassette out when she saw the handwriting. She almost thrust it back in the drawer. Then she thought: No, I am not going to do this. I am not going to let this sinking wreck of a relationship take all my (our) other favourites down with it. I am not going to let him ruin the music I love for me. He isn't worth it.

She flipped the tape into the stereo, pushed play. Ah! Joni Mitchell. "I am on a lonely road and I am travelling / Looking for something to set me free". She let the music wash over her, drown her. She shut her eyes for a moment and when she opened them again she was in a sort of underwater world, a world made liquid by the sound of that voice, by its aching honesty, its calm, unflinching loneliness, its unspoken promise of being forgiven. She felt cleansed and pierced at the same time, she felt as if she was soaring, not sinking, into the blue depths of her own feelings. She listened to the words and it was as if the song were reading her mind, as if the song were saying all the things she meant to say to him, to herself, to the world.

Halfway through the tape she noticed a note stuck into the flap of the cassette cover. She didn't remember that being there before. She took it out. It was his handwriting, all right. She steeled herself and began to read.


By the time you read this, you will hate me. You will be upset, you will cry (or at least so I flatter myself to believe). It is ironic that having spent years protecting you from the world, I shall find myself unable, when you most need it, to protect you from the worst enemy of all - myself.

By the time you read this I shall probably regret having protected you, regret having being there for you. I may even hate you a little myself. But old habits die hard, and there is a part of me that still wants to be there for you in the crisis that I know, now, is bound to come. That is why I am leaving you this tape - in the hope that Joni will find a way to comfort you when I cannot. People cannot be trusted. Hearts and minds are traitors, flesh is frail and will turn against you. But things, objects last and the song will always be faithful.

I do not expect this to excuse what is, by now, my recent behaviour. (By the time you read this, I will no longer need, or want, your forgiveness). I would like you to think well of me, but I have no real hope of that. By the time you read this it is already too late to try to regain either your love or your trust (or to give you back mine). But trust Joni, trust her music, believe in her words. They are the one true thing that I leave you.

Love (no longer)


As she put the note down, she realised that she was crying, and the realisation made her tears come faster. She sat on the carpet, letting her tears fall onto the paper, watching the blue ink of the note dissolve and start to run. Ink is nostalgia, she thought, and my tears, seemingly so pure, are salt with indignation now.

"I wish I had a river
I could skate away on"

By the time she finished crying, the note, that critical piece of evidence, had been completely erased.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

At least gladiators didn't have to deal with shit like this

Was attending a session on effective teaching the other day (don't ask - god knows what the university will think up next), where the instructor informed us that it was no longer appropriate to use the term 'stage fright'. Apparently some wag pointed out that it wasn't technically stage fright if you were applying it to classrooms / meeting rooms. The de rigueur term to use, apparently, is 'performance anxiety'.

This may be more literally accurate, but personally I think it's a change for the worse. Stage fright was something you could unashamedly admit to - and be sure of receiving almost universal sympathy. But let word that you suffer from performance anxiety start spreading, and where are you? Probably back home practising next day's lecture in front of a mirror because you're never, ever, going to get a date again.

Also, does anyone else see the irony in getting anxious about what you call a particular type of anxiety?

What dreams may come

The high ones die, die. They die. You look up and who’s there?
–Easy, easy, Mr Bones. I is on your side.
I smell your grief.
–I sent my grief away. I cannot care
forever. With them all again & again I died
and cried, and I have to live.

–Now there you exaggerate, Sah. We hafta die.
That is our ’pointed task. Love & die.
–Yes; that makes sense.
But what makes sense between, then? What if I
roiling & babbling & braining, brood on why and
just sat on the fence?

–I doubts you did or do. De choice is lost.
–It’s fool’s gold. But I go in for that.
The boy & the bear
looked at each other. Man all is tossed
& lost with groin-wounds by the grand bulls, cat.
William Faulkner’s where?

(Frost being still around.)

