Vital Specifics

'Sally, Weld County, Colorado' (1984), by Robert Adams

[Image: “Sally, Weld County, Colorado” (1984), by Robert Adams. First found at the National Gallery of Art. (Above copy from the Fraenkel Gallery’s exhibit Perfect Times, Perfect Places.) Sally was Adams’s own dog. Says a New York Times review of an exhibit at Yale featuring the photo, “It pauses on a dirt road perhaps 10 yards away, looking back over its shoulder as if to invite us to follow and to wonder: ‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?'”]

From whiskey river:

Once, years ago, I emerged from the woods in the early morning at the end of a walk and—it was the most casual of moments—as I stepped from under the trees into the mild, pouring-down sunlight I experienced a sudden impact, a seizure of happiness. It was not the drowning sort of happiness, rather the floating sort. I made no struggle toward it; it was given. Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world, and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity.

(Mary Oliver [source])

and:

From the Shore: Toronto

All afternoon I’ve watched the gulls
off the breakwater at Lake Ontario.
No one here seems to like them,
how they scavenge,
hover like icons,
against a metal sky.

But I am here from another country
not so foreign as the gulls’
and I like their garrulousness,
their joyful noise
and the way they hang in the air
flying and not flying.

(Henrietta Epstein [source])

and:

Are there scenes in life, right now, for which we might conceivably be thankful? Is there a basis for joy or serenity, even if felt only occasionally? Are there grounds now and then for an unironic smile?

(Robert Adams [source])

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Book Review: Night of the Animals, by Bill Broun

Cover: 'Night of the Animals,' by Bill BrounA couple reviews of Night of the Animals have alluded — unconvincingly, I think, despite superficial similarities — to Noah’s ark and/or more generally the Bible’s Book of Genesis.

Yes, it’s true: the novel’s mainspring is the saving of the world’s creatures; both the world’s destruction and its salvation are at stake. But if you hope and believe you’ll be getting a “retelling” of those Biblical stories, updated to a 21st-century landscape, you will be very surprised (maybe disappointed) by what you find in the book’s pages:

The genre, murky — a sort of near-future, dystopic science fiction/fantasy cast in prose perhaps a bit more “literary” than you’d expect; the time, about forty years from now, with numerous flashbacks to the 1960s; the setting, mostly London (and in the flashbacks, up in the Midlands region — the “waist” of the island). The dialogue is littered with dialect obscure enough to require clarifying footnotes.

But the biggest surprise among Night of the Animals’ conventional elements lies in its protagonist, Cuthbert Handley.

Sounds like the name of a stereotypically anal-retentive, mousey-in-stature librarian or clerk, eh? Maybe. But this Cuthbert Handley — well, no. He’s enormous in size, three (approaching four) hundred pounds of, well, fat. (Not that fat people cannot be heroes, but it defies convention.) He’s old (not that the aged cannot be heroes…): in a point in history where living to 120 years of age is common, Cuthbert himself is over 90, and held together not just by his own flesh and bones but by numerous artificial “BodyMods.” He belongs to a class referred to as the capital-I Indigent — all but homeless, rough-sleeping in parks and alleys, the lot.  Finally, he’s almost suicidally addicted to a hallucinogenic beverage called Flōt (not that penniless addicts cannot etc.); Flōt is apparently legal, and the book suggests that its use is both tacitly approved by the government and sneered at by the unaddicted upper class. (Not at all to suggest that they themselves don’t use it, but they — you know — have such better self-control, right?)

More deeply, Cuthbert lives in thrall to a specific childhood event: the drowning of his elder brother Drystan, while little Cuthbert could do nothing to save him. (Cuthbert himself nearly drowned in the same “adventure.”) Since Drystan’s body never turned up, Cuthbert has lived his entire life — while in a state of mental health declining to the point of near-madness — believing that Drystan never died: he was simply lost, waiting for Cuthbert to find him. Surely this is a delusion. Surely his Flōt addiction has compounded the problem.

That much is obvious to everyone Cuthbert has ever known, will ever know. And naturally, that much is obvious to the reader of Broun’s book…

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Weekend Music Break: GQ, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön”

GQNot at all a men’s style magazine, GQ is a girls quartet, each described at the group’s Web site as “a recent graduate” of Baltimore’s Towson University. Although they often use the a capella descriptor for themselves, the phrase most others reach for seems to be barbershop quartet. Toe-MAY-toe, toe-MAH-toe maybe: they made their first public splash in 2012 by winning the regional Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival, “the premier American showcase for vocal harmony music” — regardless of specific genre label — and then went on to place second in the nationals, performing against groups who’ve adopted one or the other of those labels.

