“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, September 01, 2007

lawn 1

In Michael Pollen’s memoir, Second Nature: A Gardner’s Education, which is an account of his experience gardening in an old bit of Housatanic Valley farm he and his wife bought in the eighties, while they were living in Manhattan, begins with the ur-suburban experience of lawn mowing….

At least, ur-suburban for a certain generation. LI’s old man was a farmer wantabee from the day the farm he owned, outside of Syracuse, New York, arm wrestled him into bankruptcy, two out of three falls. Fate shoved him into the heating and air field, and the rest was history – actually, a history that placed him and his family, Yankees, in the suburbs of a Dixie city during the sixties, when the South was breaking out of its apartheid slumbers, and large numbers of Yankees were changing the demographic. So, coming home from another day of dealing with idiots who hadn’t checked the pressure on the lines, miscalculated roof tonnage for their units, or had otherwise fucked up, as was the wont of the whole world besides my Pop (a trait LI has, unfortunately, inherited in spades, although luckily countered by my Mom’s serenity of the long term, which I have also inherited0), he would take comfort in watering, fertilizing, edging, weeding and in other ways pampering the lawn. Like so many places in suburban Atlanta, our subdivision was created by drawing a thin veil of red clay and rock over a former woods-cum-garbage-dump – the woods as a garbage dump being one of the primal modes of contact between the American householder and a buncha trees – and thus was not a promising soil from which to coax dwarf plums, or to transplant friendly Yankee deciduous, like redleaf maple. Yet transplant my old man did. Transplant, actually, a whole generation of landscapers did. From kudzu to pittis porum, the natural history of northern Georgia was remade to the extent that mere humans with bulldozers, nurseries, fertilizers and pesticides could remake it.

Michael Pollen’s father was, apparently, that well known blight in the neighborhood, the guy who DID NOT MOW HIS LAWN. Our neighbor, Mr. Fox, suffered from a similar defect, and his lawn became a terrorist refuge – for indeed, dandelions and crabgrass, to my old man, evoked emotions of horror and anger much like those evoked by the Taliban creeping in from Waziristan in our fresh faced doughboys in the valleys of Afghanistan.

Here’s Pollan:

“The summer he [Pollan’s father] stopped mowing altogether, I felt the hot breath of a tyrannical majority for the first time. Nobody would say anything, but you heard it anyway: wo your lawn. Cars would slow down as they drove by our house. Porbably some of the drivers were merely curious: they saw the unmowed lawn and wondered if someone had left in a hurry or died. But others drove by in a manner that was unmistakeably expressive, slowing down as they drew near and then hitting the gas angrily as they passed – this was pithy driving, the sort of move that is second nature to Klansmen.”

After getting the message, Pollan’s father did a rather American thing – he took his lawnmower out into the tall grass and simply mowed his initials into it. “…as soon as he finished writing them, he wheeled the lawn mower back to the garage, never to start it up again.”
With this family history, it is no wonder Pollan is conscious of lawns. He has written about grass in The Botany of Desire as a sort of parasite on humankind. In Second Nature, he writes, rewriting his NYT article :

Nowhere in the world are lawns as prized as in America. In little more than a century, we’ve rolled a green mantle of it across the content, with scant thought to the local conditions or expense. American has some 50,000 square miles of lawn under cultiation, on which we spend an estimated 30 billion a year- this according to the Lawn Institute, a Pleasant Hill, Tennessee, outfit devoted to publicizing the benefits of turf to Americans (surely a case of preaching to the converted). Like the interstate highway system, like fast-food chains, like television, the lawn has served to unify the American landscape; it is what makes the suburbs of Cleveland and Tucson, the streets of Eugene and Tampa, look more alike than not. According to Ann Leighton, the late historian of gardens, America has made essentially one important contribution to world garden design: the cusotom of “uniting the front lawns of however many houses there may be on both sides of a street to present an untroubled aspect of expansive green to the passerby.” France has its formal, geometric gardens, England its picturesque parks, and America this unbounded democratic river of manicured lawn along which we array our houses.”

