Thursday, July 30, 2020

From Here Through To

It is Thursday.  Another lovely summer day.  It may be hot nearby but somehow it is always cool here  Up late.  Up early.  And now a day where I’m just about on top of it, rather than climbing back up a mountain.  I tried to get one call over and done with in time for a bike ride just now, before the time I’d need to take my daughter over to her babysitting job.  Just one more email.  Just clarify that one matter, in another .pdf doc and paste it in and then answer these two simple instant messages and . . . it’s too late.  May as well write. 

I’ve got Langston Hughes “Not Without Laughter” off to my side.  More than halfway through his first novel and perhaps I’ll allow myself the time to finish it today.  It feels loose and disjointed after the conversational precision of Zora Neale Hurston or the mouse-trap snap of fate ensnaring Helga Crane in “Quicksand” by Nella Larsen.  Not unlike some of his later poetry (e.g. “Goodbye Christ”) he seems to posture in a way that pierces the verisimilitude of the novel, wherein we imagine him, the author wanting to have some character yell a frustrated phrase, to make an obligatory point, rather than that it naturally sprang from the characters mouth.  I need to spend more time with Hughes poetry, I suspect, to consider him anew. 

Road up and over to Accord again this morning.  The dramatic as commonplace, as cresting over the Gunks by the Mohawk Guesthouse.  I was trying to spy some of that remarkable Catskills view to the west from the descent over the back.  We never properly see it here.  It is always hidden behind the shelf of the Gunks.  I found myself timing quick glances, through the foliage.  But the road twists and then again reminding you to concentrate.  Charmed to find another small hamlet, that sported a community for the last few hundred years.  And I wonder for how long that next-hamlet progression continues across from here through to the west of New York State. 

Driving nearly anywhere in New England one expects to see sparsely populated, centuries old, pre- suburban communities.  And if I’m honest anywhere much north of Albany or west of, say, Ithaca, is a dull, monotonous landscape which my noggin has populated with some clich├ęd, stock abandoned downtown strip.  Revisiting American history though, western New York State was a remarkable thoroughfare of activity: noble, (Seneca Falls Convention) extreme (The Burned-over District and the Second Awakening) and eccentric (Joseph Smith.)  And through it all ran the rough hewn vein of the Erie Canal, to which New York City owes its eternal fame.  I got a call as I was writing, and I suppose I ought to call the person back.  But the very next thing I’m going to do when I'm done is review just where the Erie Canal runs to and from.  We should drive along and trace it.

Just about ready to head out or a bike ride, my wife stopped by and asked if I wanted to take a walk.  I usually balk.  But that sounded swell and we went south and over towards the farm on the corner of Plains Road and Cedar Lane, and then walked north along Cedar Lane, which I’d never done before. Fourteen new plants, a bee and a praying mantis to the species-hoard.  I haven’t had such a bounty identified in one day in a while:  Black-eyed Susan, Fishpole Bamboo, Common Motherwort, Northern Whitecedar, European Lily Of The Valley, Hedge Bindweed, Common Sunflower, Garden Cosmos, Shrubby Cinquefoil, Elegant Zinnia, Horseweed, Scarlet Beebalm, Yellow Daylily, Dense Blazing Star, American Fly-honeysuckle, Chinese Mantis, and the Asian Honey Bee.

Thursday, 07/29/20

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Giants Have Departed

Two fawns are growing fast.  The first I ever saw them was maybe two months back.  Molted, faltering, less than two feet tall, they have now doubled in size.  In order to run fast you need to practice and just like little boys and girls, these clumsy, energetic juveniles practice dashing about on the slope of our lawn, looking like they will skid and tumble over each time they tear across the yard.  And now they are right below the window.  Are the eating the seeds I threw on the ground for the birds?  Are they just nibbling the grass? One fawn now seems to be looking for his mother’s teat but she is not interested and steps away. 

And then they are gone.  The pack, it’s bigger than a family, of seven deer have moved off into the trees and in their wake, the blue jays and mourning doves have returned to forage for the seeds I threw.  The squirrels come later and nervously join the feast, now that the giants have departed. 

My older one starts a babysitting job this morning.  She’s been sort of waking up around 2:00PM for the last few months, so the 8:30AM ride over in a few minutes will be a sharp departure from late-late nights and missed mornings.  An hour ago she came into my room during a conference call and suggested there was a bug, the size of her foot, crawling about in her room.  Reluctantly I rose to dispose of it but went back to my room to grab my phone so I could identify the hapless monster, who turned out to be only about as long as half my pinky.  The name?  “House Centipede," I discovered before tossing him in the toilet.  Unattractive, surely.  But in an under-two-inch, sort of way. 

