Dog's Dinner

"You're not loved because you're lovable, you're lovable 'cause you're loved."

Saturday, December 11, 2004

In a Moment of Calm

One of the most pleasant sensations I can think of is that of absent-mindedly, unintentionally recalling something, which you did not really expect to remember or reconsider, but pops up repeatedly whenever your mind is at ease and open to intrusion. I've been feeling that way about an essay by Elisa New, on Hawthorne, that I read in the New Republic in August, especially this line at the end:

Wherever he roamed, Hawthorne's dwelling place was New England, but his art was never so parochial a place. It occupies, instead, the liminal and highly charged zone where the psyche, cast off from its lonely foundations, risks true growth.

I don't even have anything to say about this now; no reaction I can put into words at all. It has to do also with the schoolwork I have been doing lately, especially on a set of ancient Chinese poems about lovesick shamans and retiring divinities. Unfortunately I can hardly express an ounce of what I feel altogether, and I don't know when I will be able to make something out of this feeling now.


As I write, highly civilised human beings sit behind me, conspiring to drive me insane.

They're extramural students of German Philology, and they've chosen the school library to do their crunching in. As far as I can tell, chips are being eaten-- whatever it is is being consumed with great gusto. The munching is accompanied by the occasional rattle of cellophane, also rather loud. It all brings me back to the days when I used to watch old films at the Boulder Public Library; some of the greatest evenings of my life, when I was a boy and, thanks largely to impresario Chuck Loomis, later in college; but some of the most irritating moments of my life as well, thanks to three proliferating species of modern moviegoer: the Cruncher, the Crinkler and the Talker (with its subspecies of the Appreciator, the Explainer, the Complainer, the Skeptic, the Class Wit, etc.). I now see that while not as morally reprehensible as doing so in a movie theater, eating and talking loudly near someone who is trying to read can be equally irritating and disturbing. Well, at least no lips are being smacked, yet.

In point of fact, eating in this library is against school rules. The chief administrator of our school (the "Principal" or "Headmistress" as some of the students say, rather quaint for a college) once admonished some students, while scolding them for eating or drinking or wearing coats or some such, to "Treat this as you would a real library," well put, since this is not, indeed, your father's library: it has about six books (OK, about sixty-six) and none of them are available to students for checkout; they can only be consulted during library hours. But it's nonetheless my favorite room in the Academy, and not only because it houses the Internet; the librarians are two very sweet ladies (they work alternate shifts) and the walls are painted a gentle shade of avocado in contrast to the hospital white of the rest of the school, so it has a certain warmth and coziness all its own.

So anyway, I could mention that this crunchfest is in violation of the regulations, but that's not my style, and anyway it would be hypocritical since I've often (quietly) enjoyed a pickle or a tangerine in here. Furthermore, it would be depriving myself of the possibility of some good improvisational theater later on should the Matron happen to appear. I just realized that's the title that fits her best, if polite language is being used (this is a family blog, after all).

The Matron is sort of like The White Witch from the Chronicles of Narnia, but without the charm. Or the beauty, not to mention brains. What I mostly mean by the comparison is that she manages to create an atmosphere here at the school where it's "Always Winter and Never Christmas."

But human nature has a way of defeating this eternal winter. For example, just thinking about the Matron for a few seconds has made my previous rage at the Crunchers and Crinklers vanish into thin air.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Enough is Enough

In seventh grade, the awkward boy, a green, bewildered Boulderite newly transplanted to what then seemed the matter-of-fact megapolis of DC, a misfit unaware of who was the Redskins' star quarterback and later to be nicknamed "Dada" by an English teacher for his incoherent clowning, loved visiting suburban malls with his family on weekends, if only to briefly high-tail it from their stultifyingly practical and prosaic shopping rounds and chase his own private VisionQuest, scouting the Sam Goodys and other fluorescent-lit music chains of the counties Fairfax and Montgomery for old Depeche Mode albums, glowing, shimmering arcana, the Silmarillion of DM fandom for a pre-teen neophyte in 1986. More than that, he loved scouting the urban music shops, chain or Mom&Pop, for the twelve-inch singles with their tantalizing treasures: the extended remixes, the live versions (where, curiously enough, Dave Gahan tended to sound slightly less like a young Adonis and slightly more like a laid-off Basildon factory worker after a few pints), the bonus tracks: it was just possible, remotely, that there might be a new song, never before released, in the magic stretch of rack between Deep Purple and Devo; there might even (gasp) be a New Single.

Even more than that, he, or should I say, I, loved riding the L2 or L4 from Van Ness to Dupont of a Friday afternoon while listening to DM's masterpiece, Black Celebration, or their best-of collection, Catching Up With Depeche Mode. The highlight of the show was riding over the bridge just after Woodley Park-Zoo Station: the listener became ensconsced in green trees and blue sky and felt the ecstatic heartache of the truly tragic, whether listening to the darkly erotic dirge "Fly on the Windscreen" or the buoyant yet somber closer, "But Not Tonight."