- John Berryman, Dream Song # 36

Yesterday's post reminded me of an old, old, favourite - John Berryman's Dream Songs. Playful and sublime, witty and profound, Berryman's Dream Songs are, in my opinion, one of the foremost poetic achievements of the last century (ranking up there with such masterpieces as Hughes' Crow or Wallace Steven's Man with a Blue Guitar). Berryman marries street-smart speech patterns ("I'm scared a lonely. // I'm scared a only one thing, which is me / from othering I don't take nothin' see / for any hound dog's sake") to a rhythm that is pure Hopkins, combining it with a density of thought that Donne would have been proud of. These poems are sinewy and complex, and demand to be read again and again till every nuance is grasped, but they possess also an incredible singing quality (it's Dream Songs, remember), that raises them above the merely clever into the breathtakingly true. The dialogue between Henry and Mr. Bones becomes a metaphor for the way the poems engage you ("He stared ruin in the face. Ruin stared back"), demanding satisfaction, forcing you to match your poor wit to theirs, and exulting in their eventual victory over you. Read them. Read them all. This is an idiom, a voice, that you will never find anywhere else.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Crash. Burn.

Comments by Neela disparaging my chances with women and from HWSNBF disparaging the MIMIMs (Mutually Indistinguishable Management Institutes in Mumbai), made me recollect this little scene from long ago:

Scene: Bombay. Lower Parel. Summer 2004. It's Friday afternoon. Falstaff and Intern Girl (IG) are sharing a taxi on the way home. IG is an enthusiastic and ambitious MIMIM student working as a summer intern on a project with Falstaff. The archetypal go-getting intern, IG is smart (good looking), confident (good looking) and capable (good looking), but a little in awe of Falstaff. Falstaff is, well, Falstaff.

Half way through the ride Falstaff finally abandons his plans to whip out his discman and listen to Joni Mitchell and elects to make conversation instead.
(By such slender threads hang the fates of men!)

Falstaff: "So, what are your plans for the weekend?"

IG: (with a smile. Whew!) "What are yours?"

F: "Ah, but I asked you first." (Good going, Falstaff. What wit! what maturity! No one but you could have thought of this one)

IG: "Oh, you know, the usual."

F: "But that's just it you see, I don't know what the usual is." (Great. The Rex Harrison approach. Next you'll be calling her 'my dear'. Why not just throw in a pedantic lecture on types of inductive fallacies while you're at it? That's sure to charm her)

IG: "You know, go to a disc, hang out, party. The normal. What do you do over weekends?"

F: "I'm not really into discs." (Best to be honest about this. Lust is one thing. Having to listen to two hours of noise - I believe the official term is techno - in a hot, sweaty, sardine can is something else). "Mostly I'll just hang out with friends. At someone or the other's place. Grab a beer. Listen to music. Talk about life. Maybe catch a play or two if there's something good on."

(Statutory Disclosure: In three years, I've done this all of once. My usual weekends at this point consist of waking up early Saturday morning, 'treating' myself to a breakfast of cold Maggi, walking down to the Crossword around the corner five minutes after it opens, buying a couple of books and spending the rest of the weekend obsessively reading with occasional breaks for cappucino and brownies at the local Barista. My idea of socialising on weekends is to snarl at my friends a little more politely on the phone than I would otherwise).

IG: "Wow! that sounds so lovely. I wish I could have a weekend like that sometime" (Land ahoy! Houston, we have reached cruising altitude, preparing to launch second stage rockets).

"The trouble, is you see, people in my generation just have this fascination with discs and going out" (there, there. Wait! Did she say 'my generation'? What! Hello, I'm a year and a half older! I'm not a different generation! Left engine blown! Losing altitude fast!).

"I can't wait till I'm as old as you and can just relax over the weekend" (eject! eject! My chute is on fire! Aaargghhhh!)

F: "Yes, it must be really tough being that young" (and this gorgeous! Sob!). "So, what was it you were saying earlier today about the figures in the second scenario we ran not making sense..."

