Thursday, December 14, 2006

Just one mockingbird canvas

If you've read this blog at all this fall, you know I became obsessed with the tortured artist brilliance that is Van Gogh as I read Irving Stone's Lust for Life.

The one quote that spun me right round, as it were, was:

"If I had painted just one canvas like this, Vincent, I would consider my life justified. I spent the years curing people's pain but they died in the end, anyway, so what did it matter? These sunflowers of yours, they will cure the pain in people's hearts , they will bring people joy, for centuries and centuries--that's why your life is successful, that is why you should be a happy man."

Just one? Sometimes I ponder this. Really, just ONE canvas(/play/book/movie/work of art of some sort) could leave a mark on the world and justify a life? The thought cries out for a skeptical response. And everyone knows that Vincent painted more than one centuries-of-joy canvas, in the end.

But recently, I read a book called The Book That Changed My Life: 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books That Mean the Most to Them edited by Roxanne Coady and Joy Johannessen. And no, it's not the "one canvas" to which I refer, but I was struck by a few things in reading this book. One thing was the variety of books selected--everything from children's poetry to Sherlock Holmes to the Bible. Another was the adoration that poured out for The Catcher in the Rye. I basically consider that book the most overrated book of the twentieth century. I read it, it's fine, it's good even, but good god, the fuss! That's my take on it. I am aware that it affected my parents' generation differently. Another thing that struck me was while some of my favorite writers were going ga-ga over Catcher..., writers I've snubbed persistently, such as Patricia Cornwell and others relegated to the "Genre Fiction" shelves, had quite impressive and deep thoughts and made interesting choices that made me want to read their work, even though I usually avoid mystery/romance/science fiction/fantasy.

But finally, and here's the part about the "one canvas" -- I was struck by the fact that multiple writers chose To Kill a Mockingbird. Now, you talk about your just one canvases. Ms. Harper Lee writes this brilliant work and then up and disappears. And it has wrought untold effects! I could totally understand why it would be THE book someone remembers. The very essays about it in this collection made me emotional, remembering my experiences with Mockingbird.

I might add that the film lives up to the book--and that one of recluse Harper Lee's rare emergences was at the request of Gregory Peck's widow to receive an award in 2005 at a literacy charity dinner, award presented by Brock Peters who played the man falsely accused of rape. So, the book and the movie acknowledge each other's truth. There is just so much going on in that story. It is moving, sweet, strong, beautiful, political, compelling, easy-to-read, profound, and a million other things. If you haven't read it -- I just don't know what to tell you other than you seriously should go do that right now.

I would say it proves Irving Stone/Dr. Gachet's point: just one canvas, Vincent, can justify a life.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Why, Insomnia, Why

Last night I couldn't sleep. That was terrible, because I had to get up for my Contracts final this morning, and I was totally afraid of oversleeping. But I used some of my "I-can't-sleep" hours to finish reading The Why Cafe. For those who are aghast at the very notion of my doing any leisure reading when I could/should be studying, let me just say -- go away! Also, this book is more like a pamphlet. Think Who Moved My Cheese? It doesn't actually take much time out of one's life to read it.

What it DOES do is present a fable written by a businessman who's not a particularly spectacular writer but who had an epiphany (again like WMMC?) and so decided to write a book that gives you some things to think about with regard to your life. Such as:

Why are you here?
Are you fulfilled?
Does doing what most people are doing help you to fulfill your purpose for existing? of my can't be afraid of dying without having done something if you've already done it, or if you are doing it every day.

This book was a totally random find.

It also has a cute picture of coffee on the cover.

This morning on my way into the law school building for the Contracts final, I saw a classmate. We exchanged the usual knowing how-are-yous. Then he said, motioning to my DD cup in hand, well, if you're able to drink coffeee...! And he trailed off. Implying that others were perhaps too stressed/jittery/anxious to drink coffee.

Give up my morning coffee? For a FINAL? Are you kidding me? From my cold dead hands!!!

America runs on Dunkin', you know. That's what they tell me anyway. Korea does not RUN on Dunkin' but there is certainly enough of it there for it to do so if it so chose. I personally ran on Dunkin' while I was there during the week, and I ran on Starbucks on the weekends.

Pity to those of you in some western states and various international locales that aren't Korea and wherever else DD has spread who don't know what I'm talking about, who never get to experience the glories of the morning cup o' Dunkin!

(And by the way I don't like doughnuts.)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A time for peace, I swear it's not too late!

Today I emphasize once more this quote from Lust for Life:

He had known before that one could fracture one's legs and arms, and after that recover, but he was rather astonished that one could fracture the brain in one's head and recover after that, too. -- page 428

Go read this:

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

To indeed be a god!