Out on the bike trail today it was hot.  But pedaling along the wind felt good and the bridge, which has been under repair for a while now had the barrier removed.  I biked on down to have a look.  There was a truck in the path, which didn’t bode well for unobstructed progress.  And as I went around to the back of the pickup truck, I found a nice gent, a peer I’d say, bald, smoking a pipe and I asked and he informed me that no, it wasn’t fixed yet, but it was close.  "Probably by the end of the week."  I thanked him and wished him a good day.  He did me the same. 

Later up on Old Ford Road, the detour, which I’ve come to really enjoy, I spied a willow tree, which I knew I didn’t have in my species-hoard on the Seek app.  I parked there on the way back and took a walk around, in front of the big, old barn they have there off the road.  Got four new species, for my trouble: The Leafy Spurge (I wasn’t sure 'spurge' was a word.)  A Siberian Elm, which made me think of the train from Vladivostok, a Greater Plantain and indeed a Chinese Weeping Willow.  Two Asian trees, right across the street from one another. 

Wednesday, 07/29/20

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Dotard, You May Recall

My younger daughter and I were trying to turn “dotard” into an adjective. “Your gesture was dotardinal.”  “Doing it that way is dotardistic.”  “Theatre of the dotardesque.”  Dotard, you may recall, is the term which Kim Jung Un used to describe Donald Trump during the Rocket Man spat, before they became chums.  The term describes a person who is old and who’s mental faculties are slipping.  But it certainly isn’t a common term.  When the aspersion was news, I remember lots of incredulous discussion as to just where the Supreme Leader stumbled on that particular slight. 

Months later, cutting in on a Lord of the Rings marathon my daughter was having with a friend, I stopped dead in my tracks, there in the kitchen, as the good wizard gone-bad, Saranam with Grima Wormtongue up in his ears, accosts our man Gandalf, dismissing him as a dotard.   And then it all became clear.  Kim Jung Un, extra-large tub of garlic buttered popcorn in-lap has no doubt had his own Lord of the Rings marathon in the movie theatre they have there in the palace basement and he has presumably used the film to study English.  Younger than any other current leader I can think of this must have seemed a handy slur.  At thirty-six years of age, who would ever think to call the Supreme Leader a dotard, lest the commit a dotardaulogy.

The sun is starting its descent.  There are some long wispy clouds which mercifully block the full glare that should illuminate this western-facing desk.  And they are parting, allowing light through.  I may need to turn.  I the kitchen my wife is making dinner.  I just checked and Asia tomorrow arrives in forty-five minutes for client call.  I’ve come upon Ursula Mamlok today, a German born, refugee of the Nazi’s who had to go first to Guayaquil in Ecuador, before sailing into New York Harbor, later, with a scholarship to a music program in 1940.  Her “2000 Notes III, Quarter Notes Equals Forty-Eight” is slowing me down, making me curious like the ground hog that out there on the lawn. He doesn’t fear the fox, like the squirrels do.  The squirrels are agile and bite and rise to scan.  Then they take a bite and scan again, over and over.  The groundhog just chews and chews and chews and chews and then looks up.  And when he stands up suddenly, he seems to hold a dramatic pause that Ms. Mamlok wrote just for him. 

Someone else just wrote me. Instant message.  Indeed.  “Is the call on for 7:30PM?”  Oh no.  That’s in eleven minutes.  I check the invite and fortunately it doesn’t start until next week.  I reply with my own instant relief.  OK, then.  My wife is calling me for dinner.  The girls are setting the table.  And by now the sun is behind the trees so it doesn’t matter if the clouds move or are merciful or not. 

Tuesday, 07/28/20

His Bop Sounds Swell

Sunday’s been infected with Monday, as it always is, around 9:00PM.  That’s 9:00AM in China.  Whatever weekend you had is now over.  People are busy at work in the morning of that Monday you are accountable for.  Get to work.  From that moment on its fair game for people to demand my time, inquire as to my opinion, remind me of what they were expecting me to do.  My only unconditional refuge from the wash of expectations is sleep.   

I’m enjoying listening to the remarkable pianist Carl Perkins lay out some eight-dimensional blues with his unique cross arm playing style.  Majestic, melancholy, utterly plausible, he’d place his polio afflicted left arm across the piano and use his elbow to hit base notes.  And though he well surmounted the challenge of polio he fell like so many to the blade of drug addiction, dying young at twenty-nine.  His bop sounds swell, playing loudly out of my desktop speakers, but with the chord plugged into the lap top I can’t swing my body away from the desk as I want to do with my feet up on the bed and the laptop on my legs and its late, so this frustrates me.