Passing Arthur Road Jail. Shades of the prison house. Trailing clouds of debris. (Ya, go ahead. Quote Wordsworth to yourself. That'll make you younger. Wordsworth! No wonder she thinks you're some ancient fossil).

"How can I make a cowardly amends
For what she has said to me." [1]

"There ought to be a law against Henry.
Mr. Bones: There is." [2]

[1] T. S. Eliot, Portrait of a Lady
[2] John Berryman, Dream Song 4

The Manner Borne

Met up with a friend yesterday who's just joined the MBA program here. It seems the MBAs have a special session at the beginning of the year on etiquette. This seemed harmless enough, and a good idea generally (specially given the number of international students) until he showed me the list of do's and don'ts that was distributed to them. Whoever compiled that list clearly believes that MBA students have spent all of their former lives pillaging villages on the steppes of Outer Mongolia. My favourites:

Do bring the waitstaff's attention to any foreign matter in your food. (Waiter! Waiter! There's a question of Iraqi policy in my soup!)

Do not put the knife in your mouth. (And while you're about it, try not to chew the glass)

Do not talk with your mouth open. (And chew! CHEW! How are you going to become big and strong otherwise?)

Do not eat your tablemate's bread or salad. (His / her main course, on the other hand, is fair game)

Do make use of the silverware made available at your table. (It's amazing how much you can get for some of that stuff in pawn shops)

I find it really, really hard to believe that anyone who managed to get into one of the country's top business schools wouldn't know this much (or could be stupid enough to put knives in his / her mouth[1]). I mean, look, I know there are important differences in etiquette between cultures, and I think it's useful for MBAs to be exposed to them (I'm thinking things like how to order wine, or how to deal with hotel check-ins), but I can't believe there are cultures out there where people eat each other's salads while chattering away through their open mouths. The way this etiquette session is set up, you would think they would start by explaining that here in the US you no longer have to hunt for your food - there are things called restaurants where you can BUY it.


[1] Actually, I take that back - these are MBAs we're talking about. They'll do anything as long as they feel it could help them get a better job.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


The pure contralto sings in the organ loft

- Walt Whitman

There's nothing quite like opera, is there? I've been having an incredibly operatic evening. First an hour of Borodin's Prince Igor on my iPod, then a sneak preview of this new opera being presented the Opera Company of Philadelphia - it's called Margaret Garner and features a score by Richard Danielpour and a libretto by Toni Morrison (Margaret Garner was the real life inspiration for Beloved). And now, back home at last - the second act of Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio (an old post about the opera here).

The interesting thing about the first two operas is that they made me realise how deeply conditioned I am to expect a certain sound from opera. Or rather, a set of certain sounds. In my head there are basically three distinct opera 'sounds' - the Italians, Mozart (or rather late Mozart) and Wagner. Almost everyone else fits somewhere among these [1]. That to me is 'proper' opera.

This evening's performances, though, showed me how much I'm taking for granted in thinking this. Both of them, I think, push the envelope of what we're used to hearing in opera - Borodin by incorporating Russian folk music (especially in those uplifting, other-worldly choruses) and Danielpour by bringing in elements of Gospel and Blues music to Margaret Garner (I only heard some highlights from the score and it was in reduced form for piano, but I would imagine the gospel elements are even more pronounced in the full production - I'm told they have an extended percussion section with African drums in tow).

Musical revelations aside, it's been an awesome evening of some truly sublime music. Now if only I can keep that fat lady from singing.

[1] The one major exception is Bizet's Carmen - a truly untouchable sound. I suppose there's also the Bartered Bride, but I've never been that much into Smetana, outside of Ma Vlast.

Now why didn't I think of that?

Copyright: Toothpaste for Dinner

Of course, I did go through three years of college surviving on the money I made quizzing, debating and in other random lit competitions, which I suppose is the same thing.

Still, when you think about all those sheep waiting to be shorn by triple word scores, it just breaks your heart, doesn't it?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

You love me. You really love me.