But the elusive Grail, the perpetual motion machine that I dreamed of possessing, was the Depeche Mode video. MTV was not the eclectic and pluralistic multi-tiered operation then that it is now, no sir. Actually, I don't remember if my family even had MTV that autumn, but I rather doubt it. We had, however, had it in Boulder that summer, and after my conversion upon listening to Some Great Reward (in fact the real masterpiece, DM's Revolver if Black Celebration is their Sgt. Pepper), an unbirthday gift from my good friend Degan, I had been ever alert and on standby for some gobsmacking Gesamkunstwerk or Gotterdammerung from the Boys from Basildon; and by the Sevenfold Shield of Ajax, that accursed spawn of Satan MTV (Channel 11 on Boulder TV at the time, I remember) had well and truly failed me.

Having joined Columbia House Record Club, as I believe it was then called (you know the drill: "ten pennies, ten albums" or some such and then you sign in blood) in the spring of that fateful year, I went ahead and ordered the anthology "Depeche Mode: Some Great Videos." But what I got in the mail some three weeks later turned out to be something called "Depeche Mode: Live in Hamburg," a concert on the Some Great Reward tour, featuring a more-than-usually atonal Gahan. Gahan's shocking oafishness and smallness-in-stature notwithstanding, it was fun to see them in concert; still, the disappointment, after waiting so long for a kaleidoscope of futuristic video art juxtaposed with My Favorite Music as-heard-on-album, was bitter.

[The discrepancy, however, later became the ace up my sleeve in a tense game of cat-and-mouse with the sinister minions of the dread Columbia House. The threat of a lawsuit for false advertising kept the bastards at bay.]

And if there was one song I really wanted to see illustrated on film, despite all the bubblegum back-street/wolf's-lair poignancy of Some Great Reward and the sugar-coated apocalyptic romance and cynicism of Black Celebration, and the candycorn Socialist agitprop of Construction Time Again and the Poor Man's Ray-Ban Wordsworthiana of A Broken Frame, it was probably DM's poppiest, happiest and most radiantly joyous hit ever: "Just Can't Get Enough," from the first album, Speak & Spell, with a spruced-up, clean-shaven version on Catching Up. Although at the time I had never really been in love, the song, a euphoric Valentine, gave me a crystal-clear premonition of what the happy moments of being in love would be like. I listened to it in the rain, walking home, on the bus, in my room, on lunch break, any chance I could get, and it never seemed to get old. When I eventually did fall in love, it was there for me again, and I again embraced its truth, this time with the feeling of being in on the secret.

Alas, the prayed-for Gesamkunstwerk, the consummation of the revelation, never came. I saw them perform "A Question of Lust" on TV at some Pan-European Christmas Eve concert in Vienna (I think) that December (I remember the Eurythmics sort of blew them out of the water, even for a Mode-ahadeen, if you'll excuse the slightly tired metaphor, like me), which quenched my thirst like Coca-Cola, and in 1988 I got to see them live in concert at some outdoor arena near DC with my sister Sarah, older brother Geoff and Bavarian shaman Joern (a sort of au pair boy who stayed with us that spring when Nick [known to readers as Small Man] was still actually small). But by that time I was much more into the Beatles, after a brief Cure phase.

Imagien my surprise after all these years, then, when I finally happened to catch the video of "Just Can't Get Enough" on MTV Classics in a bar (the one where Karen X's double works) near my apartment here in Gliwice some weeks ago. The great burning unfulfilled desire of my early adolescence (besides, um, er, the obvious) had been satisfied. And it turned out to be curiously uninvigorating. The video mostly features the lads hanging out in a bar or on some street, presumably in London, lip-synching without any particular panache. The most memorable feature, to be honest, is the slightly embarrassing haircuts of most band members, very dashing at the time no doubt.

Speaking of which, the Williams Family Christmas Card Pics (taken at Thanksgiving) of that year document for the ages my seventh-grade obsession with Being Dave Gahan. As I recall, I actually brought a photo of Gahan, probably from Star Hits (US version of UK Smash Hits) magazine, to the hairdresser and asked for something similar, i.e. an inoffensively spiky crew cut. (Ironically, people have since told me that I bear some resemblance to Gahan's Secret Sharer, curly-haired Martin Gore, blond lyricist and "Maidenform Man" of the band.) (My hair changed from straight to curly during the eighth grade; my blondness has since been steadily diminishing.) Fortunately Gahan in '86 was well past his mullet phase, otherwise I might really have something to regret now.

So we see that indeed, as E.M. Forster shows in his slight, but charming story, "Mr. Andrews" (well worth reading in a time when misguided Muslims and Christians talk of Holy War), it is not the fulfillment of desire, but desire itself, which brings joy. And not just any desire, in fact, but the desire to make others truly happy. Which Gahan and Gore have done a good job at over the years, in their own way. As a very serious, very postpunk British critic (contemptuously dismissive of and hostile to Duran Duran) wrote in 1981 after a concert at Hammersmith, "They are the boys who want tomorrow, with the best will in the world."

