Thursday, June 03, 2010

Slowly Read and Dream

I’m not a critic. Never have been. When it comes to journalism, my thing is writing stories. Let the stories speak for themselves, you know? But that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy critiquing; that I don’t go over things in my head — song lyrics, an actor’s mannerisms on screen, brushstrokes from a Rothko painting — and think about why I believe those things are good, bad, terrible or profound.

With that in mind, I want to share with you a poem that I like; one that I long ago memorized and feel is far superior to many others. The poem is William Butler Yeats’ “When You Are Old.” Now, I can’t say when I first came across this poem, but I can say that I remember being awed by its crushing beauty. I want to share something that I like best about the poem with you, but first, without further ado:

          When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
          And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
          And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
          Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

          How many loved your moments of glad grace,
          And loved your beauty with love false or true,
          But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
          And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

          And bending down beside the glowing bars,
          Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
          And paced upon the mountains overhead,
          And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

In addition to the incredible way Yeats mixes melancholy ideas and images ⎯ love fleeing, a quick, sorrowful expression ⎯ with those that are happier ⎯ a photo album, the comfort of a fire place ⎯ to evoke a feeling of pure nostalgia (a mixture, mind, you, that is quite effective. After all, why do you think that the Beatles song “In My Life” is so popular? It, too, melds sadness with happiness with heartbreak and hope, four feelings that for the most part mark our lives on earth and characterize our relationships with each other), there is something else at play in “When You Are Old.”

The way in which certain words rhyme — or sort of don’t rhyme — in the poem, which was written in 1892 for the Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne, a woman Yeats loved but who would never marry him, is reminiscent of one of life’s truths.

Read the first line of the first paragraph. You see how it ends at the word “sleep”? O.K., now read the first paragraph’s last line. You see how it ends at the word “deep”? These two words rhyme, of course. But had you realized that while reading the poem?

If you’re like me, you read the word “sleep” at the end of that first line, thought — because, after all, this is a poem — that you were soon to read a word that rhymed with “sleep,” like “beep” or “creep” or, even, why, yes, “deep.” However, by the time you actually reached “deep” at the end of the fourth line, you’d totally forgotten that there was a word at the beginning of the stanza that shared that “ee” vowel sound, and were no longer anticipating the rhyme. The rhyme, so to speak, had been lost.

Nevertheless, it must be mentioned ⎯ and I think you’ll agree if you read the poem a second time ⎯ that a relationship still exists between “sleep” and “deep,” just as a relationship exists between “grace” and “face” and “bars” and “stars” even though these words don’t seem to rhyme when the entire poem is read in one shot. 

The vowel sound of each last word on each first line faintly echoes when you reach its supposed counterpart at the very end of each stanza.

In other words, even though the rhyme “isn’t” there, it sort of is, in a very slight, almost hardly traceable way.

So what’s the meaning behind all this? Well, here’s where the critic part comes in.

We all know that poetry is all about expression; that poets don’t only use words to express meaning, they also use meter, rhyme, punctuation, even the appearance of the words on the page. Yeats, in “When You Are Old,” does this non-rhyme rhyme, this echo-of-a-rhyme technique, for a reason.

He wants to emphasis that nothing in life is eternal and the poignant sadness of such a fact. By making sure in the poem that that rhyme is lost, or gets lost, he wants to draw attention to the way the things we love in life leave us or become less a part of us.

Think of it this way: When we recall all that we love in life ⎯ the beautiful things, the things rich with meaning, with poignancy ⎯ they arrive in our consciences in a powerful way. But for how long will  ⎯ can?  ⎯  these memories be so powerfully felt? Furthermore, how long will we have the opportunity to love the people we love or experience things that are meaningful? It might feel like forever sometimes because life, especially in the moment, can feel quite rich.

But time marches on. And we can’t escape, nor should we forget, time’s eroding powers. Furthermore, we should never forget how time has the power to transform our consciousnesses and snatch people and opportunities from us. Time erodes life, no matter how poignant life seems sometimes.

Yeats reminds us of this fact through his poetry.

Through that lost rhyme, the one that almost vanishes on the way from the last word of each stanza’s first line to the last word of each stanza’s last line, Yeats reminds us. Even though something beautiful exists, it is eventually lost. The rhyme itself erodes to the point of near extinction. Only a faint echo exists when we arrive at the last word of each stanza. Similarly, only a faint echo of the things we love might exist at the end of life, no matter how rich or beautiful or saturated we believed them to be or how intensely we once felt them.