I've long since finished reading Lust for Life but with law school finals coming ever closer who has time to read anything but textbooks? I'm averaging only about 1/2 page a day of leisure reading in Annals of the Former World. Come to think of it, maybe I'm just appropriately reading it at the pace of geological time. I just finished where he talks about how if the world's history were a calendar year, dinosaurs would appear mid-December and all of human history takes place on New Year's Eve. (You've heard this analogy before, yes?) Rocks and mountains and plates and things build a mighty earth, but it takes a while. Maybe that's what I'm up to.

But then there's Vincent, and Lust. Art. Creation. God-like notions. Right, it all ties together.

Vincent walks and talks with his friend, a self-professed simpler man. His friend, Roulin, expresses some dismay at the evil in the world, and why would a good god let it happen this way, and so on.

"'I know, Roulin, but I feel more and more that we must not judge God by this world. It's just a study that didn't come off. What can you do in a study that has gone wrong if you are fond of the artist? You do not find much to criticize; you hold your tongue. But you have a right to ask for somehing better.'
'Yes that's it,' exclaimed Roulin, 'something just a tiny bit better.'
'We should have to see some other works by the same hand before we judge him. This world was evidently botched up in a hurry on one of his bad days, when the artist did not have his wits about him.'
'Then you think there are other worlds besides this, Monsieur?'
'I don't know Roulin. I gave up thinking about that sort of thing when I became interested in my work. But this life seems so incomplete doesn't it? Sometimes I think that just as trains and carriages are means of locomotion to get us from one place to another on this earth, so typhoid and consumption are means of locomotion to get us from one world to another.'
'Ah, you think of things, you artists.'

-- Irving Stone's
Lust for Life pp. 386 - 387

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A meditation on revolution's infidelity, or: just one canvas!

I remind you here of page 476:

"If I had painted just one canvas like this, Vincent, I would consider my life justified. I spent the years curing people's pain - but they died in the end, anyway - so what did it matter? These sunflowers of yours - they will cure the pain in people's hearts - they will bring people joy - for centuries and centuries - that s why your life is successful - that is why you should be a happy man."

This passage seriously affected me. I've finished Lust for Life but I still think about this passage every day. I returned the book to the library but I carry the text of that paragraph around in my phone. "That is why your life is successful..." Amazing stuff.

Irving Stone based Lust for Life on Vincent's letters to his brother Theo. Stone said that every event in the book was true but the conversations he wrote were imagined. There really was a Dr. Gachet who was Vincent's last true friend. And he probably really did say something remarkably similar to those words above. But Stone deserves credit for making it so inspiring. It stopped me in my literary tracks.

I ramble through my days here at law school, extremely interested in the things I am learning and not interested whatsoever in becoming an attorney after I learn them. I came here for my own fulfillment, or something like it. And this semester has been a bizarre combination of legal learning, interpersonal mistakes-revelation-growth, artistic development, coloring pictures, shaking my head in disgust, wishing, drinking, running, hiding, emerging, and wondering. Sometimes I've held my head in my hands (literally and metaphorically) and other times I've stood with arms outstretched (again, both) overlooking the world, my world, the life I have created.

Grant Lee Buffalo has just popped into my head, of course. "It's the life you have created, it's the life, it's the life..." What an amazing song that is. Do yourself a favor and listen to it if you never have. Let this wondrous internet bring good things to your ears. Speaking of ears, and of the wonders of creation, what would ol' Vincent would have thought of the internet? It's so crazy to contemplate what that gang of artistic revolutionaries would have thought of our revolution. After all, when they fantasize about their little artists' commune Zola pontificates (on page 339), "Let's formulate our manifesto, gentlemen. First, we think all truth beautiful, no matter how hideous its face may seem." Well, that sounds like he could definitely have an appreciation for MySpace or YouTube, eh? But he goes on to say that pain is beautiful, because it is the most profound of all human emotions. That's a hard one to swallow, but it might be a hideous-faced truth.

I think about the life I have created and whether I'll "paint" even one "canvas" before I go.

You see, I joke a lot about procrastination on MySpace but in all sincerity I am just a deadline person as opposed to a start-the-assignment-early person, and that isn't necessarily a problem. In school, it's fine. The time eventually comes to hand things in, so they always get done somehow. But in the creative life? The one I'm more and more sure I'm trying to lead, despite all indications to the contrary? The one where you have no one to answer to and no one to mete out consequences except yourself? Whiling away the hours and not meeting my personal deadlines and watching another year go by without finishing the book -- well, these are indeed problems.

Vincent Van Gogh had an amazing thing. He had a monthly income from his beloved brother/best friend that enabled him to work as an artist before and until he could sell his paintings (which was basically not in his lifetime). But you know what? I have equally amazing things in my life. As I read Lust for Life this semester I was also wrapping up my journey through The Artist's Way, which I managed to elongate from a 12-week program into nearly 19 weeks. OK, so I had to repeat a few chapters. I had issues. Serious September issues. Maybe some October issues as well. We shall not get into them here. But the thing is, they weren't really just about law school or lies, although those things can definitely be a shock to the system.

No, it was back in August, on the bus to New York, when I sat doing Chapter 8 of The Artist's Way...

