I like the idea of being married to a poet. She takes it seriously; went back to school in her forties to get a master’s degree. When our daughter left, I’d feared some empty nest syndrome, but my wife’s poetry involvement keeps her well occupied and fulfilled.
But she didn’t like showing me her work, tending not to agree with my “constructive criticism.” Not that I’m any poetry expert; though that didn’t stop me from having opinions. However, she finally did share with me an ensemble of poems she’d been working very hard on. And this time my response was an enthusiastic “Bravo!” Expert or not, I could see she’d really raised her game.
This poetry collection is titled “Green-Weak,” referring to the type of color-blindness her artist father had. The central theme is her relationship with him and his illness; he died of a lung ailment when she was 21. The poems are also a meditation on the color green.
The book has now been published by Red Wolf Journal, at their website (click here) – with an extremely laudatory introduction by their editor! (Printed copies will become available at some future time.)
“But it’s s**t.”
So begins The Suffering Channel. Its author, David Foster Wallace (who committed suicide in 2008), is an epic American literary figure. I previously reviewed his huge masterwork, Infinite Jest – I found it unreadable and gave up after about 100 pages.
My wife must have remembered that, because for my birthday she (slyly smiling) gave me The David Foster Wallace Reader, another fat doorstop of a book.
I’m glad she did. There’s some amazing stuff here. Forget Infinite Jest; read this instead.
It includes The Suffering Channel, a novella, whose title refers to a (fictional) TV channel showing exactly that: photos and videos of people suffering, in every conceivable way. Ewww.
But the novella is actually mainly about something else: the tribulations and machinations among staffers at a slick (fictional) magazine, Styles, over how to handle one particular story, about an artist.
It’s set in July, 2001; looking toward the publication’s September 10 issue. Its offices are at New York’s World Trade Center. So there’s a dark cloud hanging over the whole narrative. To which Wallace never explicitly alludes, except once. Near the end, after a lengthy sequence focusing on one young character, he appends the spare words, “She had ten weeks to live.”
The magazine’s culture, and the dynamics among its staffers, are portrayed with an incisive dead-on realism. So far, so serious. (Though there is a weird, quasi-comedic sexual thing going on between the runty chief reporter on the story and the artist’s super-plus-sized wife.)
But all the novella’s seriousness is anchored upon a premise that’s utterly silly. The “artist” works in excrement. Now, admittedly, we’ve had some art contretemps involving excreta – Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” and Ofili’s painting incorporating dung – however, Wallace goes one better. His “artist,” Brint Moltke, produces small sculptures replicating iconic images (like the Winged Victory of Samothrace). By “produces” I mean he sits on the toilet and they come out. And Moltke is a non-intellect who probably doesn’t actually know the Winged Victory of Samothrace from Rodin’s Thinker (just to make the premise all the more preposterous).
Yet Wallace depicts how a slick magazine would wrestle with all the issues that this subject matter would entail, and the concerns of the people who work there (one of whom speaks the quoted opening line). How will its readers react? How should the story be presented – if at all? And the implications regarding the pecking order and careerist jockeying among the staffers.
Call this “magical realism?” Perhaps Wallace was giving us a send-up of that genre: marrying uber-realistic portrayal with uber-ridiculous magicalism. The result is wickedly delicious.
My poet wife Therese Broderick started a Meetup group to discuss poets and poetry. Every month she’d sally forth to the appointed venue, and upon returning I’d ask her how many showed up. “One,” she’d cheerily reply. Meaning herself.
But, undaunted, she gamely kept at it, and by and by, others did begin to come; and now it’s a nice little thing.
One fellow proposed as a topic Gertrude Stein. Therese obligingly scheduled it; the fellow didn’t attend; but I did.
Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was an American writer, but spent most of her life in Paris and is actually remembered less for her writing than for all the artists and writers who hung out with her; she was the eye of an aesthetic hurricane.
The discussion about her inspired me to read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Toklas (1877-1967) was Stein’s longtime companion and (apparently?) lover. Now this is a somewhat peculiar “autobiography.” It tells very little about Toklas, but a great deal about Gertrude Stein (always called, in full, “Gertrude Stein”), and her relationships with all those belle artes luminaries. It’s immensely flattering to Gertrude Stein. At the start, Alice says “only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken.” Of course one was Gertrude Stein.
