Another playlist, particularly affecting. The first seven cuts are especially languid, without sentimentality. Supposedly a list chosen for me by Spotify algorithms, based on my favorites and saved choices. Read into that what you will based on what you hear.
There are a number of people, I’m sure, who like me wondered for eight years how Republicans (and many others not disposed to being identified politically) could muster the energy continually to hate President Obama as much as they did. There was a surfeit of hate, sufficient to spill over even to the present, and it inspired the constant drumbeat of obstruction through his entire tenure, and beyond.
Perhaps now, with, if anything, a more definitive and, if anything, in a strange way a more substantive and self-evident provocation to such dire feelings and the need to resist and hinder in all manner of ways the agenda—malign in our view—we can have a better sense of where such sentiments and the fuel to sustain them derive.
All I’m saying is, if you find yourself wondering, as an increasingly transient and mountingly irrelevant thought – almost a quick dip into an all too brief salutary nostalgia for the bad acts of others, and how superior it makes you feel – how, and where, on earth people found a store of such powerful feelings with an attendant need to express them, ponder no further. Look only to your own human nature. We all have that store. We can debate all we want the rationality of what we will doggedly argue is the sound basis for triggering such malign feelings towards a leader (never mind that it is indeed an almost autonomic response to any politician who doesn’t hew to our individual sense of right and justice). The fact is, there is nothing to agonize over in terms of “understanding” another person’s feelings—too often seemingly the absolute obverse of our own on the same issues.
The problem we are suffering in our divisiveness – and we all play a part; if there’s a division, it’s nearly impossible to stand one’s ground in a space that isn’t defined by the line of discord – is that we spend all too much time straining to resolve our thoughts with those of the opposition, and always failing. The fault is in not recognizing, consciously and mindfully, I would suggest also heroically, that the place of commonality is in our feelings.
You might think that rancor, antagonism, derision, and dismissal are a poor atmosphere for seeking congress, congruence, and eventually compromise. But these are one true commonality we’ve got. On the one side we’ve got Obama, who is no longer in a position to effect the mayhem he was always accused of foisting on an innocent and hoodwinked electorate. On the other Trump, who has long since been declared terminally incompetent to discharge his duties as President, and who is about to push us that one extra measure of distance between us and the abyss.
There is no changing the nature of the agent of our scorn. Let’s put those personalities aside. Before finding a leader, some future Fortinbras, we must first make peace with those with whom we share feelings of malice for the target of our hatred. Then, and only then, maybe we can begin to discuss quietly, if however passionately, our grievances, our personal reasons for disquiet, the antagonists for our malaise at our own condition. Then and only then maybe we will be able to begin to see some other common ground.
still looking for permission to write after all these years
Passport photo [courtesy Walter Benjamin Archiv, Berlin.]
I’m too long in the tooth, which ones I have left, to be coming to these realizations, but I do have to keep reminding myself of certain things. Whenever I feel doubts and uncertainty, which is not a fugitive condition, but a constant presence it seems, it’s always in comparison to the known existence, that is, known to me, of any number of figures in history and the present time—figures I have no particular reason to which to compare myself, suffering as they do so much greater familiarity, if not fame, among a so much greater number of people.
However, what I have always *not* borne in mind, and more recently, having realized for the first time previously and not that long ago, but long enough, that it was so, I remember that in most instances (Mozart is a standout, except possibly in those difficult years when he labored in utter obscurity before he turned six) neither were any of them, I hope, at least not to themselves. When Walter Benjamin wrote or spoke I have no doubt he did so because of the particular ferment of his feelings about having something to say. It’s a condition, variously and infinitely variably experienced no doubt, that any creator, whether thinker, writer, artist, composer, to name just a few, has to be referring to in answering the question, “Why do you create?” The answer virtually invariably is, “because I have to.”
Nothing else has to be said by the likes of me to validate the common wisdom that there’s plenty of stuff that gets done “because it has to” that will never see much of the light of day. A glimpse here and there kindly given by dear ones and friends. The accidental glance by roving interested parties. The demi-perusal by the flaneurs of our culture, always looking for what’s new and engaging—not to mention the hordes who are looking, always looking, merely for something to stave off the lurking beasts of boredom and ennui.