Although this idea is sad, it’s also natural. Life passes and time erodes things. Eventually, we’ll turn around to look at the things we love and, though it’s no fault of our own, they’ll hardly be there. Just an echo of it all. 

It’s like walking out onto a narrow walkway made of rock with someone you love. It’s sundown and the two of you walk out on this path, one that extends from a high bluff, hundreds of feet above a crashing sea. And then, for some reason, you walk ahead of your partner; perhaps something strikes your fancy and you just walk ahead. The sun is beautiful and warm and casts a bronze glow on the rocks and the water and the grass. And you’re absorbing the view and enjoying it, and you turn to mention something to your love, perhaps some sweet remark. But when you turn, you see your love is gone; that you’re standing out there on that pathway alone. Just you and the hardly perceptible essence of something that had been there only moments ago.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Good karma

The other day at work, it must have been late afternoon, I had a craving...a craving for sweets.

See, sometimes, especially when I've worked jobs that have forced me to keep strange hours, I develop serious cravings for cookies or candy. It probably has something to do with the fact that I'm not exactly getting the right nutrition as it is — due to the crazy schedule I'm working — and the craving for sweets is a manifestation, more or less, of malnutrition.

Anyway, so there I was, at work and in the mood for something sweet. And I wanted it bad, you know?

So I looked in my wallet for a dollar for the vending machine.

Wallet was empty.

I really had no idea what I was going to do. No colleague from whom I could borrow money was in my vicinity, and I needed something.

Then I remembered...

That desk.

One woman who works near the vending machine always kept a bowl full of chocolates on her desk. The chocolates, I presumed, were for everyone. Sometimes, when I had no money but was really in the mood for something sweet — it was usually during after-hours time — I would walk by her desk and help myself to a few chocolates. It was good chocolate, too, Dove.

Anyway, so after checking my wallet to see I had no cash and after giving up on the idea of asking anyone for a dollar, I was really happy to remember this woman and the chocolates on her desk.

So I walked back to her desk all excited. My craving by this point was huge and I was also quite proud of myself for remembering that this bowl existed. It was time to seek my reward.

I reach her desk.

One chocolate left.

Just one little Dove chocolate wrapped in sapphire-blue tinsel. The last piece in the bowl.

And so I think to myself.

Why is it this way? Why must there be only one piece left? If the bowl had two pieces left in it, I'd have absolutely no problem taking one piece and leaving the last one for her — whoever she is — benevolent owner of the bowl.

But no.

There's just one last piece of chocolate left. I can't take this piece.

See, I may have taken a lot of chocolate from this lady's desk in the past, but I never left the bowl empty. After all, even though the chocolate is out there for the offering, it's also there for her.

Nope, can't do it. I turn around and start walking back to my desk, more in the mood for sweets than ever — I was primed! — but not willing to take the last piece.

And so there I was, walking in this one corridor, back to my desk, utterly dissapointed, when I look over at a table near a water cooler I was passing on the way.

Oh, hell yes.

There on this table, someone, some kind soul, had put out a spread of cookies. And not just any cookies — Girl Scout Cookies. Shortbread, Lemon Chalet Crème and Peanut Butter Sandwich.

I took a handful, smiled and walked back to my desk.

Friday, May 07, 2010


Here's something I wrote while sitting/thinking in a Barnes and Noble Cafe. I was reflecting on what I was seeing and places I've been and things I've felt. Enjoy.

Sitting here in a cafe with wet socks from the walk here. The cafe is the Barnes and Noble Cafe in the Barnes and Noble bookstore. The Barnes and Noble Cafe, I’m informed, “proudly serves Starbucks” coffee. I’m sitting here at a table with my laptop. The other people sitting at the tables around me read books about Windows 7. They read People magazine and Architectural Digest. Some of them still wear their coats even though we’re inside. One woman, an older lady, sits at a table underneath the Barnes and Noble Cafe sign, which is rectangular in shape and is suspended from the ceiling. The sign says, “Barnes and Noble Cafe”; the letters are backlit. The round Starbucks logo is conjoined to the bottom of this rectangular sign.

