Entries tagged with “California” from this Public Address 1.0
Once in a while, a sentence so startling in its clarity just stops me in my tracks. I can’t stop thinking about it. It usually needn’t have anything to do with its context, or the subject of the writing that contains it. The reference is often outside, anagogical, and to a certain extent what holds me is nothing less than pure linguistic clarity. Today, it was this sentence from an article in the Spectator:
It is easy to move, hard to change.
Many substitutions could be performed for the pronoun here. The lack of a coordinating conjunction makes me ponder: “but?” “and?” “then?” — though no relation is really necessary. There is no implicit preference. However, in the American perspective, it is often taken for granted that movement and change are equivalent. They’re not. They aren’t necessarily causally related either. Movement does not, by necessity, engender change. In context, that is indeed the thought which this sentence is meant to convey, as this sentence preceeds it:
The alpine plants of Scotland will not evolve to cope with our warming weather: they will simply migrate up the mountains until they become extinct.
Beautiful. It made me wonder. Was moving from California to Arkansas a change, or only a movement?
Moving wasn’t easy. Succumbing to divorce complicated it significantly. Giving up is hard. Humans are more complex than alpine plants. We draw upon our surroundings to constitute our identities, and for this reason, I suspect we formulate that age-old equivalence of movement with change. Perhaps it's not just an American thing after all— quest-romance is built upon the myths of spiritual rebirth. Perhaps change is slow, while movement is fast.
Of course this is all counter to Gould’s view on evolution, the article that started this train of thought. Evolutionary change strikes like a lightning-bolt, rendering mating between the new species and the old impossible. When perpetual movement (and change) is part of the cultural aesthetic, estrangement seems inevitable. O well. That’s a lot of mileage out of eight words in a sentence.
Yesterday’s favorite sentence was substantially more complex, from Nabokov’s Pnin:
As a teacher, Pnin was far from being able to compete with those stupendous Russian ladies scattered all over academic America, who, without having had any formal training at all, manage something by dint of intuition, loquacity, and a kind of maternal bounce, to infuse a magic knowledge of their difficult and beautiful tongue into a group of innocent-eyed students in an atmosphere of Mother Volga songs, red caviar, and tea; nor did Pnin, as a teacher, ever presume to approach the lofty halls of modern scientific linguistics, that ascetic fraternity of phonemes, that temple wherein earnest young people are taught not the language itself, but the method of teaching others to teach that method; which method, like a waterfall splashing from rock to rock, ceases to be a medium of rational navigation but perhaps in some fabulous future may become instrumental in evolving esoteric dialects— Basic Basque and so forth— spoken only by certain elaborate machines.
Now that’s a sentence!
This is the truck I learned to drive in. I felt like I had to preserve it somehow. Although it obviously was in a little better shape when I drove it. It made the trek from California to Oklahoma many times, before finally being laid to rest in the field across the street from my brother's house.
No need for flowers on this grave, it grows its own. There are more than a few memories for me on this bench seat. I can't see this lawn ornament without thinking of the relationship I began— and ended— in a blue Chevy truck.
I've still got the letters, somewhere. They were filled with honorable intentions.
Through veiled in spires of myrtle-wreath,
Love is a sword which cuts its sheath,
And through the clefts itself has made
We spy the flashes of the blade!
But through the clefts itself has made
We likewise see Love’s flashing blade,
By rust consumed, or snapped in twain;
Only hilt and stump remain.
Something tells me that besides being so opium addled he was repeating himself, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was slightly bitter regarding marriage. The myrtle-wreath wasn’t kind to him. I prefer the epigram he used as preface for love poems in his collected works: “Love, always a talkative companion.”
In many ways does the full heart reveal
The presence of the love it would conceal;
But in far more th’ estranged heart lets know
The absence of love, which yet it fain would shew.
The ironic tension between the title and the epigram speaks volumes regarding the problem of conjugal desire. Silence (as anyone who has ever been married can tell you) does speak with intense volume. It occurs to me that I was living on Myrtle Street in Bakersfield, California, when it blew my mind.
Pocola, Oklahoma, where my parents live, is just another one of those highway towns. It's sort of a suburb of Ft. Smith, Arkansas, but not really. It has more in common with the little country towns I've been posting pictures of than the “big city” of Ft. Smith.
Fishing is big there. My father was a fisherman. I never got interested in it, and neither did my brothers. None of us could stomach cleaning them. Fish has lots of associations for me. As I lay down reading my book my first night in Pocola, I noticed a tiny toy kerosene lamp on the bedside table. I recognized it. The little yellow and red streaked lamp was distinctive; I’ve never seen another one like it past childhood. It came from a little curio shop in Bridgeport, California, high in the Sierras where dad used to fish.
Mom remembered trying to make me into a fisherman. They bought me a nice new reel using S&H green stamps. I walked off and left it on the bank of a stream somewhere near Bridgeport. Dad wandered the mountainsides up there, until they fenced the meadows and prohibited fishing. I never did much fishing; I just wandered.
All my wandering lately has given me some bald tires. Waiting around the Walmart in Ft. Smith while getting some fresh tires installed, I was confronted with another connotation of fish on a T-shirt I hadn't seen before:
If it smells like fish— eat it!Words can be a tricky thing. I suspect I should reel myself in.AKMA's article on Biblical Interpretation posted while I was away converges with my reading in Pocola
I'm perhaps a bit overly sensitive to class issues in education. I spent some time talking to my father about class and was really surprised that now, he claims he never felt any pressure from it. He didn't say that when I was growing up. He came to California in the second wave of "okie migration" in the forties. He told me that okies were horribly discriminated against and looked down upon.
His mother, Goldie, was a cook for a sorority at Oklahoma University in the 30s. Though my dad was a blue-collar eighth-grade dropout, I found out on this trip that a few of my cousins were not quite so poor. One of them was the director of the women's studies program at Baylor University in the 40s or 50s. At the time, that would have meant "home economics" classes of course.
