Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Don't buy a computer, but if you do

Over at India Uncut, Amit Varma points to study by Todd Kendall which claims to demonstrate that the spread of the internet causes a decline in the incidence of rape. Kendall's argument is that the Internet makes pornography more widely available, especially to men in the 15-19 age group, and serves as a substitute for sexual violence.

It's an interesting paper, but reading it I had several concerns.

My biggest problem with Kendall's empirical results is that he runs a regression with both % of households accessing the Internet and % of households with computers as independent variables, and while the sign for Internet access is significant and negative, the sign for households with computers is significant and positive (it's the most significant variable in his regression) - a fact that Kendall conveniently neglects to mention in his paper, let alone provide an explanation for. Kendall's justification for including % of households is to seperate the effect of the Internet from other technological influences, but that would imply a non-significant effect of owning computers but a significant effect of Internet access. As it is, we have two variables in the right hand side of the equation that we would expect to be highly correlated (Kendall does not bother to provide us with a correlation table, but computer ownership and internet access pretty much have to be positively correlated) and they enter the regression with signs that are opposite and significant. Personally, I'd love to see what happens to the coefficient on Internet access if Kendall runs his regression without % of households with computers in there. I'm unconvinced that it would continue to be significant.

Think about it this way. Kendall tells us that, on an average, a 10% increase in Internet penetration causes a 7.3% decline in incidence of rape [1]. But if you believe his results in Table 4, a 10% increase in the % of households owning a computer causes a 6.4% increase in the incidence of rape. So the net effect of buying a computer and using it to access the Internet on the incidence of rape is a mere 0.9% (yes, yes, I know it doesn't work that way - which is exactly my point). But who are all these households who are buying a computer but not using it to connect to the Net? And what, according to Kendall, is the reason that they're more likely to commit rape? Frustration about poor connectivity? Isn't it more likely that what we're seeing is just multicollinearity unrealistically inflating the regression estimates?

My second concern with Kendall's study is that he assumes implicitly that the spread of the Internet has no effect on the reporting of rape, so that changes in the number of rapes reported is a valid measure for number of rapes actually taking place. Kendall acknowledges that there is a measurement problem here, but sees no reason to believe that the spread of the Internet may be causing a systematic bias in his measurement. He even makes some arguments for why his measures may be underestimating the effect.

Yet the study itself suggests one potential reason why the results might be biased. Kendall tells us that rapes that don't get reported tend to be those committed by people known to the victim - date rapes, for instance. Kendall also cites previous literature that tells us that the Internet facilitates more dating and other face-to-face interactions and that this may increase the opportunities for rape. Put those two together and it suggests that the spread of the Internet increases the opportunities for the kind of rapes that tend to go unreported. Is it possible, therefore, that the effect Kendall is capturing is really a reflection of the fact that the Internet is shifting the incidence of rape from assaults on strangers (which have high reporting rates) to date rape (where reporting rates are low), causing reporting rates to go down? I'm not saying this is necessarily happening - I'm simply saying that it's an interpretation of Kendall's results (such as they are) that would be consistent with the literature that Kendall himself cites, and that he doesn't consider.

Finally, it's interesting that though Kendall has a panel data set, he doesn't actually account for lagged effects in his model. So what we're seeing is the absolute level of rape in the state (and the absolute level of internet usage) not the change in rape incidence. Personally, I would love to see a regression where Kendall includes the previous year's rape incidence for the state on the right hand side or, even better, takes first differences for his variables of interest. That would tell us whether changes in the spread of the Internet were really driving changes in the incidence of rape.

None of this is to say that what Kendall is saying is necessarily wrong, though personally I'm sceptical about the argument that access to porn is a substitute for rape (in Kendall's terms, I'm firmly in the camp of those who believe that rape is about power rather than about lust). It's simply to suggest that Kendall's results and the interpretation he puts on them are extremely questionable, and we should be careful before drawing any real conclusions from them.

[1] I'm assuming that Kendall's reported coefficients are adjusted for the fact that his dependent variable is in logs.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Apocalypse very shortly

If you've been reading Blogolepsy (and you should have been), you've already seen the series of 6 word stories over at Wired magazine. Through some strange oversight, the folks at Wired forgot to invite me to write for that issue [1], but being the generous, forgiving soul I am, I figured I'd contribute anyway. So here are ten 6 word versions of the End of The World as we know it [2].

1. Achhhooo!! "Excuse me." "Bless you." "Oops."

2. "You fool! The President's colour blind."

3. "Sure, I can build an ark."

4. "God! Stop playing with your food."

5. "Deadly virus? But that's my smoothie."

6. "Nuclear detonator? That's my TV remote."

7. Eventually, they rounded off the Universe.

8. A whimper? More like a moan.

9. "Look Mommy, blue and green fireworks!".

10. "Next time, stick with 'treat' please"

Bonus: "Is it okay to clap now?"


[1] Okay, okay, so they picked Margaret Atwood over me. It's okay. It's not the end of the world. Well, it is, but you know.

[2] These are works of fiction, of course. As everyone knows, when the world really does end it will be because some call centre operator in Bangalore presses the nuclear trigger.

A family affair

Weekend in NYC. Attending the Amjad Ali Khan concert at Carnegie hall. Bad flashback to SPIC-MACAY concerts in my school auditorium when I was eight as random uncle-ji walks on to stage and invites random other uncle-ji to "come say a few words on this occassion". When Thomas Friedman said the world was flat (a startlingly bad metaphor, as Matt Taibbi points out here; link via a friend) he was obviously talking about this man's intonation. We're subjected to an assortment of meaningless platitudes strung together in an oratory style that the speaker learnt in his Vikas Puri primary school. I'm a stickler for getting to events on time, but I gaze with envy at people filing in late.

When the concert finally begins [1] (said speaker having finally succeeded in putting himself to sleep) the sense of deja vu worsens, as the sublime sound of Raga Kamod is punctuated by the cries of the four year olds in the audience. Is there some secret fine print in the H1B regulations that I don't know about, which forbids these people from hiring sitters? People who bring three year olds to concerts should be horsewhipped. Before they're shot.

Fortunately, the joy of being at my first Hindustani classical concert in months more than compensates for these annoyances. The Ustaad starts by riffing on Vaishnav Jan To and then launches into Raga Kamod. His aalaap is disappointingly brief, but the glistening power of the final moments of his performance marries inspiration to breathlessness, proving once again that the hand really is quicker than the ear, and that real genius involves an audacity of invention and a velocity of beauty that the rest of us can barely hope to keep up with.

From this point onward the concert goes downhill. Tweedledum and Tweedledee succeed their father on stage, and the music moves from the sublime to the mechanical. It's like listening to a pair of trained seals playing the sarod - the difference between these two and their father is the difference between a gymnast and a dancer. MR falls asleep. I sit there, reminding myself that eventually the Ustaad will return.

When he does, for a final rendition of Raga Mishra Kirwani [2] preceded by a sweet little diversion into ekla chalo re, his performance only underscores the important difference between a performer and a musician. The great Indian classical musicians aren't just formidable instrumentalists, they are also spectacular composers - musicians capable of incredible feats of improvisation that flow from their hair and fingertips. What makes a really good Hindustani performance is the artist's ability to surprise you, to go just that little bit further than you expected, to produce that infinitesimally perfect variation that you simply couldn't anticipate. Amjad Ali Khan, when he really gets going, can do that - Tweedledum and Tweedledee, competent performers though they may be, can't. Which is why a format where the Ustaad lays out the raga for them, and they repeat after him obediently, like children reciting poems in pirmary school, works well.

Saturday's concert also demonstrated how Amjad Ali Khan missed out on his true calling - to be the lead musician for a heavy metal rock band. There were moments in that performance that Pete Townshend would have been proud of. The raw energy of the music was overwhelming, the sheer immensity of having three sarods [3] and two sets of tablas on stage produced a sound that made you want to headbang. Not quite the sublime elegance one had hoped for, but good fun nonetheless.


[1] With a standing ovation for the Ustaad, BEFORE he'd played a single note. If virgin sacrifices had been allowed in Carnegie hall, no doubt we would have seen a few.

[2] A choice of raga that had T. smirking for the rest of the evening about the 'manifest' superiority of Carnatic music.

[3] Father and sons stroking their sarods in unison on stage. Phallic symbolism runs yelping about, then faints with excitement.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

True Exhaustion

...is when you fall asleep in the middle of what you're doing and dream of being tired.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher?