The older lady sitting underneath the sign wears a black ski cap and makes use of all three chairs at her table: one for her coat, the other to stack the magazines she’s brought with her to the cafe with the intentions of reading, and the last to sit on. I’m sitting at a table in front of the cooler near the counter. You can buy Fiji Water, Nantucket Nectars and Red Bull, among other drinks.

I opt for coffee. In my wet socks from the walk up here I opt for coffee and grab a magazine from the bookstore’s “newsstand.” The New Yorker. As I sit at my table and leaf through the sweetly perfumed pages, I see an article by George Packer: “Letter from Dresden. Embers. Will a prideful city finally confront its past?” The picture that comes along with the article shows — in a panoramic style — a city of baroque buildings and church towers abutting a river, the Elbe, over which spans a heavy stone bridge that looks like it’s from Roman times. All at twilight. A smaller black-and-white photo next to this panoramic-styled one shows Dresden during less happy times: right after the Bombing of Dresden, in 1945. The city, in this black-and-white photo, is in ruins — nothing to see but shards of grays and blacks and deeper blacks, gutted buildings with no roofs and wispy smoke.

As I read the article, which is good, I can’t help but think back to my time in Germany. I think of a girl I knew from Dresden, a girl I met this summer who proclaimed that Dresden was the most beautiful city on Earth. Fine, I thought at the time. I’m not one to argue. After all, I often heard fond things about Dresden during my time in Germany: Dresden is beautiful; you really ought to go.

Dresden is also the place where a rabid xenophobe this summer stabbed a pregnant Egyptian woman, an immigrant, to death in a state courtroom in front of the courtroom guards too stunned or slow to come to her aid.

Sitting here in my wet socks in the Barnes and Noble Cafe, with a kid standing in front of the cash register asking his friend next to him, “Dude, actually, can you spot me a dollar?” I think of that bread Dresden’s famous for, that sweet bread powdered with confectionery sugar and stuffed with nuts and raisins and marzipan. I remember how I bought the bread one time in Germany because I was curious about it. I bought it even though I knew it was possible to buy it in places other than Europe, namely in America. I didn’t eat all of this bread after having bought it. Too sweet. Instead, I left most of it wrapped up in plastic on a shelf in my girlfriend’s pantry and looked on in horror a few days later, when I was again in the mood for it.

Fruit flies had made their way into the plastic and were using the bread as a breeding ground. Dozens of them crawling about inside the packaging, feasting and laying eggs.

But Germany wasn’t all that bad, I think, as I read this Dresden article and take small pauses from the solid New Yorker text broken up by cartoons and weird poetry to look around this “cafe,” where many teenagers and old men and women sit at their respective tables and snack on processed, tastes-the-same-in-every-Barnes-and-Noble-Cafe cupcakes and cookies, and drink warm sugary drinks made with opaque syrup and other beverages made with non-fat syrup and still other beverages, warm and chocolaty with foam on top for the pleasant texture.

I sit in this cafe with people who read People, old men and women who wear scowls, even though their face muscles are at rest, who come to this Barnes and Noble Cafe, which “proudly” serves Starbucks coffee. Proud, huh? Is that the same “proud” as in “Proud to be an American”? or “Proud parent of an honor student”?

I digress.

Germany was actually pretty nice. My time there was well spent, aside, of course, from that experience with the Dresden sweet bread that they’re so proud of. I turn back to reading this George Packer article about Dresden, which forces me to think more about this baroque city on the Elbe.

But my thoughts just as quickly turn to another German city, as I sit here in the Barnes and Noble Cafe with wet socks from the walk here and high school students around me, studying for the SAT’s, and other people around me who are also importantly typing away on a laptop. I think of Dresden’s sister city to the west, Leipzig.

Now Leipzig isn’t known for the grandeur Dresden is known for. But one experience I had in this less glamorous and more industrial city starts to take hold.

That church.

I think of that church that Rosa, my girlfriend’s friend, showed us. We were visiting Rosa in Leipzig, and she wanted to show us around the city on Sunday. On Saturday all three of us had attended a late-night Halloween party where people came dressed as vampires and Sponge Bob Square Pants and vampires. My girlfriend and I chose not to tour Leipzig on Saturday before the late-night Halloween party because we needed to rest up first from the nine-hour train ride we’d just endured from Aachen, Germany’s westernmost city, to Leipzig, near Poland. Sunday, we all agreed, would be the day for checking out the city.