Dad always looked good in a suit, but that's not the way I think of him. He was always in khakis with chambray work-shirts. He worked in the oilfields as a welder first, and later as a pumper, and as a maintenance person in charge of steam-injection wells. He took some correspondence school classes in math, and got his literature education from the public library. Mom said that when they first got married, she was scared to death because my dad would sometimes stay up all night reading. She thought she was doing something wrong.
Dad had great taste in literature.
Most of what he recommended to me growing up were canonical texts. Shakespeare, and all the major Russians were his favorites. But he didn't learn any of this in class; he learned it by being a good reader.
He hated his own father, and refused to go to his funeral. Jess Ward was an alcoholic, a gambler, and a total mess. He would threaten his family with a gun, and my father was always put in the position of defending his mother and siblings against the onslaught. His little brother Wendell was more of a free-spirit, played 12-string guitar, and married a woman who was a spiritualist and medium. When I found this picture of Wendell, my father, and Jess in 1944, I was reminded of all those snapshots of Kerouac and Cassidy. The distance between these sons and their father seems almost palpable in this photograph, and the man standing in the middle is much closer to the father I know.
My ex stopped by today with her new baby, now two months old. So, this is the obligatory personal post for those friends back in California who are curious about them.
I took a couple of quick snaps, and in keeping with the "blogging outside the taxonomies" theme that I like to pursue, here you have it. No cat pictures for you, but here are some equally boring (to those who have no social connection with her) family snaps.
The Evans/Crane project may be paused for just a bit, as it is the Riverfest weekend. I feel a little shaky about all the walking involved, but since I missed it last year due to the broken ankle, I've got to give it a try tonight.
I'm also waiting with great anticipation for Loren's look at the Transcendentalists. I'm quite happy with the content out there I have to choose from. I like it when people talk about stuff that is outside my experience, regardless of what it might be.
So, this is but a momentary indulgence, a few snaps for some friends. I might take a few at the festival, but who knows. All I know is that I do need to get out more.Haters of family pictures, don't click here
Despite what your high school English teacher may have told you, literature does not make us or our society better. To be seduced by fiction is to live at cross-purposes with most of the really important things in life.This of course, really depends on your definition of “the really important things in life.” Personally, I think people are the most important thing in life. They are life. There is nothing more relevant to existing on this planet than the thoughts and feelings of other people who have faced the same problems, and asked the same questions as you have. With a brief gesture at the notion of “social capital,” the bias of the article becomes clear:
What they have in mind is what economists call social capital, which is the trust between people that lets them get along well enough to build businesses and other useful institutions.Of course I still have Bourdieu fresh in my mind, and was further struck by the discovery this same afternoon that Walker Evans read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (the example that opens the article) in 1930 and loved it. After noticing other people still draw connections between my blog and homo academicus, I feel the need to go off on another one of those historical rants that I indulge in from time to time.
I’m not a conventional “student” or a conventional “teacher” per se. I was shut out of education in the years that Reagan held sway as governor of California. I spent a long time in the business of selling things to people, burning out and ending up in more clerk-type employments. The reason for this being that as Coleridge observed, few things are more important in life than providing “bread and cheese.” But they aren’t the only important things, and I have long felt the compulsion to explore the fields of artistic expression. Maybe I’m just a victim of my “habitus” as Bourdieu would have it, but my own “spiritual economics” has long been at cross-purposes with monetary economics. The value which drew me, like Walker Evans and other artists I admire, was disinterestedness. The importance of this freedom from economic slavery (in my mind, though not in actuality) was what drove me to be almost totally unconcerned with normal notions of suck-cess.
The antithesis of governing principles between “cultural economics” and conventional economics is well explored by Bourdieu, and it explains a lot about my own particular doxa. One of the governing institutions of “cultural capital” is the academy, and the rules and principles are closer, though not identical, with my own. I also have that streak of American transcendentalist in me too, which rebels against homo academicus. So, when all is said and done I must continually assert that though I am now moving from the workaday world of saying “may I help you” (which really means “may I sell you”) to dispensing another form of capital. It’s closer to me, but it’s not me. I don’t know what the hell I am really, but I know that I am neither an uneducated laborer (though I spent most of my life laboring) nor an ivory tower intellectual. I’m just continually searching to find out what works for me, and “cultural capital” has always been more important to me than economic capital. Of course, there is a nice refutatio near the close of the article:
None of this matters if core curriculum classes teach students to question the falsely coherent narrative of intellectual progress that canonical books are said to exemplify, which is what happens in the best of such classes.I couldn’t picture a better way of describing my state-run university, particularly the American literature people. However, in British lit, the problem is that if you don’t know the canon, you are unable to even begin to understand the literature of the last few centuries.
I get so sick of the bashing of universities, and of the so-called “great books.” It is only in the secondary literature that any sort of “coherence” occurs, and then only for brief historic windows in time. The stocks of writers, and artists, rise and fall based on their coherence to institutional politics, but also cultural capital. The first cultural capital of any importance to me was music; and I don’t buy the now institutional Rolling Stone or Rock and Roll Hall of Fame points of view. Yet I still love music. And I’ll continue to love the books, and works of art, that have use to me, canonical or not. Just because it’s canonical doesn’t mean it’s automatically the enemy. Sometimes they call them great books, because they are great books. But that’s up to each individual reader to decide.