I’d purchased a large world history text.  I’ve left it on the kitchen table.  Perhaps we could turn to prehistoric man and plot the projection forward after we were done with this Chinese history course that I usually teach undergrads, but this year teach my daughters during our enforced period of home-schooling.  Today we covered the Japanese invasion and ran through till the end of the civil war.  Things haven’t been good, and they won’t improve for the hapless citizens of China, for many more decades to come on the eve of “liberation.”  This new text on the table had me considering the origins of man, back at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.  I flipped on through the opening chapter as I was soon in Iberia fifty-thousand years ago with the Neanderthals, whom, I was reminded, had larger brains than humans and interbred with human beings as well. 

This got me laughing.  I laughed to think about the obsession with racial purity which was so important for one after another white stock character I’d encountered in the African American cannon.  The Western Europeans, unlike it many Sub-Saharan African people, were all “tainted” with non-humanoid blood, non-humanoid DNA.  It was the Sub-Saharan African people who seem to have maintained themselves as “pure” humans.  And what was the result of all this Neanderthal blood on the development of man?   The book on the kitchen table didn’t speculate.  Neanderthal’s then, online, for tomorrow.  For now, its sleep before any more of Monday claims you.

Monday, 07/27/20

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Enunciate In One's Mind

Mule Bone” is a play written by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.  They had an irreconcilable disagreement over the authorship of the work and it was not actually produced until 1991, long after they’d both passed away.  Hurston had grown up in the Eatonville Florida, one of the first self-serving, black municipalities in the nation.  The play is set there, and she did much of her anthropological research under the direction of Franz Boaz, among the African American communities of Florida.  She was clearly the primary author.  And the creative interplay where she narrated scenes that made Hughes laugh as he worked with her to fashion in into a dramatic arch sounded like a joyous and clearly collaborative effort as well.  Hughes suggestion that the stenographer, Ms. Louise Thompson however, be due some of the royalties in the future rubbed Hurston the wrong way. 

A version of the play was shared and then forwarded on again and Hughes learned about it third hand.  He was ill and this didn’t make him feel any better.   And though there wasn’t any romantic consummation involved, Hurston seems to have gotten jealous of the role of Ms. Thompson.  Behind the scenes, Hurston and Hughes shared benefactress, the philanthropist, Ms. Charlotte Osgood Mason who had thin skin and helped orchestrate the dust-up.  Her generosity came with a cost and the “Godmother” insisted on artistic oversight which Hughes ultimately rebelled against.  And money was scarce.  And it was the Depression and it is understandable if unfortunate to watch both great minds bow with servility in their letters to Dame Mason. 

The reason I know any of this is because, only one third of the book I’d read, was the actual play, ‘Mule Bone’, which was seminal and is funny and is a pleasure to enunciate in one’s mind.  The ending is satisfying but not symphonic or gripping.  The other two thirds of the book I’d read were about the controversy.  Sifting through two forwards, selections from two biographies, dozens of letters between all the pivotal players, it strikes one that they may have been wasting precious time in the rear-view mirror on this one.  I’m sure it was the principal, for both of them.  But why didn’t each of them simply get back to work and write another play?  Neither attempted another such effort. 

The wiki list of contemporary American composers has lead me this morning to Romeo Cascarino, born in Philadelphia in 1922.  I listened to this Orchestral work, “Pygmalion” earlier this morning doing the dishes and enjoyed it and now I am listening again with better speakers that can actually capture deep sounds.  Dishes I was doing, because I awoke to six photos of dishes and food from the Korean meal my younger one and I made last night followed by the text “It’s TOO MUCH.”  She’d gotten a fair amount of the mess we’d made cleaned, so I wanted to be sure to take care of what was left, before she wandered out.  I’ll ride north today on the trail.  Soon, before the heat falls.

Sunday, 07/26/20

Sue's Always on Top

Sat on my porch this morning when it was still misty out there and read “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”  Last time I’d read it must have been thirty years ago and I think I saved my reengagement with her amidst this recent immersion of the veins of African American literature, and I let myself have some new heroes and new points of fascination.  Her writing is masterful and her life burns so brightly.  And as I sat down to reacquaint myself with Janie Crawford and Jody and then the irresistible Tea Cake, I looked to see if there was any music from Florida in the twenties and thirties I might throw on and sure enough, a wiki on the “Music of Florida” led be to Gabriel Brown.