And so on Sunday morning, out for our tour, we came upon this church. It was nothing spectacular from the outside. In fact, the church was a bit squat and had beige bricks forming the facade. The roofs were slanted and shingled with charcoal-gray shingles. The church had a not-so-high tower in front with an octagonal balcony wrapping around it. It was a Lutheran church, kind of sober. Fine.

But, Rosa tells us, we shouldn't be fooled. This church is an important church. In front of this particular church in the autumn of 1989, men and women, young and old — 70,000 in all — held a candlelit, passive-resistance-styled protest against East Germany's Communist government.

See, for months prior to this particular protest, Leipzigers had been showing up to this church, the Saint Nikolai church, to hear “sermons.” These sermons centered on certain messages in biblical texts, yes, but they also dealt with other themes, namely freedom and democracy. The Saint Nikolai meetings continued until the Communist government decided that they were growing too insurrectional in tone. Police were dispatched. They beat some people in front of the church and dispersed a crowd that had gathered after the violence broke out.

For many Leipzigers, enough was enough. A few days later, they gathered in front of the Nikolai church and their numbers overflowed into a nearby public square. No one was budging. The message, Rosa tells us, was simple: less maltreatment, more freedom. The police, shocked by the amount of people who had amassed to have their message heard, didn’t act.

The balance had shifted.

The people saw that they had more power. They saw that if they gathered in large enough numbers and remained resolute, they could speak their minds publicly — they could demand more freedom — and the government would not, or could not, act against them.

After this act of defiance in Leipzig, more people in the GDR began following suit. More people started amassing in the eastern states to speak their minds, including the hundreds of thousands of people who gathered in Berlin on November 9, 1989 — a gathering so large and full of energy it eventually precipitated the Wall’s falling. But, if it weren’t for those initial Nikolai protests, many would have you believe (especially if you're in Leipzig), there’s a chance that the Berlin Wall would not have fallen.

Anyway, so there we were, in front of this plain looking church, famous for an act of rebellion that had occurred 20 years prior. But it wasn’t just roughly 20 years ago that this act occurred. As I stood in front of the Nikolai with my girlfriend and Rosa, Germany was in the midst of celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall — it was almost to the day.

Now. Although the 20th anniversary of the Wall’s falling may not have been the biggest news in America, it was huge news in Germany. In fact, the German media, in the run up to the historic day, managed to explore every angle of the story possible. Every anecdote, halfway interesting recollection or personal history was rehashed. It all filled the newspapers.

Germans, you see, are proud that communism, for all intents and purposes, was defeated on their turf. They like to draw attention to this history and, in some cases, even cash in on it.

With that last fact in mind, I stood in front of the St. Nikolai with Rosa and my girlfriend. Although by this time we were all well aware of the church’s history, which seemed interesting enough, it was really on a whim that we decided to walk in.

And this part I’ll never forget.

We walk in the church and start heading down the main aisle toward the altar. The vaulted ceilings are high, and the columns that line the aisle are painted a pastel pink. What really strikes me, though, are the capitals. The highly ornamented capitals at the top of each column depict foliage: stone leaves that shoot from the columns and seem to support the vaulted cathedral ceiling. The white pews to my left and right also stand out. Sure, this is a pretty cathedral, I think, as I walk further down the aisle. But in all honesty, I’m not that excited. After all, pretty cathedrals are omnipresent in Europe. In fact, as I continue to walk down the aisle with Rosa and my girlfriend, I kind of get the feeling that they, too, are not so enthralled — our body language subtlety betrays our sentiments. In fact, it was right then, right when each of us began to slow down and look in each other’s faces, as if to say, “All right, well, I’ve seen just about enough,” that the very first notes were suddenly heard.

The beautifully drawn out first few notes emanating from violins — notes rising up to meet the ear, clear and bright, like rays of light, but for the ears. These are the first drawn out, sorrowful notes to “Adagio for Strings.”

The church all of a sudden resounds with the sound of violins. Then, just as quick, deeper notes are heard — bass notes, which counterbalance those sharp, rays of light for the ears.

Yes, this is definitely “Adagio for Strings,” that undulating, powerful, morose, has-the-tendency-to-knock-you-off-your-ass-with-feelings-of-sorrow-and-longing piece by the composer Samuel Barber. You know, “Adagio for Strings,” the title theme from Oliver Stone’s 1986 film “Platoon.” This is the classical song that brought the drama in that Vietnam-War-era movie to an entirely new level.