Let’s say Walter Benjamin sat down to write, well, name your pick of what he wrote, and I’ll pick, almost arbitrarily (I just spent a whole four minutes looking it up) an essay, considered one of his more seminal, entitled, tellingly, “The Author as Producer.” However, let me say, I am more interested in his mere writing of it, not, at this time, precisely in what he wrote. It was originally a lecture to a body in Paris, typical of the 30s, called The Institute for the Study of Fascism. He gave it in 1934 when, admittedly, he had already gained some notice and attention for his efforts at assiduous and repeated and frequent publication. That he was interested in gaining a permanent position on the faculty of any institution in Europe, but none was to be given for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the unhappy coincidence in time of his roots producing him when the tide of European anti-Semitism was at increasing flow. However, his prolific outpouring and industrious inquiries were into all manner of what we now call cultural studies, when it was not merely pure philosophy dressed in some vernacular raiment. Neither here nor there in the end. He had to look, to inquire, to think, and finally to write and to speak.
He may have had intimations of the greatness of mind with which he was blessed, and then, as far as I know, he may not. Only Benjamin scholars and biographers would know, or maybe someday will know if they don’t. But if I had to guess, I would guess he suffered in his own way the same doubts and suspicions of self that many of us—I’ll speak, however, only for myself. What I’m driving at, to arrive, finally, at what I’m talking about here, is the matter of allowing himself the permission to continue, to plug, to, in that expression with great currency that to me has grown from being mildly humorous to being loathesome, “power through.”
He never stopped. That is, he didn’t, until he famously did stop, literally, killing himself at the frontier with Spain, in 1940, mid-route on what would likely have been a successful escape from Nazi Europe to the United States. We don’t know why, as far as I know. He had somehow bridged that murky body of water between the living if unconscious need to go forward and the dark shores of hopeless despair. However, I prefer to concentrate on his legacy, and take account of what he wrote in the simple facet of not having stopped himself from writing it because of any other sort of misgivings—if anything they validate the idea there is value in life, and repudiate, or at least turn away from the notion of existential futility and lack of meaning. What we will almost certainly never know if he had in mind specifically the prospect of not being allowed to do what he so clearly was compelled to do.
So, I try to inspire myself by bearing in mind, more and more consciously (until, I hope, it become an unconscious part of me, some species of belief), that I am as free to say what I think and to imagine it has worth of some kind, for me for a start, or why bother, and for others, because there is no sense in imagining that there is no value in anything unshared.
Whatever is done with, and finally thought of, whatever I create, especially whatever I write, is not for me to say, even with the vagaries of testamentary dictates on my part. It’s not within my power, even with the collective acceptance of the constraints of the law and the wishes of the departed, to control whether anything that I assume regularly, day to day, if not minute to minute, to be mine and to be disposed of or preserved as I see fit, will continue in a similar or better state of preservation after I’m gone. Writers have dictated that their work summarily be destroyed on their death (in many instances, already knowing in their lives they have gone unsung and unpublished) and have had these last wishes defied—to our benefit and pleasure. And writers have struggled for recognition, or let recognition and the necessary effort to attain it (as a general rule) go unattended in their lives, only to have their deaths herald an era of widespread if not universal exposure of their work, accompanied with great acclaim and even broader dissemination.
My thoughts are not about longevity or perpetuation, but about the legitimacy of my efforts now, today, and tomorrow, especially if I am inclined to make invidious comparisons—accurate or not is immaterial—with the work of others I admire who I know quite well did, at the time, expect or foresee exposure to a wider audience and studied appreciation. They may have wished for it, hoped for it, despaired over the lack of it, but it never kept them from carrying on, writing and continuing to write.
