A Brief Life of Bruno Schulz

As a boy in a part of Poland that is now part of Ukraine, Bruno fed sug­ar gran­ules to house­flies so they’d have enough strength to sur­vive the win­ters. Lat­er, he want­ed to be an artist. He went to col­lege, but he was shy and thought lit­tle of him­self, so he had noth­ing. Some friends pitied him and found him a job as a school teacher. He didn’t like teach­ing, but his stu­dents remem­bered him as an awk­ward man who nev­er­the­less trans­fixed them with sto­ries every day from bell to bell.

He wrote sto­ries as well, but he didn’t think they were good enough to pub­lish. Nonethe­less, in 1933, at age 41, he trav­eled to War­saw with the hope that Madame Nalkowska would help him. As a favor to a friend, she agreed to give him ten min­utes of her time and let him read a few pages of his col­lec­tion to her. She kept the man­u­script for the day and phoned him that evening to say she would be hon­ored to help him pub­lish his col­lec­tion, The Cin­na­mon Shops. Five short years lat­er, he received the Gold­en Lau­rel Award from the Pol­ish Acad­e­my of Lit­er­a­ture.

In 1941, the Ger­mans forced the Jews of Dro­hoby­cz into the Ghet­to. Schulz escaped the camps, how­ev­er, when an SS Offi­cer, Felix Lan­dau, admired his work and retained him to paint murals in his home. Lan­dau had a vio­lent rival­ry with anoth­er SS Offi­cer, Karl Gun­ther ; one day, Gun­ther walked up and shot Shulz dead, say­ing, “There, I’ve shot your per­son­al Jew.”

[This is a dis­til­la­tion of David Grossman’s fine “The Age of Genius” from the June 8 2009 issue of The New York­er]

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work,

and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real jour­ney.

The mind that is not baf­fled is not employed.

The imped­ed stream is the one that sings.

– Wen­dell Berry

Something from Anthony Burgess

We prob­a­bly have no duty to like Beethoven or hate Coca-Cola, but it is at least con­ceiv­able that we have a duty to dis­trust the state. Thore­au wrote of the duty of civil dis­obe­di­ence ; Whit­man said, “Resist much, obey lit­tle.” With those lib­er­als, and with many oth­ers, dis­obe­di­ence is a good thing in itself. In small social enti­ties — Eng­lish parish­es, Swiss can­tons — the machine that gov­erns can some­times be iden­ti­fied with the com­mu­ni­ty that is gov­erned. But when the social enti­ty grows large, becomes a mega­lopolis, a state, a fed­er­a­tion, the gov­ern­ing machine becomes remote, imper­son­al, even inhu­man. It takes mon­ey from us for pur­pos­es we do not seem to sanc­tion ; it treats us as abstract sta­tis­tics ; it con­trols an army ; it sup­ports a police force whose func­tion does not always appear to be pro­tec­tive.

– From The New York­er, June 2012

The Long Goodbye

I copied this poster for Robert Altman’s The Long Good­bye from a tweet by Cas­sian Elwes. It’s one of my favorite films, an irrev­er­ent ada­p­ataion of Ray­mond Chandler’s nov­el. The poster is by Jack Davis, the great MAD Mag­a­zine car­toon­ist. I like how the poster uses the MAD for­mat to make itself hip and to poke fun at itself at the same time. The movie itself has none of this snarky comic tone, but it doesn’t mat­ter. The poster cap­tures the film and the era per­fect­ly.

IMG_3173

Mr. Ha

Mr. Ha drowned in his show­er. Just an inch of water, but that’s all it takes, I guess. He died for a while and now he talks in a loud whis­per like he just got stran­gled. He can’t stop clear­ing his throat even when he’s just sit­ting behind his desk watch­ing us. He makes us write the­se things called do jons when we piss him off, so we’re basi­cal­ly always writ­ing. I was the first one to fig­ure out if I coughed he’d clear his throat like it was on fire. Sarai was wor­ried he’d kick me out, but as soon he start­ed to calm down, I’d cough again, and he nev­er said any­thing — prob­a­bly because he couldn’t remem­ber our names any­more.

And he’s a real Kore­an now. He whis­pers with an accent that he moved here from Seoul after his wife died, that he’s sor­ry for his bad Eng­lish, but he believes “Human­i­ties very much a uni­ver­sal lan­guage.” He says things like, “This is not time for talk­ing. This is time to write your dojeon”. I don’t think that means any­thing, unless he learned Kore­an when he was dead. Mr. Ha grew up here. There’s a pic­ture him in the gym run­ning track that says “Toby Ha, class of 86, gets last laugh, vic­to­ry, at CIF.” His wife is Ms. Sny­der. She teach­es Biol­o­gy and dri­ves him home after school.

We fin­ished Da Vin­ci and Michelan­gelo, and we were start­ing Kepler and Car­avag­gio, but now Mr. Ha wants us to for­get all of it. For­get the Great Vow­el Shift. For­get the Mag­na Car­ta. He say his­to­ry is a lad­der — we’re not sup­posed to mem­o­rize it, we’re sup­posed to step on it. I don’t know why the school doesn’t kill this shit­show, but they don’t. May­be they just don’t want to deal.

Today he asked, “Is any­body here orig­i­nal?”. His voice sound­ed dif­fer­ent. We all raised our hands. Well, I didn’t. “A hun­dred per­cent orig­i­nal?” Sarai looked at me. She heard it too.
He stepped out from his desk and walked to my seat.

Why not orig­i­nal?” he said.

Noth­ing new under the sun,” I said.

I wasn’t used to him being so close. His arms were pale and slick, his eyes were wet — from being drowned ? Or is he still drown­ing ? “Very fun­ny. New dojeon,” he said, still look­ing down at me.

Write some­thing nobody has ever writ­ten before.”

Just him?” asked Sarai.

He turned to Sarai. “Every­body dojeon.”

He didn’t go back to his desk. That was a first. He walked up and down the rows while we wrote. When he was on the oth­er side of the room, I coughed, but noth­ing hap­pened. Grady and Eddie laughed, so I did it again, and this time he turned around and looked at me. He put his hand over his mouth and said some­thing. Yas­mine moved her chair at the same time so I couldn’t hear, but it sound­ed like “douchebag.”

When time was up, we put our do jons on his desk. Usu­al­ly he’d put them in his bag to mark up at home, or he’d grade them while we read. But, anoth­er first, he start­ed to read them out loud. And they sucked, so they made him super ragey. Flecks of spit popped from his lips like lit­tle fire­works.

Which is Sarai?” She raised her hand. He read : “The same time every night, I turn into a mon­ster. Hun­gry for soli­tude, while my par­ents argued over din­ner, I get up and run to my room where I can eat the dark until I’m full.”

He dropped his hands to his side and turned his head, slow, like a kai­ju ris­ing out of the sea. Yas­mine said it was sexy. Eddie said he nev­er thought about being alone like you could eat it. It didn’t mat­ter. We’d always be wrong.

’The same time every night?’ That not orig­i­nal,” Mr. Ha said. “What time ? Why vague ? It’s oat­meal on a baby’s lap. Time not impor­tant. Din­ner impor­tant. Hate par­ents impor­tant. ‘Hun­gry for soli­tude?’ I’m hun­gry for orig­i­nal­i­ty. Why you feed me oat­meal on a baby’s lap?” Sarai looked down at her lap. “You should say, ’I explode from my chair and stum­ble down the hall like some­one threw a har­poon into my chest and is reel­ing me into my room.”

She doesn’t hate the par­ents,” Sarai said.

He scanned her page again and then looked up at her. “Yes she does. Which is Gor­don?”

I stood up, scrap­ing my chair on the floor. “I am, Sir”. Every­body laughed. Mr. Ha smiled too. That threw me off.

Pa rubbed his caldera with his big right hand and gave me smile to hide the hot lava about spew out of his face. By the time he hit me, his pyro­clas­tic hatred had cooled into pahoe­hoe fists that had no trou­ble leav­ing their mark.”

Holy shit,” said Grady. Shut the fuck up, Grady.

Sarai said, “Gor­don, that’s so…” Don’t say any­thing, please.

Bor­ing,” fin­ished Ha. “Every­body say anger is like a vol­cano. Big deal. We erupt in bed. We erupt with grief. We erupt with joy. Got it. Humans are big flesh vol­ca­noes. So what ? I don’t know this father, I just know the writer doesn’t know the father either.”

I want­ed to shove my pen in his ear and ham­mer it out the oth­er side. Moth­er­fuck­er.

That’s not what I wrote,” I said.

Mr. Ha looked at my page. “You are Gor­don?”

You know I am. That’s the old ver­sion. You told me to rewrite it.”

I can’t remem­ber.” Mr. Ha looked through his pages. Sarai was giv­ing me a look. Didn’t she know I was doing this for her ?

Are you seri­ous ? That was my only copy.” I sat back down with a loud cough. Mr. Ha cleared his throat.

”Okay. Tell me what you changed.”

How am I sup­posed to remem­ber that?”

You remem­ber.”

I stood up again. I remem­ber every­thing.

My father gave away his rage like a mon­key slings shit. I could see it com­ing, but I could nev­er get out of the way.”

Untitled

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear DisasterVoic­es from Cher­nobyl : The Oral His­to­ry of a Nuclear Dis­as­ter by Svet­lana Alex­ievich
My rat­ing : 5 of 5 stars

Svet­lana Alex­ievich won the Nobel Prize for this and her oth­er books, but don’t let that stop you from read­ing this breath­tak­ing col­lec­tion. It’s as if Chekov and Gogol and Dos­to­evsky had a three way, and their love child died in the bloom of her youth while song birds, drunk on vod­ka-infused berries nabbed from a bowl by her bed­side, sang dirges that meld­ed with her fit­ful, flut­ter­ing soul into an ether that filled the lungs of the­se men and wom­en laid waste by Cher­nobyl. Every­body here is lost, for­got­ten, sac­ri­ficed, for­lorn, but they are so god­damned alive. When was the last time you had to stop read­ing a pas­sage for a min­ute because it was so great you didn’t want it to end ? That hap­pened over and over. The scope and depth of all it is over­whelm­ing, and since I fin­ished it tonight, I haven’t begun to put it in a crit­i­cal con­text. But I’m a lit­tle drunk on the melan­choly.

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Untitled

Dalva Dal­va by Jim Har­rison
My rat­ing : 5 of 5 stars

Admit­ted­ly I began the book with a lit­tle dread. I just fin­ished Wolf, Harrison’s first nov­el and one I’d first read in grad­u­ate school in 1988. I have car­ried a high opin­ion of Har­rison ever since, but now I had to won­der why ? What I liked about it at 26 left me cold at 53, so I was pre­pared for a sim­i­lar reac­tion to Dal­va, espe­cial­ly since Har­rison would be writ­ing in the first per­son as a wom­an, and I’d hap­pi­ly wash out ear­ly.

But Dal­va is a mar­vel — both the book and the char­ac­ter. Dal­va is in her mid-40s and liv­ing in San­ta Mon­i­ca and work­ing as a social work­er when we meet her. But as the nov­el unfolds, we real­ize this bare­ly her at all : Part Sioux, Dal­va is the great-grand­daugh­ter of a famed mis­sion­ary and hor­ti­cul­tur­ist who was more of a con­vert to the Sioux than a con­vert­er. He took a young Sioux wife and man­aged to find him­self in the mid­dle of much of the ter­ri­ble destruc­tion of the Sioux and their way of life at the hands of the Unit­ed States mil­i­tary. He also had a great deal of land. As such, Dal­va is not only rich with his­to­ry, she’s plain rich ; when she returns to her fam­i­ly home in North­ern Nebraska to search for the son she had with her 16 year old Sioux boyfriend, she brings along Michael, an alco­holic pro­fes­sor and her some­time lover, who has been grant­ed the oppor­tu­ni­ty to read & pub­lish Great-Grand­fa­ther Northridge’s per­son­al let­ters.

Har­rison lets Dal­va nar­rate the first and sec­ond third of the book, while Michael takes over in the mid­dle. Har­rison also includes long pas­sages from Northridge’s jour­nals, so what starts out as a dis­arm­ing­ly prim and undis­tin­guished sto­ry is actu­al­ly the oppo­site. Har­rison writes beau­ti­ful­ly as Dal­va as she nav­i­gates her life today and as she recalls the events of the past forty years that have formed her ; while Michael is a com­i­cal, annoy­ing aca­d­e­mic, Har­rison still invests him with a wry wit, pathos, and some sur­pris­ing insight about Dal­va and her fam­i­ly. Northridge’s let­ters are a mix­ture of 19th cen­tu­ry benev­o­lent naiveté and a more mod­ern sci­en­tific dogged­ness. The­se three streams of voice and time become a fast and loud river that is as much about the Sioux and their destruc­tion as it is about Dal­va and her sor­rows and solace.

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Tá Lá Fhéile Pádraig uafásach

When asked, I say I’m Venezue­lan, but my pale skin & freck­les, my blue eyes, and my tem­per tell a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. I’m a stum­bler, not a dancer. My rages are more singsong than oper­at­ic, my cru­el­ty more snub-nosed & self-hat­ing than the .50 cal­iber pee wee macho of a Hugo Chavez or a Tony Mon­tana. I’m real­ly Irish with a Span­ish name. Well, most­ly Irish. Or, more accu­rate­ly, I’m Irish enough ; I’m also Scot­tish and East­ern Euro­pean and Ashke­nazi, plus that soupçon of Iberi­an that comes with the sur­name. I’m so lit­tle of so much that I don’t care about any of it. No Venezue­lan pride. No secret Jew­ish squee. Too sub­ur­ban for my hill­bil­ly cred and too indif­fer­ent to claim any­thing Irish at all. (Unless indif­fer­ence is an Irish trait — I’ll nev­er know, though, because indif­fer­ence.) Plus I hate St. Patrick’s Day. I always have. When I was a kid, St. Patrick’s Day was about putting in the min­i­mal effort to avoid some dum­my pinch­ing you. That’s it. When I got old­er, I thought I’d dig the par­ty vibe, but I quick­ly learned St. Patrick’s Day com­bi­nes in all the douchey drunk­en­ness of frat par­ties and spring break with dis­gust­ing food col­or­ing in the booze. And in the vom­it.

So it’s days like today that I’m dear­ly hap­py I live in Los Ange­les, a city so bereft of Irish peo­ple that we aren’t even on the map of Irish com­mu­ni­ties in the Unit­ed States :Irishmap

This is okay with me. I know right now most of my friends in New York and Boston and Chicago are either get­ting drunk on green beer, vom­it­ing green beer, dodg­ing peo­ple vom­it­ing green beer, watch­ing parades next peo­ple about to vom­it green beer, or some nasty com­bi­na­tion of the­se.

Usu­al­ly I get city envy on hol­i­days here. Los Ange­les shows its sleepy provin­cial roots. New Years Eve and Fourth of July are par­tic­u­lar­ly dire. Restau­rants close at 11. Bars close at 2. But today, I was hap­py I had no idea it was St. Patrick’s Day until I over­heard two of the girls work­ing at the vet :

Are you doing any­thing tonight?”

Tonight?”

St. Patrick’s Day, right ? Isn’t it?”

Oh, that’s right. Oh, wow. Now I got­ta stay home. All the bars are gonna be gross.”

Yes, yes they are.

How Low Can You Go ?

Limbo Craze

An hour or so after I delet­ed my Face­book account, I got an email explain­ing that in fact my account had only been deac­ti­vat­ed but it would “be per­ma­nent­ly delet­ed with­in 14 days.” Which means it wasn’t delet­ed at all. If I logged in dur­ing those four­teen days, the delete request would be can­celed. I’d have to can­cel all over again and wait anoth­er two weeks. I was in Lim­bo.

I knew I wouldn’t make it. I quit in the first place because I have no self-con­trol. I was com­pul­sive­ly check­ing FB fifty times a day. When I wasn’t on it, I was think­ing about it — which pho­to I’d post, or which inane arti­cle I’d share, not to men­tion all the out­rage I drummed up respond­ing to every­one else’s out­rage. I wouldn’t be able to stay away for four­teen days. And why four­teen days ? Why not twen­ty-one days ? Why not sev­en ? It wasn’t arbi­trary. Noth­ing on Face­book is arbi­trary.

To Face­book, each of us is a gold nugget of data. No, that’s not right. A nugget of gold is use­ful only once, when you sell it. But a radioac­tive gold nugget is dif­fer­ent. Face­book has fig­ured out a way to enrich us like ura­ni­um so we siz­zle and radi­ate away our half-life into the ether day after day. A radioac­tive nugget is a life-long gold­mine, and no way is Face­book going to make it easy for that gold­mine to dis­ap­pear. I had been active on Face­book (a gross under­state­ment) for almost sev­en years. None of my likes and posts and shares and quizzes and com­ments were use­ful to any­body even a few hours after I made them, but to Face­book they were iso­topic ever­last­ing gold­en gob­stop­pers, which is why they’re saved in per­pe­tu­ity. I’m sure Facebook’s social engi­neers, or Fascisti­neers for short, burned through months of data, cash, and guinea pigs to fig­ure out that twen­ty-one days would make peo­ple think something’s fishy — noth­ing takes twen­ty-one days to delete ; sev­en days would be too fast for most peo­ple to have sec­ond thoughts and change their minds. Four­teen days must have been sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly deter­mined to be the sweet spot, and I didn’t stand a chance.

But it turns out I did. After a cou­ple days, the com­pul­sion fad­ed. After a few more days, I stopped think­ing about Face­book entire­ly. When some­one told me about some­thing they read on Face­book, I had a sort of men­tal gag reflex. I didn’t care and I didn’t want to hear about it. The four­teen days came and went four days ago, and I’m real­iz­ing it only this morn­ing.

I miss my friends on Face­book. I met a lot of new peo­ple there from around the world who I’d nev­er get the chance to meet oth­er­wise, and I stayed in touch with fam­i­ly and old friends too. All that is gone, and that’s hard. I live a pret­ty qui­et life, and I don’t take friends light­ly. I used to say I might be alone but I’m not lone­ly, but I feel lone­ly now. I also think it’s okay to feel lone­ly. It’s okay to feel bad. Now may­be I’ll do some­thing about it — seek out friends close to home, get out of the house, etc.

But on the oth­er hand, I feel like I’ve gained at least two hours a day. It was unset­tling at first because I didn’t real­ize what was hap­pen­ing. It felt like the clocks were run­ning slow. But now I’m lov­ing the extra time in the day to work. Beyond that, my mind has start­ed to calm down. If the mind is like a car’s engine, my idle speed was way too high. I was burn­ing fuel and and wear­ing myself down for no rea­son, revving hot and fast all the time. It feels like my mind has set­tled into a calmer, qui­eter nat­u­ral state. The­se days I’m in the mid­dle of a very stress­ful and unhap­py divorce, and recent­ly I’ve fal­l­en out with a good friend I love ; yet even with all the anx­i­ety and exhaus­tion and sad­ness, I’ve been calmer and less scat­tered than I can remem­ber being in years.

But did Face­book real­ly delete my account ? I’ll nev­er know. If I check, there’s a very good chance I’ll be right back where I was 3 weeks ago. Lim­bo is the very edge of Hell where sin­ners must wait for the pos­si­bil­i­ty of sal­va­tion, but it’s also a super goofy dance.