“Adagio for Strings” can break your heart. You don’t even have to like classical music.

Those violins, which cut like knives one moment and then, suddenly, come to a complete stop, the last of a sharp, bright sound zips off the many bows. A dramatic pause. A dramatic pause that surely must be one of the most famous in classical music — it’s that spellbinding. A dramatic pause that’s eventually broken by deep cello notes, which begin to mingle with the violin notes that have started up again.

It all sounds as if God were having a conversation with angels.

So I’m walking down the main aisle with my girlfriend and Rosa when this huge song, “Adagio for Strings,” begins to fill the church. A few moments after I heard the first few notes, though, I was already smiling. Or shall I say smirking. Yeah, it was more like a smirk. To be honest, I was smirking because this is what was going through my mind: “Adagio for Strings,” as beautiful and deeply stirring a song it is, as resounding and as fitting it seems, is only being played in this church through a set of speakers for one reason: to make the experience of touring the St. Nikolai a more moving one. And if the people are moved, I'm thinking, they will be more likely to open up their wallets and donate to the church. Cha-ching!

I get it, this ploy, I think, as I stand in the aisle among the pink columns listening to the music. Very clever. Play a deeply stirring and well known piece of classical music through some speakers (you’ve got the acoustics in your favor) and watch as the experience moves people. Coin purses will be unsnapped by the dozens. Real clever of these church people, I muse. Play dramatic music in the same church where, 20 years prior — almost to the day — protests began, protests for freedom, which precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall, a historical event already considered intensely dramatic, and watch.

Watch as people — tourists, natives, whoever — open up their wallets. Watch as the power of the music and the sights move them into doing so.

After all, who can resist?

Religious or not, when classical music is paired with such sights — angelic frescoes, stained-glass windows, sweeping cathedral ceilings — the joining of the two combines to form a sensory experience that pulls at the soul, whether you want it to or not. (In a flash, after having heard those first few notes, I’d gone from coolly detached to emotionally involved.)

And, while you’re at it, why not make the most of the fact that a lot of historical significance already surrounds this church? Why not capitalize on the drama that’s already there by adding more drama? That’ll surely work the people up enough to ensure that they donate more.

I recognize this ploy, these speakers, which must be the source of this sound, because the sound is so voluminous, so perfect, the timing is so right....I get it: just a CD, some well placed speakers and a little faith that people will be moved enough by the whole bit to open their wallets and donate more money.

And then I turn around.

I turn around while standing in the main aisle and I look up. And up there, below the modest pipe organ, there is a balcony, and on that balcony I see six violinists, instruments at the neck, all sitting in a horseshoe arrangement, with a bassist on one end of the horseshoe and a cellist on the other. Standing in the center of this horseshoe arrangement is a man. A man with a wand.

And I listen. And now I watch, too, as the violinists’ forearms move slowly, methodically, with quivering precision. I watch as they saw their bows over the strings in graceful unison. I look to their other hands, running up and down the fingerboards, again in unison. Those hands then pause at the same time, then lock in an identical position — six wild vibratos.

And I listen and watch as all their bodies jerk in their seats in good time with the music, moving with the music. Then suddenly stop.

And I watch as the conductor slowly points his wand in the bass player's direction, and the bass player, bow in hand, slowly saws that bow across his big instrument’s belly. It moans. And I listen as the cellist and a violinist come in. Deep tones dominate....They undulate invisibly but vibrate in the chest. And then the conductor flicks his wand and suddenly all the violinists are again slowly sawing their bows across the cherry wood instruments at their necks, up and down in graceful unison, bright, sharp, beams of light for the ears.

And I stand in the aisle and look up at these eight musicians playing “Adagio for Strings.” Why are they doing it? Just cause, it seems. Perhaps they are warming up for a later performance, perhaps not. Who really knows why. After all, they’re wearing regular clothes — jeans, sneakers and collard shirts.

And I just stand there and look up and feel. Feel the music wash over me, surround me, shoot right down me, vibrate and rattle. The music, in fact, transfixes almost everyone in the church who looks up at the balcony to see. To see one hand wave a wand through the air while others perform wild vibratos. To see bows being brought up and down, obscuring the musicians' faces, then revealing them, then obscuring them again. All gracefully. All in unison, in good time, on a Sunday afternoon.