...where I cried and I cried
I knew I was trading on things that I didn't have
the things I didn't have
Now you come to me
with revolution's infidelity
with blacklisted friends and tupperware kin
and your big history...

--indigo girls, of course. that song's called 'cordova'.

I was ON THE BUS MOVING TO NEW YORK and there was my weekly Artist's Way assignment making me sketch out my dreams, and artistic ambitons I'd chosen to forget I had were bubbling up from within me and Connecticut was passing in the night and I was reaching out saying "Help me! Help me! It's all so scary!" and my friend, my good and true friend, was saying, "It's OK. Don't be scared. Why ever are you afraid, Linda? Because you should have been writing this whole time?"

But haven't I been writing this whole time?

What does it mean that I write and write and write bu I never finish my book, even as Fidel lies on his death bed?

If anyone thinks I'm saying I don't want to be in law school, au contraire! In fact, that's a major part of my point. I've always hated the notion that one has to choose between academia and creativity. I think people like Galileo and Da Vinci could be multi-faceted scientists/artists/ astronomers/painters/whatever they wanted and no one batted an eye but in this day and age we're "supposed" to "figure out" what we want to do with our lives, as if there's one thing.

If anyone thinks I'm saying I don't have amazing oodles of support from my family, au contraire again! I can't believe how much they've given and continue to give me. In that sense, I am like Vincent. I think he, too, felt frustrated and guilty, and always thisclose to being able to finally "make it"...surely the sketches and paintings must start selling someday.

I think it's easy for an aspiring creative such as myself to say "If only..." Well, if only I had a monthly stipend to do My Work. If only I had wealth and a room of my own. If only I had more time, more money, more reliable transportation, the list of excuses is endless. Instead of reading about Vincent and Theo in envious awe, it should have been more like recognition.

"For those who have a talent for poverty, poverty is eternal." -- page 407

Vincent discovered that; I think I've known it about myself for quite some time. Just as homework can expand to fill the time allotted for it, the amount of money I need to spend can magically grow until it equals the exact amount I have. The whole "I could be a full-time writer if I just had a means of supporting myself until my writing sells" is a crock of shit, frankly.

So what else? Law school, then? I believe I've made it clear that law school takes time -- but not all my time.

Korea? Actually, we started a writing group in Korea. I also participated in other ways in the full-blown Daegu expats' renaissance. Korea was good. It reminded me of other artistic parts of me, anyway. There are other parts, you know, besides the writer. Two other big ones.

After a long and tiring weekend, the other night I curled up in the cool gray dark of my room to watch one of my absolute favorite movies, The Hours, as I went to sleep. I knew I needed it. I love that movie so much. I've heard others call it depressing (and by "others" I mean "everyone else on the planet who's seen it") but I find it so enriching! So enlightening! So everything! Writers. Women. Life. Life's entanglements. Novels that take ten years to write. Trying to catch a moment's truth. Artists going mad. New York City. Love. A woman's whole life in a single day...

Throughout this roller-coaster of a semester -- or was it more like trekking in the Himalaya and going higher than I should without oxygen? -- I've recognized my occasional foolish behaviors and marveled at them and had many a philosophical chat about Life and Studies and Art and What It All Means but it's been almost like watching myself in a play, wondering what I'll do next. Somehow I think I get it.

"He had known before that one could fracture one's legs and arms and after that recover, but he was rather astonished that one could fracture the brain in one's head and recover after that, too." - page 428

Twentysomethings fascinate me right now. I mean, most people who know me remember that turning 30 was something I took very seriously. Not in a particularly depressed sense but in a "Wow I really need to get going on doing something meaningful" sense. And in fact I have begun checking off items on my life's things-to-do list, such as teaching English in Asia and going to law school. (Yes, I noticed that "finishing the Cuba book" has not yet been checked off.) It's funny. I had a million great experiences as a twentysomething, but I think all that time at Borders was the epitome of being a "shadow artist" as Julia Cameron calls it in the Way: spending time around books and writers instead of being a writer myself. She's seen others do it. Film critics who really want to direct. Band managers who should be making their own music. Shadow artists.

"Vincent had lashed himself into a fury. He had been working progressively at his craft for six years under the most heartbreaking conditions; now that everything was made easy for him, he was faced with a humiliating impotence." - page 341

But I reached my escape velocity from Borders, and I went and taught in Korea, and I got a scholarship to Hofstra, and I went to the mountain and learned many things. And then came back to the U.S. and I sold off a million earthlypossessions and I extricated myself from a messy joke of a disaster of an idea of a relationship and I finally completed The Artist's Way and sure, I rave endlessly about that book. (It's getting up to the level of Indigo Girls.) But seriously. It's a gem. It makes me realize things. And do things. And draw pretty pictures. And work out new arrangements on the guitar and the piano. It makes me have vivid dreams, by night and by day.