Thursday, August 30, 2007

drift and panic, under new management and recently deceased translators

Note for a post: somehow, the whole issue of hyperbolic discounting passed by yours truly. But as I've been doing some desultory research, resting here on my laurels, I've run smack into it. Hyperbolic discounting describes an ordering of future preferences which reflects a non-linear and sudden shift in behavior, rather than an incremental and rationally spaced out one. Thus, for instance, the smoker may resolve, today, to quit smoking in the future, knowing that the effect of smoking is killing him, yet not, in fact, quit smoking in the near future, nor show signs of making plans to quit. Hyperbolic discounting is a nice phrase for drift and panic. Which seems to be the m.o. in the U.S., lately, about a lot of bad habits.

I just thought I'd mark the phrase for some future post.

PS – Correspondents have suggested I mention the deaths of two translators. Michael Hamburger, who translated Celan, Hölderlin, and other extremely dense German poets. Friend of Sebald, poet himself, and, according to his obituary, a big fan of East Anglica, Hamburger’s name is one that will be subconsciously familiar to any American who is interested in international lit, since it figured so often on the title page – “translated by” – but not so often (for our imaginary reader) in glorious solitude (“by”), since it is not by his essays and poetry that he is known.

Edward Seidensticker had a larger profile. The relationship between post-war Japan and the U.S. in the fifties and sixties is still somewhat shadowed by Cold War secrecy. Wiener’s recent book on the CIA pointed out that the party that has pretty much ruled Japan as the PRI once ruled Mexico, the Liberal Democrats, were systematically bribed by the Americans up until the seventies. They were bribed partly to violate the constitution that the Americans originally imposed on Japan – such are the vagaries of imperial whim. Running through the fifties was an undercurrent of guilt regarding the way the war was waged against Japan, most notably the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oddly enough, the most massive bombing of civilian targets in history, the US fireboming of Japanese cities, which resulted in at least 600,000 deaths in less than one year, never has been given the queasy fisheye by the American conscience. Perhaps Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the proxies. Into this mix of need and guilt stepped various influential go betweens who translated Japanese literature and explained Japanese culture, like Edward Reischauer and Donald Ritchie. Many had studied Japanese, during the war, at the Navy’s Boulder Institute – this is where Donald Keene gained his Japanese, and where Seidensticker gained his. The “Boulder boys” – so named by correspondent Edith Terry – dominated the discourse, post-war, in things Japanese. It is fascinating to see how Cold War culture assimilated and mixed themes that were appropriated and bricoleured against that culture – for instance, Zen, which entered into the American mainstream in the fifties as a sort of Cold War gift, and was quickly adopted by the beats and taken to be a route out of America, a form of inner emigration – before of course it became self-help and a part of Cold War therapy culture.

Seidensticker’s great translating feat is, of course, The Tale of Genji, which puts him in that rare group of translators of the essential books – comparable to Constance Garnett, Antoine Galland, Wilhelm von Schlegel. These are the translators’ translators.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

a plea for a natural history of traffic jams




WE had now reached the summit of the loftiest crag. For some minutes the old man seemed too much exhausted to speak.

"Not long ago," said he at length, "and I could have guided you on this route as well as the youngest of my sons; but, about three years past, there happened to me an event such as never happened before to mortal man --or at least such as no man ever survived to tell of --and the six hours of deadly terror which I then endured have broken me up body and soul. You suppose me a very old man --but I am not. It took less than a single day to change these hairs from a jetty black to white, to weaken my limbs, and to unstring my nerves, so that I tremble at the least exertion, and am frightened at a shadow.”

Edgar A. Poe, Descent into the Maelstrom

Every five years or so, I like to drive a car into a traffic jam. Surely being in a traffic jam has become the American way to touch the mythic hero inside, a la Joseph Campbell. In simpler times, it was the big fish story. Gilgamesh wrestled Humbaba, Ahab took aim at the fabled White Whale, and your Gwinnett County householder descends into I-20 from several convenient ramps and takes on only two lanes of traffic open on that three lane Westbound. The third lane is closed for obscure reasons. Apparently, the highway department has decided to pile up big mounds of red clay at selected spots along five miles of the thing. Men in hard hats mill around these mounds, some of them in highly expensive earth movers. They look confused. Perhaps there are cultic motives behind the mounding.