Though charming people are a delight when we encounter them, most of us rarely think of consciously setting out to be charming. The very idea of learning to be more charming sounds off-key, for we tend to believe at some level that we are simply born charming or aren’t – and that any conscious
I was returning cleaned glassware and silver, as well as plates and cups, from the dishwasher to their appointed places. Somewhere short of the proverbial shock of recognition, certainly less than “revelation,” and even somewhat more homely and less self-congratulatory than an intellectual’s aperçu, what occurred to me was an insight that had never before registered. Enough time has passed in these dozen years that, in the course of a routine that I have followed almost unfailingly since acquiring my small maison de village in the south of France, I have bought a great quantity of one particular object as part of a fundamental list of staples. These are items so necessary they require a brief stop of our rental car even before arrival in the village for the first time in months, since the last sojourn, at a local supermarket. It is a very short list, and includes bottled water, milk (for milady’s coffee, as I drink it black), perhaps a 250 gram block of sweet butter (not wholly necessary, because never needed immediately), and finally, a jar of Dijon mustard, always the same brand, the prince of such condiments, Maille, and always in the original, undoctored, and very strong version. It is this jar, or I should say its many empty pristine brethren, that I found myself reshelving this morning.
The preferred size of mustard jar (preferred because I have never run out, with visits lasting as long as nearly three months) is the smallest sold in the local groceries. Packed in the same container it has been for years, a heavy glass cylinder, with thick walls, they can withstand a drop to the floor as long as it’s not tiled. They are incised deeply with a not too bad simulacrum of cut crystal design in a semi-scallop. In short, it is, once empty, a rather short vessel, fitting nicely in the hand, the perfectly old fashioned old-fashioned glass, 9 oz. capacity, for the manly drinker. It’s best not only for the eponymous cocktail of a rare venerability, but as well for the bracing shot of a 1½ ounce splash of good bourbon, or rye, or Scotch, with a cube or two that may, modestly, predispose the palate before dining. I say this despite what the French say about strong spirits before a meal. With galling illogic they think nothing of sucking down 3-4 cl of Pastis, a decoction of the same potency as the average grain spirits, no to mention reeking of herbs, prevalent among them being anise, and usually consumed in nearly the same volume, just before tucking in to the very same meal they say is spoiled by the typical modest American pick-me-up. Yet a pastis is still considered “the national drink of France.”
However, whatever our usual contrived cultural deviations from the habits of our French cousins compared to ourselves, I was speaking of the complement of glassware in my kitchen buffet/vaisselier. The glasses number about a dozen, and I wonder how this can be. It’s true I’ve owned the house, first with my late wife, and now with my new one, and there have been years of visits solo, whatever my marital status, for nearly 13 years. It’s a matter to give me pause, however old and original the realization, the passage of time noticed less in my consciousness of the actual passing, but in the accumulated evidence of the life occupied by the act of living during that interval. However, on average, there have been more than two trips a year on average during that period, and so, for one thing, there should be many more cocktail glasses clogging the shelves.
There are many glasses long gone to the recycling plant for sure, because as often as not, instead of emptying the jar and cleaning it in one last cycle of the dishwasher before pulling closed our great oaken front door for the last time that particular visit and turning the great skeletal key in its ancient lock, I have packed up the remaining condiment along with all the rest of the salvageable items from our larder, both sitting on counters, ripening, or keeping in hopes of consumption in the recesses of our small but serviceable refrigerator. These left-overs (or “remains” as the French call them) plus raw produce, butt-ends of cheeses, and a frozen steak or fish filet go to our friends, usually the innkeeper and his wife, Rudolf and Nicole, just across the way. If not for this particular token of largesse, the collection of glasses would overflow the capacity of the pine cupboard in which they are stored. I know this because we are clearly perpetually to be overrun by yogurt containers—the French seem to have a way of creating packaging that is as attractive as its contents, and as reusable as if intended for sale in their own right to begin with; we simply can’t bring ourselves to dispose of them, even as we despair of finding a suitable use consonant with our habits. If we were, say, more the herbal cultivators than we are, they would be ideal, for example, as pots for meal size portions of tarragon or parsley or thyme. I might add, for the edification of Americans who are used to buying their yoghurt in disposable or recyclable thin-walled polystyrene cups, French yoghurt worth bothering with is sold in glass jars or, even more enticingly and pleasurably, in actual enameled terra cotta pots—of a quality and heft that would command a reasonable price in an artists’ cooperative.
The point remains, returning to those mustard jars that have accumulated as the months and years have passed. Thoughts of time, time spent, time passing, and time to come are all somehow embedded in all these common, otherwise ordinary objects. The accrual of them, the easy unconscious charm of collecting is what it is. Whether labelled with some term of disparagement, like “pack rat,” or even with the seemingly neutral “collector” the fact to be addressed is the same. We are all collectors.