"Of course he's crazy. But what would you? All artists are crazy. That's the best thing about them. I love them that way. I sometimes wish I could be crazy myself! 'No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness!' Do you know who said that? Aristotle, that's who.'" - page 469

When Vincent first goes to the maison de sante (that would be an asylum) the other inmates basically sit around all day being quiet and trying not to have a fit. Finally, one of the patients freaks out in the night and Vincent tries to hold him down and calm him. He beseeches the others to help him and an old man does so. After the episode the man fills Vincent in:

"'The boy was studying for the bar,' he said. 'He overworked his brain. These attacks come on about every ten days. He never hurts anyone. Good night to you Monsieur.' The older man returned to his bed and promptly fell asleep. Vincent went once again to the window that overlooked the valley. It was still a long time before sunrise and nothing was visible but the morning star. He remembered the painting Daubigny had made of the morning star, expresssing all the vast peace and majesty of the universe . . . and all the feeling of heartbreak for the puny individual who stood below, gazing at it." - page 441

I've tried before to explain to people a sensation that comes over me from time to time. I've usually been laughed off. Here goes. Occasionally, I'll see a stranger on the bus, or in a store, or most recently walking down the law school hallway after an evening class let out, and I will be so suddenly profoundly overcome with a blend of pity and well wishes for that specific person that I actually have to catch my breath. I look at them and understand so clearly, just for a moment, that he or she is struggling, trying to do good things, trying to work through the difficulties life has thrown at him or her. I want to do something to help these people, whom I don't know and have never seen before. I want to reassure them; I want to tell them, "I understand." It's like I suddenly recognize in them our shared humanity. It is beautiful, and utterly heartbreaking.

Maybe Vincent first goes crazy long before there are any outward signs. He has a weird moment of gratification while painting a canvas, and imagines a conversation with a beautiful woman who says she loves him. She also tells him that "sometimes one has to be a fool in the beginning, to become wise in the end." - page 399

I guess there isn't much more one can ask, then. My god, I am lucky. I am a lucky, lucky person. But I have a haunting sensation this week. I feel I need to do something before it's too late. I also feel like I still have a long way to go.

"Is there no end to this, Theo? Must I go to school all my life? I'm thirty-three; when in God's name do I reach maturity?" -- page 304

Just one canvas, Vincent. Just one canvas.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Break on through

"You know, Doctor Gachet," said Vincent, "it did me good to go south. Now I see the north better. Look how much violet there is on the far river bank, where the sun hasn't struck the green yet." -- Lust for Life p. 470

I love revolutions.

Revolve on, my friends. Out with the elephants, in with the donkeys. The personal is political. Out with the jackasses, in with the ... ?

And, just a reminder:

"Man is not on this earth only to be happy, he is not there to be simply honest, he is there to realize great things for humanity, to attain nobility and to surpass the vulgarity in which the existence of almost all individuals drags on." - p. 219

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Bricks. A ton of them.

I'll set the scene for you. I was on the Long Island Rail Road, returning from another day and evening in Queens. I spend a lot of time in Queens lately, but more on that later. It was around 11 p.m. I had been up since the crack of dawn and I had expended a lot of energy all day. Then I'd dined and had a drink with Lillian. Her friend was on his way to join us, but I was seriously SO TIRED from all the hard work -- some of it demanding physical labor -- that has been filling my hours and days of late that I could barely hold my head up. At 10:15 I was like, seriously, I'm turning into a pumpkin. I headed for the subway, waited at the station, then switched to my train to Hempstead, etc etc. Exhausted. Drained. Ready to fall into bed but still a few minutes from home. For various mysterious electrical reasons the train lights blinked out a few times during the ride; that happens sometimes and it's not worrisome but it makes reading difficult.

And reading I was. Thirteen pages from the end of Lust for Life. Vincent is speaking with Doctor Gachet, the last in his long line of doctors, and apparently one of his truest friends. And by the way, Irving Stone writes a thoughtful tone of voice for the doctor with " . . . " between some of his words and when I quote it like that below, I am not editing the text and replacing left out parts with ellipses; it's exactly as Stone wrote it. Anyway, Vincent and the doc are talking about why the doctor always has a look of heartbreak about him. He tells Vincent all he sees is pain. Vincent says he would exchange his calling for the doctor's. The doctor says he wanted to be an artist all his life, but could spare "only an hour here and there." Those paragraphs on page 476 should have been a warning, but forgive me. I was tired. I did not have my wits about me. I was blindsided:

"Doctor Gachet went on his knees and pulled a pile of canvases from under Vincent's bed. He held a glowing yellow sunflower before him.
'If I had painted just one canvas like this, Vincent, I would consider my life justified. I spent the years curing people's pain. . .but they died in the end, anyway . . . so what did it matter? These sunflowers of yours . . . they will cure the pain in people's hearts . . . they will bring people joy . . . for centuries and centuries . . . that s why your life is successful . . . that is why you should be a happy man."'

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Oh mercy, what I won't give...

