public intellectual number one

March 31, 2010

One of my favorite public intellectuals, Tony Judt, is writing his memoirs via a series of essays in the New York Review of Books. At least a handful of them are available to the public and I can’t recommend them enough.

Although Tony hasn’t said it, I think there’s some real urgency on his part to get his story written down, because his health has deteriorated so severely in the last year and a half, since he was diagnosed with ALS. More than several weeks ago I linked to the first essay I read, Night; it’s an eloquent, brave and very powerful account of his experience with the disease – much of which got referenced in this recent interview with Terri Gross. He said this thing while talking with Terri, that I’ve been thinking about for the last day.  Terri asked Tony if people were expecting him to write about the life lessons he’s learned from ALS and he responded:

Gosh, I have no idea. I mean, I think my answer to that question is this: It’s a bit like, if you’ll allow me the analogy, which is a bit of a stretch, it’s a bit like what Primo Levi wrote about his experience of Auschwitz, which is to say that however terrible it was, that whatever he did to survive it, he doesn’t believe there’s any larger lesson or moral story to be learned from it. Because when you are hit by something as bad as a concentration camp, you survive, and there’s no lesson to be taught about surviving except how to do it.

In my case, I survive quite comfortably at one level because this is one of the worst diseases you can imagine, but it has no pain. So you have a lot of time in your untroubled head to think out of body, so to speak, about the reasons why the body doesn’t work, the implications of being immobile for hours on end.

I think the only life experience that I have to offer out of this is something we all know in the abstract but don’t experience in practice very much. That is that you can survive an awful lot of bad stuff, so long as your mind is intact. I’m afraid that’s the only life experience I have to offer.

I’m not sure what to add  except I’m grateful for how honest and direct a response he gave. Tony wasn’t dangling out some silver lining. He didn’t recount a list of the “20 things I learned from ALS before it killed me.” I keep thinking how much we struggle to deal what he said, the thing we know in the abstract, but don’t get a lot of practice with, which is surviving some really bad stuff.

Seriously, check out the interview of read the Night essay or both.


a month later

March 29, 2010

RU just finished her month long silent meditation retreat. It’s a big deal. Maybe the most intense experience in a journey she’s been on ever since I’ve known her. I feel lucky to know that part of her. Ru’s always shared that part with me, even if I’ve not completely understood because I’m not a practitioner myself. It’s really not my journey to talk about  though. It’s RU’s and I want to respect that. But what I can can say is that I got to talk to RU, after a month of not talking to her at all, and wow, that was the best part of my day.

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self indulgence

March 28, 2010

I’ve got a cold or some allergy thing and it’s exacerbating the funk I’ve been feeling for the last several weeks.  Nothing is wrong that wasn’t wrong last year. My dad is still dead. Things didn’t work out with this girl I liked. Work is still taking a hit from the recession. I’ve kinda eaten my way through the hardest part of it all, or at least the hardest part thus far, and am having a hard time forgiving myself for the weight gain. For some reason my malaise feels particularly American. I guess it’s the narcissistic part.

Mostly, I’ve been trying not to take it all too seriously – the narcissism and the melancholy. It will come and go. That’s the promise of life, right? Nothing stays the same for long. Except death.  People die and are dead forever, which probably sounds much darker than I feel; I’m not morbid. It’s just knowing now I’ll never know some things about my dad has softened me up, opened me up to the people around me, to whatever’s happening, like noticing spring, which would make RU happy. I’m just not quite ready to advertise it – the opened up part. Lord knows I have worked my ass off at not caring about things. Maybe not worked my ass off, as much as nurtured the traits I’ve inherited. Indifference and detachment appear to have been my legacy. Good stuff got handed down too, but it’s not like things even out, not like exercising to burn off calories.  I’m not sure what my point is here.

