Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Churchill on Habit, Hobby, and Change

“Change is the master key. A man can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using it and tiring it, just in the same way as he can wear out the elcbows of his coat…[O]ne cannot mend the frayed elbows of a coat by rubbing the sleeves or shoulders; but the tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthened not merely by rest, but by using other parts…

To be really happy and really safe, one ought to have at least two or three hobbies, and they must all be real.” – Winston Churchill, “Hobbies”, Pall Mall, 1925

A Portrait of the Thomases

“I had yet to see Caitlin’s angry, intellectual milkmaid’s face. I hadn’t realized who it was beneath the dress until I asked a slender, elegant young man next to me. That, he said, with an irony that was the chief ingredient of the new American poetry, is Caitlin Thomas.

I wondered … where Dylan was. Has he hiding his face, too?

He was in the bedroom that opened off the studio, in a corner where he was surrounded by slender young men. It was as if they had thrown up a picket fence to protect him, not only from Caitlin but from America, from criticism, from mortality. He was no longer the pretty, pouting cherub of the Augustus John painting, but a man swollen by drin, and by sorrow, perhaps, or poetry. He looked like an inflatable toy that had been overinflated.

You forgot Dylan’s faults when you read his poems or heard him recite, but he was not at his best at parties. To him, an American party was like being in a bad pub with the wrong people. He appeared to have no small talk– or harly any kind. The slender young men bounced off him in disappointment.” – Anatole Broyard, Kafka was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir

“An elegant memorial”

Leaving our umbrella behind, we picked up the switch panel and marched to the end of the dead-end bridge that jutted out into the water. The reservoir had been created by damming a river: its banks followed an unnatural curve, the water lapping halfway up the mountainside. The color of the water suggested an eerie depth. Falling drops made fine ripples on the surface.

One of the twins took the switch panel from the paper bag and handed it to me. In the rain it looked ever more pathetic than usual.

“Now say a prayer,” one of the twins said.

“A prayer?” I cried in surprise.

“It’s a funeral. There’s got to be a prayer.”

“But I’m not ready,” I said. “I don’t know any prayers by heart.”

“Any old prayer is all right,” one said.

“It’s just a formality,” added the other.

I stood there, soaked from head to toenails, searching for something appropriate to say. The twins’ eyes traveled back and forth between the switch panel and me. They were obviously worried.

“The obligation of philosophy,” I began, quoting Kant, “is to dispel all illusions borne of misunderstanding. . . . Rest in peace, ye switch panel, at the bottom of this reservoir.”

“Now throw it in.”


“The switch panel!”

I drew my right arm all the way back and hurled the switch panel at a forth-five-degree angle into the air as hard as I could. It described a perfect arc as it flew through the rain, landing with a splash on the water’s surface. The ripples spread slowly until they reached out feet.

“What a beautiful prayer!”

Did you make it up yourself?”

“You bet,” I said.

The three of us huddled together like dripping dogs, looking out over the reservoir.

“How deep is it?” one asked.

“Really, really deep,” I answered.

“Do you think there are fish?” asked the other.

“Ponds always have fish.”

Seen from a distance, the three of us must have looked like an elegant memorial.

I just finished reading Haruki Murakami’s Wind/Pinball. It’s an English translation of his first two (very short) novels. It’s mostly of interest to existing Murakami fans. Along with its prologue, it serves as a sort of super-hero-like origin story for his writing. If you’re not already a fan, you’re much better off picking up a copy of his short stories or his 1Q84 trilogy. Murakami clearly isn’t Murakami yet here, but you can still find masterfully rendered scenes like the one above. It’s clear that the seeds of his gorgeously weird characters were present from the start, but it’s equally clear that he needed a few decades of practice to render them with the required clarity.

Highly recommended for people who already buy into Murakami’s style of weird, sparse, ambiguously plotted adventures of beautiful monsters. For everyone else, probably better to start elsewhere in his work.

“…the psychopaths we fear inside ourselves.”

The arch of a highway rose up in the distance to the west. The sky was a shiny orange which turned into a deep blue above the crest of the highway. This highway stood over the sun. It was clear and empty. It was quiet of the ghosts of activity. As I regarded it, traffic slid onto and over it and filled it up to a crawl. In the middle of this queue of vehicles was a truck carrying a multitude of cars, probably to a car dealership. Above the sun, a structure heavy with cars supported a car heavy with cars. The car-carrying truck stopped in the middle of the highway and stood in the front of my imagination for half of my walk. Then the traffic picked up into a flow for an instant. A great tree some tens of meters in front of me blocked my view of the right edge of the bridge. The tree ate the truck with a vicious slowness, and I was again as alone as we all always are, with my sorrow, my sadness, my iPhone, and many meandering anecdotes we own about the psychopaths we fear inside ourselves.

