Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Head of the year

Like the U.S. Congress, I'm on a break today for the Jewish holidays. A damp, overcast but still warmish morning with the scent of fall in the air. I am skipping all religious obligations except for tashlik, tossing stale bread to the gulls off the Marblehead end of Boston Harbor, followed by a celebratory buffet at a friend's house. Gluttony is obviously not a sin I plan to cast away today. Or sloth. Or lust for that matter. But pride, envy, anger and greed are good to go -- the last not something I'm prone to myself, but I'll throw it off vicariously on behalf of all the recently humbled derivative traders out there. (The traditional Catholic Seven Deadlies make a convenient shopping list for sinners, even if they don't map precisely to the more comprehensive, once a year Yom Kippur line up.)

Actually I will spare some anger for everyone, Democrat or Republican, who contributed to not passing the bailout package in the House of Representatives yesterday. And for the ugliness and arrogance and stupidity of John McCain's recent carping against Barack Obama on this subject. Though maybe I should take the longer view. One small bright side of the recent crisis amidst so many dark ones is that Democratic presidential candidates always do better in bad economic times. And McCain's posturing and erratic judgement appears to be eroding his support yet further, to judge by polls in the last few days. The more McCain inflates his own role in the Congressional deliberations, the more he blames the Democrats even while touting bipartisanship, the more he's likely to suffer as partisanship by both sides drags out the process and the pain. Happy thoughts!

I don't know if it's the mental image of being on a beach, reminding me of the opening scenes of the movie "Chariots of Fire," but this song from Blake's Milton--which has become a popular Anglican hymn--has been playing in my head for the last few minutes. So let's pause the Rosh Hashanah retrospection and move ahead to post visions of Yom Kippur (as expressed in Blake's crypto-gnostic, post-Christian imagery) of the year to come:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.
That is to say, I will not cease starting tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The first thing I do when starting to write about Jean-Dominique Bauby's magnificent jewel of a book is to look up the French title (which didn't occur to me while reading it): Le scaphandre et le papillon. The translator's English is close enough, it seems, even capturing in its own way the rhythmic assonance of the original. But then, maybe not so much: my old Langenscheidt pocket French dictionary gives scaphandre as "diving suit" rather than diving bell, and scaphandrier as "deep-sea diver". A different image, of enclosure yes but also of a kind of monstrous mannikin, ringed with masks and tanks and tubes, deprived of normal sensation, like Bauby in his hospital bed in Berck-sur-Mer. Possibly more a sense of exploring the depths too, whatever the dangers and restrictions. I'll have to bug one of my native speaker friends for clarification.

Whatever the sense of the title, there's less of the cold, dark depths than you might imagine in this book, and much more of the butterfly, fluttering half deliberately half impulsively from memory to fancy to sharp, funny and moving observances of himself and the people and things around him. I think only a French writer could create a book like this from a condition, a history like this. Flipping through the narrow volume of short, evocatively or evasively titled chapters, it strikes me that that protean French prose genre the essai has itself come to the diver's rescue. Or rather it becomes the vehicle (submarine? helicopter?) by which he rescues himself, even while his efforts give a whole new meaning to the form.

I page though the book to find the exact wording of one image that had stuck in my mind, celebrating the letters Bauby receives in the hospital from friends, family and colleagues: "I hoard these letters like treasure. One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship." I remembered these being the last words in the chapter, which they were, except for this one line closing paragraph: "It will keep the vultures at bay". Interesting that I'd remembered the hopeful fancy not the black humor. There's an ever present, ever shifting mix of both moods in the communications Bauby crafted, as he describes, so carefully in his head before conveying them the world through a carefully orchestrated system of winks -- no stranger a mechanism when you come right down to it than tapping on laptop keys or incising wedge-shaped marks on wet clay.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Kayaking on the North Shore

A weekend itch, a hum, an expectation, when the weather obliges, and many weathers oblige. Though a schlep to start out of course. Haul the boat from the backyard, hose off the dirt thrown up the the rain, flip it onto the SUV rack, strap it down -- a 14 foot Walden Expedition, lobster red. Carry yourself and the kayak down to the sea. With an appetizing crunch push off from the sand. Then, miraculous reversal, the sea and the kayak are carrying you -- out past the splashing families, the boatyards, the bobbing floats beneath which real lobsters scuttle, shrewdly untempted (in my mind) by the locals' traps. Along the islets and shores of this rocky bay, dotted with seaside mansions old and new. I alternately dart and drift, the dripping double-bladed oar in its steady rotation, half push half pull, always reminding me of a dragonfly's wings, or resting comfortably athwart the cockpit, as the boat slides along under its own momentum or simply bobbed by the waves. A little outside the mouth of the bay the wind and the swells pick up and I paddle harder, with more consciousness of having to choose a direction -- northwest round the point to Salem, southeast across the harbor with its forest of masts, and the lighthouse in front of me. Further out, Great Misery island, where more intrepid paddlers in wetsuits habitually venture but I haven't attempted yet, probably never will. An hour and a half floating on the waves with my feet up and a modest, half imagined weekender's sense of the power and pull of the sea is quite enough adventure, right now.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


I can't ignore the fall of Lehmann Brothers but can't quite grasp it either, or don't want to, so my mind skitters defensively to the company's human namesakes. Nicholas Lehmann, Julie's old Harvard classmate, now dean of the Columbia School of Journalism. Pronounced like 'lemon', not 'lee-mun'. He must be experiencing some onomastic angst of his own. And David Lehman - clever, glum American poet and prolific poetry editor. Glad today to be short one 'n' in his last name.

What's in a name? Or what's in a word, like 'reformer' or 'deregulation'? The presidential candidates are each trying to cash in on Wall Street's woes -- "John McCain casting himself as an outspoken populist outraged at corporate greed and Barack Obama hammering what he called a Republican-led climate of deregulation that McCain championed" (Boston Globe, 9/17). Personally, I worry that more people will embrace the faux-maverick "populist" who channels their visceral fear and resentment than the earnest liberal who asks his audience to pay mind to legislative and economic history.

Conclusion: did Nicholas Lehmann's immigrant ancestors think "lemon" was less Jewish sounding than the alternative?