(Happily, as far as I can tell, no one — least of all, GQ themselves — uses the rather hokey term for a “women’s quartet”: Sweet Adelines. In a recent Tweet, one of the group expressed gratitude for the other three and for “our barbershop family.”)

The core of the Barbershop Harmony Society’s “definition of the barbershop style” goes like this:

Barbershop music features songs with understandable lyrics and easily singable melodies, whose tones clearly define a tonal center and imply major and minor chords and barbershop (dominant and secondary dominant) seventh chords that often resolve around the circle of fifths, while also making use of other resolutions.

That’s quite a mouthful, almost none of which makes sense to me (or, I’d wager, to many other non-musicians). But the sound and style of barbershop singing is instantly recognizable. Stereotypically, a bass vocalist provides a sort of beatbox bum-bum-bum-BUM rhythm in the background, while three foreground voices — a couple of tenors and a baritone — twine around one another and sometimes merge, for sustained notes, in a glorious three- or four-part harmony. The content of barbershop music also follows stereotypical paths: “traditional” popular songs, often from the early 20th century.

(“Down by the Old Mill Stream” is not only considered typical, but also a frequent target for humor, especially parody. See, for instance, this clip from Eddie Murphy’s 2003 film, The Haunted Mansion — in which four haunted statues perform the song.)

But GQ (and similar groups), while honoring the tradition, are also determined to break from it. They showcase offbeat and often very contemporary songs, and explore ways to adapt traditional techniques to “modern” ears. For example, GQ’s big hit at that 2012 regional competition was “Timshel,” by Mumford & Sons. (Here’s a video they made, sometime later.)

GQ’s second album just dropped this summer, as the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign. At the Kickstarter project page, they chose to feature the video below to demonstrate their approach, using the old swing hit — think the Andrews Sisters — “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön.” Among other attractions, the video offers a nice visual demonstration of classic barbershop style: adding a voice at a time, melding them into a single layer. I really like it.

[Lyrics]

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Down to Specifics

'LA River and Washington Boulevard Looking East, Santa Fe Railroad,' by Michael Light

[Image: “LA River and Washington Boulevard Looking East, Santa Fe Railroad,” by Michael Light. (Larger, higher-resolution version here.) See the quotation from Rebecca Solnit, below.]

From whiskey river:

We pass the word around; we ponder how the case is put by different people, we read the poetry; we meditate over the literature; we play the music; we change our minds; we reach an understanding. Society evolves this way. Not by shouting each other down, but by the unique capacity of unique, individual human beings to comprehend each other.

(Lewis Thomas [source])

and:

The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.

(Graham Greene [source])

and:

Mother Talking in the Porch Swing

Inside the river is there a river?—
it could follow slow water the way
the real current follows a stiller
shore. And in your life the life that
hurries could pass, and pass its
open neighbor the earth, and its shore
the sky. To be here, and always to find
places in the current, the dreams
the river has—surely we bubbles
ought to tell about it?

Listen: One of the rooms the river has
after its bridge and its bend in the mountains
is a place waiting for the sun every
afternoon, when the sun dwells
at a slant under a log and finds
that little yellow room and a waterbug
trying to learn circles but never making
one its shadow approves. Miles later
the river tries to recall that dream,
turning with all of its twisting self
that found gravel and found it good.

Just before the ocean that river
turns on its back and side and slowly
invites the world and the air and the sky,
trying to give away everything, everything.

(William Stafford [source])

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Layers of Often, of Seldom, of Never

'127/365,' by Tom Wachtel on Flickr

[Image: “127/365,” by Tom Wachtel. (Found on Flickr, used here under a Creative Commons license.) The caption provided by the photographer: “Yellow often shines in sparkling company. Red will almost never dance alone. Green is seldom seen behind the screen of might-have-been, pining softly for what words were meant to mean.” And yes: I found this image after coming up with the post’s title.]

