Thursday, June 27, 2013

You write, to put it one way, because you've been lied to.  The girl who protested too much, the professor who had too much of his own modern academic agenda to see your work clearly, the jobs you end up taking...  They lie because they've figured it out, how to fit in, and you seem to have not figured it out.  And every creature, at every level of existence, knows a lie, knows when it, he, she, has been lied to.  The eye simply sees it.

Another work week ends.  The first day off.  You finally get up and have your cup of tea.  The truth is you haven't written all week.  You feel like you no longer even know what to write, where to begin.  That you write is some sort of strange out-of-place fact that doesn't fit in anywhere, and so it too seems like a lie, merely a small attempt to catch the dreams you had the night before, or to address the feelings in  your psyche, the changed landscape of reality as it is when you know the higher.  Why this bar tending?  Shouldn't you be a teacher, based on the kind of 'research' that you do, which is the act of writing itself?  But in the post-English major specialist world we are in now, that doesn't seem to qualify as academic work.

Shakespeare and Donne, though, and probably other members of the old canon, they too were academics in their own right, with what they studied, with the things they showed, with what they taught and how they taught it.  Would their temperaments be too gloomy for the sort of face-saving work that academia is now, always assuming a positive cheer, the claim of perfection, equality, justice, no longer standing in the human condition, no longer broad, detail-oriented in an almost smug way. Would it seem now like they had nothing to say, nothing that would fit in, but rather better be banned lest it incite, as in Hamlet, a madness, an antic disposition and a lot of other stuff that can't be fit in to the modern office and all its neat and speedy connectedness of empty stuff.

They wrote from their own poor humble laboratories of human nature, knowing themselves to be ephemeral by the scale they comprehended, equipped only with native insight and intelligence, not too far different from how the Buddha came up with his pieces of wisdom.  They could be shocking.

Gone is the ability to create, to be imaginative, to be as the child (in the Christian sense.)  Show me a self-promoter and I'll show you a liar not worth listening to, one who's completely missed the point, one who might sound nice even.  "Life's a struggle," we say, "why not be ambitious," dismissing their behavior.  The lies come out from time to time, but blame is turned on the individual, and not the system that goo-ed and gaga-ed over their preposterous recipes, at their feeding the masses what it seemed, at the time, to be hungry for (as it seems with Paula Deen, but not to blame her, as I am assured she is a great chef in her own right.)

Teaching, really, is basic stuff.  Just an opening of the eye that sees.  The real lessons might be of little help, and maybe even a hindrance, for as far as getting ahead.  But you learn values anyway, and maybe that's the point no one any longer cares to see.

"Oh, come on.  Don't be so serious.  It's a world of well-compensated liars and manipulators."  And yes, I told my own lies this week in order to garner a paycheck, pushing wine I suppose.

Maybe I slept poorly, or it's the extra shifts.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Fifty years ago, today, Ich bin ein Berliner.  NY Times opinion piece reminding us.  The power to transform.  The politics of "I am everyone."

I am Everyman.  I am Hamlet, we all are Hamlet.  We all share.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

I have the same problems as the world.  I lack security, I lack savings.  I've not found a niche for the English Major, for my latent talents as a would-be educator.  My job is marking time, waiting.  I crave the patch of nature I go through on my way to work.  I try to deal with the distractions of my sensual side, try for a balance of soothing the aches of work.  My daily struggle is to eat good food, not hurt myself, nor the planet.  I'd like more time for exercise.  My shifts are a bit too long.  I walk or take a bicycle to work.  I miss the putting into play higher callings.  I wish I could afford having children, but the fact is I am poor.  I stand with the rest of the world, with the norm, with the human condition, politically underrepresented.
It seems like a long trip to make, to leave the bar and its convivial life and return to the quiet.  At the bottom of writing there is prayer.  Prayer involves the thinking, aligning life back again from the schizophrenic dual life.  One week, an extra shift on a Saturday night, a Thursday meeting and I had lost the vision of Amherst, didn't know how to write anymore.  And so I lay in bed and prayed, a form of writing, the deeper thought-gathering from which will be gathered remnants cooperative enough to put down.

What is the spiritual life?  How do we fit into it?  Was what I was doing, aiding and abetting the world of illusions in the name of making a buck?

The writer doesn't mind the lumps.  Grist for the mill.  How else do people socialize?