"Vincent pitched into his work once more. If only he could make a living, the very simplest living, out of his work. He asked for nothing more. He could be independent. He would not have to be a burden on anyone. And best of all there would be no hurry; he could let himself feel his way slowly and surely toward maturity and the expression he was seeking." -- Lust for Life page 171

I write. I am a writer. This is all I have ever wanted to do, really, for a career, and somewhere inside of me I know that. Somewhere out there, I think others know that, too. Is everything else getting in the way? Am I getting in my own way? These are some of the thoughts I thought while standing on the Woodside platform last night awaiting the Long Island Railroad train. It is an outside station. It was bloody cold! I was absolutely exhausted, but sated, after an evening with some fine friends. I stood there on the platform thinking "Good god, can I really have another 25 minutes to wait in this cold wind? I am so tired. Can I sleep for those 25 minutes? Am I going to die on this platform?" I paced back and forth willing my eyes to stay open and my heart to keep pumping warmth to my extremities and I just kept mulling over what an interesting day and evening I had had. And I thought - I know who I am. I really do.

Do I have a lust for life? Do you? I'm sort of starting to think I do.

I don't really know when it occurred to me that I'm happy with my life. Here's something I do remember. More than a dozen years ago, I for the first time saw Indigo Girls perform live. It was at Mesa Amphitheatre in Arizona. I had just that week begun classes at Arizona State University. I went to ASU for only one year. I had fled my first university after two years and returned to Phoenix, so there I was, chez Mom, without a clue as to what to do next. I registered at ASU because I knew I didn't actually want to quit school, and it was the local university (and, I might add, a place I never thought I'd end up). In my two disgruntled years at my first university that shall not be named, I'd vaguely settled on English Secondary Education as a major, having been more inspired by English teachers both in Dead Poets Society and in real life than by much else up to that point. (And having concluded I couldn't major in Theatre because I was a crappy actress and I couldn't actually become a veterinarian because I couldn't be bothered to attend/study for daily chemistry and biology classes.) So Secondary Education was what I declared to the powers that be at ASU.

But I still didn't really KNOW what I was doing. This, coupled with my newfound disillusionment with God/religion/churches/what humankind has done with notions of the divine, had brought me back to my parents. Dad helped me buy a car. Mom shared my fries with fry sauce and watched ridiculous television with me. I don't really remember the other details of that summer--I worked at Best Western, I probably read a lot, I drove to Tucson to see friends on my days off. I had come "home" to Phoenix, but nobody was there anymore. My sister lived in Utah at that time. My friends from high school had all left for college and they hadn't come back. And I had just chosen to leave behind all my new friends and what I had once thought was my new world. I was officially someone who needed to Find Myself.

Within days of my return to Phoenix in May 1994, the Indigo Girls released their album Swamp Ophelia. I remember lying on the living room carpet listening to it and thinking it was so dark and electric and unlike anything they'd ever done. I didn't know what it meant, but I hesitantly liked it, despite how uncomfortable its unfamiliarity made me. Like Vincent, when he arrives in Paris where his brother has been getting in with the newly forming Impressionists crowd. "He gazed at his canvases. God! but they were dark and dreary. God! but they were heavy, lifeless, dead. He had been painting in a long past century, and he had not known it..."- p. 295

I bought two tickets for the Indigo Girls concert the minute I heard about it, but that last week in August rolled around and I had no one to go with. I'm sure I asked my buddy from Best Western, and the one high school friend I had who went to ASU and still lived in Phoenix, and I'm sure they both were busy working or studying or just generally not caring about my favorite music group ever. I think I even asked my mom, as I got ready to leave. I remember talking to her about it. I believe she considered going just because either I or she was horrified at the prospect of me going to a concert alone. At any rate, off I went. And it was nothing short of miraculous.

First of all, there they were! Live! On stage in front of me! Indigo Girls! Look, it was really them! I've since seen them live about 28 times. (I say "about" because I can't remember if I saw them two or three summers in Hampton Beach, NH. I went to a few concerts around New England every summer.) Not all of those were actual concerts. In 2004 I saw "Shed Your Skin" twice, where they played live while the Atlanta Ballet performed to their music, and in 1995 I drove to Seattle (hi Amy! et. al.) to see them perform in Jesus Christ Superstar along with a slew of other Atlanta area musicians.

Secondly, I was remarkably content to be there alone, sitting on the grass surrounded by people who were friendly but also content to let me enjoy my solitude and bliss.

Most importantly, though, I had an epiphany. I was transformed that hot night under the stars. One of the songs from Swamp Ophelia that most resonated with me that soul-searching summer was "Language or the Kiss." Its narrative was one of bizarrely relevant personal significance, and that night I reveled anew in its notions:

...When we last talked we were lying on our backs
looking at the stars, looking through the ceiling
I used to lie like that alone out on the driveway,
trying to read the Greek upon the sky, the alphabet of feeling
Oh, I knew back then,
it was a calling that said if joy, then pain
The sound of your voice these years later is still the same

I am alone in a hotel room tonight
I squeeze the sky out but there's not a star appears
Begin my studies with this paper and this pencil
and I'm working through the grammar of my fears...