And so my eyes open wide and my mouth parts a little and I continue just standing there. And as I stand there and hear the music, feel the music, I quietly and privately censure myself for having been, just moments earlier, so sharply, so purely and so undeniably cynical.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Right Light

Below you'll find something I wrote the other day in my journal. Yes, I keep a journal; no, it's not a diary. It's more like a book with blank sheets of paper in which I write down things that inspire me or I find amusing or scary or hypocritical or beautiful. Sometimes, in this journal, I sketch scenes with words. The end product is usually something akin to a vignette. The following is one such vignette. I "sketched" it the other day while in a New York City office building. Enjoy.

Staring out a window on the 13th floor of a building in Manhattan. It’s around sundown. From this perch, looking down at 7th Avenue, south. The tall buildings, each about the same 20-story height, line one side of the avenue like soldiers. Manhattan is wonderful for its buildings, yes, but also for the shadows that the buildings cast on each other, at sundown.

Looking down 7th Avenue, noticing how those buildings lining one side of the street all seem to have the same shade of faded brown brick. Noticing the geometric shadows on the buildings. Noticing sundown’s sunlight too: where it hits the buildings, the faded bricks appear orange and warm.

Looking down this street, at these buildings bathed in patches of orange light, I’m able to actually start and feel the history in Manhattan. Looking at the tops of these relatively tall buildings, the step-backed terraces, the blind arcades, the deco spires, and think: sundown on this row of buildings probably looked the same 75 years ago. Just like this. High above the noise and the ads and the moving bodies below, sundown on these buildings probably looks the same now as it looked 100years ago or even 125 years ago, in 1885.

And as I look out, I feel a longing mixed with a sense of continuity. The right light has the tendency to inspire such feelings.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Fumbling Toward Oblivion

Yeah, file this one under "late to the party."

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Have you read this book? Um, yeah, holy smoke, it's good. It came out about four years ago, and I had always heard good, great, incredible things about it. I knew that the folks in Hollywood had recently turned it into a movie, which bears the same name, The Road, but I hesitated when it came to buying the actual book several years back even though I’d read all those positive reviews. After all, you know how critics can be: wrong sometimes. Plus, the book, as I’d seen it in Borders, struck me as overpriced. "Sixteen dollars for such a slim book?" I thought. So I balked.

Then just the other night as I was shopping for groceries, wheeling my rickety cart along the “media” section in the supermarket, I happened to come across the McCarthy book again; saw it up on the bookshelf. Yup, there it was amid the Danielle Steel and Dean Koontz books and all the other paperbacks with embossed titles on their glossy covers. This time, however, I noticed that The Road was markedly less expensive -- it was only 8 bucks, a drop in price that can probably be attributed to the fact that the book is being more widely distributed now that it’s also a major motion picture. So I said, $8? Why not, and threw it in my shopping cart.

And so I started on it. I wasn't that impressed at first. At first. Yeah, the prose was spare, powerful and poetic. But McCarthy seemed to repeat himself in the set up. See, the premise of the book is this: A calamity has struck the earth -- or America -- killing almost all traces of life. A father and his young son seem to be the only two survivors of this unnamed catastrophe. Together, the two trudge through the treacherously barren and dead landscape, following a road south (the story takes place in America), where their chances of survival, the father tells the son, will be better.

OK, fine, but the whole book starts off really slow because McCarthy seems incredibly preoccupied with describing ad nauseam the bleakness of this literary universe. We learn, over and over again for about 30 pages, that father and son inhabit a world of ash, scorched forests, death, detritus, gray skies, gray snow, dead ponds, dead flowers, abandoned homes, and of course ash, ash and more ash.

And then if all that’s not enough to slow things down at the beginning, there’s another issue when it comes to The Road: the punctuation. See, Cormac McCarthy really wanted to convey to his readers the barrenness and desperation of this post-apocalyptic world, so he manipulated the actual punctuation of the novel itself in his efforts to achieve this goal. The actual prose, in certain areas, lacks required apostrophes and commas, and there are no quotation marks around character dialogue. None. This whole idea of manipulating the novel’s text as it’s seen on the actual page to further convey mood, if you ask me, is very Joycean. But then again who’s asking me?
Anyway! So all this peculiar punctuation and all the repetitive description led me to believe that the critics were off the mark. Granted, McCarthy’s writing, his actual prose, is so beautiful it probably could’ve carried the novel in and of itself: “The blackness he woke to those nights was sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening.” But I was still really starting to wonder why all the critics had been going gaga.