It all began when I was eight. At that tender age, I was 'volunteered', along with three of my classmates, to represent my school in an Animal Identification Contest. This didn't mean that you got to rank all your teachers and decide which of them was most like a hippo, nor did it involve police line-ups and playing who popped the weasel. It meant that you'd get shown a bunch of photographs of animals and the kid who identified the most would get a prize.

Unfortunately, the definition of what constituted an animal was left kind of vague. Were birds included? Were fish? Our activity teacher, a Ms. Sharma, took a distinctly Old Testament view of the question and decided that we contestants must have dominion over the beasts of the field, the fowl in the air and the fish of the sea alike. The result was that I and my classmates spent significant hours poring over assorted picture books in the library, learning to distinguish between various fauna. Ms. Sharma assured us that all this extra knowledge would prove useful 'later in life', though she remained vague about the specific mechanism by which this utility would be achieved. Personally, I've never had occasion to use the expertise I gained (women, for instance, are singularly unimpressed by a man's ability to tell a cheetah from a jaguar by the pattern of its spots, and the subject almost never comes up in job interviews) and while I haven't really kept in touch with any of my fellow contestants, I rather doubt that any of them ended up as big game hunters. I still have the occasional fantasy about saving the world from certain destruction by being the only person who can tell a lion tailed macaque from a rhesus monkey, but with the Republicans in power even that seems increasingly unlikely.

At any rate, the great day eventually dawned and four shiny-faced children found themselves in the Jaipur zoo (not actually, in the zoo, you understand, just visiting) sitting down to ID those critters. The person who designed the contest, it turned out, took a fairly dim view of the average eight year old's general knowledge, intelligence and ability to read. Not only were the pictures we were asked to identify ridiculously simple (I mean, really, what can you mistake a giraffe for?) but about half of them had the additional virtue of having the name of the animal in question clearly visible in the slide we were shown. Every single one of us could identify all ten of the animals correctly.

Almost. It turned out that among these pictures was one of what was clearly an anteater (the organisers had been generous enough to provide an ant hill in the background just in case we were confused). Except it wasn't any old anteater. It was a pangolin - a fact that only yours truly had seen fit to mention. Not that I could tell a pangolin from an aardvark. I just happened to know that pangolin was a kind of anteater, and decided that I might as well show off my vocabulary (clearly, some habits die hard). But why look a gift vermilingua in its snout? I'd won, and the first prize (presented at an awards ceremony where the chief guest seemed to imply that my heroic feat of nomenclature had somehow saved all the world's tigers from imminent extinction) was mine.

This first prize, it turned out, was a beautiful leather-bound copy of Salim Ali's Book of Indian Birds. Now, of course, this should have changed my life forever. I should have taken one look at those full colour drawings of spoonbills and parakeets and felt a thrill deep in my boyish soul. "I'm going to be a bird-watcher" I should have told my mother, and stormed off in a huff when so grave a pronouncement was met by a bemused smile. While other boys were busy playing cricket or football or whatever it is the little louts play, I should have been staring dreamily up at the sky, notepad in hand, dreaming of all the wondrous birds I was destined to discover. Then, one quick cut later, I should have been tramping through the Amazonian rainforests, in search of the elusive Lagazzius Lardius, eventually meeting up with a suntanned Jennifer Connelly, and wooing her with bird-calls.

Needless to say, none of this ever happened (imitating bird-calls, by the way, is an even less successful strategy for impressing women than trying to distinguish a cheetah from a leopard). And the reason none of it ever happened was because the book in question, while enchanting in all other respects, happened to be in Hindi. Not that I have anything against the other official language of the country. It's just that I'm not very good at reading it [2]. And this wasn't just any ordinary book, remember, this was a detailed text about the habits of various bird species in India, complete with facts about their mating rituals, migration patterns, nesting habits, etc. all rendered in arcane Hindi phrases of the kind that never make it into Amitabh Bacchan movies [3].

To my credit, I tried. For two whole weeks I put aside a hour every day when I would diligently plug away at this book, trying grimly to extract some enjoyment from it, like a toothless dog with a bone. Eventually, though, I gave up, and the book has since come to occupy a sort of emeritus position on our family bookshelf - taken down and dusted once a year for our annual pilgrimage to Keoladeo National Park (where my father and I make valiant attempts to imagine the features of the rarer birds in the book in the common egrets we see) but otherwise more or less left to languish.

And yet every now and then, something will remind me of that glorious future as an ornithologist I could have had, something like these pictures over at Zigzackly's blog. A future where I could have been hunting whippoorwills in the forest of Central America instead of teaching Porter's Five Forces to hapless undergraduates. Sigh.


[1] The title of this post is taken from this marvellous Ezekiel poem.

[2] The furthest I've ever got is one whole chapter of Raag Darbari in the original. One day I plan to finish that book.

[3] This was, of course, in the days when there were actually movies that the Big B didn't appear in, so that the adjective was relevant.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

La Boheme

Just returned from a fascinating evening. The Opera Company of Philadelphia, in anticipation of its new season, invited last year's subscribers (including yours truly) to a rehearsal of this year's production of La Boheme (which opens on Oct 27th). It was a stage rehearsal - the performers were in street clothes, a piano filled in for the orchestra, and the performance, interrupted time and time again for retakes, only got as far as the end of Act Two. Still, the Impressionist inspired sets were on full display, and the music, though far from perfect, was pleasant.

It was a fairly chaotic rehearsal. Cues were missed, props fell apart, parts of the set went missing. The curtain came down too fast, went up too slowly. Backstage technicians conducted tests with the lighting while the principals sang, so that random light effects flitted about the stage like bats. At one point 'Rodolfo' broke off in the middle of a passionate aria to complain about the noise backstage. It was a rare insight into the raw, messy business of putting an opera performance together - the meticulousness, the detail, the split-second coordination - the kind of things that work so effortlessly on the night that you don't even notice them.

And yet. In the middle of all this confusion, there was that moment when a single spotlight picked out the frail form of a girl [1] on the darkened stage and a tentative ripple of notes prefigured a wounded bird of a voice singing 'Si mi chiamano Mimi'. And suddenly it didn't matter that Rodolfo was wearing sneakers or that you could see the technicians in the wings furiously taking notes - the trembling wistfulness of Puccini flooded the room, the aching beauty of the music that rose above the trappings of sets and costumes, like a dying girl breaking free of her sordid life.

The fact that it was La Boheme helped, of course. A similar rehearsal of, say, Aida would have seemed ridiculous; here, though, the stripped down quality of the scene gave Puccini's opera an authenticity, a realism, that more polished performances of it often lack. As though the unadorned setting was indeed Rodolfo's garret, and the constant back and forth of the rehearsal a metaphor for the artist's creative struggle. The entire experience, complete with an unseen director bellowing instructions over the sound system, was like being part of a Fellini movie, that is to say, part of that struggling, constructed fantasy that we call life.

[1] Of all opera parts, Mimi is the one that most cries out for frailty. One can imagine a Rubensesque Aida or a plump Suzanne (and the very name Brunhilde seems to demand a certain buxomness), but the very idea of a corpulent Mimi is grotesque.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Phone call

She's beautiful. Short hair, coal black eyes and a face straight out of Modigliani. Loose gray sweater, dark blue tights. The kind of legs that have spent long hours at the gym. Dancer's legs. The light from the street lamp outlining her in gold. A downtown Danae. A bus stop Venus.

He reminds himself he mustn't stare. Pretends to go back to his magazine, holding it up high in the air, hoping she'll notice it's the New Yorker and be impressed. Thinking to himself, yes, I really am that shallow.

Feeling strangely elated that it's been fifteen minutes since she got here and the bus still hasn't come.

She doesn't seem too happy about it though. In fact, she seems positively anxious. Keeps looking at her watch, biting her lip. A meeting with her boyfriend? A hot date? Not in those clothes. Besides, it's a school night. She can't be more than 20. Probably off to study with a friend. A female friend. He pictures someone appropriately shapeless and dowdy, wonders if he should ask her if she's at UPenn, tell her he's there too, strike up a conversation. Do girls like her find men with PhDs attractive?

Foolishness. No way he's going to have the nerve to actually talk to her. Any minute now the bus will come along and that'll be the end of that. He peers up the road. No sign of it. It really is taking its time. Another stolen glance at her. She's moved closer. She's walking up to him! Oh God!

"Excuse me". A beautiful voice, warm and mellow. Not one of those annoyingly shrill undergrad voices he's come to hate.

Looks up. Smiles. Tries to act natural. "Yes?"

"Do you have a phone?"

"A what?" A what?