That’s one reason why I find rhetoric as a subject field so attractive. There is no real canon. It’s at once the oldest, and the newest of subjects. What matters most is what works. In my opinion, Cicero, Quintillian, Aristotle, and Plato work as long as they are offered in the correct context. In some ways, these books, as well as other great works of literature have made the world richer and better; their utility is dependent on how they are presented. I think it best to present them as possibilities, not as totems enshrined in wood. Each time I read one of these articles I can only marvel at how crappy the writer’s teachers must have been, to make them hate the forces that formed them so much. The closing sentiment of the article regarding the goal of reading is good, but diffuse:
This process, however, has nothing to do with coming together and everything to do with breaking apart, with figuring out how to live as an independent intellect and a soul loyal to its own needs. Literature takes root in a rich and stubborn particularity, not in some powdery notion of communal uplift.I think William Blake had it figured out better than that:
I give you the end of a golden string
Only wind it into a ball:
It will lead you to Heavens gate.
Built in Jerusalems wall.
Jerusalem, Plate 77
That’s what reading is for me. It’s not an academic thing, really, it’s just the search for that golden string. And this is just my ball. Sorry, but I do think it is about coming together. It's about joining yourself into history to better see where you are now. Literature works for me, perhaps because I'm working under a screwed sense of economics.
I could never be my father. Sometimes, I think about how much he taught me by saying so little. He kept it inside. You could see it, turning behind his eyes. The pain of having your brother who you defended in fights for years because he was outspoken and small, always getting into trouble and needing to be bailed out, wreck your car in Chicago, Illinois, in 1944 while you are trying to find work and living in a basement apartment feeling the cold lake wind in the dead of winter. You could see the resentment, lodged there from being felt-up by a gay doctor as you took a physical to work in Gary, Indiana, to earn enough money to get to your younger brother who lived in California who promised that work could be found there. He never said much at all. He wasn’t mad about this at all, he was just processing it, dealing with each day as he could, and trying to do the best thing for himself and his family.
You didn’t need to tell him that there was evil in the world, for he stared it down when he was twelve looking down the barrel of a gun pointed by his alcoholic father, trying to defend his mother and his siblings from the assault of madness. He didn’t carry a grudge, he just dealt with it. Quietly. Inside himself, and seldom did it ever move out into the light. It was private.
My father gave me one piece of advice that I’ll always remember: “Son, you can only do what you think the best thing to do is at the time.” He didn’t know that he was training me to be a Sophist. It was only obvious that my father’s idea of truth was relative. He saw decision making as complex, and the more you knew about something the better off you were. He didn’t know, as he brushed me aside and told me to “go to the library and look it up” that he was training me to be a scholar.
And I didn’t know at the time that his reasons for doing this were twofold: he didn’t trust himself as an authority, and it would get a pesky kid out of his hair. Most things were understandable if you dug into it, he thought. Dad made the same argument about Shakespeare that Huxley did, phrased in a Will Rodgers cliché: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Human nature doesn’t change. Things happen, and you deal with it. “You need to read some of those Russians, son, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky— they knew a thing or two.” Dad never graduated the eighth grade, but he knew that if you went to the library you could find what you needed to help you out. He didn’t know of Tom Huxley, but if it would have been useful to him, he would have found out.
I’m nothing like him. Or am I? All I know is that where he was quiet, I can get loud. Where he stayed away from people, I gravitate toward them. Where he was private, I am public. Where his life was filled with obligation, ultimately I have none. Now, that is. I tried to live life that way, it just didn’t work out. I’ve been thinking a bit about the Oedipal thing.
I’ve had it in my mind for a while to write some stuff about Walker Evans. Jonathon Delacour and I talked about it a long time ago, and he brought him up again recently. I’ve been revisiting a bunch of stuff, realizing that in order to say what I want to say that it will take many days and many posts. Perhaps I’ll tackle it next week, after I finish up the semester's business. I was looking at Belinda Rathbone’s biography and was reminded that his father was in advertising. You couldn’t pick a more opposite pole for his career path. Or could you? Like my relationship with my father’s ways, I think that Evan’s father perhaps was part of the reason why he was so resistant to being involved in any propaganda enterprise. And yet he was, in a strange way.
Much more on this later. I just had to write to clear off the buzz and settle my dinner. And perhaps recommit myself to the enterprise. What Walker Evans was up to is vastly oversimplified in most of the material I visited on the web. Perhaps in the next few days I’ll offer up some links, but I hesitate to do that before I clarify my own position on the subject. There’s always more to know. But there also needs to be a time to write.
I was reading Plato’s Cratylus this morning (doesn’t everyone?) and a lightning bolt entered my brain. Cratylus is a sort of dry inquiry into the nature of naming of things, and its foundation is fairly ordinary. As Socrates says, he is speaking only of situations where “an animal produces only after his kind, and not of extraordinary births.” The core idea is that names have a “true” nature and are not relative and arbitrary as asserted by the Sophists. I’m not saying I buy into this, but a weird confluence occured.
I’ve been reading a lot of Bakhtin lately. He has a rather unusual approach to the rhetorical triangle of speaker-language-hearer. Bakhtin substitutes “hero” for language in his formation, suggesting that at the top of the language pyramid there rests a sort of idealized notion of the hero which both the speaker and the hearer interact with, when they form meaning from language. Then, in Craytlus, the derivation of hero was addressed:
Hermogenes: What is the meaning of the word hero?Interesting thought. That never occurred to me before. Performing a Burkean substitution here, then language, or rhetoric, is love.
Socrates: I think there is no difficulty in explaining, for the name is not much altered, and signifies that they were born of love.
Hermogenes: What do you mean?
Socrates: Do you not know that the heroes are demigods?
Hermogenes: What then?
Socrates: All of them sprang either from love of a god for a mortal woman, or of a mortal man for a goddess. Think of the word in the old Attic, and you will see better that the name heroes is only a slight alteration of Eros, from whom the heroes sprang.
That really makes Bakhtin come into focus. Words bring us together, in a natural birth. This also helps me accept the “hero” concept a little better. I’ve always been uncomfortable with them, but as Carlyle argued, it seems as if people need them. The problem is choosing good ones.