I can’t read and have music on with someone singing English lyrics, and so I turned Gabriel down low and caught the distant atmosphere which was fine for my immediate purposes.  Listening to him now, a second time today I’m marveling at his voice timbre, and the durable beauty of his blues tales.  And its only now when I look over the wiki page properly that I see that it was Zora Neale Hurston who is credited for having “discovered” the man in Florida.  She had helped him to come to New York and gave him a role in an opera of hers “Polk County.”  I should have guessed he was ensconced in the Harlem Renaissance scene.  My first glance at the page suggested the photo that’s there was shot by the infamous Carl Van Vechen.

My little one and I are going to make Korean food today.  I haven’t really done so before.  Last night, late, she sent me a list of what she wanted.  I found a few different sources and settled on one woman, who introduces herself as Sue.  Sue certainly seems to have mastered Google’s algorithm for the search of Korean food names:  “bim bim bab”, “japjae”, “kimbab”, “tteooboki,”haemulpajeon”, “bulgogi” .  .  .   Sue’s always up top.  I consulted Sue before my shop yesterday and was able to get just about everything we need though there was no good way to approximate around the tteooboki, if you ain’t got a bag of that tteooboki, and we don’t.  Neither does any market around here.  I stopped in Rosendale on the way home yesterday.  There’s a lady there who has a pickling shop, which is a fine thing to have in the next town over.  But she didn’t have any kimchi to sell.  And no, though she had done that in the past, pickled radishes, she didn’t have any now.  I picked up a jar of pickled eggs, all the same as it made me think of being in a country pub in border country Wales. 

I haven’t had anything to eat this morning and the typing of that last sentence makes me want to rush out to the kitchen and pull one of those eggs out of the jar.  And the next thought I had was that if you were going to have a pickled egg, well then you may as well pour out some beer to go with it. “Not now.  Not now.  Not now baby.  I’m going to tell you when.”  Gabriel has come back to my consciousness typing this out.  Exception to the rule.  Wrote just fine with him speaking to me the whole way through. 

Saturday, 07/25/20

Worried About My Halibut

I had thought before I came to have my car tuned up, that I ought, in addition to my novel and my laptop, bring some headphones.  I was right.  Off to the right of me is a guy with a born in Brooklyn, raised in the burbs accent.  Grey thinning hair, big shnoz, pleasant smile, probably ten years older than me and he is talking loudly.  It is difficult, indeed impossible to tune him out.  I’d kill for some headphones.  He keeps repeating phrases like: “No Shit.”  and “You’re a liar. Whadaya in third grade?”

I bought a ton of groceries and then came here.  That wasn’t smart. It’s been out there in the heat for an hour now.  The last time I was here it took about thirty minutes.  This is dragging on and on.  It sure does feel like people who arrived after me are getting to leave early.  Here comes the bald guy with the blue shirt and the sheet in his hand.  I sure hope this is it.  It isn’t!   I really allowed myself to succumb to excitement that I was finally getting out of here.  I’m worried about my halibut.  That was expensive.

At least everyone, except No Shit, are wearing masks.  My little one had suggested we make Korean food today.  At 3:00AM, during a conf call I began searching for some of the ingredients she’d need on Amazon as they wouldn't be in any supermarket within driving distance of this part of New York State.  I found fish cakes and pickled radish as well as the sweet potato noodles and just about all of it would be ordered to arrive tomorrow, as long as I hit ‘send’ before noon. That seemed a day away before the dawn had risen.  It just turned 1:02PM. 

Off in the distance, beyond the Hyundai sign above No Shit's brow, is what I believe to be Slide Mountain, or some other suitably large Catskill plateau.  It’s hot out there.  The man walking across the lot is laboring with the heat.  My halibut . . . 

My phone rings on my laptop.  Toyota's calling.  And apparently they’d called me more than once.  “Yeah, so your car is ready.”  Well I’m seated twenty-five feet from you in the other room, where I told you I’d be."  I packed up my things and walked out the door and around the corner.  “Yeah, I tried you and got a google messenger message.  And it was strange.  You said you were going to be . . . “I said I’d be sitting in there.  I was in there.  This gentlemen (the guy in the blue shirt!) came in and our a dozen times.  I’ve been sitting there waiting for you guys.”  “Yeah, it’s been ready for a while.” 

Friday, 7/24/20

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Remarkable World of Therefore

It’s a thought-provoking exercise, to alter a fundamental given and play out the contingencies of that strange new world.  An invitation to absurdity, certainly there are no shortage of comedic opportunities in a world where characters confront altered circumstances they, like we, had always taken for granted.  Holding the tension and artfully filling out a full vision for all this creation requires a three-dimensional imagination and subtle draftsmanship. 