What is memory but a collection? And who are we if not our memory?
Whatever I may be, the thought strikes home looking at those mustard glasses that, conscious of it or not, my life has passed before me and it does, unconsciously every time I stand at the rustic buffet that holds my complement of housewares, silverware, everything but plates and cups, and draw spring water from a mammoth reservoir sitting on its countertop to fill the espresso maker every morning. However, this morning, as I pivot, glasses in hand, four of them, one to each of as many fingers, to the buffet from the small utility closet that houses staple items, groceries, booze, the hot water heater—all of what the French consider the cave, by which they mean what we would most likely call the pantry—plus our two major appliances in the kitchen, the fridge and the dishwasher, I am suddenly, as I started out saying, aware, almost tingling with the reflexive consciousness we call thinking. The next thought is if I am to imagine my life amounts to more than consumption of what the world has offered me, I’d best be mindful of what is no longer visible. Quite unmistakably, those mustard glasses are tokens, however ordinary and mundane, of the great negative capability of which Keats spoke.
I hint at a kind of transcendence, and I mean it. However, in the most mundane of senses, and I say this hoping I am not causing the bones of Keats to revolve a time or two wherever they might lie, my life has been boundless dollops of mustard. At the risk of being cute, I mean, nevertheless, there is a spice to one’s life, that reverses the polarity of any moment: seen the right way, even the banal—and what is so much of life, despite ourselves, but banal?—can be, if only for ourselves, sublime. And what sublimity is there in mustard? In this instant, as I prepare a typical light lunch of a salad niçoise a blob of the good dijon is the customary enabler of that fragrant emulsion dispersed in wispy spurts across what number, accounting for all the anonymous days in la France profonde, countless salads of the local bounty, purchased hours before at the week’s marché, and plucked from the earth merely a day or two before that. And in that instant, another typical lunch, determined by an increasingly frequent disinclination to cook, the golden sauce, straight from the jar, spread across two uneven slabs of a crusty sourdough loaf—the precise piquant counterpoint to the velvety squares of comté blanketed in random mounds of delicately fragrant aged ham, cut as thin as butterfly wings with a tracery of veins of fat gone translucent with age and smoke and time. Like the banal raised to the heights somehow, all that melting goodness is pierced by the sharp pangs of the spice, so the flavors move from the mouth to occupy every sensible cavity in one’s head.
Lest I be mistaken as another arriviste memoirist, of impoverished imagination, I want to be clear that one thing that does not happen is I am not sent soaring on Proustian flights of verbose recollection. Wordy I may be, but this morning, I am somewhere short, but not by much, of being overcome with floods of feeling. If we are nought but memory, and memory is nothing but collections of the flotsam and jetsam of singular and private ephemera, carriers, like mammoth storage containers, what is contained but feeling, felt and somehow stored, to be recalled each time we ramble in our minds, eyeing the stacks of boxes of remembrance piled higher and higher with the passing years into the impenetrable darkness?
What happened since that morning, when I was briefly jolted out of the stultifying quotidian ritual of keeping house by keeping clean and organized, is I found myself at times simply sitting and staring, as I sat in whatever room in the house I happened to light. One afternoon I sat on the sofa in the salon and surveyed the meager, if yet ample, stock of furniture—it’s a small house, after all—two floor lamps, with plain functional conical shades on bulbs at the ends of articulated arms, two small oriental rugs, and a third hanging like a miniature tapestry on one wall, a small ur-modernist sofa, though designed for Ligne Roset by a well-known contemporary designer and of a size and intended use so as to be called, in French, a canapé (a word whose derivation I have never been sufficiently curious to research in one of my copies of the Petit Larousse), that is, longer than a love seat, but smaller than a couch, then two armchairs, which have grown prematurely dowdy somehow, purchased also from Ligne Roset at the same time as the sofa, and now expropriated by Artemis, our dog, who has taken to both—at first it was the one I usually favored, closest to the single casement window—in a proprietary way.