Yes! I have finally achieved celebrity status. Well, kind of.

Was in the library today waiting in line to pick up a book (Ali Smith's The Accidental) that I'd requested and suddenly one of the librarians comes out waving a book at me and says "Here you go. I noticed you standing there and I remembered that we had a book for you, so I thought I'd just get it." I couldn't believe it! 23,000 students on campus, and this woman not only remembers my name, but actually knows that I have a book waiting to be picked up! (Okay, so the fact that I'm there some three times a week and that in the last one month I've requested some twelve novels may have something to do with it, but still). I know it's silly, but I was really chuffed up about it.

Of course, this also means that if this librarian should ever end up having a conversation with my department chair, I could be in serious trouble. The poor man (my chair) thinks I'm this incredibly diligent, hard-working guy - I think he's actually a little concerned that I might burn out. Somehow I suspect the fact that I watch twenty DVDs and read about eight novels every month may not go down too well.

Meanwhile, of course, the Falstaff flag flies high. At this rate, all I need is another hundred million people (give or take a few) and I'm on my way to being a national icon. I could be on the David Letterman show. People would point to me on the streets as "that guy who's always borrowing books". Who knows - when Wal-Mart finally succeeds in buying out the Federal Mint and they start printing notes in denominations you can actually use (like $4.79. With discount) they'll even put my face on a note. The sky is the limit. I could go down in history as that annoying guy who was always checking out more books than he could possibly read (kind of like Napoleon only with books, not countries). They'll make documentaries about my life with my mother remembering the first time (at age 5) that I ever issued a book out of a library, tears in her eyes.

World Domination, here I come.

P.S. Applications for the post of President of my Fan Club are open, btw. Applicants must have relevant experience in managing large volumes of fan traffic - if you've ever handled fan mail for Bono, for instance, you could probably cope.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

It's Friday, I'm in Love

A post by Veena on a movement to abolish marriage in Sweden prompted a meditation on the incredible lack of imagination that human beings bring to relationships. Think about it - in every other aspect of our life we encourage and actively seek variety, acknowledging that different people have different preferences and needs, which require different service offerings to meet them. Cars, clothes, music, books, insurance policies, television channels - wherever you look you find a wide range of possible choices available to you, so that not only can you easily find one that is exactly suited to your needs / desires, but, in fact, picking one over the other becomes an important way of making a statement about your own personality. And yet when it comes to what is arguably the most important relationship of our adult lives, we're stuck with this cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all straitjacket of an institution called marriage. Worse, even within that institution, there's so little variation - so that the range of what a 'proper' marriage does and does not include is so heavily proscribed (there are actually laws governing this, for God's sake!).

I mean okay, so I see why in a world before birth control and DNA testing, in a patriarchal society where women were objects, land was a key resource and the civil code was fairly rudimentary, stringently defined monogamous marital relations were the only viable social form. After all, these were not times when individual choices mattered that much anyway - you didn't get 294 brands of everything - so having a system where you were either married or unmarried made sense. But surely now that the world has moved on, and greater differentiation has been made possible, we can afford the luxury of looking beyond a single narrowly defined relationship model?

Of course, you could argue that not everyone gets married and men and women do actually relate to each other in a number of different ways. This is true, I think, but it doesn't obscure the fact that marriage is still the only solution that is immediately socially accessible - the only thing you can get 'off the shelf'. No other form of relationship even begins to approach the levels of legitimacy that marriage enjoys:

1) Most other forms are generally seen (often even by the people in them) as temporary / makeshift solutions. By and large there are all just steps towards or away from the sanctimonious temple of marriage. Tell someone you have a long term girlfriend (or boyfriend) for instance, and people will instantly either assume you'll marry her (or him) at some point, or / and wonder why you haven't already. And joint custody parenting, for instance, is not a stand-alone relationship option - you can only get to it by getting married and then getting divorced / separated.