Twenty years ago or so I was reading Roderick MacFarquhar’s “The Origins of the Cultural Revolution.”  This was his third and final volume that was finally published and I marveled as Mao ominously played with Liu Shaoqi suggesting: “you be Qin Shihuang.”  A “Danger Will Robinson” moment there, lao Liu.  And it was at that time that I got it into my head to concoct a tale, a screen play in fact, about what would happen to the Beijing of 1999 and the leadership of that time where Chairman Mao to wake up.  I think the first half was angular and funny as helmsman confronted the current leadership and struck out into the countryside in a huff.  But the second half waxed melodramatic, as I recall.  It wasn’t easy to sustain the gag, all the way through, until his end in front of a county prison firing squad. 

Geroge Schulyer developed a simple idea, and built out a remarkable world of therefore, which takes liberties, skewers the pantheon and pins truths into strange corners.  “Black, No More” written in 1931 is based on the premise that an African American doctor has developed a treatment that changes blacks to whites, so that no one can tell.  African Americans all stop spending their hard-earned lucre on whatever they had been spending it on and splurge for the treatment.  The only catch, is that children, when they are born still resemble their parents original complexion. 

Our Harlem native hero who is cruelly spurned by Hellen, the fantasy white woman, is the first to get the treatment.  He talks his way into a leadership role in the KKK stand-in "The Knights of Noridca" and eventually manages to marry the Grand Wizard’s daughter, who conveniently turns out to be dream-girl Helen.  Schulyer keeps his toes on the precipice as he imagines a decisive election, the wholesale sellout of the black cognizanti, and disruptive research to show that most heretofore confident Anglo Saxon American elites have black antecedents.  It’s rare that it happens to me I’m afraid, but I threw down my book and laughed aloud at on many occasions. Schulyer's own life played out some interesting intellectual pathways that were just as hard to ultimately believe in. 

Thursday, 07/23/20

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

A Stranger Wandering Around

So, I’m on a conference call.  It’s a Microsoft room, not a Zoom bridge and so I’m less familiar with the interface.  But it’s going ok.  This is a call with folks in Brazil, China, and North Carolina and I’d guessed accurately that people are going to want to enable video for the call.  I’m prepared.  I’ve shaved, showered, my shaggy Covid locks are combed and under control and I even have a shirt with a collar on.  I can’t see anyone else, unless they speak.  But I can see myself.  I look serious.  I adjust the angle of my laptop once and then again to properly frame my face.  I knit my brows, to seem intent.  I notice that when I speak, I stare off in front of me, looking at nothing in particular, and I wonder what I look like, as for that moment, I can’t consider my visage. 

Other people talk.  My colleague talks.  He looks suitably professional.  He’s grown a beard.  Look at that.  His image, however, is soapy.  Is my image soapy?  Why is his image soapy?  Is he in a sun-drenched room?  Is there a film covering his lens?  I look quite sharp in the little thumbnail of myself.  I mute the voice button.  My camera remains on.  If this were simply an audio call, the likes of which I’ve already had six of, earlier today, I’d have just thrown it on mute unless I wanted to speak.  But I find myself musing about what it means to toggle off my image.  I try to remind myself that no one can see me unless I speak.  But, I’m not sure.   

My older one comes by and asks if I’m on a call.  Outside of the camera’s aperture, I snap my fingers and try to maintain a placid smile, facing forward.  Now I cut the video and the audio.  “Are you?”  “Yes darling.”  “I have a doctor’s appointment.”  “I can’t do that on-demand.  You need to plan ahead for that.  Talk to mom.”  I turn the video, the audio and my placid smile back on.  I hear my wife coming down the hall.  “Are you on a call?”  I repeat the process and confirm that I am.  She backs up out of the room, afraid of the camera’s vacuum.

And then something odd happens.  A middle-aged woman, a stranger, is walking across my yard about fifty yards down in front of me.  What . . . is she doing here?  She walks, and pauses, and continues, not looking up at the house.  I’m annoyed, and amused, and confused, and intrigued all at once.  My video is off, and I want to bring this person to my wife’s attention.  I yell “hey” aloud to notify here and realize that I was not on mute.  I mute immediately.  The flow of the conference has been interrupted.  “Did someone have a question?”  It must have been rather jarring, but I keep silent and after a few more seconds it passes.   I’m able now to tell my wife that there is a stranger wandering around in the far corner of the lawn and not long after I see the lady look up to where my wife must have engaged her from and nod and make her way back from whence, she came. 

I’m so used to observing nature from this perch; birds, insects, and groundhogs and foxes.  This is my first siting of a random human. 