"A phone? You know, like a mobile?" She's miming talking on the phone now. She probably thinks he's some kind of cretin who doesn't understand English. Ye gods.

"A phone! Yes, yes, of course I do."

"Could I borrow it to make a quick call? I just need to let my folks at home know that I'm running late. Please."

"Oh...errrr...I guess. I mean. Yes, yes, of course". That's right. Overwhelm her with your wit, why don't you?

"Thanks. I'll only be a minute". Smile of quick gratitude.

Handing over his phone, he is suddenly gripped by doubt. What is he doing? He just handed over his phone to a complete stranger. What if she's a thief? What if she runs off with his phone? What if 'home' is in some little known East European country and he gets slapped with a hundred dollar bill? What is he thinking? He's like one of those fat, balding rubes in the movies who get suckered out of a million dollars because Catherine Zeta-Jones smiled at them.

"Sorry, but how do you dial out on this thing? I've never used a Nokia before."

"Let me show you". Quick glance at the number. US area code. Phew. "See this little green handset thing here? You just press that. Like so. There, it's dialling now."

Another grateful smile. He's being needlessly paranoid. As usual. As if a girl like this is going to risk a prison sentence for some pathetic two year old phone. Incredible how suspicious he can be sometimes. Got to have more faith in other people. Got to learn to trust one's fellow man. Or woman.

But wait. What if she's a terrorist of some sort? What if right at this minute she's calling to report to her headquarters? What if tomorrow the FBI traces this call back to him and comes at four in the morning and kicks in his door and takes him away? A fine story he'll have to give them. It wasn't me who made the call, officer, honest - there was this beautiful girl at the bus stop and she asked me for my phone so I gave it to her. How was I to know that her call would set off a nuclear detonator, blow up half of Manhattan? No, no, of course I don't know her name. Or where she lives. I'd never seen her before in my life. Or since. No, really, I'm telling you the truth.

They'd never believe him, of course. He could imagine the grim faces of the jury as they condemned him to the electric chair. Actually, come to think of it, there wouldn't even be a jury, would there? They'd probably smuggle him off to Guantanamo or one of those places and torture him till he confessed. Nobody'd ever hear from him again. And all because some cute girl asked him for his phone and he handed it over like a grinning idiot.

He tries listening in on her conversation. "No mom, I'm on my way home, honest. It's just that the bus is late. I can't help that, now, can I? I'll be home in an hour, I promise. Bye." Hmmm. It sounded normal enough. Too normal. It was probably some kind of code. The 'bus' is some kind of secret explosive, 'mom' is the terrorist kingpin, 'home' the intended target. In an hour, she said. God alone knows what they have planned.

She's handing the phone back to him now, smiling. Him and his stupid fantasies. Of course this girl is not a terrorist. I mean, what are the odds? Would a real terrorist be travelling around by bus and relying on a stranger's cellphone to send vital messages? Of course not. Besides, all terrorist are bearded Arab looking men. Everyone knows that.

"The bus service is really pathetic, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is."


"What's that you're reading?"

(A-ha!) "It's the New Yorker."

"I thought so. Is that the latest issue? I was reading it just this morning. Are you a subscriber?"

"Absolutely. Read the whole thing cover to cover every week. As Anthony Lane said at this talk he was giving the other day, I'm one of those people who know all about Poke Boats and American Leaf Charm Bracelets."

"You mean you actually went for that Anthony Lane talk? Oh, wow! I so wanted to go for that. What was it like? I adore Anthony Lane."

"Yes, he's great isn't he? Did you read his review of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette this week? He BUTCHERS it."

"Ya, it was brilliant. Though I'll probably still go see the movie."

"Ya, me too."


"Meanwhile, the bus service still sucks." (Great. The only thing worse than not having anything to say is letting the other person know that you have nothing to say.)


"You're in a hurry aren't you? I noticed you glancing at your watch earlier."

"No actually, it's fine now. I just needed to let the folks at home know that I was running late. My cell died you see. Anyway, thanks to you I'm not in a rush anymore."

"I see. Good, good."

Pause. He takes a deep breath. Summons up courage he didn't know he had.

"Listen, given that there's no sign of this bus ever showing up, you want to maybe grab a cup of coffee? I mean, well, it's cold, and there's a coffee shop right around the corner. Only if you're really not in a hurry that is."

Holds his breath.

"Ya, sure." She grins.

Somewhere a detonator ticks down to its final second. The explosion takes out half the city.


Joy breweth in the morning

Quote of the Day:

"Sadness is just another word for not enough coffee"

- Scott Adams (in today's Dilbert)

Ah! the woes of caffeine deprivation.

Monday, October 16, 2006

A conceited mistake

Once upon a time there was a mistake
So silly so small
That no one would have noticed it

It couldn't bear
To see itself to hear of itself

It invented all manner of things
Just to prove
That it didn't really exist

It invented space
To put its proofs in
And time to keep its proofs
And the world to see its proofs

All it invented
Was not so silly
Nor so small
But was of course mistaken

Could it have been otherwise

- Vasko Popa (translated by Anne Pennington)

If there is a God, who can we blame for it?


Sunday, October 15, 2006

A stone's throw away

The stone skipped four times before it sank. Four heartbeats across a flat expanse of water, the ripples like tiny sonar, echoing into silence.

Four times. He couldn't believe it. The best he'd ever managed before was two, and that was pretty much the minimum you had to get for it to count. But four!

He wondered if he could do it again. Maybe he'd finally mastered the knack. He tried to remember what the magic pebble had looked like, scavenged about for stones that looked the same. Not a single one of them skipped.

It was the wind that was the problem. It put too much spin on the stones he threw. He could see them turning, like keys in some invisible lock, meeting the water not flat as he had thrown them, but vertical, thin edge knifing into the lake. That was no good. He tried throwing heavier stones but the lake swallowed them up with a lugubrious gulp.

He might as well face it. That stone was a fluke, a one-off. He could spend every vacation from now on throwing stones at a lake and he might never again achieve that precise trajectory, that perfect stone.

He wished someone had been there to see.

Now that he'd decided he'd never get four skips again, skipping hardly seemed worthwhile. Still, there was something about the contiguity of pebbles and water that made defiance necessary, an atavistic urge that demanded his participation in nature, his attempt to master it.

Perhaps he would try and see how far he could throw. The wind was against him though - gusting off the high mountains, screaming at him across the lake. He picked up a handful of stones, trying to recall what he knew about projectiles - the arcana of high school physics, flightpaths and parabolas, ubiquitous angles of 30, 45 or 60 degrees, the questions lobbed at him like missiles, their formulae forgotten now, but the clean arcs of their flight still fresh in his mind.

He remembers asking whether it mattered whether the ball was thrown in the direction of the earth's rotation or against it, suddenly appalled by the idea that while you were up in the air the earth could move away from under you.

He couldn't remember what the answer to that one had been.

At any rate, there was no risk of that here - not with only his thirty-two year old desk jockey's arm behind the throw. He watched the pebbles leaving his hand fight their valiant way into the sky, and then, overcome by wind and gravity, fall to the earth in an almost vertical sluggishness.

The real problem, he realised, was not how to throw further, but how to judge how far you'd thrown. How to mark distance on the memory less surface of the lake.

To hell with it, he thought, having tried unsuccessfully to make the comparison, with only a withered tree for a guide. Why compare? Who was he competing with anyway? He threw stones at random now, trying out variations, letting himself go. He laughed, his laughter a small stone flung into the wind.

He was stooping to pick up another handful of pebbles when he heard the voices. They were coming up the trail behind him. He wasn't alone up here after all.

Staring at the stones in his hand he suddenly felt awkward, childish. What would they think of it, he wondered, a grown man throwing stones at a lake like a five year old child? It wasn't even like he could make the stones skip. If they'd seen that one throw, the one that skipped four times they might understand, but now...

He dropped the stones he was holding, dusted his hand on his jeans. He pulled out a book from his jacket, propped his backpack on the shore, settled down to read. Sat staring at the page, hearing their voices draw closer.

A group of women. Girls really. Probably still in high school. Unscuffed hiking boots and pink backpacks. About a dozen of them altogether. A collection of I-pod minis with their owners strapped to them. He glanced across at them briefly, smiled a polite, ambiguous welcome, went back to his book. He could feel them looking at him, their eyes lingering, intrigued for a moment, then moving on. The way you look at something in a curiousity shop.

