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January 5th, 2013 | small opinions | Comment First »
My dad sent me an email with quotes from interviews conducted in 1987 by a woman named Mev Puleo, a woman that I never knew but whose story and work had a profound impact on my parents. I do know that she wrote a book that drew extensively from those interviews and from the experiences of the Brazilians she talked with during that year. The book is titled The Struggle is One. I know little enough about her to be embarrassed even to use her name here, but I was struck enough with one of the quotations in my father’s email that I had to get it down. It reminds me of the mind-boggling power Knut Hamsun’s Hunger had over me — the poor man feeling shame for not having enough to give (not, as I would expect, the shame of not having enough for himself). Here’s the quote:
‘When I moved to the city, I have the greatest sorrow when I pass a poor person begging, and I don’t have anything to give him! I go and hide in my house so he won’t see my face. The worst thing in the world is to have nothing to share with a person poorer than myself.’
I go and hide in my house so he won’t see my face!
Why is that simple statement so shocking to me? How many times do I pass a needy person near my workplace, or walking to a restaurant to spend impossible amounts of money over and over again on food and drinks? And all the defenses I have built up around my lack of giving (defenses, I have to remind myself, that seem valid even sitting here now. Looking out my window as I work, I may see this same man hunched into a closed doorway smoking crack while a companion looks down both ends of the street in case the cops come around).
For the man in this interview, the scene is much more direct. Knut’s man in the city is so poor he can barely afford a glass of milk, and when he can get some it makes him sick, or he wants to give it immediately away. Maybe it’s that he has no interest in “collecting.” But in my life, there is a deep sense of gathering resources in part to quiet internal fears of running out, of getting to the point of hunger, or being put on the street. I have bank accounts. Credit cards. Family members with pantries packed with cans and dried pasta and bottles and on and on. The distance between myself and hunger seems, at least, to be great.
Is that part of my intrigue? I get a simliar rush thinking about what would happen if the civic safety nets around me started to dissolve. What would I get up to if the lights went out? If the boats stopped coming in. If the grocery store went down. The rush of forgotten capabilities. A real struggle.
My thoughts start to fragment here — gun ownership and laws, disaster preparation, fetishizing drifterness — so I’ll close it down. There’s an old feeling here, though, and I’ll be keeping a look out.
April 26th, 2012 | small opinions | Comment First »
So give me a break already.
OK here’s something. I’ve been thinking about Joan Didion’s 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem again recently as I make a new rule for myself. The rule is that I must end my Sunday night with both my personal and work email inboxes down to zero unread messages. It’s a reflex against a crutch that I have: to read an email, believe that I need to write something amazing in return, and then mark it as unread again and again as it goes unanswered.
I like the plan. It means I either get right back to the person who wrote me or else I make room for that reply at a better time. This lies somewhere between self-help/productivity type crap and a real assessment of how I communicate with people. Which is where Didion comes in.
To paraphrase: leaving unanswered correspondence is pure vanity. What? Do I think my answer is so important that the person on the other end is just sitting on their hands awaiting my brilliant reply? Do I think there’s some better me that will pull out the quill pen, light a cigar and uncover something never before uttered?
OK this is the internet. I have to log off. More later.
April 1st, 2012 | small opinions | Comment First »
It’s been a very long while since I last posted, so here I am with a little update not only to the content, but to the container. With just enough HTML to clean the shit out of this theme I’ve based the site upon, I set out to clean up some of the unnecessary bits and make this site a little nicer to read.
Now to test the theory that if I like interacting with the thing more, if it’s prettier and cleaner, I’ll actually use it more. Of course I’m off to see the Portland Timbers play the second home match of the 2012 season (their second in MLS). So this is all for now.
January 20th, 2011 | small opinions | Comment First »
Charles Krauthammer reminds me of a snapping turtle.
The nose. The folded brow. The vile lips.
Please feel free to recommend other Fox News commentators and the unsightly animals they resemble. I’m happy to mash them up.
December 7th, 2010 | strong opinions | Comment First »
A week ago, more than a week ago, I decided to fill a planless day by sitting in the coffee shop below my apartment and drinking coffee while I finish the book I’ve been reading too long now. Also, I’m taking a break to write this post on my phone to test whether this tactic might remove even one more barrier to regular posting – namely, the burden of lugging the machine around. Also writing this post in two different times and being OK with it just because of Hamsun, if you know what I mean.