Of course I had to do a little more etymological wandering. It seems like the spelling of my name, Jeff, is a mid-nineteenth century formulation. Finding some of the other uses of the name was enlightening. Did you know that as a noun "jeff" is circus slang for a rope? Makes sense, I certainly give myself enough of it at times. It’s also synonymous with “white guy,” in a derogatory sense:
A derogatory term for a man, usu. a ‘hick’ or a bore; esp. used by American Blacks of white men. Also attrib., as jeff artist, hat.A pest? A bore? An icky? Okay, I feel much better about my name now. However, I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not a "southern hick," I am a Californian. Jefferson Davis had nothing to do with my name, or Thomas Jefferson either. I don't wear hats or raincoats. And my physique (except perhaps my shoulders) is more round than square. I suppose I’m probably more of a verb than a noun:
1870 O. LOGAN Before Footlights 202, I thought perhaps they imagined I was a female Jeff Davis, and were going to make a ‘charge a la bayonette’ instanter. 1917 E. E. CUMMINGS Let. 4 June (1969) 26, I escaped repairing with the bums, mutts and Jeffs. 1938 C. CALLOWAY Hi De Ho 16 Jeff, a pest, a bore, an icky. 1946 MEZZROW & WOLFE Really Blues (1957) 375 Jeff Davis, an unenlightened person, a hick from down South; sometimes shortened to jeff. 1952 BERREY & VAN DEN BARK Amer. Thes. Slang (ed. 2) (1954) 391/3 Jeff Davis, jeff, a Southern ‘hick’. 1969 Publ. Amer. Dial. Soc. LI. 29 Names used exclusively by Negroes..jeff, jeffer, jeff davis, jeff artist. 1970 C. MAJOR Dict. Afro-Amer. Slang 70 Jeff,..a white person;..a dull person; a horrible square. 1973 Black World Apr. 57 He wears a jeff hat and a light raincoat.
‘To throw or gamble with quadrats as with dice’ (Jacobi Printers' Vocab. 1888). Hence jeffing vbl. n.Quadrats are blank slugs of metal used to separate type while printing (short for quadrilateral, oddly enough). So perhaps Socrates was on to something, for I’m still taking chances and throwing the dice.
1837 Baltimore Commercial Transcript 7 Nov. 2/1 (Th.), We move that the printers of the U.S. divide off in halves, and ‘jeff’ to see which shall go to digging ditches or picking stone coal for a living. 1841 W. SAVAGE Dict. Art of Printing 428 Jeff. See Throw. 1875 J. SOUTHWARD Dict. Typogr. (ed. 2) 58 Jeffing, throwing with quads... One of..[the party interested] takes up the quads, shakes them..and throws them..after the manner of throwing dice, when the number of quads with the nicks appearing uppermost are counted,..the highest thrower being the winner.
Sometimes I think I enjoy the OED too much. Ah, life's simpler pleasures. Perhaps though, I'm an extraordinary birth and have nothing to do with the history of my name. Though I might wish to be related to Geoffrey Chaucer, I suspect I'm not. I was born a mistake, though my mother never claimed any animosity over it.
I suppose that saved a lot of time. I remember the frustration. Page after page of marked up nonsense; no, this will never do. Spelling errors in every other word. Fragmented sentences, as I tried to get the stuff I wanted to say out— it never worked. I tried poetry, and failed. I’d get a song stuck in my head, and that would come out instead. But I liked pressing buttons. From the near-silent fftt of a Leica or Rollei to the loud WHAP of a Mamiya RB-67— there it is— it’s done. A moment caught, decisive or not— more often, indecisive.
Grammar made no sense. Are they just making this stuff up? Just what the hell is a dangling participle anyway? A subordinate clause? Why is the future imperfect? These things just didn’t seem nearly as pressing as the problem of air-bells on film. Why did they call them air-bells? Those dark circles on film caused by improper agitation. My perfect pictures, ruined by streaky skies and odd UFO type objects on the negative. They can’t be fixed, go on— try again. It’s science, you can handle this. There must be a reason why some pictures turn out and others don’t. I found out that consistency works; if you find something that works, just do it. Nothing worked when I tried to write but it worked, eventually, when I tried to take pictures. I wanted to be a photographer.
CLUNK— I settled in on the sound of the Nikon. Only the F’s, though. I felt like I needed to see 100% and no one else offered that. The real stuff happens at the edges, and I wanted control. Control, control, control . . . the world must be ordered, there must be some sense behind it all. Standing in the empty concrete and brown spaces of Southern California, I tried to make it work. To find in those rectilinear spaces something that I felt was inside myself. What I found out was— the harder you look, the less likely you are to find it. I suppose what I wanted most of all was mystery, and mystery just won’t come when called. Year after year of trying to make sense, when really all I needed to do was let go and let sense and mystery find me.
After you make the pictures, and look at them, it’s only natural to want to talk about them. I talked a lot. Inevitably, it seemed that other photographers just didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. Somewhere in the gut-shot sore loneliness I began to think different. Maybe it was improper agitation. Too much time by myself, the bubbles settled in and stained me. I started looking for conversation somewhere else, electronic bytes over the phone lines. But that meant I had to learn to write. I had no choice, because there were few people around my town that saw pictures as important in the way that I did. They were my way of thinking about the world.
CLUNK— the words misfired. People got angry with me easily. Didn’t they know I was joking? Wasn’t sarcasm a universal right? I grew into being a writer out of self-defense. I wanted to talk, and writing was the only way I could do it. That’s inevitably what this space is all about: Jeff learning to write. If you think otherwise, I have misfired again. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Now Chomsky has made grammar make sense to me, and I’m a million miles away from fumbling poetry, digging deeper into just what I think. In words alone, because at this stage of my life that’s pretty much all that’s left.