They settled down a little further along the shore. Only a stone's throw away from him really. They were planning a picnic by the lake it seemed. He considered moving on, but decided it was silly to let yourself be stampeded by a bunch of 16 year olds. He would just go on sitting there, basking in the sunlight, reading his book.

When the first splash of a stone hitting the water reached him, the first cries of "Look, it skipped, it skipped" "No it didn't, you idiot! that was just the splash of the stone sinking", he didn't look up. He was reading. And besides, he refused to be drawn into such silliness.


Friday, October 13, 2006


Do you ever get the feeling that the entire packaging industry is just one big conspiracy to make you look like a cretin?

It all begins with those tiny little vacuum sealed packs of peanuts - the kind they hand out on flights along with the drinks service. In theory, these things are supposed to fly open at the twitch of your fingers. In actual fact, they're more likely to resist your advances with all the stubbornness of the armies defending Troy; or your high school prom date. You'll try every conceivable trick to open them - pinch the two sides between your fingers and pull in opposite directions, try tearing across the line of the top seal, search desperately for that miniscule little arrow that says 'tear here'. All to no avail. By the time you get down to using your teeth or forcing the issue with the nib of a pen, your muttered complaints will have alerted all your fellow passengers to your distress, and they will proceed to stare at the frightening spectacle of an adult human reduced to the frenzy of a gibbering monkey, all for the sake of a handful of peanuts. It doesn't matter that you understand quantum theory or can do complicated long-division sums, the fact that this pint-sized packet of nuts defeats you brands you forever in their minds as one of nature's mistakes.

And it isn't just packets of peanuts (or chips, or biscuits, or sundry other snacks) that do this to you. There are also the bottles of pills that simply will not open, no matter how hard you push down and turn 'this way'; the beverage cans whose rings break off before the flap pops, leaving you with a drink that can only be opened with a screwdriver; the sachets of ketchup that open no more than a pinhole, so that squeezing on them sends a jet of red liquid all over your trousers; the straws you simply cannot extract from their transparent plastic sheaths. There are the envelopes that tear themselves to shreds the minute you run your finger through the seam, so that your mail looks as though it had been ransacked by Captain Hook. There are the security bands that they put on your bags at airports so that just getting to your toothbrush afterwards involves a half hour of anxious sawing with a blunt key. There is, memorably immortalised in Seinfeld, the packing of condoms that proves impossible to undo at the critical moment. Forget castration anxiety - the single most emasculating experience for the modern male is the feeling you get when you spend twenty minutes straining at the lid of a jam jar and the damn thing still won't budge. You pretend that your hands are sweaty, of course, or that you just can't get a grip because the surface is too smooth - but in your heart of hearts you know - you just aren't man enough.

It's as though the makers of packing material everywhere were members of some occult religion, who believed that it wasn't enough for us to simply buy these things with money - we had to earn them by going through the extra effort of actually extracting them from the paraphenalia they come wrapped in. The fruit of labour is sweet, they think, especially when you've spent the last five minutes chewing through plastic coated aluminium foil to get to it.

My own sense is that this will all end badly. Sooner or later someone will come up with an even more airtight way of wrapping cereal bars and frozen vegetable packets, and we will all starve to death while trying to claw open that last packet of trail mix. The army will be called out to help, nuclear weapons will be deployed to blast open packs of Sour Cream and Onion Lays and none of it will do any good. Mankind shall go to its grave secure in the knowledge that the last packet of potato chips shall remain, as it was packed, untouched by hand.

Things may not get so bad, I suppose. If there's anything in the theory of evolution, human beings will eventually evolve the right hand structures to open these packages. Snip and reseal fingers will become the essence of our survival - never mind the opposable thumb. Only people like me, who have trouble getting into their own Ziplocs, will die out.

People who I've confessed my misery to tell me that there's a knack to these things. I'm fairly doubtful about this - largely because people who profess to understand the 'technique' to opening things tend to have completely different approaches from each other (and have an embarassing tendency to fail when one puts them to the test). But if there really is a science to this stuff, why don't they put the damn thing on the packet? Many's the time when I've wept with frustration staring at the instructions on a packet of food that describes every step required to convert the contents into a delicious meal, except the crucial first step of actually getting the outer covering open (at most they'll say something unhelpful like - take contents out of packing - as though I couldn't have figured that out for myself).

Better yet, why don't they teach this stuff to us in school instead of filling our heads with geography and civics? What does it profit a man that he can tell the Dneiper from the Danube if opening a packet of munchies is beyond him? I imagine proud parents bragging to each other about how little Johnny is only four but he can already pry open the seals of orange juice tetra packs without spilling. "Go ahead, open it!" they'll say, giving eight year old Suzanne her first stapled AND scotch-taped envelope, in celebration of her getting an A in Advanced Letter-Opening (the one where they teach you how to open inland letters without tearing away half the words). And of course, tasks as advanced as opening a bottle of wine will be left to the PhDs. "Leave it to me", our hero will say, "my dissertation was on corks that disintegrate into the chardonnay just when you think you've managed to pry them loose".

In the meantime, if there is a secret method to opening vacuum sealed packs, it isn't just a closed book to me, it's a book that's been tightly sealed in cling film, buried under bubble wrap and thrust into a cardboard Amazon carton that's been cello-taped in at least five different places to make sure I can't get through.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Turkish Delight

Yes! Pamuk won!!

Okay, so Pamuk wouldn't have been my first pick for the Prize, but he would definitely have been in the top 3. I confess to not having read as much of Pamuk as I would like (having only read My Name is Red (my review here), Snow and The Black Book [1]) but I've always found him to be an exquisite writer, one who combines patient and baroque craftsmanship with a great deal of dramatic gusto. The Nobel Prize citation speaks of Pamuk's "quest for the melancholic soul of his native city" and it is certainly true that nostalgia and memory are major themes for Pamuk, but what amazes me is the sense of immediacy he brings to these themes, the way his books sing with momentum, the way his novels have a thrilling unputdownable quality.

At least some prize committees still know what they're doing.

[1] Though looking at Pamuk's Bibliography, I realise that that represents a significant proportion of his works in translation. Hopefully the Prize will ensure that we get to see more of his works in English.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Theatre for the absurd

Nothing quite brings out the point of Beckett like an audience. It's when you've sat through a brilliant performance of Waiting for Godot (as I did today) which features, among other things:

1. Uproarious guffaws from the audience while poor Lucky struggles with his imagined net and / or blabbers his desperate way through a litany about man's diminishment

2. A loud-mouthed 'expert' who insists on explaining and interpreting the play to us while it's being performed - helpfully pointing out, for instance, that Vladimir and Estragon don't move even when they say they're going to leave (as if we could't see that for ourselves)

3. The departure of a good 25% of the audience at the end of the first act because the organizers forgot to mention that it was a two act play and people who hadn't read the play left in the intermission thinking it was all over [1]

that you begin to realise just how accurate and piercing a mirror Beckett's work is, how perfect a reflection of man's fundamental silliness;

that you begin to experience the disconnected, dystopic poetry of his dialogue as a superior and gritty form of realism;

that you begin to recognise your own life for what it is, banal and trivial, an endless variation on an uninspired theme;

that you begin to know that it is only in these brief moments, when we step outside the dance of words and shadows, acknowledge ourselves as ridiculous and unhappy, that we are, for an instant, beautiful.

We're in no danger of ever thinking any more.
Then what are we complaining about?
[1] Maybe there is something to this evolution business after all

Monday, October 09, 2006

Booker Prize 2006: My picks

With the Booker Prize due to be announced in a few hours, I figured I would post my ranking of the shortlist (and also gloat about the fact that I'd managed to read all 6 of them before the prize came out).

Here then are my rankings (links lead to my reviews):

1. Edward St. Aubyn's Mother's Milk

2. Kate Grenville's The Secret River

3. Sarah Waters' The Night Watch

4. M. J. Hyland's Carry Me Down

5. Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss

6. Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men

A comfortable fear

Envious, my heart! O dark and dreadful word!
When these with passion their bright destruction bless,
Who, drunk with the pulse of their own blood, preferred
Deep pain to death and Hell to nothingness.

- Charles Baudelaire, from Les Fleurs du Mal (translation by Humbert Wolfe) [1]

But what if there were no difference? What if Hell turned out to be not a place of brimstone and suffering but an eternity of nothingness, an infinity blank and inconcievable? How would we tell God from his absence? How would we decide between the believer and the non-believer, since both would see themselves vindicated?

Where one man sees a conspiracy of rules and punishment, the other sees only a universal indifference.