From whiskey river:

Often times, a person will think they know you by piecing together tiny facts and arranging those pieces into a puzzle that makes sense to them. If we don’t know ourselves very well, we’ll mistakenly believe them, and drift toward where they tell us to swim, only to drown in our own confusion.

Here’s the truth: it’s important to take the necessary steps to find out who you are. Because you hold endless depths below the surface of a few facts and pieces and past decisions. You aren’t only the ripples others can see. You are made of oceans.

(Victoria Erickson [source])

and:

Often down here I have entered into a sanctuary; a nunnery; had a religious retreat; of great agony once; and always some terror; so afraid one is of loneliness; of seeing to the bottom of the vessel. That is one of the experiences I have had here in some Augusts; and got then to a consciousness of what I call “reality”: a thing I see before me: something abstract; but residing in the downs or sky; beside which nothing matters; in which I shall rest and continue to exist. Reality I call it. And I fancy sometimes this is the most necessary thing to me: that which I seek. But who knows—once one takes a pen and writes? How difficult not to go making “reality” this and that, whereas it is one thing. Now perhaps this is my gift: this perhaps is what distinguishes me from other people: I think it may be rare to have so acute a sense of something like that—but again, who knows? I would like to express it too.

(Virginia Woolf [source])

and:

All through our gliding journey, on this day as on so many others, a little song runs through my mind. I say a song because it passes musically, but it is really just words, a thought that is neither strange nor complex. In fact, how strange it would be not to think it—not to have such music inside one’s head and body, on such an afternoon. What does it mean, say the words, that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?

(Mary Oliver [source])

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Near-Misses: Time Lapse

[Trailer (not too-too spoilery) for Time Lapse]

Here in post-Hermine North Florida, over the last couple days we’ve relished the chance to rediscover the small pleasures of civilized life. Surely among the least consequential of such pleasures, we can count the discovery of recent films we had added to our streaming watchlist(s), and then promptly forgot. 2014’s Time Lapse, director Bradley King’s debut feature, falls into that category for me.

The genre: science-fiction/thriller. Sub-genre: low to modestly budgeted.

It presents a sort of time-travel scenario, except that no people (or animals, inanimate objects, or anything else) actually travel in time. Here, the central conceit is that some kind of metaphorical line can be cast into the future, and brought back to the present with a bit of reality firmly caught on the hook…

I’m guessing about the film’s budget, based on these observations:

  • There’s scarcely anything like a special effect or green-screen CGI in evidence. (The closest thing may be the very basic opening titles sequence, and maybe you can count the exotic prop to which I’ll introduce you in a moment.)
  • The action takes place in a very limited number of settings: a rented room; the rented room across a sidewalk; a storage facility (mostly a single storage locker there).
  • All dialogue and action is performed by a vaguely familiar but nothing like “big name” youthful cast, almost entirely consisting of three actors. (The only one I recognized by name was Danielle Panabaker. John Rhys-Davies has a very small cameo role, but I had to read about the film afterward to know it was him.)

A quick plot overview, emphasis on spoiler-avoidance:

The time is roughly present-day. A young man, named Finn, works as “building manager” (read: janitor in residence) for a small complex of small rental apartments. He shares his own apartment with his girlfriend Callie (an aspiring writer, sort of) and his best friend Jasper (an unemployed but fitfully “flush” gambler, specializing in greyhound racing).

The 'Time Lapse' cameraWhile investigating (on behalf of the complex’s owner) an elderly tenant who seems to have gone missing, the trio discover in his apartment a very strange and mysterious object (shown at right; click for a larger version). While they watch, the device suddenly clicks and whirs, and from a slot dispenses one of those old Polaroid-style instant photos.

(Indeed, they discover a cache of unexposed Polaroid film cartridges in the apartment, and one entire wall is taken up by exposed photos, apparently having been mounted there by the missing tenant.)

Because this “camera” is huge and bolted to the floor, it always photographs the same subject, from the same angle, over and over, at 24-hour intervals. But after the shutter clicks — flashing that green glow just once — the image that comes out depicts that subject as it will exist in 24 hours.

It’s an interesting premise — a sort of technology-based clairvoyance. And because they come to believe that the image captured should depict things as they will (and not just may) be, their task becomes not to change the future, but to guarantee that it comes to pass exactly as shown…

Aside from the general premise, I most appreciated that the plot remained unpredictable and surprising for me right up until the very end. (About a third of the way into the film, I decided I knew how it was going to develop. I could not have been more wrong — and the film allowed me to be wrong almost all the way to the conclusion.)