I took my phone out of my pocket. I took a picture of the bridge.

“Tokyo, a city that neuters everything”

“Honma’s therapist was a woman from Osaka, in her mid-thirties. Likable enough, he supposed, but no-nonsense. He’d work himself into a sweat and she’d just egg him on, telling him that Tokyo men have got no balls!

Even here in Tokyo, a city that neuters everything, Osaka people managed to keep their own coloring. They might modify their drawl to a ‘standard textbook’ Japanese, but their accent remained Osaka. It wasn’t without its appeal, he had to admit. Honma himself didn’t have a ‘hometown’ to give his speech any particular flavor.

His father was from Tohoku in the far north. The third son of a poor farmer, he’d made his way to Tokyo soon after the war, looking for work. And had wound up as a cop. He’d had his reasons, but ‘seeing justice done’ wasn’t one of them. Back then, the Japanese had not only been stripped of their honor, with no new cause to fight for, but their rice bowls were empty.

All three of them– his parents and his wife– were from the north. And all three of them now gone. His mother from his father’s village; Chizuko from Niigata, with its heavy snows. Whenever he and Chizuko visitied his folks, Honma had been the odd man out, as if he had no roots, nowwhere he could call ‘home’.

But you’re a Tokyo boy, [Chizuko] used to tease. Honma, however, had never considered himself a native son. There was an indefinable gap between being born in Tokyo and being a ‘Tokyoite.” They say that ‘three generations makes Tokyo home,’ but could a person ever feel a bloodline connection to the place? That was the real question. How could you really speak of ‘hometown Tokyo’ or being ‘Tokyo born and bred’? Today’s city was no place to put down roots. It was a barren field, soil that gave off no smell, unplowed and unwatered. Nothing grew in the big city. People there were tumbleweeds, living on the memory of roots put down somewhere else by their parents or their parents’ parents. And those roots dry up and wither.

That must be why, he thought. Why he always felt a bit sad whenever, in the course of his job, running around the city listening to all these people’s stories, he came across someone whose accent or phrasing identified them immeiatrely as having a ‘hometown.’ Like a child out playing at dusk. One friend, then another gets called in to supper, till finally he’s on his own.” – All She Was Worth, by Miyuki Miyabe

Random Kid, Both Flesh and Not

“Velocity’s just one part of it. Now we’re getting technical. Tennis is often called a “game of inches,” but the cliché is mostly referring to where a shot lands. In terms of a player’s hitting an incoming ball, tennis is actually more a game of micrometers: vanishingly tiny changes around the moment of impact will have large effects on how and where the ball travels. The same principle explains why even the smallest imprecision in aiming a rifle will still cause a miss if the target’s far enough away.

By way of illustration, let’s slow things way down. Imagine that you, a tennis player, are standing just behind your deuce corner’s baseline. A ball is served to your forehand — you pivot (or rotate) so that your side is to the ball’s incoming path and start to take your racket back for the forehand return. Keep visualizing up to where you’re about halfway into the stroke’s forward motion; the incoming ball is now just off your front hip, maybe six inches from point of impact. Consider some of the variables involved here. On the vertical plane, angling your racket face just a couple degrees forward or back will create topspin or slice, respectively; keeping it perpendicular will produce a flat, spinless drive. Horizontally, adjusting the racket face ever so slightly to the left or right, and hitting the ball maybe a millisecond early or late, will result in a cross-court versus down-the-line return. Further slight changes in the curves of your groundstroke’s motion and follow-through will help determine how high your return passes over the net, which, together with the speed at which you’re swinging (along with certain characteristics of the spin you impart), will affect how deep or shallow in the opponent’s court your return lands, how high it bounces, etc. These are just the broadest distinctions, of course — like, there’s heavy topspin vs. light topspin, or sharply cross-court vs. only slightly cross-court, etc. There are also the issues of how close you’re allowing the ball to get to your body, what grip you’re using, the extent to which your knees are bent and/or weight’s moving forward, and whether you’re able simultaneously to watch the ball and to see what your opponent’s doing after he serves. These all matter, too. Plus there’s the fact that you’re not putting a static object into motion here but rather reversing the flight and (to a varying extent) spin of a projectile coming toward you — coming, in the case of pro tennis, at speeds that make conscious thought impossible. Mario Ancic’s first serve, for instance, often comes in around 130 m.p.h. Since it’s 78 feet from Ancic’s baseline to yours, that means it takes 0.41 seconds for his serve to reach you.(9) This is less than the time it takes to blink quickly, twice.” – DFW,”Federer, Both Flesh and Not”

“The world has infinite ways to wrong us.”