And seemingly Toklas had a grandiose idea not just of Gertrude Stein’s merits but of her literary importance. We find statements like this, concerning one Gertrude Stein publication: “So for the first time a piece of the monumental work which was the beginning, really the beginning of modern writing, was printed . . . .”
Perhaps the author really imagined that writers thenceforward would write like Gertrude Stein. I must say I’m glad they don’t. She was an innovator, and I suppose someone needed to do what she did. Her poems (if they be poems, often a matter for debate) are at least not just strings of random words, they do have some structure (e.g., the definite article before nouns), but while “word play” is not exactly it, she does play with the structure of language. Reading these poems suggested Gertrude Stein was trying to do with words just what modernist painters do with shapes and colors. Her prose often eschews commas and goes like conversational speech does, in really the most literal way, which might be fine when spoken but is affectation on the page.
The book ends with Gertrude Stein refusing to write her own autobiography, but encouraging Alice to write one. However Alice, having so much else to do, can’t get down to it. So finally, “Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do. I am going to write it for you . . . . And she has, and this is it.”
On our recent Alaska trip, I took these two airplane pictures of my wife, Therese. The second one was on our float plane ride, in Ketchikan.
I’ve been blogging since 2008, on WordPress, which provides a lot of interesting data. WordPress says I’ve done 645 posts and have had 224,000 visits, last year from 162 different countries. I have 3,582 subscribed followers (though many apparently signed up just to plug their own blogs).
What I find particularly interesting is which blog posts attracted the most hits. This must largely result from search terms people google. In some cases, it seems obvious why a post gets a lot of traffic – for example, the one titled, “Is consumerism bad?” In other cases it’s a mystery to me. (Like the one on Amartya Sen. Who?) Meanwhile, I’ll sometimes post something I feel is really interesting and should draw a lot of traffic, but . . . pfft, nothing. It seems that titles with question marks do well (see below).
So anyway, here, according to WordPress data, is my “top ten” list of most visited blog posts, in ascending order of popularity. Note, there is some bias in favor of older items which have simply had more time to accumulate hits, so more recent ones haven’t yet made the list. However, the rankings for the top ten have actually stayed the same at least since the beginning of this year. (You can click on each title to see the original post):
And, finally, my most popular post ever, from 2009, which still continues to rack up hits and consistently maintains its top spot:
This one definitely falls in the mystery category. I am baffled by its popularity; would never have guessed this would get much attention, let alone the number one slot. Yet, year in and year out, “The Enlightenment and its critics” continues to lead the pack, with more visits than any other post.
Maybe I said something there more profound than I realized. Perhaps it’s worth a look!
Gregg Millett died August 1, aged 77. This was a shock. He was a friend of ours; in fact, he was responsible for our marriage, running Singles Outreach Support where I met my wife-to-be in 1988. We didn’t know him then; only many years later did we become acquainted through the local humanist society.
Gregg was a man of strong left-wing political views. He called himself an “old commie” and had spent time in Nicaragua during the Sandinista period living those beliefs. He also traveled several times to China and cultivated relationships with Chinese both there and in the U.S. He was always coming out with statements that I personally found absurd. So it might seem strange that we were friends.
However – unlike far too many people in today’s political landscape – Gregg was always humble about his views, a gentle and sweet man, always respectful of others, and always willing to listen to and consider other viewpoints. He was intellectually curious and wanted to learn and understand. He even invited me several times to speak to his group, and often said things I wrote made him re-think. Maybe he was just flattering me – but that was Gregg, always striving to be a good person toward others.
Communism aside, if all people were like Gregg Millett, this would be a better world.
John Cleese’s memoir, So, Anyway, says, “I know this book is supposed to be an autobiography, but the fact is that most of you don’t give a tinker’s cuss for me as a human being or feel for the many different forms of suffering that make me so special. No, you are just flipping through my heart-rending life story in the hope of getting a couple of good laughs, aren’t you?”
Yes, I was. But any fans looking to revisit Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers probably will be disappointed. Those shows are mentioned only as future foreshadowing, since the book stops when Python started.
Nevertheless, Cleese does provide some good laughs. The quoted paragraph made me laugh out loud. And the antecedents of the dead parrot sketch, among others, are explained. Yet this is mainly a straight personal memoir (with no suggestion of co-authorship or writing help), chronicling not just Cleese’s early comedy career but his broader experience of human life, and how his career fit into it. The emphasis is very much on the person rather than the performer.