2) Most forms end up being approximations in one way or another of the marriage paradigm. So live-in relationships, for instance, are just marriage without the contractual complications, or the legal crutches. In particular, I think we are not able to break away from the entirely unnecessary assumptions that greater, more serious affection is a) associated with monogamy and b) directly proportional to the amount of time you spend with someone.

3) Even where people have innovated and improvised new forms of relationships, they have not gained the kind of currency that marriage enjoys. Much of this is to do with language, and with the absence of clear definitions and words to go with them. The problem is that marriage is the only thing we have a blueprint for. We understand how it works - there are ground rules, there is a convenient diagram which tells us where everything goes and how it is all to be put together. It's painting by numbers. To break out and try to paint something by ourselves, making it all up as we go along is an almost impossible task for any couple.

Understand that I'm not saying that marriage should be abolished, or that there's anything wrong with it. I recognise that for many people marriage might be exactly what they want - just as I recognise that there are people who loved the Da Vinci code or whose idea of a perfect evening is one spent watching Desperate Housewives or talking about how George Bush is such a visionary. My argument is precisely that the fact that people's tastes and interests vary so widely suggests that a single relationship form for everyone is not the ideal solution. If I don't enjoy any of the other things that fascinate you, why should it be that I'll enjoy being married just because you do?

Nor am I suggesting for a minute that breaking away from marriage is easy. Clearly there are strong inertial forces at work; certainly there are centuries of social conditioning to deal with. There are obviously advantages to sticking with the status quo - it's the mechanism through which social institutions acquire legitimacy. Ceteris paribus, the conventional organisation form will always be the best one to choose.

But throughout history, the development of new forms has been engendered by a violent disconnect between the needs of the specific situation and the socially imposed form. I'm not saying that we should do away with marriage on general principle. I'm simply saying that for those of us for whom a married state is manifestly in opposition to our personal emotional needs, there is value in exploring alternate relationship choices, rather than making a dichotomous choice between being 'married' (with everything that entails) and staying single.

Personally, for instance (and this is obviously what this entire post has been building up to), I'd prefer a relationship form that I shall christen a 'sabbathal'. A sabbathal is basically like a marriage on weekends. The general idea is that you have one special life partner, but rather than living together, you have an arrangement where you maintain independent homes and just spend some weekends / weeknights together. This means that you have someone with whom you can share important life events, vacations, crises, intimacy and books; someone you can count on for support and turn to for advice, someone you can love and cherish. At the same time, you don't have to come home to them everyday, you don't have to spend all your time with them or involve them / be involved in everything you do; you don't completely give up your personality, you don't have to have the same friends or the same taste in furniture, you don't have to argue about how you're going to spend your evenings together, if you want the space to be alone you can easily get it, no questions asked. It'd be like having a long-term girlfriend / boyfriend only without the expectation / pressure to move towards something more - that's what the stable long-term state would look like.

Of course, you could just live your life this way anyway - but the point is that it would be a lot easier / nicer if sabbathals were defined and understood to be a legitimate and socially acceptable relationship form. So you wouldn't have to explain to everyone what it was about. So you'd have other couples that had similar arrangements who you could hang out with. So you would have sabbathal counselling sessions for people whose sabbathals were going through a difficult time. So you would have books and movies about couples in happy and unhappy sabbathals. So the New York Times would have articles about the relevance of sabbathals in the modern age, and your local feminist would go around raging about how sabbathals were derogatory to women. Wouldn't that be a wonderful world to live in.

People will argue that sabbathals are not the best arrangement to bring up kids in. Maybe, but a) they may be perfectly good option for people who don't want to have kids anyway and b) it's probably better for a kid to be brought up in a sabbathal than to be brought up in an unhappy marriage or in a single parent household because his parents have divorced or seperated - which is what ends up happening if you force-fit marriage on people who it's not the right model for. And the relevant comparison isn't necessarily with marriage anyway. In the absence of alternate relationship forms, given a strict choice between being married and staying single, people like me would choose to stay single - so the relevant comparison is between bachelorhood and sabbathal, not between marriage and sabbathal.