Nietzsche writes [2]:

"It is the profound suspicious fear of an incurable pessimism which compels whole millennia to cling with their teeth to a religious interpretation of existence: the fear born of that instinct which senses that one might get hold of the truth too soon, before mankind was sufficiently strong, sufficiently hard, sufficient of an artist...Piety, the 'life in God', would, viewed in this light, appear as the subtlest and ultimate product of the fear of truth, as the artist's worship of an intoxication before the most consistent of falsifications"

Like the gambler who believes in chance, and is so caught up in watching it play out that he never notices that the buttons he is wagering with have no value.

Is this all God is then? A painted veil, a terror that we inflict upon ourselves only because it keeps us from seeing that other unappealable horror - the vertigo of nothingness. A fear we take comfort in.


[1] The original reads:

Et mon coeur s'effraya d'envier maint pauvre homme
Courant avec ferveur a l'abime beant,
Et qui, soul de son sang, prefererait en somme
La douleur a la mort et l'enfer au neant!

[2] from Beyond Good and Evil, (No. 59)


Sunday, October 08, 2006

New York, New York

Am in the middle of a seriously New York weekend - attending a talk by Anthony Lane on Ava Gardner [1] as part of the New Yorker Festival, meditating with the pigeons in Bryant Park, eating sushi at Gari's, strolling past the stalls selling bric a brac on Columbus Avenue and trying to keep MR from dragging me into shoe and clothing stores [2]. Oh, and reading the New Yorker, whose current issue features two gems: one, an article by Milan Kundera about what it means to be a novelist - a trademark Kundera piece - moments of startling insight combined with an obsession with European literature; and two, this glorious article by Adam Kirsch on the life and poetry of Hart Crane.

I've always had a fascination with Crane. As Kirsch puts it, "No poet since Keats had achieved this kind of elated lyricism." At his best, Crane is a poet of incredible singing power, a true bard for the industrial age, a voice that combines an ornate wealth of phrase making ("minstrel galleons of carib fire") with the ability to communicate a single-minded purity of vision, a singer of ephemeral geometries. In many ways, as Kirsch is quick to point out, Crane is a failure - but he is a spectacular failure, a burning Icarus to the soberer Daedalus of Eliot.


[1] An amusing enough talk - Lane was at his wittiest and most cinephile, and his devotion to the age of cinema when stars were stars is endearing if a trifle overblown (I mean okay, so Grace Kelly vs. Reese Witherspoon is a no-contest, but Lancaster vs. De Niro? I don't know). Still you get to the point where you know the wisecrack is coming - so it's more a question of trying to guess who he's going to make fun of next. Good fun, though, and to give him credit he did an amazing sell job on Gardner, who I've never been much of a fan of.

[2] Is there some sort of secret signal I give out that makes women want to take me shopping? Some sort of "I am man, take me shop" vibe?

Friday, October 06, 2006

To speak of mountains - Part 2

Sunday, 1st October

We leave at dawn. At this time of day the sky above East Glacier is the colour of burnt copper, great ridges of rock rise above us like tawny lions and all around us the autumn woods gleam like shaken gold. Who would have thought the earth could be this burnished, this brazen? The colours of the land, pink-veined and saffron-hued, put even the sunrise to shame. From East Glacier to Many Glacier (the point inside the park where we are headed) is just a little over 40 miles, but the drive there takes us the better part of two hours, because we just have to stop at every turn-out, desperately trying to catch the dying glories of the morning sun.

Many Glacier itself is a place too beautiful to describe. It's a bowl of black rock, dozens of miles wide and thousands of feet high, a place shaped by the sadness of Gods, synagogue of a vanished presence. The unmistakable U-shaped marks of ancient glaciers on these valleys bear testament to the slow passing of ages, to the slow wearing down of Time. History itself is extinct here, and we live in a diminished present, barely able to imagine the majesty of the geological forces that once trampled upon this earth. Paz writes [1]:

Rock and precipice,
more time than stone, this
timeless matter.

Through its cicatrices
falls without moving
perpertual virgin water.

Immensity reposes here
rock on rock,
rocks over air.

The world's manifest
as it is: a sun
immobile, in the abyss.

Scale of vertigo:
the crags weigh
no more than our shadows.

The sky is as blue as water here, the day is flung stone, and we float at the bottom of a liquid awe, overwhelmed by the landscape we see around us.

MR and I are just beginning to congratulate ourselves on coming out this early, when we have our first setback of the day. The Many Glacier Hotel (a marvellous little property located at the edge of a lake) which was to be our source of breakfast, turns out to have shut for the season. A quick drive around the rest of Many Glacier confirms what we fear - there is no food to be had up here. I bear this fact with my usual suave equanimity. MR, on the other hand, rants and raves and insists that we head back to civilisation immediately and grab ourselves a bite to eat - a proposal I accede to with little more than token resistance (I'm hungry too, you see).

We've barely started back, however, before the sight of three other cars parked on the side of the road alerts us to the presence of a black speck high above, which, on closer scrutiny, proves to be a bear [2]. Much excitement. Cameras are instantly whipped out, zooms extended to their maximum in a desperate attempt to magnify what looks like a smudge of dust into a princely and ferocious beast. The end result still looks more like a fat, furry caterpillar than like Yogi, but we have now OFFICIALLY seen a bear. (A fact that MR intends to rub into all the friends who went to Alaska with her, and didn't get to see one).

Conscious of having made a phenomenal start to the day, we head down to the town of Babb, where a small diner next to the Town Supper Club supplies us with breakfast. The diner is quaintness itself - a motley collection of faux western ornaments and gimcrack earthenware, matched with some of the most slovenly service I've ever experienced. MR and I desperately look through the menu for something we can eat without suffering immediate cardiac arrest, systematically dismissing steak and 'everything' scramblers to settle for French toast. It's only after we've ordered that we realise how far this diner has taken the notion of open range - the 'kitchen' is a big old wood-burning stove right in the centre of the dining area itself, and we are treated to a step by step visual of our French toast being cooked by a skinny 18 year old in greasy jeans.

One hour later, having got through two-thirds of one plate of French Toast between us (earning us the everlasting disgust of our waitress) we're back on the road to Many Glacier, Springsteen singing Thunder Road as we zip back to the Swiftcurrent Trailhead. MR's plan for the day consists of a 11 mile hike 2,300 feet up to the Ptarmigan Tunnel. My own itinerary is more modest - a gentle 3 mile stroll along perfectly level ground to Redrock Falls seems to me the perfect way to spend a sunny day in the park. MR and I therefore part ways at the trailhead, intending to meet back in the parking lot by about 5 pm.

The hike to Redrock turns out to be delightful. It's another gorgeous day and a thin foot trail straggles its way through a thick wood, the trees parting every now and then to offer tantalising glimpses of high peaks rising on all sides. Best of all, unlike the trail yesterday, which was crowded with people, this one is deserted - on my entire four hour hike I will meet all of two people - so the sense of adventure seems all the more authentic.

The only trouble is, Glacier is bear country, and pretty soon my imagination is turning every rustling leaf or shaken branch into a charging grizzly. At one point I actually stop dead in my tracks, convinced that I just heard an animal cough close by, before realising that it was only the fabric of my coat rubbing against itself [3]. By the time I'm a mile down the trail I'm rapidly turning into a nervous wreck and wishing I hadn't actually seen Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man.

Then, just as I'm imagining what the teeth of a bear biting into my neck will feel like, I turn a corner of the trail and catch my first glimpse of Redrock Lake, a flash of blue like a kingfisher's wing, the promise of immense beauty lurking right around the corner. Five minutes later I'm standing on the shore of the lake, trying to take in one of the most amazing sights of my life. From where I stand a great expanse of shimmering blue water stretches away into the distance (I am standing at the very edge of the lake, wind-raised wavelets lapping against my shoes). Where it ends, a gentle meadow rises up to a low hill, which is resplendent with all the colours of fall - orange and gold and purple-red - and along the side of which the white ribbon of a cascade skips down to the lake. Above this colourful, idyllic scene, great stony peaks tower like dour sentinels, forming a massive U that reaches up to the sky. It's a scene out of a painting, nay, out of a dream, and I feel as though I had stumbled upon some enchanted place, some giant's garden or elvish lodge; at any rate, a place too dear for mortals.