I’ve embraced indecision, and let go of consistency. It’s just practice. A writer? Maybe, only in the sense that I’m a guy who writes. Yeah, so I’ve got degrees in it too. But more than that, I’ve majored in frustration— frustration with getting what’s inside into the light so that I can talk about it, and get over it. Words sometimes work, because I now have a sort of control over them that I only dreamed of as a photographer. Who knew? Words are easier!
It’s that time of year again. Swamp-like humidity in the morning, burning off in just a few hours. Sticky yellow residue of sex everywhere, gumming up wiper-blades and making it hard to see. My car needs a shower, it’s getting really funky.
But then there’s the green. A thousand shades of it, bursting out everywhere. There’s something special about this time of year, because the black trunks are still visible behind the subtle shades now decorating the spidery network of trees. I accept myself as a metaphor-making creature, and I’ve been thinking about how the color of this state is truly green, in every sense of the word. It’s a big change from where I’m from.
The dominant color of the Great Central Valley of California is brown. Green occurs in the patchwork fields, since most of the fruits and vegetables for the country come from there, but it’s mostly monolithic, non-variegated patches of a single cash crop in the fields that can afford to pay for the water it takes to grow them. What sticks out in my mind are those empty fields, the stretches of brown sandy dirt, seldom impeded by a stone put there by nature. Instead, the fixtures are concrete, and often covered with fading graffiti. And the people turn brown too, as they work in those fields. It is truly a land of dirt, dust, and brown. Infinitely variable shades, really. It takes a long time to become acclimated to them, and to develop a language akin to an arctic tribe, that need not really have a thousand words for snow, but instead endless variants of modifiers and types to describe the state of the snow. In California, what matters most is the state of the dirt, not the individual crops placed in it; most of what grows is not wild, but transplanted from somewhere else. When plants are transplanted, there is often a shock, and leaves turn brown.
I now live in a land of somewhere else. It’s green. It’s green with envy, as one of the poorest states in the union. It’s green with naiveté, as they still fight the civil war over race issues oblivious to the fact that one day they, like the rest of the country, are likely to be overcome by brown. But it’s also green with brilliant underbrush, in a million shades, covering the blackened underside of trees that once rooted in the brutal clay soil, refuse to give way. Every spring, the green comes back. It seems so miraculous, so beautiful, and above all, so wet.
Aristotle wanted to blame everything on moisture. Moisture, however, is where life springs from. I like living in a wet world; I don’t mind taking a shower to wash off the residue from time to time. While you’re being born, it’s bound to get messy. It just seems, well, natural. Ah, I get it now, that’s why they call Arkansas the natural state.
Popeye says, visit Alma. Popeye always scared me just a bit with his overgrown forearms, and I never developed a taste for spinach. That was the province of my older brother Steve, who was always looking for a Bluto to beat up on. As I headed for the Oklahoma border, I slipped the Creedence tape in the stereo and thought to myself: I’m headed into cockroach country.
It’s the gene-pool I came from. Native America they call it now; but really it was a dumping ground of dreams. Poor white trash and native tribes thrown together, with the only unified element being poverty. I have no idea how much “Indian” blood I have, but I know it’s in there. There’s a certain survival instinct, that comes from climbing out of the teeming garbage heap. Of course Oklahoma is a lot different from when my father and mother left in the late 30s, for the sunny climes of California. Fighting back the urge for a White Russian, I entered the part of the state that has changed the least.
That’s where my parents are now, just down the street from the Choctaw casino, in Pocola, Oklahoma. The name of the town is an Indian word which means “ten miles,” because it is ten miles from Ft. Smith, Arkansas. I’d say it’s about thirty miles from the Spinach Capitol of the World, Alma, Arkansas. I got into a lot of trouble when I got here for pronouncing it “all-muh” rather than “AL-MA.” It’s also about thirty miles from the site of the Worlds’ Highest Hill, in Poteau, Oklahoma. My parents sit on the border, but their roots are all on the Oklahoma side.
It’s a land of hardy people, who struggle each day to get by. Deep poverty, generations of it, living side by side. The newspapers each day relate tales that are stranger than any fiction writer could create. It’s hard for me to figure out why my parents choose to live there. Steve I can understand. He’s always been more comfortable near the bottom of the barrel. But my parents are fairly well-off, and could live anywhere they want. They used to live on 200 acres in the middle of a National Forest, but they moved closer in to be nearer to medical care as they got older. Even though they don’t suffer from poverty, I suppose they are still comfortable near it.
Poor people are easier to understand, for my family at least, I guess. They’re actually from around the Norman area originally. My father’s mother was a cook at a sorority at the University of Oklahoma in the 30s. My mother worked at a mental institution in Oklahoma City, before my father decided it was time to look for greener pastures. They were both happy to leave Oklahoma, but as they got older, Dad wanted to go back. I picked up another clue about where my predispositions come from, in a new story I heard from my mother on this trip.
She came from a huge family, about a dozen kids. All the kids had to work in the fields, to support the family. But mom told me that she never did, it just wasn’t her forte. She worked around the house, cleaning, making the meals, and taking care of her baby sister while her mother went with all the other kids out in the fields to work. Her brothers gave her a hard time about it, so they insisted that she had to hoe the corn one day. It was a hot day, and she fainted and had to be carried back to the house. She said that she was too heavy to be lifted over the fence, so she had to be pushed under it. They never asked her to work in the fields again.
She always worked, but she worked inside. She couldn’t take the sun. So that’s where I get it from! I’ve never been the nature type either. My father is a more grizzled outdoorsy type. I always feel like such a wimp next to him. He has deep lines on his face, and looks much the same as the photographs I’ve seen of Native chiefs, with deep weather-beaten features. Not me. I’m a cream-puff by comparison.
Leaving town, I see that another tribal war is in process. The Cherokee Casino has erected a billboard down the street from the Choctaws. Some folks just can’t get along.