Understand that I'm not for a moment suggesting that sabbathals are the only alternate form that we could or should develop - I offer the example just as an illustration of what I mean by alternate forms - and because it's the one that I personally would like. There may be people who are perfectly happy, for instance, living with someone else, but who find monogamy an unacceptable condition - such people might have a preferred form that looked very different. My general point is just that there's no reason why society shouldn't create, recognise and make available these forms to people who want them. Let's break away from a mindset that says you can have your relationship in any colour you want, as long as it's marriage.

P.S. For those of you who are thinking this is all just a long-winded and fairly desperate attempt to hook up with someone - you're right, of course. But then, what isn't?

A short in the dark

There's this fad going around the blogosphere of writing stories in 55 words or less. This is a neat trick, but personally I think it's a little too easy (okay, lynch me now). So I thought it would be fun to try something truly challenging. Like say, a short story in exactly 51 syllables - three haikus, each a complete sentence / a set of complete sentences:


Dawn. The shadows fade.
Without his noticing it
The tide has come in.

He sits at his desk,
Staring at the suicide note
He could not finish.

It is too late now.
To miss the end is to have
To begin again.


"She loves me, she loves
Me not" - gestures picked apart
Like summer petals.

The answer, when it
Comes, is not to his liking.
He storms off, crying.

Behind him, a new
Flower is pollinated,
A new life begins.


It has been two weeks.
The bouquet he sent is dead.
There have been no more.

Yet every day
She cuts the stalks shorter, as
If they were still fresh.

Every day she
Lingers in a fragrance
No one else can smell.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Quick Change Artist

Is it just me, or do other people hoard change as well? You know how it is. Every time you have a choice between paying out exact change and giving a higher denomination bill you always think - let me use the 20, that way I'll get change back and that's always useful. You never know when you may need it. Why use change when you don't have to?

The trouble with this, of course, is that you end up collecting change on 5,634 different occassions for every one time you actually run into a situation when you need to have exact change. This means that the change just keeps collecting in your wallet, causing it to swell like a pregnant seal. Today, for instance, I have 22 dollar bills in my pocket. I feel like a stripper. I also have 17 dimes and 12 quarters (I don't actually carry the quarters around - I keep them on my table to use for laundry). It would be easier to just carry a sixgun.

And yet, when the time comes to make a payment of, say, $ 2.28, will I gratefully unload the change I have? No! I will hand over a twenty and watch greedily as the woman on the counter counts out my one ten dollar note, seven one dollar notes, two quarters, two dimes and two cents (oh boy! cents!). Sigh! Pretty soon I'm going to have to give up my wallet and start carrying around a laundry bag.

On the bright side, of course, this means that I'm always well-prepared. If I get kidnapped someday and the kidnappers want two thousand unmarked bills in ransom, all I have to do is pull out my wallet. If there's a sudden emergency and the only way out is to buy a ticket on the NJ Transit train to New York using only one dimes (it's a $30 fare), I'll be the only person to get out of the city alive. Want to know if the average number of heads in a a repeated experiment of 100 coin tosses is actually 50? I'm your man.

Not that all this change will ever come in useful in an actual REAL LIFE situation, of course. If I ever manage to bring myself to make the terrible emotional sacrifice of actually using some of my change, I'll invariably find that I'm just a little short of the exact amount, and will be able to whip out my credit card / a higher denomination bill in relief. Thinking, "See, this way I get a little bit more change so that the next time I have to do this I'll have the exact amount and can pay it out". This never happens, of course. Instead I end up collecting large jars of change that just sit on my windowsill, gathering dust. If a meteor strikes Earth tomorrow and all of the Western world is buried under cosmic dust, then archaeologists a thousand years from now will dig up my room and conclude that humans in our age were yet to discover paper money. And it'll all be my fault.

