Moving walkway at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

from We Learn Nothing

“‘Is it not a shame to make two chapters of what passed in going down one pair of stairs?’ [novelist Laurence Sterne] sighs after [characters] Walter Shandy and his brother Toby have in fact spent a whole chapter getting down one flight. ‘For we are got no farther yet than to the first landing, and there are fifteen more steps down to the bottom and for aught I know, there may be as many chapters as steps.’

In the next chapter, Walter takes a single step down the next staircase, which almost makes you want to cheer, but he hesitates there and starts another conversation—and then, agonizingly, he actually backtracks, withdrawing his foot from the stair and walking all the way back across the landing to lean against the wall. You can’t help but laugh at this, even if it’s with that grudging admiration that says: Aah, you bastard.

But the conversation that Walter and Toby have on the landing is one of my favorites in the book. It’s as if Sterne were saying, Now wasn’t that worth waiting for? And you were in such a rush. … Sterne’s telling us, this bullshit is the good part. … All those digressions were the story.”

—Tim Kreidler, We Learn Nothing


“We had the experience but missed the meaning.” —T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages

Grass not green

Riddle: considered acre-for-acre, what is the most pesticide-, herbicide-, water-, labor-, and cash-intensive crop grown in the U.S.? Right. Your lawn.

Full piece here.

A snippet of wisdom from almost a century ago

No. People do not go to war for abstract theories of government. They fight for property and privilege and that was what Virginia fought for in the Civil War. And Lee followed Virginia. He followed Virginia not because he particularly loved slavery (although he certainly did not hate it), but because he did not have the moral courage to stand against his family and his clan. Lee hesitated and hung his head in shame because he was asked to lead armies against human progress and Christian decency and did not dare refuse. …

It is the punishment of the South that its Robert Lees and Jefferson Davises will always be tall, handsome and well-born. That their courage will be physical and not moral. That their leadership will be weak compliance with public opinion and never costly and unswerving revolt for justice and right. It is ridiculous to seek to excuse Robert Lee as the most formidable agency this nation ever raised to make 4 million human beings goods instead of men. Either he knew what slavery meant when he helped maim and murder thousands in its defense, or he did not. If he did not he was a fool. If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and a rebel — not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God.

That’s W.E.B. DuBois in 1928. He also had this to say in his magazine in 1931:

Screen Shot 2017-08-25 at 8.58.07 AM

You have to hand it to the man. He could write with clarity.

[Both of these I came across in the excellent Civil War Memory blog kept by an alumnus of the university where I work.]

from Portland Magazine

“Do you remember 1970? If you remember, then you were alive when there were almost twice as many plants and animals, forests and fields, as there are now. … I will die in a world that is half as abundantly beautiful as the one I was born into. My children will tear out half the pages in their field guides and throw them away. … Oh for heaven’s sake, people say; change happens. Evolution is a game with winners and losers. If it weren’t for the dinosaur extinctions, there wouldn’t be human beings. Hoorah for the Fifth Extinction! Maybe so. But there is a distinction between change and destruction, and that is the difference between death and murder. … We are like people who live in the penthouse of a hundred-story building, Daniel Quinn writes. Every day we send workers down to remove blocks from the foundation, so we can make our penthouse bigger, fancier.” —Kathleen Dean Moore

Leonard on Leonard

“I thought I was breaking down, but why was I breaking down? There was something I had to protect, some image of myself that I had to protect, and what was the image? A nice guy, a decent guy, a religious guy, a compassionate guy, a smart guy, a beautiful guy? Whatever the images of myself that I had to protect, to defend, they were making me unhappy, and the unhappier I got the more withdrawn I got.” (May 1988)

A Rilke morning

Spent some time with Rainer Maria Rilke this morning. From the second of his “Duino Elegies”:

Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas, I invoke you, almost deadly birds of the soul, knowing about you.

Where are the days of Tobias, when one of you, veiling his radiance, stood at the front door, slightly disguised for the journey, no longer appalling; (a young man like the one who curiously peeked through the window).