Wednesday 07/22/20

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Animal World Laughing

Riding down the hill, as I generally do to start my ride, I came upon the groundhog.  Once he noticed me he began to run away.  Instinctively I pedaled faster.  I wanted to see how fast he could waddle.  That wasn't very kind.  But it's what I did.  He increased speed and I did too and then I braked quickly to make the turn and while my bike stopped my body somehow didn’t and I went over the handlebars and on to the grass.  I thought I could hear much of the animal world laughing at me as I reckoned with what I’d done to myself.  Had it been asphalt I’d have left a fair amount of skin behind but as it was the covering on my legs was sore but generally there where it should be.  Sore ribs.  No blood.  It was the kind of fall that would probably have earned me a hospital visit if I was two decades older.

I’ve gotten more methodical about choosing micro-environments I haven’t yet looked for plants in during my daily rides.  There is a turn in the rail trail a mile down from us, where a grassy path cuts through.  It’s always a bit more moist that other sections.  Puddles form there and last longer.  The earth remains muddy after other areas dry up.  I was rewarded with five new species:  American Germander, Hemp Dogbane, Common Ragweed, Royal Fern and American Hog-peanut.  I found an oak called the Scarlet Oak that I’d seen before but only once and then another interesting oak that the app couldn’t figure out.  Down the trail by the stream I eventually re-identified a Pacific Crab Apple which must have looked lovely a few months back in full, floral bloom. 

Up early, of course, at 5:00AM I had the flood lights on in the back yard and this always draws critters.  There was a large green bug walking across my window that I learned was a Mediterranean Katydid.  Invasive.  Not usually in these parts.  I’ve seen and indeed written about Marmorated Stink Bugs.  We had plenty of these strange, brown polygon bugs plodding slowly and occasionally flying quickly around our house all winter.  Later this morning, out of the porch I found another emerald green bug that turned out to be a “Green Stink Bug,” who is more immediately attractive than his molted cousin.  Much smaller, I zoomed in on a Red-headed Bush Cricket and a Rice Leaf bug as well, during a conference call where many different people from around the world, were reporting in. 

I was just about to nap.  I’ve been up since two and my body will just take what it needs if I don’t proper allow it to visit oblivion.  I told my daughter’s to make the grilled cheese themselves.  I was typing.  I was waiting for a call.  Tired and worse, hungry as I’m one day into another fast, the last thing I wanted to do was prepare delicious food.  But they were persistent and convincing with the burnt sandwiched they displayed they’d made for themselves.  Give young women a sandwich they will eat for a day, teach them how to grill cheese and . . . They watched closely this time.  We’ll see if they’ve now acquired the intellectual property. 

I shall arise now, for my rendezvous with nod.  

Tuesday, 07/21/20

Monday, July 20, 2020

Faux Norman, Faux Tudor

I’d never been to Princeton before.  I don’t believe I’m chums with anyone who’s an alum of that institution either.  I can think of friends and acquaintances that I associate with ever other Ivy League school.  A quick Google search yields no dearth of alumni I recognize.  Bezos and Michelle Obama get top billing over the obvious president of the university who later became president of the country, the increasingly maligned, Woodrow Wilson.  James Madison was a graduate and JFK seems to have done his first year or so there as well.  There is a long list of familiar names that follows.

We were considering colleges to simply drive through on Saturday.  Cooped up for the past five months, looking over photos of summer trips we’d taken every other year that we could remember, we’re getting itchy.  I’d mentioned that the week before last we all drove to Connecticut.  We navigated through the Yale campus and then that of my old alma mater, Wesleyan, hoping to give my younger daughter a taste of what these places looked like.  With her older sister we’d actually planned college tours, which don’t appear to be available just now.  Most target schools are a three-hour drive away.  Bard’s close.  We could have pulled that off with a forty-minute drive.  Princeton was precisely two hours away and that was the compromise we agreed on. 

First, as we did in New Haven, my younger one was set on visiting Ikea.  They don’t exist in Westchester or points north.  But there were two we’d pass in New Jersey.  There is a particular desk she wants, (The "micke."  No.  The "malm" won't do.)  that was out of stock in our Connecticut Ikea run.   And she’s announced it’s out of stock today at the Ikea in Paramus.  But in Elizabeth, a few remain.  And while we saw some lovely parts of New Jersey during the day the segue on Ikea Drive in Elizabeth was an unfortunate post-industrial wasteland.  We snaked our way through the entire multi-football-field sized showrooms, quietly marveling at Elizabeth's remarkable multiculturalism only to find that it was . . . sold out.  "No.  I don't want the malm!" Another girl and her father were also flipping over boxes and searching adjoining bins presumably also looking in vain for a white micke.