On the plus side: if, having made this mind-numbing discovery, the archaeologists decide to stop off at their local deli for a sub, they'll have the exact change to pay for it. In a currency that hasn't been used for an entire millennia maybe, but still exact change. And that's ALWAYS good to have.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Anthem for a doomed youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstruous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.

The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen, 'Anthem for Doomed Youth'

Wilfred Owen was killed in battle on the fields of France on the 4th of November 1918 - one week before the War ended. He was 25 years old.

Owen remains, for me, the greatest of all the War poets. It's not just that his poems, drawing heavily on his own experiences in the War, paint a portrait of the war more realisitic, more, somehow, accurate, than any others. It's also that Owen (much more than Sassoon, for instance) is more than just a war poet - he is a poet in the truest sense of the term. Where Sassoon's (and others') poems are bitter and ironic, Owen's lines blend indignation with compassion; where Sassoon is clever, Owen is sublime. Even Owen's most bitter war poems are informed by a sense of beauty, of a search for the lyrical. Anthem for Doomed Youth is a good example of this, as is the exquisite Hospital Barge at Cerisy. Through these poems we catch a glimpse of a poetic mind slowly maturing to its craft, of an imagination beginning to look beyond the immediate horrors of its surroundings to search for a more dreamlike, more mythic vision. They are also, of course, poems of considerable verbal skill - filled with a gentle, undemanding music. What makes Owen's death so tragic is that reading his poems one can vividly imagine the voice he would have gone on to become.

How many times have I had this conversation?

Just a delightful follow-up to my post on asexual relationships:

Saturday, September 10, 2005


Fifteen minutes past dawn. They were running late. In the square, a great crowd had gathered to watch the hanging. As the guards thrust him through the iron gate a mighty cry went up. He caught his first sight of the gallows where he was to meet his fate, and was amazed to find that he had an erection. Walking forward, through the narrow corridor that two parallel lines of policemen were holding open for him, he could feel the awkward stiffness of it against his left thigh. He hoped no one had noticed. Fortunately the chains they had put on him meant that he was forced to walk in a clumsy, crabbed fashion anyway, so any obstruction should go unnoticed. And thankfully the prison pyjamas were a size too big.

As he drew closer, it occured to him that the noose was a sort of minimalist womb, a sort of abstract vagina. That was how it would be - the hood slipped on for protection, the moment of blind fumbling, and then his head would slide easily, expectantly into the noose, feeling the rope tighten around him. The thought of it made his legs weaken. His penis, on the other hand, stayed as steady as ever.

What the hell was he doing, going to his own execution with a full-blown hard-on? He wondered whether, when the time came, he should tell the priest about it. Surely it must be a sin of some sort to die with your sex raised like a lusty banner. Not that he had any real hope of salvation, anyway, but still.

Almost at the steps now. The crowd was going wild, cheering him on for all they were worth. He could sense their excitement through his skin. He felt no resentment against them, just a sort of diffuse, defeated bitterness that hung in the air like the last of the morning mist. And still his member wouldn't go down. Inspite of himself, he began to feel a little proud of it. At least one part of his body was ready to receive death, to grab and penetrate her, tasting her to the hilt. How strangely comforting it felt to think of death as a woman, who could be charmed, perhaps even dominated. He felt a slight stirring in his heart, like the arm of a puppet being tugged by a very long string. Then he was on the top of the scaffold, watching the hangman come towards him, and his legs finally gave way.

In the end, it all happened the way he had pictured it. There were the usual formalities to be gone through first, the polite foreplay of extinction, words incoherently mumbled and lost forever beneath the libidinous screaming of the crowd. An awkward moment or two while everything was properly set up. Then the sudden gasp of the floor giving way, announcing that he had plunged at last into that final orgasm, and his body jerking wildly at first, then going stiffly rigid, then sagging limply earthward.

When it was quite over the crowd let out a collective sigh, then immediately began gathering their things together, preparing to leave. He still hung there, of course, spent, drained of all life, a flaccid body dangling in defeat, and the day not even properly begun yet. But no one paid him any attention now. His time was past.