That night, I knew something for the first time. I knew that creativity was divine and beautiful. I watched Amy Ray and Emily Saliers peform an amazing concert and I was awestruck. I was grateful. But I was also galvanized. Galvanized.

I knew that creativity was the highest call.

Specifically, I knew that it was my calling.

I may have been actively running from talk of God by some severely misguided servants, but aren't they really speaking of a Creator above all else? All the notions of being a scientist, a linguist, a veterinarian, a French teacher, an English teacher, a drafter, whatever....they all melted away in that moment because I knew -- I KNEW, for the first time -- that what I needed to do was create.

And, what to do with this information, this revelation?

Well, I drove home in a stupor of thought. When I went to school I headed directly to the building where I could change my major from Secondary Education to just English. I thought -- I'm a writer. I'm a poet. I need to put my energies into that. Those are my people. People! Writer people! Here am I! Send me!

A lot of you know what happened next. Here's a hint. The best friends I made that year were a group found in my creative writing class whose favorite joke was: What's the difference between an alcoholic and a poet? A pen.

I also made radio friends, worked at a couple stations, and by the end of the school year had been accepted to the University of Southern California's broadcast journalism program. I transferred to USC in the fall of 1995 and spent the next seven years in Los Angeles. But I switched to print journalism around my second semester at USC, finding the broadcast world too much a world of evil television, and deciding the pen was mightier still than that particular sword. And I double majored in English of course.

Vincent himself bounced around a lot, trying to find his place in the world geographically and artistically. I love Lust for Life. I love that it makes me think about writing, art, and the creative life. I have never really given much thought at all to Vincent Van Gogh beyond the thought we all give to him in that he is utterly famous and renowned and unless you live under a rock you know at least one interesting fact about him. But in Irving Stone's novel I have found a guy I like. A creative person I want to hang out with. He -- and by "he" I mean the imagined Vincent who is Stone's creation/representation -- is so awesome. And so awesomely misunderstood.

He tried his hand at religous life first, but in the Borinage he was just stymied by the regulations that prevented him from actually helping the people. He wanted to do good and change the world, but his efforts failed. In the end, he changed the world through his art.

In Paris he hangs out with Gauguin, Seurat, Cezanne, and everybody and they are thisclose to starting an artist's commune together when Vincent suddenly realizes he can't do it. He can't stay. He has to back out.

"Paris had excited Vincent. He had drunk too many absinthes, smoked too many pipefuls of tobacco, engaged too much in external activities. His gorge was high. He felt a tremendous urge to get away somewhere by himself where it would be quiet, and he could pour his surging, nervous energy into his craft. He needed only a hot sun to bring him into fruition. He had the feeling that the climax of his life, the full creative power toward which he had been struggling thse eight long years, was not so very far off." - p. 368

Was that me in Phoenix? Daegu, Korea? Los Angeles?! Is Manhattan my Paris?

Perhaps it is interesting that that building where I changed my major also happens to be the one where I saw the poster with a picture of an old, African-American man and words to the effect of "this man had to overcome years of injustice, overturn laws, endure suffering and arrest, protest, walk so many miles, etc. etc. in order to be able to vote...all you had to do was turn 18." Perhaps not. Sometimes I see things that stick with me for years. Sometimes I feel like I'm on the verge of doing something. Sometimes I trust that I'm on the right path. Years ago, I questioned that every day. Lately, I don't. I also take risks. Risks need to be taken. I also hope in quiet moments that I'm not waiting until it's too late.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Three Thoughts

I'm still enjoying Lust for Life. It is making me think many profound thoughts about life, art, creation, and even friends and communism, for good measure. Today, I offer you three quotes from it, analysis-free. Ponder them or ignore them, as you see fit.

On page 197, Vincent says:
Millet was right: 'J'aimerais mieux ne rien dire que de m'exprimer faiblement.'

On page 255, Margot talks with Vincent.
'...I have been telling myself that if I did not love someone before I left my thirties, I should kill myself.'
'But it is easy to love, Margot.'
'Ah, you think so?'
'Yes. It's only being loved in return that is difficult.'

On page 260, Margot speaks again:
'She wasn't a prostitute; she was your wife. Your failure to save her was not your fault, any more than was your failure to save the Borains. One man can do very little against a whole civilization.'

Monday, October 16, 2006


OK, we need to address the issue of the phrase "lust for life."

(Well, I suppose we don't NEED to, but...)

Perhaps I will come to it later in the book, but as of now I don't understand where Irving Stone got it. Did he make it up? Is it a Vincent Van Gogh thing? Recall that I know nothing about art. I do know that Iggy Pop then used the phrase as the title/chorus of his heroin addiction song in the 70s. Was it the 70s? It must have been. Of course "Lust for Life" is also on the Trainspotting soundtrack, which is one of my all-time top three favorite movie soundtracks, but not particularly for that song. I digress. The fact that some cruise line uses the song in their ads has disturbed many people, apparently, because they're like, "Hello? That's about the junkie life, and you've co-opted it for your cruise vacation?" Me, I don't get all that bothered by that. I remember using snippets of songs with whatever random lyrics for stuff on The Savvy Traveler all the time. And every song has a million layers of meaning, etc.