But why do I feel myself rejecting the livelihood?  Could I not control myself from falling into it?
I often, well, like, ask myself, what is the son of a proper college professor doing in a wine bar.  What is a writer, a proper one, doing working a bar.  Answers might flood in.  A.  wine.  B.  people.  C.  the stories and lore and meaningful trivia that people, with the help of wine, and my team's service, share.  D. which amount to world travels.

It's helpful to hear that it is a plausible scenario, the bartender who is a writer, moreso, a wise and seasoned friend says, than the actor bartender.  I can see that.  Different honing of craft.  Chekhov would have loved the bar, as much as he loved theater.  The bar would have been one of his assumptions, without which no society could work or be worth writing about, unless there were some magical way of communing, an instituted weekly evening like church, but liberal and free.

Visions from one night.  A wine maker from the Northern tip of Michigan making old world style Reisling, a veteran of family restaurant.  Cherry trees and now vines in old Hemingway country.   A deep deep friend who cannot be mentioned as if she were just a rote fact, an appearance, one of those who bring home the great connectedness, an educator who took me for my first visit the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum, who has arrived with a troop of souls the gentle prophetic being inside each one of us immediately recognizes and loves or the other way around.

Who cares about the newest restaurant.  Who gives a ... about the latest.  Good for talk, just to establish some basic agreement, that eating good is better.

An iPhone cannot be a bar.  It cannot be a bar of the civilized sort that is, like the reading room of a great and generous library, a place, a forum of discussion, of questions like, 'what are you reading these days,' and answers.  There are meetings, totemic, real, mythical, pedestrianly consumer, though each one bears a possibility.

A staff member reads a popular mens magazine, and reports on a column, a bartender giving advice, answering questions.  From what I heard today he does not sound like a very good one.  A woman looks into her family history at a website, Ancestry.Com, let's say.  Mens Health Journal professional advice, as relayed by staff member, helpful wife of male who reads said magazine:  'who cares? live your own life.  who cares if you're related to...'  That a professional bartender would say such a thing, offer such as advice, strikes me as anti-cultural, anti-intellectual, and maybe vaguely criminal as far as the job of tending the people who come to bar, curating the inherent conversational aspects.  Shame on such.  And maybe, with such fine examples, of the I Don't Give A Shit Attitude, are reasons why a decent service is sometimes sneered upon and belittled.  Is this why whatever magazine publishes the voice of such an idiot, for splash, for quick pop as if to advertise and support that idiot bartender whose only real job is to pitch a certain product, offer an Amaretto Di Saronno on the rocks, or Miller Lite in the new bottle.  If that is the only task of the bartender, God help us.

Enough of social commentary.

A man, who is a cyclist, reports his father has died at one hundred years of age.  Cleaning out the house, the finding of a small pamphlet, A GI's guide to Northern Italy.  There was much stuff in the family house.

Our friend from Colorado has just ridden the Ride of the Rockies.  Bravo.  The younger son is engaged now too.  First, for the oldest one's wedding in Philly.  The younger, will be a year later, marrying a Sikh.  Asked of the format for the first, Jewish, our friend responds, I've done my best not to raise my children Christian.  And it works.

But what is there to do?  Where is there guidance for young people, for seekers of meaning and 'truth?' There isn't much in the way of direction now, or purpose, beyond 'faster, more,' or 'apps.'

Thursday, June 20, 2013

It is a pleasing coincidence as far as a public mourning for James Gandolfini to find WHUT broadcasting a piece on Elvis and his gospel background.

A piece of haddock for dinner.  The skin you do not eat.  As if the tiresome commercial part of a business, when the reality of the art that is the business is the spiritual.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The boss wasn't able to find a wine rep to come in and help us out with the Tuesday night wine tasting. He picked from wines already on our list, a 2010 Crozes Hermitage blanc, and a 2011 ChateauneufduPape.  A big and voluptuous white, with cooked apple, stone fruit, good with Provencal fish stew or chicken with garlic.  A red from wine maker of Bastide St. Dominique, Eric Bonnet, in conjunction with wife Julia Moro.  Peppery, fruity.

I think of Emily's "Success is counted sweetest, by those who ne'er succeed.  To comprehend a nectar, requires sorest need."  A white Rhone wine being about as close to nectar as you can get.

Reflecting over old Tour de France vintage, one senses the fleetingness of victory.  The great gentleman Fausto Coppi, the Heron, sank into depression after the years of his victories.  And just about all of those in Pantani/Ulrich/Armstrong/Festina Affair era have all gone up in smoke, vanishing, unreal.  The raised arms of the doping playing field's victor leave us embarrassed, raises the question, why single out that "I Win" moment, when the picture is large, and must include the later depression of Coppi, the picked on outsider that Lance was as a school kid.  The picture of victory might also include the duel, the eternal runner up, or the gentlemanly quality of Coppi as a competitor, kind to all cyclists great and small.