Revived and exhilerated, all my fear and tiredness cleansed by the magnificence of this landscape, I hurry on, and a short climb later am standing at the top of Redrock Fall. Fall is a bit of a misnomer - this is more like a stumble. A sheet of frothing water falls four feet off a ledge of maroon rock, emptying itself into a green basin of stone, the water a train of white lace that slowly spreads into a still transparence, forming a pool so clear that every pebble and twig is visible at its bottom. I sit here for half an hour, splashing my fingers in the water (which is thrillingly cold!) and staring up into the high passes above me. I have brought a book with me, of course, but somehow Tacitus seems too dry a read for so magical a place, and I abandon him easily, preferring simply to loll in the greenish sunlight.

Half an hour of this and I am ready to go on. At this point, I'm still unconvinced that I have actually reached Redrock Fall. This tiny cataract seems too measly to deserve so fine an epithet, so I decide to plough on, drawn by the roar of what sounds like falling water up ahead in the distance. Half a mile further though, the path starts to get rougher, and it becomes clear to me that the roar I'm hearing is the wind howling off the mountains. I decide to return. On my way back I stop by the shore of the lake again, this time lying back on the shore and gazing up at the blue of the sky above me, listening to the steady gulp of the waves a few feet away.

When I get back to the car, it is close to 4 pm. I'm not expecting MR back till 5, so I jump into the car, lean the seat back, settle in for an hour of poetry. By the time 5.30 comes around, I'm starting to get a little annoyed. Trust this girl to be late, I think. Doesn't she realise we have an eight hour drive back, and that we need to be at the airport before 6 am in order to return the rental car and catch our flight? Oh, well, it just means we won't get too much sleep tonight. I guess it doesn't matter.

It's about 6.15 and MR still isn't back when it occurs to me that something might be wrong. Sure, we'd joked about her getting attacked by bears when she left (I made her promise that she would set my i-Pod, which she was carrying, in a safe place before the bear got to her), but I didn't think there was any actual risk of this happening. Thinking about it now I'm not so sure.

One of the hazards of being cursed with an overactive imagination combined with a pessimistic attitude to life is that it's really easy to get paranoid about the simplest things. I mean, look, you folks read this blog. You know how I can conjure up all sort of macabre scenarios out of thin air. Imagine then, if you will, what my brain can do with something as real as the possibility that some accident may have befallen a friend of mine on a lonely trail in the middle of a forest. In the next three quarters of an hour, MR dies more deaths more gruesomely than an army of cats committed to the less than tender mercies of the Marquis de Sade. She is attacked by bears, gored by stags, falls down precipices, faints of dehydration, twists her ankle and falls, spilling her brains open on a sharp stone, drops to the ground in exhaustion and slowly freezes to death, her calls for help growing fainter and fainter until they are silenced forever. My memory, now firmly in overdrive, dwells on the fact that she has only half a bottle of water, only two packets of trail mix, only one thick sweater and a jacket, no torch, no bear spray, no knife, no emergency flares, etc. Clearly, she was doomed from the very start.

Just so we're quite clear, the overall sequence of events in this hour goes like this:

6.00 pm: Falstaff wonders where MR is. Realises that she doesn't have a watch with her. Figures she probably doesn't know what time it is. Typical. Goes back to reading his book.

6.15 pm: Falstaff wonders what MR thinks she's doing, coming back so late. Promises himself that he'll give her hell when she gets back. Goes on reading his book, but looks up every two pages or so and peers down the trail to see if there's any sign of her. Every three minutes or so he imagines he sees her coming. Every three minutes and two seconds he realises that it's only a bush moving.

6.30 pm: Falstaff has abandoned his book entirely. He now divides his time between peering up the trail and checking the time on his cellphone with such regularity that fifteen minutes later his cellphone's battery is completely discharged

6:45 pm: Falstaff decides that the situation is getting ridiculous and he must do something about it. For some reason, he feels that standing out in the cold in only his shirtsleeves, slapping his arms with his hands and wandering up and down the first 20 feet of the trail like a nervous jack rabbit will speed up MR's no doubt imminent arrival. He therefore proceeds to do this, all the while nervously noticing that there are now no other cars in the parking lot and that the sun is rapidly sinking towards the horizon.

7:00 pm: Having given up all hope of ever seeing MR alive again, Falstaff calls 911.

Yup, I actually do it, I call 911. I am half expecting them to tell me to get lost and not bother them with my random paranoia (actually, I am half hoping they will do this), but after I've told them that my friend is out hiking alone and hasn't come back yet, they react with a barely controlled hysteria that almost matches my own. "Could you confirm again that your friend is out there alone" the woman on the line asks me, making it sound as though hiking alone in the park were an act of insanity roughly equivalent to playing Russian roulette with a loaded uzi. I find myself trying to defend MR. "Yes", I say, "but she's an experienced hiker and she has plenty of water and food with her...". The woman isn't interested. She wants to know what my friend is wearing (given her tone of voice as she says this, she might as well have said 'the victim'). I calmly give her all the details, secretly a little proud of myself for actually remembering. What a great witness I make, I think to myself, who knew that I had such a talent for observation? I imagine myself at the inquest, responding calmly and precisely to the coroner's questions. I admire my own self-control.

Meanwhile, the voice on the line is informing me that help is on the way. I thank her and settle down to wait, imagining what I will tell them when they arrive. I run over the whole story in my head. I fish out my camera and scroll through the old photographs until I find one of MR to show them when they ask for a description, admiring my own ingenuity in thinking of this. I imagine the long night that lies ahead, a steady procession of search parties heading out into the wilds with guns and torches while I sit waiting anxiously in the car park, a blanket draped around me, sipping coffee from a flask and waiting for the bad news. A pair of deer walk past me, barely 10 feet away, but I hardly notice, only reviving at the last minute to take a desultory picture of them, before going back to my morbid brooding.

By the time MR finally shows up (because of course she does, you didn't seriously think things would end badly, did you - this is real life, you know, not one of my stories) I'm half way through the Reader's Digest Drama in Real Life article they're going to write about us, and have just about managed to convice myself that it's all my fault for not calling for help sooner. It's 7:20 when her highness enters, nonchalant as ever, unpursued by bears. "Where the hell were you?" I ask, "do you know how worried I've been?". I sound exactly like my mother.

MR, by contrast, seems quite amused by the whole thing. She got a 'little' delayed she says, mostly because she was trying to tell the time from the sun. She doesn't know what all the fuss is about. At any rate, she's had a great hike - seen some amazing sights and yes, spotted a few more bears as well. A quick shame-voiced call to 911, a few more recriminations, and we are on our way back to Spokane.

The fact that we only start back from Many Glacier at around 8 pm means that the next seven hours are a nightmare. We manage to shave an hour off our travel time by grabbing dinner at (shudder!) Burger King, but it is still three in the morning before we get to our hotel. The fact that we manage to get lost somewhere in rural Idaho while trying to take a shortcut to the I 90 doesn't help (a connecting road we were supposed to take simply doesn't show up), nor does the fact that a highway that looked perfectly straight on the map turns out to be a winding hill road that you can't drive (at least by night) at more than 20 miles an hour, nor does the fact that the roads are simply swarming with deer - we count at least a dozen (and not just in the forest areas either - we drive through towns and there they are, standing in the middle of Main Street, staring at us with eyes ablaze). By the end of the night we've started thinking of them as pests. And of course MR, having been up for 20 hours and having completed a steep twelve mile hike isn't exactly in the best of shape either. Still, we make it, and actually manage two hours of sleep before we have to head for the airport. It's the sweetest nap of our lives.

Lying in my bed in Spokane, thinking about the day I've just had, it occurs to me that I finally understand the expression 'never a dull moment'. I'd always thought of it as just a figure of speech before. Apparently, it can actually be done.


[1] 'Landscape' from Dias Habiles. Translated by Charles Tomlinson. The original reads:

Pena y precipicio,
mas tiempo que piedra,
materia sin tiempo.

Por sus cicatrices
sin moverse cae
perpetua agua virgen.

Reposa lo inmenso
piedra sobre piedra,
piedra sobre aire.

Se despliega el mundo
tal cual es, inmovil
sol en el abismo.

Balanza del vertigo:
las rocas no pesan
mas que nuestras sombras.

[2] What species this bear belonged to remains a matter of debate. MR claims it was a grizzly. I claim it was a black bear. The bear itself is yet to voice an opinion.

[3] I wasn't totally imagining this, you know. While I didn't actually see any bears there were plenty of berry filled droppings on the way, which looked suspiciously fresh.

[4] Picture taken from the trail to Redrock. If you look very carefully in the bottom left of the picture, you'll see the Many Glacier Hotel.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

To speak of mountains - Part 1


To speak of mountains
is to lend wings to vertigo,
take a stand against the sky.

