The Library

UnknownThe ceiling of the Library of Congress is embossed with aluminum.  Aluminum, the tour guide tells us, was a precious metal.  Once.

On the top there is a torch.  Torches are prominently featured.  As are: Minerva, owls, and women showing or unshowing one or both of their breasts, it varies a great deal.  Minerva has a sword.

The first Library was burned.  The second Library burned.  Now, rather than much of a library for Congress, it is a book fetish place on the mall.  For the second time, I got a reader card.  I would call it a library card.  Proof of book fetish, merely, I wasn’t going to read anything there.  Libraries, in fact, I love and fear, because I don’t check out books anymore unless I have an in.  I can’t be trusted with library books.  I have dug myself holes.  The government employees at the get-your-card office are deeply unimpressed with your desire for a card, just ignore the warnings that this is NOT A SOUVENIR.

What people do is create libraries, and then those libraries are burned or dispersed.  Three-quarters of my library has languished in a Lenexa, Kansas storage unit for two years, twenty-four months.  I never thought I could live without it.

The Library was the first building in Washington, DC to be completely electrified, and people used to go there to see the sight.  They also installed gas.  Once the electricity fad passed, they could crank up the gas lights like regular people.

Thomas Jefferson’s books, the ones that survived the second fire, are preserved in a swoop of an almost circle, glass on both sides, so you can see both sides, the spines are on the inside, labeled by subject, and the outside is all their pages, some of them dizzyingly marbled, blue and cream or burgundy and cream.

Aluminum was, in the beginning, so precious that royalty had one set of aluminum fork, knife and spoon for the honored guest, and the others had to use gold.

Were books your company?  When weren’t they?  When have you felt lonely, away from your book, and worse when you had to stop and realized how one-sided your relationship had been with the book.  Hadn’t it been?  When did you know the complete hollowness of not having any book you wanted badly to reenter?  Did the books you read pay any attention to you?  Did they respond at all?  Did they light up?

Jefferson sold his library to Congress.  He thought they could use them, sure, but also he needed the money.

The last day of school, I ended up sitting and chatting a long time with a student.  He told me he wished his dad would teach him how to pray.  I told him if he didn’t end up a neurologist, he could still work in medicine.  He might change his mind, and that would be okay.  I told him to read Atul Gawande.  Do you know anyone who’s gone to medical school? No.  I told him to go to the Natural History Museum, he had never been there, I told him it was free, really, just give them a dollar, they let you in.  Go see the dinosaurs.  Maybe I will, today, Ms Schurman, maybe I will.


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.


When I was zipping through a practice exam to use with my students, I slowed way down to read Ralph Ellison.  I don’t really know anything about him.  I’ve never read Invisible Man.  Strange as it seemed, I was enjoying reading a passage on a test.  I immediately went back and ordered it from Amazon, which is, strictly speaking, not permitted in my budget.

This morning there was a tow truck in my driveway.  My neighbor had pulled his moving truck up on the lawn, and it was stuck.  I wandered over, both to ask the driver to move the truck, and to see the spectacle, and to comfort my neighbor.  He had offered to introduce me to his cousin, who was helping him move.  His cousin is near my age, and apparently rich as King Midas.  When I approached my neighbor, his cousin was standing a ways off, shirtless and angrily smoking a cigar in the spring sunlight.  His chest hair was the same color as the cigar.  “We’re a little frustrated at this point,” my neighbor said.

The Ellison book arrived.  Along with the New Yorker and Smithsonian.  They were all waiting in my black mailbox, despondent.  I had forgotten about them.  The first piece in the book is the one I had already read from.  It’s about living with the noise of other artists.  Ellison is trying to write, and a singer lives above him, and drunks sing around him in the alleys, and he’s trying to fucking think straight.  He buys a record player and blasts arias and spirituals at top volume, in a war with his neighbor.

One of my uncles is an audiophile, collects turntables and exquisitely designed Japanese needles that will transmit sound with the delicate touch of one rabbit hair.  He has often been stopped at a Japanese airport to have a needle inspected more closely.  I would think it a weapon, myself.  They come in odd-looking little clear plastic boxes.  Once he sat me in the “sweet spot” in his listening room and played us a piece with a pizzacato bass.  I closed my eyes, and I would have sworn I could taste the rosin that sticks to every stringed instrument after being in clouds of it rubbed lovingly on bows.  I could feel the glossiness of the thin wood of a stringed instrument, and the lightness of its body, which is so scary, like holding an infant.

How do things touch each other?  Physically, proximity, neighbors.  Physically, as a copy of Living With Music by Ralph Ellison is plopped in my mailbox, from Spokane, Washington, inscribed with the black ink notes of a stranger: “One moment inspires many that’s great like Herb Hancock quote about conversation.”  Sometimes remotely, like a bass far from me in time and space, living in my ears anyway, in the top floor of a house on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas.  And sometimes across years and genders and races from Ellison to me: “Those who know their native culture and love it unchauvinistically are never lost when encountering the unfamiliar.”

Fetishes: Annotated Bibliography

“The French have a horror of the smell of cooking food, whereas Americans find it appetizing; in the nineteenth century the first French Rothschild went so far in this aversion as to have the food brought from the kitchen to the dining room on an odourless, because underground, train.” –Edmund White, The Flaneur

(I couldn’t figure out how to put a circonflexe on that Flaneur.  But I do know what a circonflexe is, if that makes it better.)  Seriously, the smell of cooking food?  What is the difference between the smell of cooking food and cooked food?  There are subtleties that, as a corn-fed American, I’ll just never understand.  This makes me feel much less bad about refusing to use powdered creamer, or “creamer” that isn’t, in the main, something from a cow’s tits.  It’s the only time I feel my European ancestry.  We drink cow milk.  We have for centuries.  And wait, “odourless, because underground”?  It seems like a great book anyway.  I just started it.

“The ruling gentry in Thomas Paine’s hometown had their own octagonal temple, and Thomas Jefferson had built an octagonal house for his daughter.  Jefferson was so delighted with the result that he also built her a pair of octagonal outhouses to accompany it.  But Fowler brought a new and nearly religious fervor to octagons.  They allowed more windows and thus were lighter, healthier structures, he insisted– and his readers all knew how essential good health was to the moral improvement of the world.”  –Paul Collins, The Trouble With Tom

Number one, I think octagons are ugly.  There was a house either hexagonal or octagonal around the corner from where I grew up.  It was a glorious shot of scotch in a very warm-milk area.  Still ugly, though.  I imagine that back when it was so much harder to get straight lines, before computers and machines, straight lines were super sexy.  In my time and place, I have sought out sagging lines in every building I have lived in.  Sagging is the thing now.  Good health leads to moral improvement?  Oh, silly Americans.  Lucky for the sick and the cheerfully degenerate, that just doesn’t follow.  Finally, if you get a chance, you’re going to want to say “octagonal outhouses.”  I’m going to try to work that into conversation tomorrow.  That’s the kind of phrase that makes people stop and think, both in its meaning and its poetry.