The ride along Route One there in New Jersey, heading south towards Princeton was unfortunate.  I thought the strip mall aftermath of Route Nine in Poughkeepsie was bad.  Route One, which was presumably also a lovely old carriageway at some more tender time in American history, is now lined with menacing electric stanchions and unappealing, dying mini-malls.  We were calling out what we saw.  The girls noticed an Asian food market.  "Korean barbecue!"Not one, but three adult movie stores.  If that isn’t a dying business model, I don’t know what is.  It seemed, unflatteringly similar to what much of Silicon Valley looks like, driving, always driving, from this office park to the next.

Route Twenty-Seven over to Princeton itself is an upgrade.  By the time you reach the campus it all starts to look suitably faux Norman, faux Tudor.  We did a loop or two and parked and found our way up to the main campus lawn, which is undeniably impressive.  There isn’t much loot that’s more old-money than this in the United States.  We entered the grounds and noticed the John Foster DullesLibrary of Diplomatic History.  A Catholic, I’d assumed our former Secretary of State attended some place like Fordham.  I conveyed the rather undiplomatic history Mr. Dulles encounter with Zhou Enlai from 1954 in Geneva, where John refused to shake Enlai’s hand. "The only encounter we'll have is an automobile crash."  Further on we considered just who the patriot John Witherspoon was.

I think we were all looking forward to a chance to eat there in town.  We’d seen a number of places where outdoor seating had been lined up.  It all looked inviting.  The girls got their bubble tea and my wife, and I chose an Italian place that looked swell enough but turned out to be shitty.  I got ossobuco on a bed or risotto that tasted like a shoe after a while.  No one else particularly enjoyed this, our first meal out in months.  Ahh, but we were sitting outside, in a strange town and people were walking along and it was sunny and mild so we hadn’t much to complain about.  My daughters sanitized their hands ceaselessly during the meal and I kept fumbling with my mask, a bit too late, after the waiter arrived.

Monday, 07/20/20

Sunday, July 19, 2020

And Navigate His Own

I understood the premise George Schuyler’s “Black No More” and it seemed a fitting follow-up to Wallace Thurman’s “The Blacker the Berry, a Novel of Negro Life.”  Inventions!  What’ll they think of next?  A time machine?  Space travel?  A nerve treatment that turns blacks into whites?  It sounded like an afro-futurist, absurdist gag that might have been a much more modern creation.  Schuyler skewers the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance and forces the matter into an essential reduction:  if you could, would you?  If you did, would it be to your liking?

I read the thoughtful and rather contemporary introduction by Danzy Senna, whom I learned, is a compelling personage in her own right.  I’ll have to return there.  She brought to my attention that Schulyer had a rather underwent a remarkable progression as a thinker, shifting from his socialist leanings to becoming an anti-communist, member of the John Birch society as the thirties became the fifties.  I read over his bio quickly in Wiki just now.  I note my own prejudice I suppose, in taking conservative African Americans seriously. Schuyler wrote vile things about Martin Luther King Jnr., He ran for Congress on the conservative party ticket supporting Barry Goldwater.  In 1960 he had this to say about apartheid:  "In South Africa you have a system of apartheid. That's their business. I don’t think it’s the business of other people to change their society.”  One can’t but wonder, did he really believe this?  And indeed, even though it's vile, why shouldn’t he be allowed to believe whatever he wants and navigate his own, genuine intellectual progression?

It brought to mind another writer, pundit whom my friend had recently sent me a clip of.  This old friend now finds increasing delight in memes from the what I would call the far right. I must say I don’t like “clips” of video as a way to share ideas and when I receive instructions to forward to the minute-nine where it gets really inflammatory . . . an intellectual turn off.  Easy, too easy, to cogitate, for a moment.  Next clip.  So, I usually pass on the clips, but I took to one that was interesting, that involved another such black, conservative intellectual, Thomas Sowell.  I could find inflammatory comments by him as well, but he was also seemed a thoughtful economist whom I should at least afford the curtesy of listening to, before I dismissed outright.  Here too, many of the conclusions he draws are difficult to digest, but at least one appreciates the rationale attempt to build his thesis. 

I read the first twenty pages or so of “Black No More” in the facilities, this morning and I am already hooked.  He’s got me from the outset.  Max Disher is smitten by a white lady.  He gets the perfect chance at the club to ask her to dance and she dismisses him in a manner almost too cruel to comprehend.  I put the book down and winced when I read the line.  And now he’s reconnected with his old friend the doctor, and he’s talked his way to the head of the line, and he’s had the treatment.  Max is now a blond, Nordic looking guy.  And the door man at the club back up in Harlem tells him, the white man, to go away.  His voice is all he has to convince his old friends that it is indeed he at the door.  “Let me in.  It’s me.”  We shall see.