And as I stare at nothing particular sitting there, I think of the friends who have been entertained in that space, as we enjoyed one another’s company, and not just a few flutes of champagne on festive occasions, some as formal as New Year’s, but most no more than celebrations, spontaneous at that, of camaraderie and the unshakeable solidity of simple close deep bonds of love. I think of all the guests who have passed through this ancient space—and are we not all fleeting guests in this life?—and my thinking reverberates involuntarily in some barely conscious sense of the spirit of the place, almost mythic, with imaginings of all the souls that have passed through here before us. The house is, or parts, at least, are, 600 years old. The core of it, the original humble space, appropriately, is where I sit and muse, and the kitchen, of course, where sit all those unwitting palimpsests of memory, mainly air and transparent glass, sit and wait to be filled.
I’m Howard Dinin. This is a new blog, though I’m not new to writing a blog. I’ve had blogs since 2004. I needed a new one.
This one will be more personal, more philosophical. Given my propensity to be wordy (the other blogs would run entries with as many as six or seven thousand words: essays in other words), this blog will have posts much more brief and focused.
I’ve given it the name 1 standard deviation because I hope it will be seen for what it is, a slightly askew, certainly personal view of the world, but not that far from what most people see when they look around. It’s the way we learn to make our way in the world. That is, by paying heed to hearing what others say when they account for what they see when they look at the very same things we do. Sometimes the real truth is in the differences.
To some people one thing that emerged from the recent major product announcement by Apple that was of the utmost interest and importance was a new version of the operating system, OS X, now called Mavericks (after one of a whole series of challenging surfer beaches on the California coast). The mainstream press mainly concentrated on the reduction of the cost of this nominally major upgrade to zero. That is, Apple has said that anyone with an Apple device that can run it, can have it for free. This applies to machines produced as early as 2008, and still running, because of the vaunted Apple product quality and reliability.
The magazine “Ars Technica,” which is techier than “Fast Company,” and geekier than “Wired,” has traditionally had one of their senior editors, an especially intelligent, expressive and well-written character named John Siracusa give an intensive review of new operating systems from Apple as soon as possible after they are released to the public.
His reports of the past have been lengthy (as many as 20-30 printed pages, or, if you prefer, a PDF document of equal length, and always made available for a fee, around four or five dollars, to those enthusiasts who didn’t care to subscribe to “Ars Technica”—which most people, including their subscribers don’t realize is owned and published by Condé Nast, the vast consumer magazine empire whose fiefdoms include such venerable and honored marques as “The New Yorker” and “Vanity Fair”). Although decidedly of a much more technical focus, in many senses of the word technical, “Ars Technica” fits right in with the full array of Condé Nast publications, in its thoroughness of coverage, persistence in journalistic terms, and its relentlessness in the pursuit of perfection of the craft of special interest journalism.
There are many people who won’t, or wouldn’t, formulate a personal opinion on the value and importance of the latest release of Apple’s flagship operating system for Macintosh computers (as opposed to the operating system for their incredibly popular and commercially successful mobile devices, the iPhone and the iPad), not before getting a complete reading of what the comprehensive nit-picking and scrupulous examination of Siracusa’s hits the stands in the form of a review.
I sent the link, which appears way at the bottom of this blog entry, to two friends who have as avid interest as mine in the worthiness of this significant new step in the evolution of the most important software that runs on the computers each of us uses, one way or another, to occupy ourselves, at the very least, or even to produce productive work at a professional level because of our vocations.
I started in the email that contained the link to excoriate Siracusa, even as I was suggesting they might be entertained or even engaged by his remarks. As I wrote, and wrote, I very clearly veered from what had been a friendly post to similar minded comrades, dealing daily with the vagaries of IT products that touch our lives in a very deep way, and have done for a very long time in each instance. Two of us are older. One of us, as the grown son of one of us, is younger, but with more formal technical training, and more dependence for his living on how the machines work, that is, on how well or how poorly they work.
Here, edited and adapted for Per Diem, is what I wrote.
John Siracusa has been the chief bull goose looney of Mac OS X reviewers. He is thorough to a fault and candid. I think this is probably worth reading, or at least jumping around in from high point to high point. However, as he has become ambivalent, clearly, while trying valiantly to appear still to be objective, if not disinterested with a god-like quality, I think with this review, having read a series of them now over the last most recent years, he is coming dangerously close to jumping his own shark.