Two men about my age are taking up two side-by-side tables in the center of the cafe, clearly together in some conspiracy to judge anyone who walks through the door. There’s a real aggression in the way they occupy too much space, and how they touch one shoulder to the other, doing their own thinking, coming back together to mumble about something, and going back to their stares. Neither man faces his own table, opting instead to open his legs to the one walking lane between the two rows of tables and the counter.
Recently I find myself wanting to interrupt strangers who engage themselves in some public rudeness: a loud conversation on the phone on the train; talking through a live performance; keeping reserved seats on the bus while elderly dodder toward the back; leaving shopping carts in the middle of everything. And I’m not talking about some little comment uttered under the breath or a request to please do a little thing differently in the moment. No. I’m inclined to a perverse self-righteous anger and, worse?, the impulse to lecture. How could you sit there polluting my airspace, and these other people you see here, with your obnoxious conversation about how you can’t believe your friend doesn’t know the definition of the word “remediate”? Or the conversation with some amateur advisor whose advice you won’t heed?
I’m of two minds. The one that says interruption and instruction, well, as much as I want to scratch that itch, I still don’t know what it will take to plunge into my own public outburst. Where do I get the right? I try to pinpoint that one move that will push me over the edge into confrontation. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve felt so so close. Close enough to have my voice box cleared up. Close enough to lean forward. Close enough to feel the adrenaline pump through my veins like I’ve just been in a fight. I could list a thousand things that stop me from stepping over, but I know there’s a trigger out there.
December 7th, 2010 | small opinions | Comment First »
It was cold out so I wore gloves, used my top lip to end the call. Kissed the phone to end the call.
October 19th, 2010 | Uncategorized | 1 Comment »
The other day, as I was crossing the Willamette River in a Yellow Line MAX train, I noticed a shipping vessel docked at the Albers Mill spot, just north of the Broadway Bridge. The ship was somewhat larger than most that dock there, large enough to grab my attention for a moment. First, how strange that a massive ship like this could possibly venture so far inland, some 80 miles of river inland from the ocean, the kind of sight that reminds you there’s a reason this town is called Portland (other than the famous coin flip, of course). Inland ports are nothing unique, of course. There’s the Port of Sacramento, a city that’s even farther from the seashore. Ports dotting the Great Lakes whose ships come and go from the Atlantic, itself hundreds of waterway miles distant.
But the point is, this ship I saw, its massive red hull above water while it awaited whatever heavy load would be spit into its holding tanks or bins or whatever you call them, had a name that struck me: Thalassini Kyra, a cargo ship sailing under the Maltese flag.
Nearly every day a ship floats idly in that same spot, either recieving or depositing cargo that I assume is food-related: grains, mostly. I have no proof of this other than a large, seemingly rickety conveyor belt, and the six-pack-of-silos look of the building on shore, which as far as I know is a vestage of times past. So the appearance of the Thalassini Kyra didn’t strike me per se, but rather the ship’s name.
Kyra was the initial name I gave to the love interest in the book I’m writing, a girl who’s now called Thalia. And cargo ships play a large role in the underlying anxiety of the book — along with freight trains, diesel fuel, open mines, logging. Staples of the Pacific Northwest and of America’s most muscular years of growth. Intimations of both World Wars, Manifest Destiny, on and on. And Anson, the main character, is obsessed with the Italian city of Trieste, a city whose history is critical in the advent of global shipping lines, international trade, the efficient distribution of post, and is itself a torn place that lies across the international border between Italy, its current flag, and Austria, its home during the heady days of Osterreichischer Lloyd — the Austrian Lloyd — and the birth of steam navigation.