But what I really want to know is -- did Iggy Pop borrow that phrase from the movie? Or, the book, whichever. And if so did he just borrow the phrase or is it a meaningful allusion? Is he actually saying something more about a crazed, totally messed up artist than just about a crazed, totally messed up junkie?

In the novel, Vincent Van Gogh's father, Theodorus, questions whether Vincent is really an artist if he has to draw things a hundred times to get them right.

"'Nature always begins by resisting the artist, Father,' he said, without putting down his pencil, 'but if I really take my work seriously, I won't allow myself to be led astray by that resistance. On the contrary, it will be a stimulus the more to fight for victory.'
'I don't see that,' said Theodorus. 'Good can never grow out of evil, nor can good work grow out of bad.'
'Perhaps not in theology. But it can in art. In fact, it must.'
'You're wrong, my boy. An artist's work is either good or bad. And if it's bad, he's no artist. He ought to have found that out for himself at the beginning and not have wasted all his time and effort.'
'But what if he has a happy life turning out bad art? What then?'
Theodorus searched his theological training, but he could find no answer to this question."
--- from Lust for Life pp. 116-117

Don't be alarmed by the fact that I'm in law school but somewhat hyper-focused on the emerging artist inside me. Rather, you should perhaps be alarmed that I just said "somewhat hyper-focused." Could that even be possible? Is that like "roughly simultaneously" or "very unique"... Anyway, I'm rather enjoying being creative and being in academia. I am all about debunking the false dichotomies, of which I've lately come to know that creativity/academia is one.

I mean, I'm not one to get too speculative...oh, who am I kidding? Of course I am. But seriously. There's Iggy Pop singing about his lust for life, and how he's been there done that with the flesh machine, the strip tease, the lotion. Then he says that he's "through with sleeping on the sidewalk" and no more beating his brain. Couldn't the song be about an artist finding himself? But still unsure and distraught, which is oh-so-Vincent. And then, here's where it's a reach, but stick with me:

"Well, I'm just a modern guy
Of course I've had it in my ear before..."

Now, I've always thought that was a reference to, shall we say, peculiar proclivities. But maybe it's an allusion! Tell me, who's done something crazy and famous with his ear? Vincent!


Love. Oh yeah, Iggy. It's just like hypnotizing chickens. I'm with you there.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Lust for Life

Now I'm reading two books at once. Actually, I'm reading a million things at once. That happens in law school. Even apart from assigned reading, I've got multiple books going on right now. I've just been in one of those restless phases, picking up things and getting into them but not having time to complete them. But I'm plowing through -- and, apparently, now posting about -- two books at once.

It was kind of random how Lust for Life happened. A couple weeks ago in my very philosophical (I LOVE IT!) Criminal Law textbook there was a mention of Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, which I have always been interested in reading though it has yet to migrate to the top of my list. I thought now was as good a time as any to elevate it. I wandered over to the undergrad library and meandered through the fiction. No Irving Stone?! Oh, wait. Library of Congress. English and American literature are separate. Right. What's up with that, by the way? Annoying. Ahh, there's Irving Stone. Wait, no Agony/Ecstasy? Really? I somehow think of that as his most prominent novel. A perennial bestseller, that is my recollection from my bookselling days.

I still felt compelled to get a book of his on the spot, though. So I perused. I decided on Lust for Life because the idea of reading about Vincent Van Gogh's tortured life of love and searching for creativity and trying to change the world and do some good and being thwarted a lot, well, I just thought I might relate. I checked it out.

Then, sidenote, I wanted to request The Agony and the Ecstasy via interlibrary loan. Not only were the friendly but unhelpful undergrads at the circulation desk decidedly clueless about interlibrary loan and equally clueless about when the woman who could help, at the reference desk, might return, plus they were further mystified by where she might have got to...but everyone seemed sort of surprised in general to have a law student checking out a book. I was like a special guest star. It was fun. Eventually, the reference woman returned and she, too, reacted with shock and dismay when I dropped the 'L' word. "Oh, you've got to do that over at the law school," she said. "They have a different system for interlibrary loan." A few days later at my law library electronic resources orientation I learned that the law library feels pretty special about its own self, too, and doesn't care to associate with the riff-raff of those other campus libraries. "Please don't link to our search catalogues from their page, come directly to ours this way," we were admonished. Actually, I'm saying all this a bit facetiously, OK? I am in love with my law library. It even has a blog.

But I digress. And then some.