Sunday 07/19/20

Taste of Two Percent

I’ve a bit of headache this morning.  I earned it.  I’m up.  Two and then three cups of soda water.  Pour yesterday’s coffee so as to heat up in the microwave.  Change my mind.  Dump it.  There’s new coffee in there.  There’s a backup of new coffee in the freezer.  Dump it.  Dump this down.  I want half and half.  I search although I know that my younger one must have tossed it when she went through like a hawk yesterday inspecting expiration dates.  There’s nothing but two percent milk.  The thought of the taste of two percent milk in coffee aggravates my headache.  But I pour it in anyway and head back to the office room.

Fortunately, there is a door I can go through into the University of Southern California in the 1920s and consider someone else’s situation.  Wallace Thurman was born in Salt Lake City, attended USC and then traveled to Harlem.  And his character Emma Lou Morgan follows the same distinct path, anxious to engage with a real, vibrant African American community only to be rebuffed and dismissed because she has such a dark complexion.  “The Blacker the Berry:  A Novel of Negro Life,” was apparently shocking in its day, exposing the suffocating hypocrisy of pigmentary prejudice within the African American community itself. 

Emma Lou . . . come on.  Alva?  Her love must have been rather strong to justify the repeated returns to Alva, the handsome mulatto alcoholic who doesn’t mean her any good.  This proved increasingly difficult for me to abide.  Emma Lou had more dignity than that.  But the dull smothering that slowly asphyxiates any real choice for Emma Lou settles in despite the plot mechanisms and I empathized with this sensitive spirit.  What could she do?  Everything around her reminds her that she is imperfect, and she knows that she is guilty too in the way she views the pigment of those around her.  There doesn't seem to be any way out. 

This theme is different, of course, but still quite familiar to anyone that has spent time in China.  Women covet lighter skin.  For millenniums, darker skin suggested that you were a peasant, who worked in the field, and couldn’t protect yourself from the sun.  Chinese young ladies walk around in the sun with umbrellas to protect their pale complexions, rather than applying any Coppertone.  And I asked my older one and my wife about how this theme played out in their lives.  My older one mentioned that her classmates commented favorably how bulimic anemia made one look so wonderfully pale.  My wife mentioned a time some oaf in the Bay Area Chinese community had told her she was very pretty, but would be so much more beautiful, if only she had lighter skin.  I considered the blue veins beneath my milk bottle forearms and I reached out to hand them the copy of Thurman’s book, suggesting they might enjoy. 

Saturday, 07/18/20

Ahh, So You’re Not

Friday started at three in the morning with a conf call.  Happens that time, every week.  Asia was finishing up their workday.  Texting people, unraveling problems, suggesting ways around a misunderstanding that two people had suddenly kicked up.   And then one by one the people faded off into their Asia evening.  I’d need a nap later but for now I was up, the sun was up, and I lay down in single bed in this office room and continued my way through Nella Larsen’s “Quicksand.”

I was distracted, likely, when I read the section of it which they provided in that Harlem Renaissance Reader I’d went through not long ago.  Adroit writing, surely, thought provoking, atmospheric descriptions but like the title suggested, I felt that I was being dragged down into a slow read and a steady throb of discontent. 

I have a very different perspective on her achievement having now read the book straight through.  Certainly, Helga Crane is never satisfied.  Teaching in the south is dreadful and she leaves before the semester is up.  In Chicago, her uncle’s new wife treats her abysmally. Harlem is exciting and then it isn’t.  We travel to Copenhagen. It isn’t hard to consider how Denmark would be a welcome respite from the question of racial identity but there too, it proves inescapable.  No, she won’t marry the famous painter who cast her as a savage in his portrait.  And, so like the “Ex-colored Man” in James Wendell Johnson’s “Autobiography” or Claude McKay’s Jake Brown in “Home to Harlem” the siren call of Manhattan pulls Helga back to New York.  By this time, I wasn’t disappointed by Helga any longer.  I wished for her to surmount herself but came to understand that her dissatisfaction, was the message. 

The man she’d always love delights her and then misreads her and crushes her heart.  Helga’s anguish, achingly comprehensible, leads her out into the elements.  She comes out of the rain, and into a church service.  Slowly, plausibly, she descends into a tearful rapture.  I remember thinking, ‘ahh, so you’re not going to end this by allowing her to fall in love.  You’re going to save her soul.”  She finds religion, she marries the preacher, they move down south and live a God-fearing life during which she becomes an unwitting breeder.  New boys born, every year and remarkably, God isn’t the answer for Helga either.  She hates this life, she hates her husband, she’s no affection for her newborn and she is now sinking down and I understood the fullness of her tragedy and of course the title. 

Friday, 07/17/20