Mom’s been reading a bunch of stuff about the civil rights movement. She explained that she missed it, and had no idea what was going on back there in the 50s and 60s. California is like another planet, and that’s the planet I grew up on too. Things are different there, but what has always struck me as odd is that the religious propaganda that I find stuffed under my windshield, in Little Rock, is mostly printed in California.
Driving back, I stopped at a Wendy’s in Clarksville.
I always think of the Monkee’s song when I pass through.
However, there is no train station in Clarksville, Arkansas.
In the bathroom, someone left me a tip.
What is it about advertising practices on urinals that fascinates me so?
The big thing I have to wonder is, what was the ladies auxiliary of Texarkana doing in a urinal in Clarksville? I suppose they must have been headed for the casino. Silly me, I had to pick it up. I'm always looking for a tip.
Looking at my artfully constructed diagram a few minutes later, I realize I got it a little wrong. It's easy to locate Bakersfield; the thin ribbon of the grapevine connecting it with LA is easy to spot by satellite. I put my star on Tulsa, Oklahoma by mistake. I'm actually a few dots lower and to the right. The final "e" in "here" must be above Memphis, and Little Rock would be somewhere below the "he". It's perfectly understandable though; consciousness doesn't translate well to map space.
There is a lot to like in Chapter 2, “Space” of Small Pieces Loosely Joined by David Weinberger. However, I find myself locked in refutatio. Traditional space is not a container. Maybe it’s because I’ve moved closer to the middle of the North American Continent, and spent time traveling in the deserts and open spaces of this mass of land, standing in places where optical law takes over before the planet ends. I do not think of space as finite, enclosed, containing much of anything except what my senses can take in at a moment. Space doesn’t end in the “real” world. Our senses mediate space to construct a closure which is largely an illusion.
Ah, but this is the distinction between “measured space” and “lived space” which Weinberger makes in his book. Once again, I don’t see this as a phenomena unique to the Internet. When I think of California, where I spent most of my life, I do not think of the 1678.26 miles which Mapquest tells me separates my current location from my memories. They are right here, right now. The locations in between are “sites” in my memory which vary in detail dependant on the amount of experience collected there. Perhaps “measured space” is not nearly so crucial to our perception of the “real” world as he implies. We always experience space and time through a mediating agent, be it memory or sense. With this distinction in mind, it seems as if the Internet is closer to the space of memory than the space of sense, at least the sense of space that we feel when enclosed. But this is only a subset of the total phenomena of “real” space.
This gets me where I was going. I was amused by another one of those definitional stasis things today. Just a reminder, for those who haven’t followed my train of thought lately, I’m using stasis in the Greek sense [from the OED]:
a. Gr. standing, station, stoppage, f. - to stand.Whenever a word gets twisted so far from its original meaning as this, it gives me pause.
The argument is:
Let's summarize the Top Three Reasons Why the Web Isn't a Medium.Wait a minute. Okay, so using this logic, television isn’t a medium. We surf the channels. We stop at programs. We enter into the dramas and comedies already in progress. Books aren’t a medium. Because they are composed of content, not the dead tree pulp that composes them. How ridiculous can you get?
1. A medium is something we send messages through whereas our talk of the Web indicates that we move through the Web - we go places, we surf, we enter sites.
2. When you call it a medium, the broadcast boys get erections. (And the broadcast girls get more head lumps from jumping up against the glass ceiling.)
3. The Web is "content" - us writing stuff to and for another another - not the transmission medium.
So, discussing media means that we must exclude anything composed primarily of content? Uh, it seems to me that the media, or mediating agents of that content are as important as the content itself. To fall back on McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message” or better still, “The Medium is the Massage.” There is a lot of stroking going on about how different the Internet “non-medium” is. To make this twist in definition means going to the fourth definition of medium in the OED:
4. a. Any intervening substance through which a force acts on objects at a distance or through which impressions are conveyed to the senses: applied, e.g., to the air, the ether, or any substance considered with regard to its properties as a vehicle of light or sound.The intervening substance of the Internet does indeed exist; electrons through wires, and phosphors on screens. The transmission of brainwaves from site authors to readers does not occur instantaneously (just yet, at least) and hence the proclamation in the “Space” chapter that normal spatial concepts don’t apply to the web seems a bit myopic. It just depends on which “normal” you’re talking about.
I think that the usage of the word medium is too good to lose, particularly in the second subset of this meaning:
b. The application of the word in sense 4 to the air, ether, etc. has given rise to the new sense: Pervading or enveloping substance; the substance or ‘element’ in which an organism lives; hence fig. one's environment, conditions of life.The Internet represents a new environment, to be sure, even if its a purely figurative one. I don’t believe that we can overthrow the definition, different from the ones previously listed, which I believe Weinberger is really attacking:
5. a. An intermediate agency, means, instrument or channel. Also, intermediation, instrumentality: in phrase by or through the medium of. spec. of newspapers, radio, television, etc., as vehicles of mass communication.We “visit sites” through the medium of the Internet. It is an intermediate agency, a non-hierarchal one to be sure, but still it is an instrument, not something new. Why throw out a perfectly good definition when it exists to help us make sense of the road we're on?
The Internet is a vehicle, through which we navigate a space that is much closer to the space of mind than the space of roadmaps. Space is different here, yes. But not unique. I’m not buying that yet.
I’m still working with that rural pen, and staining the water clear.
I was surprised to find out yesterday that Houston is the fourth largest city in the US. I was so incredulous as a matter of fact, that I had to look it up. The 1990 census data confirmed it. Now Tom Waits' observation (during a SXSW concert) that people in Texas must be friendly, because they have all that space but choose to live together in big groups makes more sense. Scrolling through the list of city populations generated more surprises.