Pugnacity has entered in a rather sinister way, to the point at time of my feelings of repugnance. I don’t mind fair criticism, which is substantiated. I don’t even mind substantive personal crotchets about various features, which might have gone a different way because of obvious alternatives not chosen by the vendor. However I do mind gratuitous opinions that are offered ex cathedra. Now, according to him, to cite a very minor matter, the uncluttered, non-skeuomorphic, simplicity of the Mavericks Contacts app interface is “boring?” And not just boring, but the overall thrust of getting rid of the leather, on which fact he seems to be fixated, apparently because he can’t find a serious credible critical peg on which to hang his overall basically highly critical tone, is that it is ugly. When it is neither, but merely non-distracting.
I think maybe he has been doing this for too long. He has his own cadre of fanboys (see the “Promoted Comments” at the end) and he has to perform at this point, I mean be performative, rather than simply being an exhaustively thorough fair, if not tough, minded reviewer of what’s designated a major release. I think it is, and I am disappointed only, as he seems to be, that they didn’t do more to adopt more of Ivey’s new graphical interface esthetic for the new OS X. That will no doubt appear in the next release.
As an aside, and having read deeper into the very long review of Siracusa’s, I want to add this interlinear emendation. To be fair to John Siracusa, who I’m sure, even if he knew, could give less of a shit about what I think, he reverts to his usual stalwart, well-informed and articulate critical (in the good, classic Arnoldean sense) self when he gets deep under the hood of OS X Mavericks and begins analyzing the less visible technological changes and advancements he has detected. Not that this has anything to do with him, but some of the changes related to local networking and file sharing, like a new SMB protocol, are particularly welcome to me. I don’t want to, but I actually do have to have some rudimentary understanding of these technologies, because I actually use them. I’m happy to have had him point them out and review the changes so cogently.
For all that, Siracusa seems to have caught the same virus as the entirety of the blogosphere and the rest of the frauds and pretenders who work for mainstream media and have to pass for journalists who now perpetually bemoan the departure, in their eyes, of excitement, or, as it’s usually called, the “wow” factor in Apple product releases. Often this is expressed as a metaphor or, in larger terms, a manifestation of the lack of invigorating, inspiring developments in society from which people might derive not only some solace, but motivation and the renewed exercise of vigor in their daily activities. These people clearly have no notion of what true innovation is, and that virtually every vendor of every product ever introduced sincerely believes among other things, that what they have wrought is not merely functional one way or another, but is an innovation. Of course, what everyone, but the vendors, forgets is that no one, but no one, is in the innovation business. They are in the development and sales for profit business. And it’s only hindsight that allows us to see what was an innovation and what was not. And it is not innovation, of course, that Apple has ever touted, because they have not, except with the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984, ever really introduced to market a true paradigm shift in how something fundamental to behavior or activity among a significant sample of the functioning population within a market is done.
What people are missing in their lives, apparently is excitement, or more specifically an absence of dreariness and an inescapable feeling of a lack of control over anything in their lives outside what they can comfortably put under the roof of their usual lodgings. Apple, or anybody, is not responsible for that state of affairs. I am long since sick and tired of seeing Apple (and President Obama, both of whom probably head what is a growing list) blamed for what people individually should first look to themselves to be accountable for. We have become a nation of whinging, thrill-seeking, know-nothings in a state of denial, and we want something material put in our hands that somehow will produce a simulacrum of orgasm and deep feelings of self-reliance and pleasure combined.
Water and air, almost nothing and virtually nothing at all, can, with constant motion, wear away rock or reduce it to sand and silt. In an eon surely, but at times in minutes, perfectly natural forces can alter the land irreparably. With an outer crust as well that is perpetually unstable, shifting and tearing, the earth has been formed for constant change, even as Man moving about the surface beguiles himself with dreams of permanence.
Add the evidence of what happens when living beings become entrapped in sticky fluids oozing and pooling from resin, or merely from the ground, and you have the three simple lessons nature offers, since long before we appeared on the planet, to teach us the value of adaptability, and the inevitable futility of persistence in certain objectives. Nothing lasts, but memory. And we forget that too. We will never outdo nature. Yet even when we submit to this truth, we overlook the power of these phenomena as metaphor. We need no better morals than the fables natural acts teach us.
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