The last year has also brought folks into or back into my life, some of whom I figured I just wasn’t gonna find again, like my best friend Tim, who I grew up with. He was like family to me and I feel I’ve got some part of myself back now that we found each other. On Facebook of course. And there’s my dad’s best friend, Joe and his wife, Toy, who knew my dad for 30 years and who Kath and I met for the first time last year. There’s Val and Deborah. There’s Heather and her man Martin, and friends of her’s who I haven’t seen in years, like Lauren, Chris and Judith. And there’s a bunch of folks from Bloomington who I came out with or came out around and who were my fist circle of friends there, most notably Deanne, who I’ve looked for on an off over the last several years and then there she was this winter on FB. Of course. And there’s RU and my sister, both of whom I can’t imagine not having in my life and really don’t want to imagine a life without them.

All of this stuff happened in the last 15 months. It’s hard to get my brain around it. All that got undone and uncovered and torn open. I dunno.

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in the other corner

March 26, 2010

More poetry from Tony Hoagland.

Maybe I overdid it
when I called my father an enemy of humanity.
That might have been a little strongly put,
a slight exaggeration,

an immoderate description of the person
who at the moment, two thousand miles away,
holding the telephone receiver six inches from his ear,
must have regretted paying for my therapy.

What I meant was that my father
was an enemy of my humanity
and what I meant behind that
was that my father was split
into two people, one of them

living deep inside of me
like a bad king or an incurable disease—
blighting my crops,
striking down my herds,
poisoning my wells—the other
standing in another time zone,
in a kitchen in Wyoming
with bad knees and white hair spouting from his ears.

I don’t want to scream forever,
I don’t want to live without proportion
Like some kind of infection from the past,

so I have to remember the second father,
the one whose TV dinner is getting cold
while he holds the phone in his left hand
and stares blankly out the window

where just now the sun is going down
and the last fingertips of sunlight
are withdrawing from the hills
they once touched like a child.

~ from What Narcissism Means To Me (Greywolf Press, 2003)

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Poetry Corner

March 24, 2010

This from Tony Hoagland, a poet I discovered this year and became quite taken with.


Like in the Chinese restaurant, it is
the perfect forethought and timing with which
the slices of orange arrive
on a small plate with the bill.

So, while you are paying what is owed,
The sweet juice fills your mouth for free.

And the fortune cookie too
which offers you the pleasure of Breakage
and then the other pleasure of Discovery,

extracting and reading the little slip of paper
with a happiness that you maybe conceal,
the way the child you once were
is even now concealed inside you.

Maybe you will marry a red-haired woman.
Maybe you are going to take a long journey.
Maybe a red-haired woman will steal your car and take a long journey.
Maybe you will be buried next to your mother.

And when the people you are dining with
smile and read their fortunes out loud,
and ask you to tell them your own,
you smile and tell them a lie,

and they laugh and think you are weird and funny and sad
and you know that you
are all of those things,

but you don’t tell them the truth
because you don’t trust anyone,
and you never have:
that is your fortune.

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red carpet

March 8, 2010

I love the Academy Awards. It’s a cheesy kind of love, I know, but I’m not embarrassed by it. There’s something about the mix of scripted and unscripted that works. I gotta say that I’m really pleased about some of this year’s awards, especially all the accolades for The Hurt Locker, which I saw when it opened here. It got under my skin, in part because it’s an edge-of-your seat, intense kinda movie, and in part because it gave me a visceral look at the drug of war, which is the drug my dad was addicted to. I didn’t want to be attached to the film winning so much, but inside I was, especially given that it was up against another war movie that glorified vengeance. In my mind, revenge is about suffering, but I don’t want to write a long post here on wrath. Not right now. Because I have been nurturing a crush on Katherine Bigelow since I read a profile of her in the Times. She’s a bad ass director and on top of that she was a painter, can talk about art and appeared in Born in Flames. And she’s tall. And she’s fucking hot. Of course I have a crush. And I’m way, way psyched she won best director, not just for breaking the barrier, which needed to be broken because this fucking gender shit is so remarkably old, but because she really rocked the screen. If you haven’t seen the movie. Go see it.

Plus, I’m always happy to see Helen Mirren. She’s hot. She’s British. And she makes everybody who gets on the screen with her seem about a thousand times better.

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