Is to imagine ourselves
as both hardened and broken,
both breathless and at peace.

To speak of mountains
is to think how far we could climb
if only Time were stone –

our hope a high pass,
finally reached –
the world opening below us.

To speak of mountains
is to escape, by so little,
the gravity of the everyday;

to find a way to turn
the earth to gesture,
the emptiness to breathing space.

To speak of mountains
is to fling pebbles into a valley
and listen for a sound that never comes.

To know we cannot fill
the immensity that lies before us,
but still to measure ourselves against it.

- October 2006
Friday, September 29th

Friday morning at the Philadelphia Airport, standing in the 'C' line for our Southwest flight. Our itinerary today takes us from Philadelphia to Seattle via Chicago and then on to Spokane. The flight from Chicago is full, but MR sits in the aisle seat wolfing down a plateful of chips and looking so feral that no one dares to ask if the place next to her is empty, so we get the row to ourselves [1]. I read Nietzsche. MR works, or pretends to. By the time we get to Seattle, after six and a half hours of sitting on the plane (we might as well have flown to Europe), we're both exhausted and binge on Mocha Light Frappucinos, firmly establishing ourselves as tourists by ordering Starbucks in Seattle.

Then on to Spokane. Coming off the runway the sky is stainless, the air lucid. Away to our right, Mt. Rainier rises white and glorious, not so much mountain as a fist of gathered might, a regal and majestic figure. Before it, the surrounding hills bow like courtiers in the presence of their king, and far away in the distance, its smoky and mysterious mistress, Mt. St. Helens, watches this display of naked pride with amusement. Then the plains of Eastern Washington stretch away into a haze of horizons, and before we know it we are beginning our descent into Spokane, and the first leg of our journey is over.

Spokane Airport turns out to be a lot smaller than I expected. It reminds me of Vizag - there's the same atmosphere of wannabe big city-ness, the feel of a small town putting on airs. The 'International' in the airport's name seems out of place. The good thing is that the rental car lots are actually part of the main airport building so I sit in the lounge listening to Norwegian Wood being piped through the PA system while MR picks up our rental car - a white Jeep. By the time we get out of the airport it's already 9:00 pm back in Philadelphia, but we still have a 250 mile drive ahead of us, all the way to Kalispell, MT. As we head out of Spokane on the I-90, the dying light of the day makes the lake around Coeur D'Alene seem dreamlike and ghostly, like a reluctant mirror. A perfect half moon haunts the air, like a gleaming silver coin snapped in two, and as we cross the border into Idaho and into night, a raging forest fire high up in the mountains opposes its fiery glow to the fading crimson of the western sky.

We stop for dinner at the Silver Spoon diner in Kellogg, Idaho. The service is terrible, the food adequate though unimpressive, but the fact that we're surrounded by tableloads of people who all look like they weigh over 300 pounds makes MR and me feel thin and happy. I order a chicken breast sandwich and am dismayed to find that in Kellogg this means a tiny sliver of chicken meat bathed in about 6 inches of batter and fried till it has soaked up the oil from half a dozen groundnut fields, placed between two slices of thick bread and smothered in mayo. MR orders meatloaf and is still gawking at the plateful of flesh and hunk of bread the size of George Foreman's fists that this implies, when the waitress comes over, apologises for the confusion, confesses to having brought MR the small portion by mistake and proceeds to make up for it by adding another pound of meatloaf to MR's already aghast plate. By the time we finish, there's still enough food on the table to make up a doggy bag for your average Great Dane, but we no no the waitress's kind suggestion that we take it home with us, and escape while we still have our waistlines.

One hour later we've turned off the I-90 and are making our way North on a deserted state highway. And I mean deserted. Thick forest stretches on either side of us, and silheouttes of mountains rise into the night sky, cutting off our view of the stars. Now and then a lake betrays itself by glimmering in the moonlight, taunting us with the promise of a beauty we will never get to see. There is no human habitation here, and only the occassional passing car, and even the darkness seems thicker, more desolate, as if the wilderness were slowly trying to reclaim the highway. Roadkill punctuates the margins of the road, and its asphalt surface is splashed with blotches of congealed blood, mute reminders of the deaths of deer on these treacherous crossings. I am reminded of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, of that scene with the bloodstained room. Every inch, every mile of this road is an intersection between the busy traffic of civilisation and the untamable instinct of nature. The deer die and the headlights that slaughter them move on, but there can be no doubt about who is the intruder here, who is the barbarian. The sad spirits of killed animals hang over this road like a haze, so that MR brakes again and again, swerving to avoid some tiny movement that her imagination converts into a deer. Not that it is all imagination though - we do see animals by the roadside, once narrowly escape running over what looks like a raccoon.

Finally, a little past midnight local time, we are in Kalispell. It is now almost 3 am back on the East Coast. It has been a long day.

Saturday September 30th

By the time MR wakes up this morning, I have got ready, written a poem, storyboarded a presentation I need to make on Tuesday, made a to-do list for the week ahead, jotted down some notes for this post (you don't think I actually remember all this stuff, do you?), twiddled my thumbs till the joints hurt and considered (and discarded) two ideas for my dissertation. When we finally leave our motel room, the sun is high in the sky, the snail's fallen off the thorn, the lark's taking a coffee break and God has stepped out of heaven to go buy groceries. Sigh.

Driving out of Kalispell, we are overjoyed to spot an I-HOP. Visions of chocolate chip pancakes float before my eyes. This is beginning to seem like a real vacation at last. Unfortunately, half the population of Western Montana seems to have decided that this is a good day [2] to stop by the I-HOP for breakfast, so after standing in line for ten minutes just to get our name on the list of people waiting, we decide to give up on breakfast and head over to Glacier National Park, our destination for the trip (that is, I decide to give up - MR has to be dragged out of the place kicking and screaming). The western entrance to the park is just half an hour's drive from Kalispell, and pretty soon we are standing on the shores of Lake McDonald, watching the mountains fade away blue in the distance.

From here, we drive up the famed Going to the Sun Road, stopping at the Lake McDonald Lodge for breakfast (where MR sits fidgeting with her laptop while I try to explain to the waiter, that no, it's okay, we're not offended that they serve non-vegetarian dishes, in fact, we may want to have some ourselves). It's from the lodge onward that the drive really becomes fascinating. At first the road runs along a tiny stream, while massive formations of chiselled rock tower above us, but before long we're climbing way up into the mountains, valleys falling away all aroud us, the trees aflame with the autumn gold. I am reminded of Li Po's description of the Road to Shu [3] :

The Road to Shu is steep, steep as climbing to the Sky!
It ashens those who only hear tell of it!

From its peaks to the sky can hardly be a foot:

The withered pines there have to leave over canyons

Filled with the contending dins of waterfalls,
Gullies thundering a thousand rolling stones!

...The Road to Shu is steep, steep as climbing to the Sky!

I half turn, but gaze West; with a long, long sigh!
Everywhere we look, mountains rise above us - mohawk ridges of striated rock, like spines of some giant iguana, or obsidian peaks lifting their lonely heads into the sun. We are surrounded by these grey guardians of the Earth's age, their faces chiselled to a mythic sadness, jaws of clenched stone sharing a silence too old for us to disturb with our presumption. It is the end of summer here, and the beginning of autumn, so the peaks bear only the faintest traces of snow, but in its absence their shapes are starker, more precise. What I see opening before me is a landscape of precipices, as the light divides each separate rockface into a dozen different planes, turning bare stone into unpolished diamond, discovering beauty in the coincidence of angles, making the mountains new with every glimpse. I feel as though I'm lost in a Picasso painting, something from his cubist period, a geometry of shattered lines, thousands of feet high, a black Xanadu.

And yet there is also this incredible sense of distance, of vistas unmeasurable to the human eye. Space, under these skies, is immense and empty, as though the air itself had expanded in proportion to the mountains, creating a world fit for giants to walk in. Driving up to Logan's Pass (the point beyond which the road has been blocked for repairs), we stop at every turn-out, jump out of the car to take pictures: staring at them in dismay afterwards, wondering why the camera cannot capture the sense of scale that is so immediately apparent to us, the door to our car left gaping open in excitement, Dylan singing Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands on the stereo.

Staring out towards the horizon from Logan's Pass, it occurs to me that the incredible thing about this view is how evenly matched the mountains are. There are no prima donnas here, no solitary peaks towering over all the others, grabbing everyone's attention. Instead there is the confederacy of high places, the mountains casual, almost collegial with each other, like true aristocrats oblivious to their own greatness.