Finally, however, the novel's action started picking up. And my god did it pick up with a vengeance. Cannibalistic predators donning gas masks, armed with bludgeons stalking the road; flashbacks to scenes from the initial apocalypse; dialogue that gives us a torch-lighted view inside the minds of people teetering on the edge of oblivion. Actually, once the action starts heading into high gear, we are no longer distracted by the initial lack of it and are better able to appreciate all the other positive aspects of the writing -- the heartbreakingly beautiful lines, the ruggedly terse dialogue, the vivid descriptions. Once all the elements are there and set in motion together, they begin to form a hard-to-put-down, rhythmically hypnotic -- and sometimes frightful -- tale of love, death and survival.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say is, I may have been late to the party when it comes to The Road. But better late than never.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Missed connections

Weird thing I just noticed about Americans or New York culture, rather. It happened when I was walking out into my hallway to throw out my garbage. See, I live in an apartment building, which means if I want to throw out garbage, I have to walk down the hall to the garbage room. Only one such room exists on my floor, and all the people living on 3, whether we like it or not, must make the small trip in our socks from our respective apartment doors to this room, which is equipped with a chute, if we want to dispose of refuse.

Anyway, so there I was in the hall, knotted, black plastic bag in hand, about to start on down the pink carpeting to the trash room, when I look up and see someone else opposite me at the far end of the hallway. I see a woman. She’s an older woman, probably in her 70s, and I thought I’d seen her before — perhaps we’d ridden the elevator together at some point — but, to be honest, I had no idea of her name.

Anyway, so she’s walking toward me, wearing a pink pajama getup — it was 11 p.m. — and I immediately see that she, too, has something in her hand: a garbage bag. Coincidentally, we both walked out into the hallway at the exact same time to take care of this small but necessary chore.

So she's walking toward this garbage room and so am I, albeit from directly opposite directions. Because she's a lot older than I am, and frail, she was walking at a much slower pace. Still, I sped up my gait upon seeing her to rid the air of any confusion that might exist about who will reach, and ultimately use, this room first.

I think I smiled a slight smile right before I opened the door to the garbage room, though I was pretty aware of the fact that she probably didn't make out this expression because she was still probably too far away from me to see it.

Once I finally got my big garbage bag down the chute — sometimes you really have to push — I closed the door and turned to her — she was now significantly closer — and smiled a sort of smile that seemed to say, "Well, here you are, here I am, both throwing out our garbage, meeting in the hallway at 11 p.m. ... Kinda-sorta funny, huh? Well, goodnight."

Yeah, my smile and the way I gesticulated with my head said all that. I know it sounds like a lot, but it did. Anyway, when I smiled at her, I naturally looked into her face for a moment. She really didn't seem to be returning the smile — actually she wasn’t at all — so I quickly looked away.

And so, walking down the long hallway back to my apartment, I started thinking.

Goddamn, I thought. That’s kind of weird. That whole interaction or, rather, non-interaction I just had. I mean, here we are, two people, living in the same apartment building, living feet away from each other, both walking out into the hallway during the last hour of the day, January 17, 20-fu%#ing-10, we see each other, we know each other's motives, we know we're neighbors for Christ's sake, yet we don't say anything to each other. She doesn't even acknowledge me. Strange. Real strange.

And then I thought, what is this phenomenon with Americans? Or shall I say New Yorkers, because, really, to say that this experience I had in the hallway is characteristic of American life is probably flatly inaccurate. But I certainly have noticed this type of behavior in New York.

A few days earlier, in fact, I’d walked into a Barnes and Noble cafe in the city. Every single table at the cafe was taken by a person and there were about 20 tables. However, not one person at this cafe was interacting in any way with the person at the table to his left or right. Each was too absorbed with reading something off his laptop or smart phone. Each was an island to himself. I've noticed this behavior a lot in New York. So close together yet pathetically isolated.

