Saturday, February 27, 2016

the stick

They came and killed the trees today.
Or at least they seriously lop-otomized them. If spring is i-cumen in in Santa Monica, the sap in our trees won’t be rushing to the edge of the foliage to see it, for we aint’got any. More seriously, the sunlight that filters through the leaves as we have breakfast on the patio will now fall on us without intervention.  
Such is the downside.
The upside is that our tree barbers left behind a rain of stick.
Adam soon spotted the sticks including a long, tapered, easy to grasp number, which he promptly seized. And thus he was inducted into the four dimensions of stick-ness.
The four dimensions are, as every child knows: a. the sword; b., the drumstick; c. the gun (or as Adam thinks of it, one of those things that goes pu ew pu ew and shoots out balls, his interpretation of a paint ball gun ad he saw); and d, the poker.
Adam began by flourishing the stick like a  sword, and followed in exactly the above order. Actually, there is a fifth dimension – the cane – but Adam has not figured this out yet. Or perhaps he is not interested. He did have a model in me, when I was hobbling about on crutches all last summer. Maybe Adam, like his Dad, had enough of that nonsense.
I remember the sticks of my youth! To find just the right stick was one of the scouting talents you picked up if your home was anywhere near a stand of trees broad enough to be called a woods or a swamp. Our neighborhood in Georgia was furnished with both the woods and a swamp, and I spent many a happy afternoon in one or the other, building big muddy dams, pacing along trails, climbing trees, and playing the games: hide and seek, treasure hunt, pirates, and other, jungle-themed ones. It seemed that a lot of children’s tv was set in jungle locales back in those days. Inevitably, sticks played a large part in all of these games.
In Northern Georgia, at the time, there was an abundance of pine. I’ve heard that some beetle borne plague is steadily de-conifering Georgia, which is a shame, even though the conifers are surely an invasive species, which came in after the first cutting. Pine sticks usually had rough bark on them, and you had to strip it off. This usually left your fingers sticky with the reisen residue. Sticky fingers and that green coniferous smell form a leitmotif of my spring days in the fifth grade in Georgia, and I imagine it was the same for many another small child.
As well as the scratchy ramble through the underbrush, and the looking for gold nuggets in the creek (we must have seen some film about gold panning in the North Georgia mountains). Also, catching crawfish in jars.  I also remember a long vine which hung above a hillside that descended int o a ravine, which you could, nerving yourself, swing on.
That was the world in which the stick held a great importance. Still, today, when I go hiking, I like a good stick. I keep a watch for them. When I find one big enough, I use it to walk with. Of course, it is not really necessary – I’ve never been on a trail where I had to use a stick to pull me forward. However, it is psychologically necessary. I like the nice familiar feel of the point of the stick coming down on the soil, perhaps indenting it a little. And I like, most of all, the companionship of it. In the stick, I am allied to all of nature.
I rather envy Adam his coming discoveries in the stick department. Although… he is bound to be a Paris boy, and we don’t come by sticks so easily in the streets, there. In the park, yes. And when he is visiting his relatives. At the moment, here in California, this is one of the perks, I guess.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

puzzling as an art form

There’s a story Dorothy Parker told about herself in an interview in the Paris Review. It concerns one of her first jobs, working as a theater critic at Vanity Fair, with Robert Benchley:
“Both Mr. Benchley and I subscribed to two undertaking magazines: The Casket and Sunnyside. Steel yourself: Sunnyside had a joke column called “From Grave to Gay.” I cut a picture out of one of them, in color, of how and where to inject embalming fluid, and had it hung over my desk until Mr. Crowninshield asked me if I could possibly take it down. Mr. Crowninshield was a lovely man, but puzzled.”
The two parts of this anecdote are perfect. The first part, of course, comes from the undertaking magazine. The picture of the corpse showing how and where to take embalming fluid could be the icon of modernism – it was the patient etherized upon a table taken to the next degree. It replaced piety with a cold and probing curiosity; it looked at our ends, and subtracted the transcendental purpose.
The second part comes from the response. “Mr. Crowninshield was a lovely man, but puzzled.” I think that sums up the critical afterlife suffered by Dottie Parker: a puzzled receptiveness. Such cruelty, or coldness, stemming from a woman. Even today, when there’s been a large shift in gender perceptions, Parker is often dismissed as a woman who refused to grow up. She was witty, we all agree, but in the end too disagreeably puzzling.
Of all effects, the one that irritates the puritan conscious the most is that of ‘puzzling’. We want identity. We want positions. We want the ism and we want it now. Puzzling, which delays the immediacy of intellectual gratification, might be allowed as a start: we have the problem, yes? And we have the solution. But the problem for its own sake? The puzzle as the answer? Forget it.
These reactions depend, of course,on the cultural currents. In the twenties, as consumerism replaced the great American economic force – agriculture – and the cities grew in tandem with the stock market – when the combine of organized crime, forbidden substance, and the expansion of the police became established as  one of the basic forms of governance – writers took up the puzzle, the tease, and the wisecrack as valid responses to life within unclear parameters. Perhaps this is why of all decades, I love the twenties, a miraculous decade for literature across cultures. Parker was alert to all of it. She spotted Hemingway, Eliot, Faulkner. She understood the Mencken canon in which Dreiser figured as a great novelist and at the same time as an idiot when it came to general ideas. And in her greatest stories – like Big Blonde – she put in the pick and pumped in embalming fluid, destroying the mirror as the archetypal instrument of realism.

You can never be cold enough if you are going into that line of work.