August 28th, 2010 | small opinions | 2 Comments »
This morning I received my first electronic missive from Stephen Elliott’s “Daily Rumpus” email group. A friend of mine recommended that I subscribe because, in addition to being a good writer, Stephen does the thing we admire most: he writes something interesting every single day. And it’s good enough to share with the world! Take this paragraph as an example (it appears in the middle of his 28 August 2010 post, just a toss-away paragraph that reviews two recent movies better than any full-page review I’ve seen):
And yet, the movie makes sense. There’s a logic of violence and parable established in the opening scene. There are people in this film that are nearly impossible to kill, they stroll through rooms casually dismembering men with machine guns. AK 47s are no match against someone who knows how to use a knife. Once you’ve accepted this (and the excessive gore that accompanies it) the film never deviates. Which, if you think about it, is the opposite of Inception, where new rules were continually being introduced to make the story tenable. First you have to believe they can enter your dreams. Then, you can die in your dreams. Eventually, when it’s convenient, you have to believe that time moves slower the deeper your dream state. You also have to believe that only Leonardo Di Caprio has demons. Two thirds of Inception was spent explaining Inception. Machete never explains itself. This is the world you are in.
To be honest, I’m writing this post before I even finish reading Stephen’s email because his delivery method seems so brilliant and simple at the same time. Most of us have so many demands on our time (what percentage of my friends, most of them readers, has been able to finish more than one book this summer?) and so many social feeds competing for our fleeting attention that we don’t give content its due.
But email. If I care enough to subscribe to you, I’ll spend the time to open the email, read the first paragraph to see if I’m drawn in, and, shit, I might even write a response. You aren’t needy. You aren’t asking me to go searching for you. And if I don’t feel like reading you today, no big deal. You’ll give me another try tomorrow.
Of course, there are readers and RSS aggregators and other ways to gather massive amounts of content to you. But even those get clogged and require tending, like some garden where it’s easy to plant everything under the sun, but much harder to do the reaping.
So, kudos to Stephen Elliott for doing two things well: creating excellent work every day, and making it very easy to get your hands on that content.
Now I’ve got to finish reading my first delivery.
August 9th, 2010 | Uncategorized | 2 Comments »
“He knew what made him happy, and what made him mad, and what to do about each. In this way he was a true adult.” — From Richard Ford’s book The Sportswriter.
I loved this line the moment I saw it in a recent Lapham’s Quarterly, the one about “Sports & Games.” Since first reading it two months ago, I’ve thought of it often, in conversations ranging from light issues like taste in food to more serious talk about fidelity, love, the things that define what quality of person you are in relationships.
What excites me most about those two sentences is the way they swiftly get at something we don’t talk about enough: what it means to be an adult. It’s a problematic word, adult, because I don’t think it means simply adding years or responsibilities; there are plenty of people in their middle years with important jobs and families that I wouldn’t consider adults, but why? What’s missing?
One of my dearest friends in the world, a woman named Att who helped raise me during difficult times for my parents (much longer story there, but suffice it to say Att is the most curious person I’ve ever known, and one of my best friends even with an age differential of some fifty years), gave me her thoughts on the subject when I was last in St. Louis half a year ago. She said that people don’t live long enough to become adults, it’s just an accident that we grow old and die so quickly, without figuring anything out. Those aren’t her exact words, but what I took from her statement was that we should be willing to forgive people, no matter their age or station, because we’re all still learning and failing and fumbling on as children.
That simple idea — you never become an adult — is striking even if you disagree. Which I do. So back to the Ford quote and why the seemingly funny line (a joke!) is serious.
I tend to use a kind of general filter to answer the first part of Ford’s construction, namely, to answer what makes me happy and what makes me mad. But I’m starting to wish I didn’t have to wait for that filter to spring into action before deciding what would make me happiest in a given situation. I feel reactive in that way, reactive to my own happiness. The most common negative result is that I spend a good deal of time on something that makes me mad, while not realizing earlier how to act on it and move on.
Which brings us to the active part: “…and what to do about each.” That part that drives me crazy. How often do I face a situation that makes me mad, and I have no idea what to do about it, or, even worse, that I have an idea of what to do but no resolve or means to act.
I guess that’s where I’ll end this rant for now. Let’s call this part of an ongoing probe in how to better pursue those things that make me truly happy and avoid the trap of what I should do, but which makes me, well, mad.
August 8th, 2010 | Uncategorized | Comment First »
I love my neighborhood on days like this, when I can just walk downstairs and grab a breakfast sandwich from Moxie and a perfect americano from the Fresh Pot.