So why just a “near-miss” film? This may not even qualify as a quibble, but the plot hinges on something which the characters notice, but fail to follow up on. I noticed it at the same time, in fact.

Yet (a) the screenwriters skillfully managed to divert my attention from this significant factoid, and (b) one of the characters, it happens, did follow up on it. So maybe “near-miss” is a stingy adjective after all. Time Lapse may not be a “great” film — not a blockbuster, not a film likely to resonate through motion-picture history. But it was a consistently watchable and well-crafted movie. The gods know, we can always use more of those, too.

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A Moment, a Place, a Story, a World

'Ghost Card,' by Ross Griff on Flickr

[Image: “Ghost Card,” by Ross Griff (user “rossaroni”); found it on Flickr, and used here under a Creative Commons license. For more about the image, see the note at the foot of this post.

From whiskey river:

August

August rushes by like desert rainfall;
A flood of frenzied upheaval,
Expected,
But still catching me unprepared.
Like a matchflame,
Bursting on the scene,
Heat and haze of crimson sunsets.
Like a dream
Of moon and dark barely recalled,
A moment,
Shadows caught in a blink.
Like a quick kiss;
One wishes for more
But it suddenly turns to leave,
Dragging summer away.

(Elizabeth Maua Taylor [source])

and:

I wanted to ask you about your vision of perfection in an imperfect world, or what side of the earth calls out to you when you touch a physical globe, or maybe about your greatest heartache and how you still go on as your world continues turning, or what you do with a memory once lodged inside your bones that’s still breathing, and burning.

But you’re still a stranger, and I’m overly polite, so I’ll ask all about your day when I’d rather know about your life.

(Victoria Erickson [source])

and:

Cavalleria Rusticana

All the fireflies in the world
are gathered in our yard tonight,
flickering in the shrubs
like an ostentatious display
of Christmas lights out of season.
But the music in the air
is the music of heat, of August—
cicadas scraping out
their thin, harsh treble
like country fiddlers settling in
for a long night. I feel at home
with their relentless tune
minimalist, like the eighties.

Events repeat themselves,
but with a difference that makes all
the difference. As a child,
one summer night in Verona
at my first opera,
I watched a swarm of matches
light up the Roman arena
until we were silent. It was as if
music were a night-blooming flower
that would not open
until we held our breath.
Then the full-blown sound,
the single-minded combat
of passion: voices sharpening
their glittering blades on one another,
electing to live or die.
It was that simple. The story was
of no importance, the motive lost
in the sufficient, breathing dark.
If there was a moon I don’t remember.

(Lisel Mueller [source])

Like the quotations above? All credit, then, to the anonymous (and unknown to me) whiskey river blogger — who served them up this past week, and who has been inspiring me for over ten years. Below, some relevant (?) discoveries of my own, along the same lines. (More info here.)

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The Oh at the Heart of You

'black square sun hype?Really eclipsed through layers of social housing blocks,' by user hinkelstone on Flickr

[Image: “black square sun hypeRReally eclipsed through layers of social housing blocks,” by user “hinkelstone” (Karl-Ludwig Poggemann) on Flickr, and used here under a Creative Commons license. (The first capital R in the image name is supposed to display as a Cyrillic “backwards R,” which doesn’t seem to work for me.) Explaining how this image was accomplished, the photographer says, “The black square sun immersing into eastern-bloc-style housing estate facades were meant for a HDRI — but instead Photomatrix 2.4.1 synthesized a kind of hyperreal sunscape from a pair of location shots that were taken at 18:29:07 and 18:29:44 [local times]: During those 37 seconds the red sun disc had been shifting further downwards and into the northern (‘HyperBorean‘) wind direction.” This explanation may very well be more comprehensible to you than to me.]

From whiskey river:

To Be Human Is To Sing Your Own Song

Everything I can think of that my parents
thought or did I don’t think and I don’t do.
I opened windows, they shut them. I pulled
open the curtains, they shut them. If you
get my drift. Of course there were some
similarities—they wanted to be happy
and they weren’t. I wanted to be Shelley and I
wasn’t. I don’t mean I didn’t have to avoid
imitation, the gloom was pretty heavy. But
then, for me, there was the forest, where
they didn’t exist. And the fields. Where I
learned about birds and other sweet tidbits
of existence. The song sparrow, for example.