Bakersfield was number 97! Now that’s a shocker, I wouldn’t have even thought it was in the top 100. I’ve always thought of it as a small town. When my family moved there in the early sixties, I have a childhood memory of being fixated with two things as we drove into town: the “Sun Fun Stay Play” sign, which didn’t last long, and the population sign. It read 69,000.
Wow, I thought (I must have been four years old at the time). But compared to my house in the woods outside of Ojai, it did seem like a big city. Of course, as a teenager I had been to LA several times. Now that was a city. Bakersfield seemed like a wide spot in the road by comparison. Thinking of Kerouac lately, I realized that when he passed through it was probably more like 30,000 people.
The second shock was to find that Little Rock is number 96. I’m movin’ on up now. I got myself a de-luxe apartment on the west side. But, friends have been telling me how much Bakersfield has grown since I left (it was around 250,000 then). So I wondered if maybe the balance might have shifted, since Bakersfield was one of the fastest growing places in California when I left.
Shock number three. The 2000 figures show Bakersfield at 396,000. However, Little Rock must be growing faster. The 2000 figure is 548,000. I’m sure this includes North Little Rock, just across the river, which is a fairly substantial place. But damn, I never thought this place was that big either. So much for my small town feeling. I don’t suppose a half a million people qualify as a small town. But Little Rock still has something close to a small town mentality, though I confess that it's actually less "hickish" than Bakersfield.
There’s a price to be paid for this expansion. I was assaulted by a TV ad warning that Britney Spears is doing a concert here in the next few months. Sheesh. For laughs, I did a search. I wanted to see if she was playing Bakersfield. She wasn't. Don't I feel special now. I was also happy to find that if you do a google search for Britney Spears the second site listed is Britney's Guide to Semiconductor Physics. Thank god for link-weighting. It’s actually a serious site, with serious content. I think more fourteen-year olds should know the ins and outs of the lasers that play their compact disks. I would encourage as many links to this as possible so that it might even dethrone the “official” site!
Just for giggles, I had to look up the figures for Canberra— 313,000 according to the tourist web site. So, the capitol of that continent is smaller than Bakersfield? Now that does make for an interesting picture. Okay, so Sydney is twice the size of LA. . . that wasn’t the point. It’s just strange trying to picture places you haven’t been. I’m sure Canberra has nothing in common with Bakersfield, it just seemed like a funny thing to compare. Or, at least it would be funny if you’d ever been to Bakersfield.
Every city on earth is unique, with its own quirks. It cracked me up when I revisited the lyrics to Cities to catch the bit about Memphis— “I smell home cooking / its only the river, only the river.” Before I had been there, a friend here in Little Rock told me that there was something special about Memphis— “It’s the smell,” he said. Evidently, David Byrne agrees.
However, I must confess that this particular train of thought was triggered by a conversation with a West African native, Marcus, who goes to the university here. It seems that he came into the US through Tijuana, and ended up living in Burbank before moving to Arkansas. We were talking about how different it was here. Marcus was quick to proclaim: “this is the land of opportunity!” as he recruited me to come to an African drum festival on Saturday night. In Arkansas, this is a special event. In California, I could go see wild percussion any day of the week. I miss that part of it, really. But he’s right. It will all get here soon enough. But by then, I’ll probably be gone.
It’s still nearly impossible for me to think of Little Rock as a city. Though, if you photograph it just right, it looks like one.
Bakersfield (my "hometown") is such an icon. I forgot about the reference in On the Road until In a Dark Time mentioned it. I read that book for the first time in Milt's Coffee Shop, just off highway 99 in Bakersfield. If you've read it, or haven't and want to, Loren's running commentary is a good thing. Give it a try, while you anxiously await Shauny's return. I must say, 72 comments must be some sort of personal blog record.
Though I hate Tom Hanks, I was also pleased to see that in Castaway his salvation came in the form of a portable toilet from Bakersfield. That's the poetic nature of the town, really. It may seem like a pile of dirt and shit, but it's always there when you need it.
Off to school!
My friend Scott was always quick to announce that he didn’t jam. He wrote songs. I liked his reasoning, and it became a part of me. I don’t like jamming much at all. It just wanders around and goes nowhere. I like to get somewhere when I write, even if it’s just a closing paradox. I’m forever trying to get things to gel.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t riff sometimes. Sometimes, weird connections result. I was thinking about Technicolor and quicksand.
Quicksand is easy. When too much fluid quickly enters a loose collection of silica particles, a flux results. The flux doesn’t bear weight easily, and things that rest upon it slide down, engulfed. Is this a bad thing? It’s actually close to HP Grice’s view of the process of making meaning. Essentially, humanity is awash in particles of meaning. We reach out to adjacent particles of meaning (implicatures) and depending on where we are in the cultural flux, we grasp at the particles of best fit dependent on our situation. But the postmodernists claim that the concrete grasp of meaning is impossible and our only choice is to swim in the flux playfully rather than drown, struggling against the shifting tide of history.
The particles of meaning could also be called beliefs. In order to be useful, they need not be fixed— just close to where we are at that point in time. But quicksand is a much more poetic term for the process involved, and naturally it made me think of the Bowie song.
I'm closer to the Golden Dawn
Immersed in Crowley's uniform
I'm living in a silent film
Portraying Himmler's sacred realm
Of dream reality
I'm frightened by the total goal
Drawing to the ragged hole
And I ain't got the power, anymore
No I ain't got the power anymore
How can I make this gel with where I am now? It’s easier than it seems.
WB Yeats was a member of the Golden Dawn. Yeats and his beloved Maud Gonne were wrapped up in it, and Yeats was instrumental in exiling Crowley from the order. Yeats believed in responsibilities, whereas Crowley’s edict (appropriated from Rabelais) was “Do what thou wilt.” Freedom from moral responsibility was not something that Yeats could buy into, though as I researched it today, the parallels with Crowley are astounding. The oft quoted Crowley maxim was conveyed in a book supposedly dictated by spirit voices to his wife in 1904, thirteen years before Yeats claimed his own credo was delivered by the same method. The quicksand deepens.