One reads such things with an eye toward one’s own life. And his actually had some resemblances with mine. Cleese too trained as a lawyer; he was just about to start a dull legal job when a surprise BBC offer came. And Cleese, like me, was very late to the party when it came to women. In his case it was partly down to male-only education, with scant exposure to females which, combined with British reserve, left him clueless how to relate to them.
Speaking of male-only, here’s an eye-opener. Starting at university, Cleese was a close friend of Graham Chapman (the future Python), they collaborated on projects, and even spent some weeks living together in Ibiza to write a film script.
Yet, when Graham finally came out as gay, Cleese writes, “I was very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very surprised.” (His emphasis, and his eleven veries.) But this was the 1960s, and tells us what a different planet that was. Homosexuality was so stigmatized that gays took great pains to conceal it.
The book does reprise some comedy bits, but not merely for yuks; its main theme is what goes into producing good comedy. Cleese quotes Sir Henry Irving, asked on his deathbed whether dying is hard: “No, dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” A real talent like Cleese can make it look easy, on the TV screen – but the book’s big take-away is how much art, and sweat, goes into it.
Like so many things in life, it should not be taken for granted, but cherished.
Only the likes of Jo Cox, British member of parliament, human rights worker, advocate for immigrants and refugees.
Never the likes of a Robert Mugabe.
Only 49 people innocently partying at an Orlando night spot.
Never people at a KKK rally.
Only peacemakers like Yitzhak Rabin.
Never monsters like Bashar Assad.
Always the Bhuttos. Never the Musharrafs.
Only the Sadats. Never the al-Sisis.
Always the Boris Nemtsovs. Never the Vladimir Putins.
Why? Hating the bad is characteristic of rationality. Hating the good, of irrationality.
We went to the annual Gottagetgon (“Got to get gone”) folk music festival during Memorial Day weekend. The first time was 1988. I drove up and was told, “That’ll be $26 – unless your boy is under 13.” It was actually my new, slim, short-haired girlfriend, over twice that age. Now she’s my wife, twice again that age, with longer hair, but retaining her boyish figure (and lovelier than ever).
We attended quite a few times afterward, bringing along our kid. It’s a low-key, informal event. Held at the Saratoga fairgrounds, an attraction for children was a giant sand mountain, that mysteriously remained for years. Anyway, our daughter Elizabeth endured these outings with good cheer, and even was captivated once by one of the bands (called “Western Omelette”).
Now she’s working in Afghanistan. Time marches on. For various reasons we hadn’t been to Gottagetgon for several years – probably more years than I realize. Going again was indeed a reminder of time’s passage. Some familiar faces were there, a little older and greyer. (A certain once-fetching lass I pursued back in the Pleistocene – I doubt she remembers – now is a dumpy old woman.)
One song began with, “Did you ever fall in love with a man that was no good?” There were several shouts of “Yeah!” from the audience. (See my disquisition on women and bad boys.)
I’m no music buff. But like any human I respond to the emotive content. And I’m awed by the artistry. Indeed, it’s fascinating how fingering and blowing on wood and metal contraptions can produce such, well, music – that stirs the soul no less. You’ve got to love an animal that came up with such a thing.
At Gottagetgon I got a good dose of my favorite kind of music – Scots/Irish/Celtic/pipes-and-fiddle music. The Miller-MacDonald band was great, as was Atwater-Donnelly. Some of this music really gets you in the heart. Nothing like “Danny Boy” for that. But my favorite is “The Star of the County Down.” The title alone feels musical to me; the melody is elegiac. I used to go to contra dances (trying to pick up girls, like the one mentioned), and they’d often do a waltz-like “Star of the County Down” as a fitting finale. Killed me every time.
And I especially love the pieces that start off kind of slow, and build, then flip to a faster, higher energy intensity level, maybe even a couple of times. You can just feel when that’s coming – a delicious tension – like when an orgasm is coming. (I learned at the festival that this sort of thing typically joins an opening “Strathspey” to a reel or jig or two.)
I love the joyfulness, the celebratory quality of this music. That’s the emotive kick. When listening to it, in my mind I map it onto human events, as though it’s a soundtrack for a story – for the progression of the great human project – or even for the trajectory of my own life. People aren’t grateful enough. There is much to be thrilled about. This music makes me feel that thrill.