In the song sparrow’s nest the nestlings,
those who would sing eventually, must listen
carefully to the father bird as he sings
and make their own song in imitation of his.
I don’t know if any other bird does this (in
nature’s way has to do this). But I know a
child doesn’t have to. Doesn’t have to.
Doesn’t have to. And I didn’t.

(Mary Oliver [source])

and:

You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us.

(Fyodor Dostoevsky [source])

and (italicized lines):

The Art of Disappearing

When they say Don’t I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

(Naomi Shihab Nye [source])

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Right Here (or There), Right Now (or Then)

Opening title from 'Now and Then, Here and There'

[Image: opening narration/subtitle from the 1999-2000 anime series Ima, Soko ni Iru Boku (Now and Then, Here and There), critically and commercially very successful — but also but very dark . One site which I consulted about the series highly recommended watching it, but added that you won’t want to watch it a second time.]

From whiskey river:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color. Often at night there is lightning, but it quivers all alone. There is no thunder, no relieving rain. These are strange and breathless days, the dog days, when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.

(Natalie Babbitt [source])

and (italicized lines):

Night and the River

I have seen the great feet
leaping
into the river

and I have seen moonlight
milky
along the long muzzle

and I have seen the body
of something
scaled and wonderful

slumped in the sudden fire of its mouth,
and I could not tell
which fit me

more comfortably, the power,
or the powerlessness;
neither would have me

entirely; I was divided,
consumed,
by sympathy,

pity, admiration.
After a while
it was done,

the fish had vanished, the bear
lumped away
to the green shore

and into the trees. And then there was only
this story.
It followed me home

and entered my house—
a difficult guest
with a single tune

which it hums all day and through the night—
slowly or briskly,
it doesn’t matter,

it sounds like a river leaping and falling;
it sounds like a body
falling apart.

(Mary Oliver [source])

and:

One of the saddest realities is most people never know when their lives have reached the summit. Only after it is over and we have some kind of perspective do we realize how good we had it a day, a month, five years ago. The walk together in the December snow, the phone call that changed everything, and that lovely evening in the bar by the Aegean. Back then you thought “this is so nice.” Only later did you realize it was the rarest bliss.

(Jonathan Carroll [unknown source, but quoted all over])

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What Comes First

'What a Chick Feels Before Hatching,' by Becca Peterson on Flickr

[Image: “What a Chick Feels Before Hatching,” by Becca Peterson. Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river (but just excerpted here):

Your original, fundamental position is prior to consciousness. This “prior to consciousness” identity that you are cannot be named at all. From this unnameable, non-conceptual source, which is your original, innate nature, arises the sense of conscious presence. This is also the sense of being, the experience that “I am,” or the bare fact of knowing that you are. This is the first appearance or experience upon your original state. Within this consciousness state emerges the mind, the body and the entire world of appearances. Little can be said about your original state because it is clearly beyond all concepts and even prior to consciousness. Some pointers that have been used are: non-conceptual awareness, awareness unaware of itself, pure being (beyond being and non-being), the absolute, the unmanifest, noumenon, cognizing emptiness, no thing — to name only a few.

This non-conceptual awareness or being is what you are. It is pure non-duality or unicity in which both subject and object are merged. Just as the sun does not know light because it is light, so you do not know your original nature (as an object) because you are that. It is forever beyond the grasp of concepts and subject-object knowledge. Yet it is entirely evident and inescapable as that in you (which is you) that allows you to say with utter certitude “I am” and “I know that I am.” Even when those words subside, you are. Even when the consciousness that knows those words subsides, you are. Consciousness is the light of creation. But you, as the unnameable source, are the primordial awareness, being or no thing (call it what you will) in which consciousness comes and goes.

(John Wheeler [source (in somewhat different words)])

and:

The present rearranges the past. We never tell the story whole because a life isn’t a story; it’s a whole Milky Way of events and we are forever picking out constellations from it to fit who and where we are.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

Like the quotations above? All credit, then, to the anonymous (and unknown to me) whiskey river blogger — who shared them this past week, and who has been inspiring me for over ten years. Below, some relevant (?) discoveries of my own, along the same lines. (More info here.)

[Read more…]

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