Traffic jams are things of beauty to complexity scientists and a certain breed of architect who moves through the world of forms like a blind flatfish in search of a moderately priced oculist. Kas Oosterhuis, in Architecture Gone Wild, writes reverentially: … the traffic slow slows down, it becomes more dense. The movements go on the blink, the shape of the flow clusters into bloglike forms: this condition announces the impeding traffic jam, the flow in its liquid state. At a given point in the hardening process, the liquid stops flowing, traffic reaches its state of zero moment, it crystallizes (newspapers unfold, mobile phones come into action, the operating system (you) switches to stand-by mode, check Fellini’s film Roma). What shape does the jam have? There is no single shape, it is a dynamic balance possessing a multitude of states, from gaseous to crystalline.”

Well, I can report that the I-20 traffic jam was a cross-phaser – it went from gaseous to dyspeptic to boglike to the shape assumed by a man contemplating the purchase of viagra.

That human beings arrange these formations for their own amusement tells us, I suppose, something about what amuses human beings. Although there is a glory here. Here is something ultra-human, yet 6000 feet above all humanity. Something to compete with waterfalls and hurricanes. In great traffic jam cities like Atlanta, there is a quiet pride in the length and duration of the traffic jam. So, as I slowed the immense black truck that, by a concantenation of absurd circumstances, I was supposed to deliver to my sister at the Kingfisher school (which she owns and directs), into the auto bog, I had a sense that I, too, was an Atlantan. Well, not so fast. First I had a yikes moment, as I looked up from fiddling with the confusing array of buttons and switches that successfully fended off amateur attempts to turn on the radio and noticed that the Toyota I’d been following at 65 per had slowed to 10. As was good and proper, I brought an initial terrified glance into my encounter with the beast. Luckily, I am well trained in braking – ask any unfortunate who has passengered with me! I must admit to some feeling of betrayal. I thought we of the second lane were a team, a 65 m.p.h. team, and we were being let down.

Once inside the jam – I note these things for our post-peak posterity, riding on their mules and keeping the internet intermittently alive by generating electricity from turning giant gerbil wheels – a curious dissolution of the team spirit occurs. Though we are packed together as never before, now, now is the time to instantiate those outlying game strategies that contravene the rules of God, Man, and the equilibrium theories of neo-classical economics. Thus, the notice that the first lane was ending in half a mile operated as a curious invitation to many to get into the first lane. Yes, these clever minxes saw that the first lane was relatively open – due to the sign – and that while the cowed untermenschen in the second and third lanes were dallying, the Nietzschians were going to hurry up to the ending point and barge into the second lane. Of course, us second laners could have blocked that move, but we had already proved ourselves pussies by not plunging into the first lane from the beginning. This does raise a philosophical question about the third laners, however. Surely they were the ubermenschen. Surely they were the speeders, the risk takers. But here, in the midst of the jam (which at this phase had turned the shape of foie gras spread on wet toast), they were two lanes over from the gamers lane. In their tragic plight, the philosophically minded driver could see the whole history of the slave uprising in morals and the fall of the Roman empire.

Now, t.j. heads know that maximizing your jam requires not just plunging into one – any idiot can do that. No, you have to be low on gas, and you have to have a pressing appointment. Some of the fun of the later has been spoiled by the pernicious spread of cell phones. Luckily, LI has never and will never have a cell phone. Extra points come from having one of those cars that starts billowing steam from the hood. But the big black truck had been decently cared for in the radiator department, so I merely had to keep my weather eye on the fuel gauge, where the arrow was fingering the red zone. My plan, of course, was to stick my sister with the cost of filling up this monster. I definitely did not want to spend on it myself. Besides the gas tease, however, I had plenty of time to figure out the radio/stereo system, read a chapter of War and Peace, and gaze about, looking for the babes among my neighbors. Actually, most of my neighbors looked rather like pole struck oxen. The expressions ran from the stultified to the dissatisfied. Although of course I couldn’t survey the lot – surely some were heroically gleaming, aware of the historic occasion into which they had blundered. I would wager that all of them, however, would at some later point in the day mention that they had been in a traffic jam.