And this applies to wine, too.  It's not a battle of a single day, but of a full season of days in the life of the grape and the vine, the slow ripening, the rise of tannins.  The grapes ripen, and then the hands of the vigneron must take over, gently.

Crozes Hermitage surrounds the hill of Hermitage.  One of the great legends of the Arthurian is that of Lancelot, the finest most gentlemanly knight of all of them.  Lancelot's only problem, falling for the boss's wife.  Eventually this love drives him mad.  He jumps out a window in the middle of the night and runs off into the wilds, losing his mind, losing even his knowledge of who he is.  Deep in the woods the animal part of him subsists on eating bugs and nuts, a root here and there, but, he's totally lost it.  (Not even any papparazi to track him.)  A hermit discovers him lying deeply depressed and starved in a bramble patch, takes him back to the hermitage and nurses him slowly back to health.  Yes, even for the great Lancelot, to apply the notion of victory would seem childish.  What is victory?  Would he ever achieve it with Guinevere in the realm of King Arthur of the Knights of the Round Table?  Or wouldn't it rather come in the quiet satisfaction and sacrifice, in the comprehending the nectar through sorest need.  Lancelot and his life, that was something for the people who transcribe and perpetuate legends to bottle up, having made the story a good enough wine so that all its facets could be clear enough for the sensitive reader who, along with the wine, would himself grow and mature so that the story always stayed with him, its nuances shifting, becoming more golden.

One hopes the gentlemanly quality of Lancelot goes along, remembered with his great feats of battle.  One hopes his adventures, completely unarmed, disguised as a normal peasant just checking in on life, an agreeable chap sharing the touch of great honesty, chivalry and general good with locals living day in, day out, are remembered as well.

The lessons, of course, of the Hermitage are of a deeper tradition than normal pleasantries, inclusive of the mysteries of being lost in order that one might finally be found and saved.  They are of the kinds of things that Emily Dickinson herself is able to refer to, a real reconstruction of the concepts of normal reality.  To many, who go about their lives, perhaps such things remain deeper mysteries left to the hermit and the poet to ponder, questions about the notion of a distinct self, etc.  Somehow, Lancelot seems cut out for them.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Twain invents this character.  He knows the world of journalism and the reading public.  He knows something of bringing sense, when there are so many contrasting voices and confusions, to be impossible, so he invents an outsider who can again see the truth.  Huck Finn.  Whose own voice of questioning actually cuts through it all.  As something we are capable of originally knowing.

Huck Finn could read the news today for what he sees, for what he can ignore, for his moral simplicity.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

I remember the barman at Harry's Bar in Paris, standing impervious behind the little bar, concocting a Sidecar with a quick shake, perfectly calm in his white jacket in the light of afternoon.  Later, at night we saw the crazies who go there to 'have fun.'  Monsieur Jacques had probably seen quite a lot.

There is a story from back in the day of Hemingway and Fitzgerald of someone bringing a lion into Harry's Bar.  I wonder if versions have Hemingway himself kicking out the host along with his lion.  I had the impression the place hadn't changed much.  My friend Phillippe explained to Monsieur Jacques that I was a barman too, back in America, as soaked in the bee motif and atmosphere over our drinks. At the end of our little visit, he reached to a shelf behind him, and with great professionalism and generosity, handed me a little book of cocktail recipes.  "Pour un comrade," he quietly said, and we shook his hand and, I hoped, tipped him well, before then going out and driving around the Arch du Triomphe.

A barman must be, in effect, an accomplished Buddhist, familiar with the Lankavatara Scripture, which states that if you hold that all things are illusory and insubstantial, despite their appearances, you can't go far wrong.

All night, sometimes, I get it from the server, her hackles up, sharing her distress.  "So and so is an elephant, this person is a hippotomus, that lady over there, she is a 'beeetchh.'"  Somewhere, Monsieur Jacques is keeping his dignified cool.
To me, Amherst, there's something about it being a ground zero, maybe in particular Emily Dickinson's house, her space that initiates a great movement in spirituality in America, the fresh country, a Buddhist leaning Transcendentalism that inspires great thought and study, seeing the Self in other things.  You can't miss it, really.  It helps formulate your words, your thoughts, your tastes, your desires in life.