Irving Stone's specialty was biographical novels. He found his niche and ran with it. Go, him! I am all about finding a niche. In Lust for Life he brings to life Vincent Van Gogh. Young Vincent, starting out in life, hopping from city to city, falling in love with all the wrong women, selling art when he should be making it, thinking a life of religious service might be the answer but becoming woefully disillusioned by the focus on What We Should Do Because We've Always Done It rather than getting down and dirty with the common folk...I relate to this guy a lot, fictionalized as he may be. I haven't got to any ear-slicing yet. I have, however, reached passages such as this:

"At length he reached the saturation point in reading and could no longer pick up a book. During the weeks that followed his debacle, he had been too stunned and ill to feel anything emotionally. Later he had turned to literature to drown out his feelings, and had succeeded. Now he was almost completely well, and the flood of emotional suffering that had been stored up for months broke like a raging torrent and engulfed him in misery and despair. The mental perspective he had gained seemed to do him no good.
He had reached the low point in his life and he knew it.
He felt that there was some good in him, that he was not altogether a fool and a wastrel, and that there was a small contribution he could make to the world. But what was that contribution? He was not fitted for the routine of business and he had already tried everything else for which he might have had an aptitude. Was he always doomed to fail and suffer? Was life really over for him? The questions asked themselves, but they brought no answers. And so he drifted with the days that slurred into winter..." -- pp. 87-88

OK, for starters I hereby officially plan to adopt the moniker of "wastrel" for myself. It is much better sounding than wastoid, at any rate.

But here's the intriguing thing. The first half of that passage: me. Me, me, me. And questioning, yes, I still do that, too, of course. But all that talk of "low point" and "doom" and life being "over"? You know what? I so don't feel like that. Even though I have seen some dastardly doings in the last little while, my life has actually marched on quite forthrightly. Wastrelry notwithstanding. I guess what I'm saying is, I REMEMBER that feeling. I know that despair. I knew it as an angst-ridden teenager, and I daresay I knew it on several occasions in my twenties when I would just hold my head in my hands because I couldn't even be bothered to make a fist and shake it at the universe.

And I have several close friends who are currently embarked on the soul-searching ship, and I feel like we understand one another.

But I think I feel really, really grateful that at my low points I'm no longer so low that I've lost sight of the passion for life. Even when it's numbed -- and it has been numbed on many a recent occasion -- it hasn't been killed. Of course, we know it's lurking in Vincent, too, and is bound to resurface in artistic frenzy. But that comes later in the book.

Read with me! My library edition is a 1934 Random House hardcover with no ISBN!

"To stroll on wharves, and in alleys and markets, in waiting rooms and even saloons, that is not a pleasant pastime, except for an artist!" -- p. 204

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Global Tectonics

"Like all writing, writing about geology is masochistic, mind-fracturing, self-enslaved labor--a description that intensifies when the medium is rock." -- John McPhee, Annals of the Former World

And yet, he does it quite well, and managed to snag a Pulitzer for his incredible tome about the slabs and basins and history-in-rock of this land of ours. I should say, "ours."

The book commences on the George Washington Bridge -- hey! my neck of the woods! I mean "my" of course -- with McPhee and the first of many geologist friends contemplating the Triassic period, "when New Jersey and Mauretania were of a piece." What a delightful notion. It kind of puts the whole Long Island - Jersey rivalry in perspective.

This book is everything I've hoped and always known it would be. I'm so glad I'm reading it. Who's with me??? Come on, now! What are you doing that's so all-fire important that you can't grab a copy of Annals...? My edition is ISBN: 0-374-51873-4. Peel your eyes away from YouTube for a minute and delight with me!

In this first bit he talks about how building roads, wielding interstate highways like weapons that cut swaths across the continent, has opened up the earth for geologists because suddenly in a roadcut history is revealed. But it's still a "knife wound," geologist Karen Kleinspehn tells him. She continues:

"One car. Coast to coast. People do it now without thinking much about it. Yet it's a most unusual kind of personal freedom--particular to this time span, the one we happen to be in. It's an amazing, temporary phenomenon that will end. We have the best highway system in the world. It lets us do what people in no other country can do. And it is also an ecological disaster."
-- from Annals of the Former World p. 25

Other highlights of yesterday's reading included a Brigham Young mention and a rumination on the geology professor's lot in life, getting through to the typical "Rocks for Jocks" class. Finding hidden in there the one or two who are called to this profession. Who will read the earth's history. Who will discover the hidden layers.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Former World

I've started reading Annals of the Former World by John McPhee. Another delicious book to heft and carry with one (though surely it won't take me as long as War and Peace...will it??)

I've meant to read Annals... for some time and it fits in nicely with my Pulitzer-winning books obsession. And here's the thing, John McPhee is going to be speaking here at Hofstra! Right here at my very university! next week. I am so excited to be able to hear such a phenomenal writer speak. And it sort of spurred me into action to get crackin' on reading this book.

Naturally, I invite you all to join me.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Peyton Place

"As a very young man, Tom had realized that there were two kinds of people: Those who manufactured and maintained tedious, expensive shells, and those who did not. