Baltimore

photo-4From an interview with James Baldwin, just after the death of Dr. King:

Baldwin: It is not the black people who have to cool it, because they won’t.

Interviewer: Aren’t they the ones getting hurt the most, though?

Baldwin: That would depend on point of view.  You know, I’m not at all sure that we are the ones who are being hurt the most.  In fact, I’m sure we’re not.  We are the ones who are dying the fastest.

Yesterday I took this long walk in Manhattan from Chelsea to Chinatown, not because they both start with “Ch.”  Purple tulips, one lady with purple hair, one sign with a curl as one of its letters.  The townhouse Edward Hopper painted in, it is on Washington Square Park.  I climbed the steps to see the plaque that explained this, and stood on his stoop a minute.  I planned only to see things I hadn’t seen before, which was more difficult than I thought it would be.  I accidentally walked by the same pharmacy that always makes me think, what a fancy pharmacy, my doctor’s office, and a restaurant I ate in 1996.

Interviewer: Let’s talk about the average citizen, the white man… what should he be doing?

Baldwin: If he feels he wants to save his country, he should be talking to his neighbors and talking to his children….

Interviewer: What should he be telling his neighbors?

Baldwin: That if I go under in this country, I, the black man, he goes too.

I asked three of my students what they thought about the trouble in Baltimore.  Two of them had opinions.  One of them knew someone in Baltimore.  One was like, what?  I told him to look it up.  I printed off that interview with Baldwin, and an excerpt from The Fire Next Time, and I sat and read both with a pencil in hand.

This is from The Fire Next Time:

Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any [white] people ot treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that.

Five Bradford pear trees are blooming just outside the school, every time I go out they are there, a white not of purity or emptiness, but of unsplit light, these bloomed branches pressed against the sky so blue it is almost pink.  I walked under them, looked up at them, on my way to buy lunch for myself and a friend.

White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this– which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never– the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.

“It looks like it’s gonna rain,” one of my students said.

“No, it doesn’t,” I said.

“No, it doesn’t,” another kid said.

She looked again at the pink-blue sky.  “Oh, I guess not.”

Something very sinister happpens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become.

The thing right now is “deez nuts,” that is what the kids are saying, pretty much every day, someone, and today I said, “That’s so last week,” and a kid considered, accepted that perhaps this was true, the saying was worn out.

Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.

I saw also that my heart was full of little holes, pinpricks, and this is why it has trouble holding things, sometimes.

If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving.  If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.

Reading

IMG_3558I won’t be a snob about seasickness anymore.  They told us we might get seasick while the boat was tied up.  I only get seasick when I ride the Star Wars ride at Disney World more than two times in a row, so I figured I was fine. (For the record, I rode four times in a row in defiance of my nausea.)

First we had to board the little raft to ride out to the boat.  We were bundled up, me in my new heavy chocolate-colored sweater, ugly but serviceable hat, red mittens with removable mittenness.  It was mostly grey, and we were at the East River.  The George Washington Bridge was upriver, and downriver was the Freedom Tower.

These sailboats, where we were supposed to bond as colleagues, were small.  The other sailboats I’ve been on were both big enough to live on, albeit cozily.  This boat had enough space down inside it for six people to have a very uncomfortable cocktail party while sitting Indian style and not have anywhere to pee.

Rather than be taught, one of our crew was to read directions from a book about sailing, and the rest of us tried to follow them.  She was good at translating the book into action.  When I took a turn, I got stuck on the first direction I read.  I couldn’t find that thing, or figure what we should do with it when we found it.

When I took a turn trying to read How To Sail, I started to feel seasick.  Trouble was, as we had been told, when tied up, the boat bobs a lot, can’t go with any current or any wave of passing barge.  “Look at the GWB,” our teacher said.  “It happens to me all the time.”  I looked at the Freedom Tower.  That was the way I was facing.  I started to feel less like puking.

IMG_3556Eventually we got the sails up.  Once untethered, we moved out into the water, praying that our East Riversickness would lessen by being able to watch the horizon continuously and go with the flow.  And we learned the four jobs.  Two people tighten (trim) and loosen the front sail, one person trims and loosens the main sail, and one person steers.

I was excited by the word “trim,” and I got to think back to my period of obsession with Herman Melville, and reading Moby Dick on the beach in Galveston, Texas, and thinking about what a bad, great book it was, and thinking of Melville living and working in New York in this sad, sad job after his youth of adventure, and feeling like a failure and not knowing how much I, hundreds of years later, would prefer him to Hawthorne, I mean, I would love to have dinner with Melville, and I would wear a beautiful dress.

When the sail starts flapping, and there is another word for this I’ve already forgotten, you trim it.  After lunch, I learned that when your boat snags the anchor line of another boat, you yell and pull down the sails as fast as possible so no gust of wind can push your boat over.

I wasn’t too alarmed.  I was like a ten-year-old boy.  When I am in danger, but there is nothing I can do, i.e., I am the passenger of someone driving fast and crazy, I am actually comfortable.  I surrender to fate, and I’m amused or frozen or both.

Our teacher was running around the boat, people were grabbing the anchor line and other pieces of equipment, clearly it was an emergency, and then our teacher, standing on the front of the boat with his hands clenched, released the line that held the anchor and it dove into the river like a lemming and he said, “Fuck.”

Since he had such a bad day, I’m going to add here that he was just as cute as I remember our rafting guides were, all those years we were girls in Colorado and pretended they were our boyfriends although for those boys to even look at us was illegal.

Suffice it to say that there had been, on our boat, patting of shoulders and silence and people trying to joke in a kind way even though they felt like shit.  It had already been a challenging day.

Our teacher sat for a while looking at his hands, which I imagined to have at least red and maybe bloody lines torn across them from the rope.  He blew on them to warm them.

We sailed back to the dock.  Once more, before we were actually back, the boat unexpectedly (to me) leaned way over so we could have fallen in.  That actually did scare me for some reason.

IMG_3560Our teacher read the wind the way I read the Bible, that is, with all my life history, all the times I’ve heard all those stories since I was born, and actually, in the womb, too, and all the sermons I’ve heard about them, the ancient Greek I remember a little and all the background I’ve read and everything I know about how it has formed the caves of other pieces of literature and the rest of history with its water trickling through the rest of our limestone, and I don’t even think about it.  He read the current, the tide, the wind, which in this funny place, this wind tunnel between Manhattan and the towns of Jersey is especially capricious.  He read barges and other sailboats and ferries and their wakes and the weight of our boat and the kind of sails we had and the skill level we had.

There’s so much to read.

Annotated Bibliography: French slop, Italian despair, and So Ends the Play.

If Americans have so little sense of nuances, it isn’t that they’re incapable of grasping them– after all, American reality itself is sufficiently nuanced– but that they would be troubled by them.  To accept nuance is to accept ambiguity of judgment, argument, and hesitation; such complex situations force you to think.  They want to lead their lives by geometry, not by wisdom.  Geometry is taught, whereas wisdom is discovered, and only the first offers the refreshing certainties that a conscientious person needs.  So they choose to believe in a geometric world where every right angle is set against another, like their buildings and their streets.

— Simone de Beauvoir, America Day by Day, translated by Carol Cosman, Phoenix, 1998 (originally published 1954)

Lest you assume Ms de Beauvoir turns her nose up at us all, much of her book about her travels in America describes her delight in exploring our country.  If we can still refer to it as “our” country.  The America of just after World  War II was a conservative, awkward place, still wearing its braces and still broken out with the blemishes of a somewhat wild West.  You couldn’t drink much, or late, in Los Angeles.  People didn’t want to talk too much politics with her, although they felt they understood exactly what Europe needed.  Ah, how could they not show some bravado, having just inherited a burden of power they weren’t sure they asked for?

But I digress.  Americans still do tremble at nuance.  Our pound-the- drums two-party system insists we color within the lines.  Of course, I like that about us.  We are bold.  And it kind of makes me nuts, like when we can’t set up a reasonable national health care system because we have to pretend there are only two choices: socialized medicine and slightly tweaking our slightly imperfect current system.  Yes, let’s move on to Art.

Yet at the same time his heart swelled with delight over the adventure the outside world was about to embark upon.  For passion, like crime, is antithetical to the smooth operation and prosperity of day-to-day existence, and can only welcome every loosening of the fabric of society, every upheaval and disaster in the world, since it can vaguely hope to profit thereby.  And so Aschenbach felt a morose satisfaction at the officially concealed goings-on in the dirty alleyways of Venice, that nasty secret which had merged with his own innermost secret and which he, too, was so intent on keeping: he was in love and concerned only that Tadzio might leave, and he realized not without horror that in that event he would not know what to make of his life.

–Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, translated by Michael Henry Heim, Ecco, 2005.

I think this novel (barely a novel) might be one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.  I was so enchanted by it that I read it in one day, in a handful of sittings.  Even odder, I actually underlined and later looked up the words I wasn’t sure about, so I would know exactly what Mann meant (or what Heim thought he meant).  Sirocco.  Eflluvia. Matitudinal.  Apotheosis.  I never do that.  I have a vague idea, enough to keep going, and I keep going.  For this book, my blundering wasn’t good enough.

Crime and passion wait for ice storms and snow days, that is for sure.

I sat at a bar and ate dinner on my white cloth napkin and had one glass of wine, and I thought when the book was over, my face would hold its expressions, and I would not know what to make of my life.  That last part was killer, but this is even worse (in a Michael Jackson sense of bad):

There is nothing more curious or delicate than a relationship between people who know each other only by sight, who encounter and observe each other daily– nay, hourly– yet are constrained by convention or personal caprice to keep up the pretense of being strangers, indifferent, avoiding a nod or a word.  There is a feeling of malaise and overwrought curiosity, the hysteria of an unsatisfied, unnaturally stifled need for mutual acknowledgment and communication, and above all a sort of strained esteem.  For a man loves and respects his fellow man only insofar as he is unable to assess him, and longing is a product of insufficient knowledge.

That just makes me want to hide under the bed.  Okay, one more:

The gods have many shapes.

The gods bring many things

to their accomplishment.

And what was most expected

has not been accomplished.

But god has found his way

for what no man expected.

So ends the play.

The Bacchae by Euripides, translated by William Arrowsmith, University of Chicago Press, 1959

Like most regular people, I haven’t sat and read a lot of ancient Greek plays since college.  I did thoroughly enjoy reading all those plays in college, though.  The coolness and boldness of the language contrasts so sharply with the slung-around slyness of so much clever clever modern dialogue.  It’s pert without being snotty.  They did have the advantage of writing some of our first plays.  They weren’t so worried about sounding stale, I’m sure.

The other advantage they had was  a declining language, which freed them from having to string their sentences like a set of graduated pearls.  Ancient Greek words are hippie multicolored beads you can string to any length, shape, or pattern.  Which makes me slightly jealous, until I remember that we have more words.  So there, Euripedes.