When you are a college student, perhaps you're too young to grasp it, a selfless wanting for the sweet things, the gentle things of life.

Friday, June 7, 2013

A friend had mentioned Psalm 121 to me, hearing of my time up in Amherst, taking my poorman's vacation, a trip by train, staying on campus for a Reunion Weekend, a trip to pay my respects for retiring English Department faculty.  I spent a good amount of time sitting on benches outdoors, looking over the Holyoke Range, taking it in, the light breeze on a hot day, the birds, the sudden swoop of a young hawk, writing in my notebook.

     I will lift up mine eyes un-
     to the hills, from whence
     cometh my help.

I'd written a long piece set there, making mention of something my father, a professor, would talk about from time to time, which he expanded upon from a book written by a Julian Benda, a French scholar, writing between the wars.  An educator, in the long lens of truth, is a cleric, a keeper of knowledge.  Certain interests can infringe upon the work of an educator, such as Nationalism, the intrusion of politics, even the needs of industry, as industry makes its conquests, makes for Superpowers.  Is the fundamental purpose of teaching geology to a kid to make him a good oil-finder for Halliburton?  No.  The student is learning about the fundamental realities that make up the Universe and all reality and which refer back to him or her, including that student.

And so, prowling around, musing over the worn stone steps of the old chapel and iron railings of a kind never to be made again the same way, looking out aged windows at clear and austere old Yankee lines, it began to sink in.  The place was founded on the idea, the concept of the spiritual education.  Students of Amherst College followed a roadmap, often enough, of going of to Union Theological Seminary or other divinity schools, obtaining a thoughtful and overarching mastery, if you will, then coming back to teach, subjects like geology and math, and then maybe soon enough more metaphysical fields, if they didn't go off on mission somewhere or go found other institutions of higher learning.  It's in the groundwater, the dirt and rocks, in its history, its people, trembling in the leaves of its quadrangled trees.

The presence of the spiritual as the deep background of an Amherst education is not just in the dusty history of the Nineteenth Century either.  Essays dating well into the Twentieth reveal the same thoughtfulness, even as the concepts of God may have subtly changed.  G. Armour Craig, a teacher of ours, writes an essay concerning the place of the teacher, considering the need for a scholar's knowledge of self, found after great periods of struggle, to bring back to enlighten whatever subject matter he, or she, teaches.  DeMott's later essays seem to spill from the same waters.

After considering myself, well, maybe a bit off for proposing such a thought, that here at Amherst there is a tension, that tension being whether or not the teaching is done well, done with regard far far less to the material ends of things, but to, yes, the spiritual.

The Kirkus Review reviewer quipped about an essential piece of the book I wrote, call it what you will, of a student, in summertime, talking with his father, within the context of such a treason, noting that material ends, here referring to them as vocational, could derail the efforts of the highest forms of education.  The reviewer, dull of mind, saw the exchange only in his own current context, of our own current economy, of, indeed, the overwhelming need to turn a college education into, guess what, a job, money, a practical vocation that earns bucks.   Thus, an entire misreading, a complete miss as to what the book might be about in its essence, was the review's clever judgment.  And from there, the reviewer can only fill in the lines of the script, thus receiving his payment from the author for 'a professional unbiased review,' i.e., dull dialog, cliché even, uninteresting characters, no plot, etc.  As would make complete sense.

A book might, though, be judged on its merits, for old understandings that it awakens and brings back into play.  And a place like Amherst really must operate within the spiritual context, albeit under a surface, if it's to continue to hold its place and do its job and work its magic of teaching, as many thoughtful carefully thought out teacher's essays point out.  Take an Emily Dickinson poem, say, "My life had stood a loaded gun in corners," which, if read with a certain nod to the spiritual, in this case the being taken up by, the master, a kind of transcendental Oversoul, yields richer fruit than if just considered coldly, the gun just being the gun, or little more than a pun (as one film beats to death stupidly.)

Well, I know well enough what can happen when the spirit that animates the life of the mind is less the matter of attention.  A whole reality is dismissed, treated as something non existent.  But it is also true, the oldest things written, like the line about the stone that the builders rejected, or the house divided against itself.  Amidst crime novels, legal thrillers, faux histories, a little piece with the tenor of All Quiet on the Western Front taken down a good few notches is hard to observe, and maybe it has an altogether entirely different place than amongst novels, as it is politely purported to be, even as it largely is, in the American tradition.  Even the college itself, very largely secularized, would want little to do with it, as if it were smeared with something quite organic, so it would seem, as egos have to be protected.