Walking down my long hallway back to my apartment I also couldn't help but think about a positive tradition they have across the Atlantic, in Germany. It goes something like this. Let's say someone — we’ll call him Person A is in a cafe, just sitting there with his coffee and newspaper at a table. Now let's say another person, Person B, a stranger, walks into that same cafe. Person A will most likely greet Person B as he walks in. That's right, odds are that Person A will say “tag” or “morgen,” which means "hello" and "good morning,” respectively. Even more interesting, the person who just walked into the cafe, Person B, the newcomer, might greet everyone in the cafe ¾ or at least those sitting — by saying “hello” out loud. Remember, these people are strangers. Still, these exchanges instantly forge a sense of community or connection.

Furthermore, I recalled that often in Germany when one leaves a room or a cafe or a clothing store, anything, the tradition is to say "bye" as you leave. It’s usually custom to acknowledge the people in the room you’re about to exit. In turn, the other people — the barista, the sales clerk, whoever — acknowledge you and also say, “bye."

To be honest, I could never imagine walking down a hallway to throw out garbage in a German apartment building, seeing a neighbor and not saying "abend" (good evening). It would just be strange.

Now I'm not saying I love Germany or that they've got it all figured out or anything, 'cause god knows Germans have their own issues and peculiarities. But when it comes to these small gestures of acknowledgment, the "Deutsch" are really onto something.

So what's up America? What's up New York? Why are we so standoffish sometimes when it comes to just saying "hi" or "good evening”? Why do we continue to allow ourselves to remain so isolated? Is it because of our high concentration of people? Do we simply take for granted the fact that other souls will always be around us? To the point, perhaps, that we feel we don't necessarily need to say hi to, or even acknowledge, the neighbor who's walking down the same hall at the same time of night, during the same last hour of the day?

If so, that's kind of sad.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

In Through the Out Door

OK, funny stuff. The other day as I sat at the kitchen table with my girlfriend eating breakfast, I stared — as many do — at the cereal box in front of me. I eat Post Raisin Bran. This time as I stared at the rectangular box, however, I noticed that the Raisin Bran packaging was a bit different from how I'd remembered it. The overall design was a bit prettier. The box's color was a deeper purple and the the Post logo — an oval with the word "Post" inside it — was more bubbly, more three dimensional. In the center of the box there was a big spoon, which displayed the perfect mix of toasted flakes, creamy milk and gleaming raisins. In short, it looked like the Raisin Bran box at some point between the last time I'd eaten the cereal and this time had been redesigned, given a face lift.

After pondering the box and logo a little longer, I turned to my girlfriend who was sitting right next to me and said: "Why do they always have to change things? Why does everything always have to be spiffed up, given a redesign? Can't they just leave the packaging alone. I mean, it's Raisin Brain. Why do they always have to add all these bells and whistles; why do they always have to add new colors and shine?"

Well, my girlfriend — always willing to offer me a counterpoint — turned to me and said: "They have to change the packaging every few years or so. Otherwise, it'll look like the product is old and stale and no one wants to buy a product that looks like it's old or hasn't evolved with the times."

Fair enough, I thought. But I still wondered what this obsession with constantly changing, updating, redesigning was all about.

Anyway, fast forward one week. My girlfriend and I are shopping at the supermarket and we're walking down the cereal aisle. I'm about to pick up my spiffy box of Raisin Bran when I notice something. There's another box that says Raisin Bran right next to it. But the packaging of this other Raisin Bran is completely sober: the box is plain and brown and has no fancy graphics on it. In fact, this other Raisin Brain box looks like it's from a time when people still drove around in massively big cars with massively big steering wheels and public schools came equipped with fallout shelters. The words "Raisin Brain" on the front of of the box were in plain, blocky 2-D letters. This Raisin Bran is also made by Post, I see, but the bubbly Post oval is gone. Instead, the Post name is written in that plain, blocky style as well. 

I rub my eyes. After that, I pick up the cereal and show it to my girlfriend. We both laugh. It turns out, Post recently released some of its cereals in their "vintage packaging." That soberly packaged box of Raisin Brain I saw on the shelf? That's almost exactly what the Raisin Bran box looked like when Post first released the cereal decades ago. No 3-D logos, no golden-brown airbrushed flakes on the front of the box with sparkling raisins and creamy milk, no sidebars telling me about the cereal's health benefits. Just a plain brown, boring box with the words "Raisin Bran" on it. It seems that Post, in a bid to get in touch with its roots or at very least catch the consumer's eye in yet some other way, decided to rerelease this thing and sell it right alongside its modern counterpart.

You gotta love this stuff.