But if the archangel now, perilous, from behind the stars took even one step down toward us: our own heart, beating higher and higher, would beat us to death.

Who are you?

Breaking love

I didn’t intentionally pair these two books with each other as my winter break reading. One, Random Family, concerns an extended, rambling family that starts in the South Bronx and drifts in all sorts of directions, none of them good. Some family members stay put; others end up in decaying Troy, N.Y., or various prisons. The second, Without You, There Is No Us, couldn’t be more claustrophobic; it’s a memoir of a Korean-American writer who spent six months teaching English at a science and technology university near Pyongyang, North Korea. On the surface, the books couldn’t have been more different.

In Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx, Jessica, her brother Cesar, his gal Coco, Jessica’s beau Boy George and a further cast of dozens are completely unanchored and untethered in the South Bronx: deep poverty, unreliable family ties, unchecked drug use, random and domestic and drug-related violence, teenage boys and girls with multiple children by multiple partners, unstable and unsafe and ever-changing living arrangements — they live in a world where terrible options and terrible choices go hand-in-hand, where, even if they tried to get out, there’s no way to know where to go and probably no way to get there. As the author writes at one point, even if someone in these circumstances does absolutely everything right (and that would be exceedingly hard to do), success still requires an enormous dollop of rare luck. And Jessica, Coco, et al, are anything but lucky.

By contrast, regimentation, obedience and order thrive among the students of Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. Lessons, classes and private living areas are monitored and reported on. In the writer’s class, students sit up straight and demand more homework; out of class, they march and sing in platoons, attend self-criticism sessions and spend breaks assigned to construction sites. They are only dimly aware of something called the Internet, and many claim to have turned down offers to study abroad. They make enormous, uncomplaining sacrifices to build “the great and prosperous nation” that they genuinely believe is the envy of the world. It is really one massive prison organized to serve the regime, and learning to blindly obey but never complain is a necessary survival skill. The strange title of the book comes from a strange song the students regularly sing; you is then-dictator Kim Jung-il, whose image, words, and control are plastered on every space and seep into every corner of consciousness.

The two books couldn’t seem more different, as I said. Yet, when I set aside Without You, There Is No Us after just having finished Random Family a week earlier, I was struck by just how much the people in them had in common. They are all struggling through lives with meager options; both books are filled with “young people trying to outrun their destinies,” in the words of one of the books’ publishers. They are confronted by social structures that are overwhelming to any individual, and they respond predictably. The Bronx drifters and the North Korean student-soldiers are both trying to get by within a rigged system, to extract whatever meager advantage it allows while avoiding the worst of where the system drags them. The details differ — if you made a continuum labeled “order” at one end and “chaos” at the other, images of the people in these books could illustrate the respective poles — but the dynamic is the same.

The tragedy is that, in both books, we see glimpses of the people who they could become and want to become, but will never actually become. Beneath guarded exteriors, they mull over impossible possibilities. They cry over distant, broken and unfulfilled relationships. It’s no wonder that one word both authors throw around freely is “love.”

I should mention that, while enjoyed both books, Random Family offers a completely different level of depth and complexity. The writer spent more than a decade with her subjects, visiting their homes and tagging along on family gatherings, emergency room visits, meetings with social service workers, and more. It is immersive, engrossing and unforgettable, and the writing is extremely sharp and deft.

Finished a very good book

“This is what it is to be a stranger: when you leave, there is no void.”


“The pauses last too long. The tension is that of a waiting room, and I wonder why I have come, why I have chosen, yet again, to recover the impossible.”

Two small examples of why I enjoyed this gracefully written volume.

A man and a service worker shining his shoes are the first humans ever photographed

The 1838 photograph required a seven-minute exposure, long enough that people and horses passing through this busy Parisian street leave no trace. But one man stopped long enough to have his shoes shined as Louis Daguerre stood above with his lens open. That man and his shoeshiner are the first humans captured in a photo.

This is the scene as Daguerre saw it and as his lens caught it. The photographic print was a reverse, with the street swooping on the left, adding to the surreality.

At least, that’s what they tell me here. I haven’t cross-checked any of this.