Yeats cut deep to the core of mythos throughout most of his career. It was also the project of Maud Gonne and the women of the Golden Dawn to create rituals for a “castle of heroes” where the old ways of moral responsibility might be recaptured. They were repulsed by Crowley’s debauchery, though they were hardly prudes themselves. The “secret knowledge” that Yeats felt was “just for schoolmates” was part of an effort to reclaim a higher moral ground in Ireland.
The Western Esoteric tradition, which both Yeats and Crowley are voices of, sought to reclaim the power of the individual in a neo-romantic way. There is a conflict between freedom and responsibilties that Bowie conveys amazingly well through his slippery dialogic song. I find it interesting that Bowie chose the image of “living in a silent film” to convey the monochrome nature of the conflict. You can envision the goose-stepping propoganda films, and Ezra Pound's (or perhaps Mussolini's) Italy where the trains run on time. All systems are by nature reductive; even when couched in elaborate mystical mumbo-jumbo they don’t capture the full spectrum of life experience. Sometimes bad guys don’t wear black, even if we wish they would, as we all drag closer to that ragged hole in the ground where we find rest.
I'm the twisted name on Garbo's eyes
Living proof of Churchill's lies
I'm torn between the light and dark
Where others see their targets
Should I kiss the viper's fang
Or herald loud the death of Man
I'm sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain't got the power anymore
“The vipers fang” is a Golden Dawn reference as well,and it seems implicit that if we all did what we wanted it would be the end of society. But there is no stability to be found at either pole; the chorus of nihilism is the only relaxation of tension contained in the song.
Don't believe in yourself
Don't deceive with belief
Knowledge comes with death's release
But in the grand old Greek tradition, the actions of the speaker are not in concord with the chorus. Though the nihilist cry that nothing is worth believing seems trapped in an endless loop, the credo is far outside real human experience. One doesn't have to be a prophet to believe in something. And believing something doesn't mean that you'll believe just anything.
I’m not a prophet or a stone age man
Just a mortal with the potential of a superman
I'm living on
I'm tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien
Can't take my eyes from the great salvation
Of bullshit faith
If I don't explain what you ought to know
You can tell me all about it
On the next Bardo
I'm sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain't got the power anymore
The spectrum expressed here isn’t colorful, it’s reason versus the emotional need for faith. I’ve been told my worldview is monochromatic, and I suppose it is. Too much time as a photographer. Color film (and or CCD sensors) don’t ring true for me. Technicolor lies. When I owned a photo lab in the early 80s, I sent film out to the Technicolor processing plant in Fresno, California. My slides always came back blue. Though it was flattering on skyscapes, it was quite far from the reality of a blanched greyish-brown California sky.
Nothing really captures the spectrum of reality and it seems as if reduction and negation are our only tools to deal with it. Yes, it is quicksand. I may not have the power, but I’m doing my best to learn to swim through the particles I can grasp. I don’t think I’d look as good in a funny hat as Crowley does.
I can’t jam. I’m stuck with making jelly out of my brain. It beats having the blues, especially the phony Technicolor ones.
In a Dark Time is right about poems being “living things.” I'd extend that to words in general. Language is a living, evolving, changing thing. When I first heard this Bowie song, I had no clue about Nietzsche’s superman, or the Golden Dawn, or any of this stuff. I just liked the song. My feelings and interpretation have changed, obviously, over the years. They are deeper now, but I still mistrust the notion of color. I’ve sunk a long way into the quicksand.
One of the weird observations that has been made about me over the years is that I don’t think the way other people do. My process is different, and some people I’ve known have found it fascinating. They just couldn’t figure out how I got from A to B. I get pretty twisted-up sometimes.
But I don’t jam.
For some reason this morning, I thought of Howard. I don’t recall his last name, but I remember a lot of late night conversations. I hadn’t thought of him in a long time, and this time I connected it with some lines from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.”
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress
While in my mid-twenties, I was assistant manager of a hardware store. Howard was the night man in the lumber yard. He looked a bit like Karl Malden with glowing nose offsetting a thin gaunt body wearing a tattered coat; it was the same sort of coat that you see on winos in the street wear, moth-eaten and threadbare. Howard was in his 60s, and irascible. I was forever running interference between him and the kids who worked the nightshift.
Howard didn’t take any shit. His story was a long and complex one, and I learned so much from this man. I got bored easily, so I was forever tearing up the store and building new displays to keep busy. Howard had much experience with this; he used to be a carpenter, and he built all the store fixtures for a major local department store. He passed the tricks on to me, and we talked a bit about his life.
He made enough money as a carpenter to buy a shop in Carmel, California, where he and his wife collected and sold sea shells. Yes, Howard really did sell sea shells by the sea shore. It was quite a lucrative business, but he developed a disease. He was an alcoholic. Howard lost it all, and he told me he was on the streets for over twenty years. He slept in gutters, and fought for survival each day. You could see it in his eyes. Howard was always aware of everything around him; you couldn’t sneak-up on Howard.
When I knew him, he was in the program. He owned nothing, save a rusted bicycle that he rode to work each day from a flophouse downtown. Work for him was a joyous and happy thing, and we crafted a lot of displays together. He was always on time, and always ready to work. He didn’t share his stories easily; it took a lot of coaxing to learn this much. The kids at the hardware store had no idea that such a wealth of life experiences was right there at their fingertips, but I listened and learned from this tattered coat upon a stick.
A few years later, I heard that Howard was hit by a car while riding his bike and became an invalid. I didn’t know how to contact him. I’m sure he’s gone by now. But even as a grumpy old man his soul did sing. And he lives in bits and pieces, in my memory.