Perhaps there has to be that crisis of confidence, of faith, of getting lost, before finding one's way.  Below that may be the traps one falls into when faith is diminished, the seeking of sensual comfort to compensate for the clarity we all want, of which there are many takes in the literature of faith.  Dante finding himself lost at midpoint in life, Jonah, Job...  Perhaps the reference to the very long time Jesus Christ spends out in the desert, 40 days without known nourishment and water, speaks to crises of confidence of twenty year periods that require a metaphorically equal time away, in the purifying desert finding bearings.  It would be good not to have to go through such long crises of confidence, but better for being stronger, for the inner knowledge of 'sin,' of being able to firmly tell temptation and devils to disappear.  Interesting that Christ himself, while having a tradition to fall back upon, is not completely wedded, such that he is not able to ad-lib were necessary to flesh out new grounds of faith, comprehending a remarkable authority.  Does being out of tradition make it easier, or more difficult?  He doesn't seem to have too many problems.

Sitting on a teak bench, overlooking the quadrangle, or the mountain range, I had my own poor behavior to examine, as such following me around campus as I remembered things.  I fell into the same sensual traps that fall, in all their variation, upon a lot of young people, students, young adults.  Drinking has so fallen into the collective ideas for gifts and relaxation, its hard for the consumer-minded person to avoid, 'the good time.'

I later would witness such dirty dancing to raunchy disrespectful-to-women albeit seemingly thoroughly enjoyed and encouraged by 'co-eds' music under the tents of the most recent reunion that I felt very old indeed.  I suppose one needed a drink after witnessing bare-chested young man and young woman simulating intercourse for half an hour.  But, that I would 'need a drink' to feel comfortable enough to linger there means that I didn't need a drink, nor to remain there dealing with it.  That night I had an excellent conversation with my friend Victor to enjoy, and the previous night I dealt with by wandering off into the playing fields musing over the spot where JFK's helicopter had landed almost fifty years ago, under a glorious sky full of stars and then a moon rising orange over the Pelham Hills.  That night I also saw a vet of the Iraqi war aggressively walking the same night playing fields and peering into the darkness, very much like a soldier on a patrol, able to act at any moment, from what I might have sensed in my bookish way.  Yes, that I would have needed a drink, back then, as now, meant there was something deeper and more soulful and perhaps more lonesome, ostensibly at least, to find and ruminate over.  And so I felt liberating emotions over where President Kennedy's helicopter might have landed, remembered doing my own thing in the music library listening with headphones to a record of his speeches.  It made me feel a good deal less haunted by the thoughts of a relationship I, being who I am, could never win, concerning the past and 'a beautiful girl.'  It took a few years to accept all that, and being again in Amherst helped.

 The intent may not have been laziness or maliciousness, but the habit resulted in spiritual wrongs and the ongoing spiritual crisis that haunt a creative type lost in his career.  I had worked into the night, reading 'til the library closed, writing papers in the late night study hall, but there was enough drunken foolishness to make me ponder how much I'd squandered, not that I didn't find myself with a temperament that led to slow careful readings and late papers, as if there was an inability to focus.  (I should have exercised more, kept the good chemistry flowing.)  That wine soothes, goes well with dinner, indeed is part of the Bible's own picture of life, has to be allowed;  it can't be all bad.  But...

So it was, and is, a comfort to be handed a little white book containing Amherst College essays by a venerable family friend, a treasure indeed, offered to parents by a grateful President Cal Plimpton, whose remarks at the memorial service held in Johnson Chapel on the evening of November 22, 1963 for President Kennedy hold some of the finest reflections upon the man read within recent memory.  So was it a comfort to read the lines of G. Armour Craig, from an essay "Teaching Confidence," that a teacher must necessarily be at odds with society.

The knowledge to move on, to teach, must come from within, after scholarly struggles and crises.    And it is comforting as well to ponder the wisdom that a teacher will always be at odds with the society that exists outside his classroom, that being the only place he is himself.  As would hold, say, over suggesting the presence of the spiritual in early Hemingway stories, the victories of the scholar, the critic, are not of this world.  They are limited, in tenor as well as reality, to the classroom.  Or maybe, certain Quixotic books.

One day from now, far in the future, the language we write in, the words we use, will be rustic,
the spellings funny, the phonetic spelled out in long quaint ways.  But behind such strange-looking words, the thoughts will be surprising, fresh and plain, such that future people will say to themselves, 'wow, they thought the same, but were very open about their lives, as if something depended on their communicating through printed words.'