Monday, December 06, 2004

Like, Totally Unreal, Man (Radio Dub)

[This piece has been revised somewhat as of 10:31 PM Poland time, December 6, 2004. I often revise pieces after the fact but in view of the glaring errors in the first paragraph of this one I am making note of it here. For those who encountered the earlier version, I can only say in my defense that a) whether in the internet cafe or the school library, my blogs are generally composed to the caterwauling of rambunctious teens and twentysomethings, rendering total concentration of the faculties a near-impossibility; b) I haven't actually been teaching English grammar since spring semester-- I now more or less exclusively "teach" or rather, conduct Conversation, of which more later-- so the technicalities aren't as fresh in my mind as they might be.]

Teachers of English as a Second Language generally train their students to measure the conditionals by ascending degrees of unreality (or, descending degrees of probability): The "Zero" Conditional is used for unchanging Laws of Existence: "If you die in your dream, you die." The First Conditional indicates a real possibility: "If you're a good girl, I'll buy you an orange." But not always a very real one: "If Will-o'-the-Wisp wins, we can go to the Bahamas." The Second, often used for daydreaming, indicates hypothetical situations of varying degrees of possibility or im: "If he were dead, you'd weep for him." "If you were a man, you'd fix that drain yourself." And the Third indicates something that never happened and now, never will. Sometimes used to advance an argument about the past which may affect the future: "If the Great Powers had jointly invaded Germany in 1936, the Holocaust wouldn't have happened." Other times used to wallow in self-loathing: "If I had listened to the color of my dreams, things would've turned out very differently."

Here are the Third Conditional sentences in Battersby's book, as written:
If Jane hadn't stayed out in the sun so long, we'd never have met each other.
If my parents had had more money, they wouldn't have stayed together so long.
If Mike and Cathy had got married, he wouldn't have got into trouble.
If we hadn't gone to Jackie's party, you would have enjoyed yourself.
If we'd arrived just a few minutes earlier, she wouldn't have got sunburnt.
Stupid man! If he'd followed our advice, I'm sure he would have regretted it.
If I hadn't spent every night at the disco, they could have sent me to a better school.
He's happy now, but if he'd accepted the job, we might have caught the train.
If you had remembered to bring the road map, I might have done better in my exams.
It was a great party. If you'd gone, we wouldn't have got lost.

And from the Mixed Conditionals, just a few:

If we're going to catch that train, we'd better get a couple bottles of wine.
If you were thinking of applying for that job in accounts, you never will.
If it's nine o'clock in the morning here, why didn't you say?
If you must practise the trumpet in your room, don't bother-- it's gone.

I've been reading and re-reading Strunk & White's Elements of Style lately, more just for fun than for guidance-- many's the time I've sinned against its edicts and I'm sure to continue to do so in the future. But it is a tremendous delight to read, even if you disagree with some of its precepts, the writing (as you would expect of E.B. White) is unparalleled in its elegance and some of the examples are fun. I've often thought that writing a textbook would be pleasurable to the extent that it involves dreaming up examples-- not that the Elements, or "The Little Book," is a textbook, but they have that in common.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Another Perspective on Modernity

Quoth Bertie Wooster:

You know, the longer I live, the more clearly I see that half the trouble in this bally world is caused by the light-hearted and thoughtless way in which chappies dash off letters of introduction and hand them to other chappies to deliver to chappies of the third part. It's one of those things that make you wish you were living in the Stone Age.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Empty Nests

There's a sweet Talk of the Town piece in the New Yorker this week about a support group for empty-nest parents. I especially liked this quote:

“I think this empty-nest thing is a new phenomenon,” one weary-looking mother of two said. “I went to a Syrian wedding recently, and they all live just two blocks from each other.”

It certainly seems to me a lot of our societal customs and organizations are designed for families that are geographically united. Actually, the children discussed in the piece haven't travelled much farther than Brooklyn. In our family, though, it's typical for at least one or two children to be on different continents at any moment. Telephones and email and jet planes compensate for dislocation, indeed make it possible, but they don't compensate entirely. In dreams begins responsibility; with freedom comes loss. There's something tempting about living in a large but tight-knit family all under the same roof, even though you know in practice it would be stifling and unbearable to a modern person.

But I'd better get back to work.

Starry-Eyed and Vaguely Discontented

Another fiendishly spring-like day today in Gliwice. Having slept longer than usual and then rolled over and slept some more, I didn't get around to going outside until after twelve, and when I did, I briefly savored the delusion of having slept all winter and awoken in early April.

The holiday celebrated November 30 in Poland is St. Andrew's Night, or better, The Feast of St. Andrew, not St. Andrew's Eve, and I apologize for the error. Yesterday for the first time I got to take part in some traditional Andrzejki revels. The most interesting ritual is fortune-telling with wax, water and key. You melt some hot wax, then pour it through the hole in an old-fashioned key (where the hole is quite big) into a bowl of cold water, then let it form into some shape or shapes which you remove from the water and "read."

My lump of wax was variously interpreted as a butterfly, a chick bursting forth from the egg, a snail or turtle poking its head out of its shell, a sea-horse, or: human intestines or other internal organs.