We edged past the Panola exit as in a dream. I know what dream, too. It is the one where somehow, you are trying to walk down the road or over the floor and you can’t seem to get anywhere.

Perhaps Leibniz was dimly foreseeing the traffic jam when he came up with that monad idea. Each of us did have a mirror in our vehicles, but otherwise we lived in our traffic jam with a maximum of self enclosure, on up to the microclimate produced by the a/c. And this is why I am rather surprised at the road rage fashion – none of which was really on display in this jam. In a sense, this was a break in the day. Each could meditate on the four last things, if desired. Or compose a recipe or grocery list. Traffic jams are ideal for poets and hermits. If the desert fathers had known about them, they surely would have deserted the caves for the friendlier, but still solitary, medium sized automobile.

At some point, as suddenly as it had congealed, the traffic jam took on the shape of a dead man pitching a spitball. In other words, it broke apart. There was, suddenly, empty highway – emptiness being, here, a metric for the possibility of going 75 miles per and not crashing into the bumper of the guy ahead of you. In fact, the guy ahead of you is going 80. And thus my big black truck freed itself from the posse of 18 wheelers and the inchworm action of the Jetta in the second lane who was breaking the eleventh commandment: thou shalt not hold up traffic. Yes, my jam time was over. And what had I learned?

Well, it is hard to say. The true descent into the traffic jam (contra Godard’s Weekend) has still not been made. We need a Dr. J.M. Rossbach. In 1870, Dr. Rossbach realized that battlefields were not just battlefields – just as a rose is not just a rose – but occasions to study rigor mortis. Thus, he went traipsing over the battlefield at Sedan and Beaumont, measuring and observing the dead soldiers, and reported his observations in an article entitled Over initial rigor mortis in cases of immediate life-ending events (Ueber eine unmittelbar mit dem Lebensende beginnende Todtstarre). He noticed the “preservation of the expressive effects of the last moments of life in the face” of many soldiers, noting, however, a few anomalies – “in a group of six French soldiers, killed by a grenade blast, on an elevation at Beumont, [there was one] with a smiling, happy face, which only lacked the top half of its skull, torn away by the grenade blast.” My problem is that, unlike Dr. Rossbach, I did not have carte blanche to get out of the big black truck and walk about amongst my fellow jamites, to see how they were taking it. Someday, some sociologist should pack students up in a truck or van and plunge into a jam and, in the slow heart of the heart of it, let the students rush among the vehicles, taking pictures and giving out survey forms. Otherwise, this odd feature of modern life may pass away, in silence, when this civilization is good and extinct.

Monday, August 27, 2007

more chatter

LI, on vacation, doesn’t do that thing called thinking. Vacations are inherently anti-Cartesian. Into the vacuum enters, embarrassingly enough, poetry. And though I am rapidly making my way to the grave, I still haven’t given up such childish joys as masturbation and making one line follow another, and even searching for rhymes. But don’t worry, I am not about to throw a pile of poetry into the face of the public. This is just an observation of the automat within me.

If I were thinking, I’d look at the papers, I’d look at the current state of play on Iraq, the pre-September follies, the incredible demonstration that distance is the equivalent of the worst vileness – civilization and the moral imperative probably have a precise ending point, say at 2020.9 miles from one’s home - and I’d slit my wrists, metaphorically speaking, or try to shed this human skin and become inanimate. But those, too, are childish fantasies – if you live in the monster, you are the monster. That’s that.

Instead of which, I will translate this paragraph from De L’amour, chapter 33:

“Always a small doubt to tranquilize, this is what makes for that thirst persisting every instant, this is what makes the life of love happy. As fear never abandons it, its pleasures can never bore. The characteristic of this happiness is extreme seriousness.”

LI gets a deep satisfaction – the satisfaction one gets from all vertiginous art, or the art, simply, of the baroque – from the variations of tone and sensibility Stendhal gets out of one little word, here: ‘happiness’.