“Why does it seem that my fears are forever ill-directed, that what pessimism lies in my nature leads to no true prophecy? How is it that I am always prepared for the very misfortunes I am spared? Know that the reaching tendrils of the analytical mind, even as they wrap themselves round a million problematical abstractions, leave a universe of calamity untouched. The world has infinite ways to wrong us. … Do not ask me, then, what catastrophe will reduce this sorry Earth to dust. I will be the one staring at the skies speaking of asteroidal collision as below my feet the world splits open to swallow us whole.” – Kerry Howley, Thrown

“…space was taken…”

“In regards to the present narration, I feel compelled to defend myself against a certain sort of prejudice endemic to our times. ‘You,’ my gentle detractors will say, ‘who purport to tell the stories of these real men, are but a work of fiction.’ This I do not deny: I stand before you every bit as fictional as longitude and latitude, as the Roman calendar, as the sixty-second minute, and I encourage you to dispose with all of these to the extent that they offend you. The Prime Meridian, an act of imagination, runs over Arctic sea ice, Mediterranean waters, the sands of the Sahara. Do you doubt the sand because you doubt the line? For be assured, in the world I describe, space was taken. The fighters were heard by human ears, each word faithfully recorded. Real fingers ran over the stitches in Sean’s brow. Real tears fell down the face that watched him fall.

Now those who ask that I be as real as Sean have a curious faith in the ability of people with birth certificates and tax IDs to free themselves from the fetters of deception. My (admittedly neurotic) progenitor, on the other hand is so conscious of her own tendency toward self-confabulation that she hesitates to all anything she says of herself a fact. She has never known a real person who saw herself with even passable clarity; never known a storyteller who could tell of a trip to the supermarket without self-gratifying sins of omission. All narrators, I say, are fiction. All. The reliable ones have the decency to admit it.” – Kerry Howley, Thrown

“…you are looking at the ancient earth.”

“The canine breed we call the Afghan hound is doggish enough in its appearance and mannerisms that a parent would not correct a toddler who sees, points, and says “Dog”. When adults begin a philosophical conversation, the issue is not as certain. An Afghan hound is less an item of science and more a thought experiment: to see an Afghan hound is, if its particular haircut invites, to experience with immediacy an imagination of what terrible larger animal’s ghost it is.

If you search for “Afghan hound” on the internet, you will find many pictures. Humans who see fit to purchase possession of such an animal wield their freedom of life-ownership with creative expression. They cut and style the animal’s hair, or pay someone else to. You might see an Afghan hound with its fine soft hair in perfect straight shiny curtains which curl at the floor. You might see a poky twig of hair atop its head, with a pink ribbon bow endowing the animal with a gender identity. You might see the animal with short summer hair. This is where you know that the animal’s hair is not a single horse-mane which runs along its spine, waterfalling over either side: if you look at the animal’s legs, you will see its hairs poking out, dense like a raccoon’s tail fur. The animal’s hair is tight to its skin. The hair is tenacious. The hair appears as the animal’s clothes.

Dog connoisseurs will call pit bulls “pits”. They call dachshunds “wiener dogs”. In conversations about Afghan hounds, we often call them “creatures”. Mention an Afghan hound to, for example, an owner of a purebred Pembroke Welsh Corgi, and this person will maybe say, “Oh yes: those are wonderful creatures.” The Afghan hound transcends its form.

If you look at a live and breathing Afghan hound’s face, you are looking at the ancient earth. You are looking at evolution. This animal has as much in common with a pug or an English bulldog as it does with a sloth, a ferret, a zebra, and an elk. An Afghan hound has as much in common with a chihuahua as it does with a unicorn.

Witness a summer-clothes Afghan hound galloping across a field: here is the history of horses and humans. Witness a shiny formal-dress Afghan hound trotting at a dog show: here is an animal alone in an ocean of itself.” – Tim Rogers, “…A Personal History of the Afghan Hound Canine Breed”

As is often the case with Tim Rogers’ essays, the one quoted and linked above is only minimally about its supposed topic. I should mention that, depending on how prudish your workplace is, it might be consider NSFW. It is definitely, however, a compelling study of love, hope, fear, and (tangentially) Afghan Hounds.

“Standing by the front door, she turnd for one last look, aware that she would never be coming back. The thought made the apartment appear unbelievably shabby, like a prison that only locked from the inside, bereft of any picture of vase. The only thing left was the bargain-sale rubber plant on the balcony, which she had bought instead of goldfish. She could hardly believe she had spent years of her life in this place without question or discontent.

‘Good-bye,’ she murmured, bidding farewell not so much to the apartment as to the self that had lived here.” – Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.