Stunning as the view from Logan's Pass is, the best is yet to come. From here a one and a half mile trail winds up into the mountains, past yellowing heather pastures, thin trickles of streams and the occasional mountain goat, to where the gods of the mountains, deciding that you have earned the right, grant you the sight of Glacier's most precious gem - the Hidden Lake.

The Hidden Lake is, as its name suggests, hidden - it lies folded away in a secret cranny of the hills, invisible right upto the point where you come up to that final ridge and see its azure waters spreading below you, their surface shirred by the wind. High hills rise on all sides of it, and a single snow capped peak looks down upon it from a great height. This is a scene that no photographs can do justice to, it would take the canvas of a Bierstadt or a Sargent to capture the beauty of this view. From high up here the trembling surface of the lake seems palpable with excitement, and I am reminded of Yeats: "Like a laughing string / where on mad fingers play / amid a place of stone / be secret and exult". There is a sense of achievement in being here, a sense of discovery that even the two dozen tourists milling about cannot quite erase. As the person standing next to me at the overlook says, "This is so beautiful, I could stay here forever." I agree completely.

But of course, we don't stay there forever. Eventually we make our way back down to Logan's Pass, drive back to the Lake McDonald Lodge. MR, not content with a measly 3 mile hike, sets off on a longer trail to Fish Lake. I, being less adventurous and less fit, elect to spend the late afternoon lying lazily by Lake McDonald, reading Wallace Stevens and watching the water slowly turn from a brilliant blue to a disappointed cobalt. It is a testament to how peaceful the atmosphere here is that even the presence of other people does not disturb me, and I watch with bemusement as a man slowly assembles a kayak, a dog leaps into the water to rescue a stick thrown by his owner, two little children go about the solemn business of throwing stones in the lake and a pair of young couples, probably just out of high school and clearly on their first weekend away together, hold hands awkwardly and look for someone to take their picture. I can't help feeling that the mountains share my amusement as they stand watching over us, patient as parents, their faces giving nothing away.

When MR gets back, I'm at the payphone, desperately trying to find us a room for the night. Our plan now is to drive to the East side of the park, stopping at a hotel in East Glacier or thereabouts, ready to get an early start on the day tomorrow. Except that every hotel chain I call informs me that they have no properties in that area. Pretty soon, I can recite the names of towns around East Glacier like a rosary - Browning, St. Mary, Essex. But everyone I call acts like they don't exist.

By the time we get through dinner [4] it's already half past eight and we still don't have a place to stay. Unfazed, we decide to head out to East Glacier anyway - we figure there'll be some local motel that we can spend the night in. The road this time is even lonelier than the one last night. The towns of Essex and Pinnacle and Summit marked on our map turn out to be little more than a collection of houses, and the only other sign of civilisation is the sight of a train, ghostly with lights, gliding out of the darkness ahead of us - the railway track here running parallel to the road.

When we finally get to East Glacier, I offer a silent apology to all the call centre operators I'd been arguing with. East Glacier really doesn't have any Best Westerns, Day's Inns or Motel 6's. Instead, MR and I get to choose between The Dancing Bears, Circle R and The Whistling Swan. Memories of reading Oliver Strange come back to me. I wonder if the hardcases from Circle R are rustling cattle from the Dancing Bears, I try to imagine what it would take to convert the Circle R brand to a Whistling Swan with a straight iron. I wonder whose side that tall eyed laconic stranger called James Green would be on.

While I'm wondering all this, MR has decided that we're staying at the Whistling Swan, having determined, through some occult method of weighing the pros and cons of different neon signs, that the Whistling Swan is much the nicest of the lot. Five minutes later a sleepy looking manager is assuring us that yes, he does have a room for us. He looks like a nice, clean cut young man. I consider asking him whether he's got his mother's corpse stowed away in the basement, but decide against it. I don't much fancy the look of that Circle R place.

The room we finally get turns out to be quaint beyond cliche. It's wood panelled and low roofed and seems to have been designed for Goldilocks (I make a mental note to check under the bed for bears - hey, this is grizzly country). Instead of curtains there are little folding windows with strips of cloth pasted across them. The roof of the bathroom is about four feet high, so that taking a shower involves bumping your arm against the ceiling some 362 times. Still, it has character, this room, a sense of authenticity that comes as a welcome contrast to the ubiquity of hotel rooms elsewhere, and it might even have proved cosy if either MR or I had thought of turning on the heating before we went to sleep, instead of waking up at four in the morning with our teeth chattering. [5]

[End of Part One. Part Two to follow featuring, among other things, cinammon pancakes, a picture postcard walk, a frantic call to 911, the joys of driving through rural Montana at two am and the poetry of Octavio Paz]


1. This expansionist view of life is one that MR espouses more generally. In Seattle Airport for example, she single-handedly managed to occupy four seats in the waiting area, placing in them, in sequence, her suitcase, her laptop, her Blackberry and purse and her coffee cup. And all this while she herself was off somewhere having a conversation on her cellphone.

2. It WAS a good day. Daytime temperatures in the mid-70s, bright sunshine, visibility for miles, not the slightest hint of a cloud in the sky. Gorgeous.

3. Translation by Arthur Cooper

4. I ordered pasta and proceeded to regret it almost immediately. When I asked the waiter what kind of pasta it was he gave me a stern look and said "It's pasta, sir." as though that closed the matter. When I explained to him that there are many different kinds of pasta - spaghetti, penne, etc. - and I simply wanted to know which one, he gave me a deeply disapproving look, as though secretly convinced that I was making fun of him and assured me that it was just pasta, nothing more nothing less. When MR then proceeded to ask him what kind of sauce it came in (the menu said 'sauce of the day') he informed her that it came in 'penne sauce'. The actual pasta, when it came, wasn't all that bad, except that it had been bathed in more oil than a blonde body builder on a nude beach.

5. To be fair, the real reason we woke up at 4 was that MR, being the seasoned traveller she is, set the alarm on her Blackberry for 6 am, without bothering to account for the fact that her Blackberry was set to East Coast time.

Shostakovich and Nokia

It's Shostakovich season in Philadelphia. Yesterday I attended my first concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra's new season, featuring a orgiastic performance of Shostakovich's 5th symphony - trembling solo interludes coupled with raw orchestration, the sound of the brass darker and more brazen than anything else I've ever heard. And next week the Curtis Institute Faculty perform an all Shosty evening. Joy cometh in the fall.

Distractions like these, are, of course, the chief reason why I haven't got around to blogging about my Montana trip yet. But it will come. In the meantime, the NY Times points me to an even more over the top concert performance:

On Sunday, in a perverse commentary on the scourge of modern concert halls,
the Chicago Sinfonietta played the world premiere of the Concertino for Cellular
Phones and Symphony Orchestra by David N. Baker, a professor of music at Indiana University and a prolific composer.

Good stuff. Another couple of years of this and the world should be ready for Falstaff's Symphony 1.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Coming down the mountain

4 days, 8 miles of walking, 900 miles of driving, 16 hours of flying time, 106 photographs and 7,800 calories later, I'm back. And while I struggle to regain control of my life and find the time to write a long, long post about the last four days, here's a lovely Billy Collins poem that describes the experience of driving in Montana, where deer are a constant menace on the highway, perfectly:

I drive this road that whips through woods at night
always searching ahead for the reflective eyes of deer
who will venture onto the grassy verge to browse.

Winter-snug in the warm interior of the car,
I am speeding in the vague nowhere between places,
an arithmetic problem in space and time
which passes slowly on this long solo haul.
I feed cassettes into the dash, light cigarettes,
check the softly lit panel of instruments
measuring motion, pressure, heat, the arcana of the engine,
but there is no red needle to indicate deer.

If I drill my eyes into the night long enough
I will hallucinate shapes in pockets of darkness,
not only deer peering from the fringes of trees,
but other anomalous animals: bison, zebra, even
fish floating in the dreamy pools of fog,

animals released from the mind's deep zoo,
animals we think we see in passing clouds
and in the connected dots of constellations.
Animals parading through the greenery of Eden,
animals on the turning pages of storybooks.
And always deer stepping from the sanctuary of woods,
bolting across the hard ribbon of road in shock,
locked in death-leaps in the sparkle of headlights.

At home as the motor cools in the driveway,
I will feel these rhythms in the quiet of the house.
I will see the heads of deer in the darkened bedroom
and a white flick of tail in the dresser mirror.
I will dream of the sensational touch of a buck's fur
and rock to sleep in the bow and lift of antlers.

- Billy Collins, 'Driving with Animals'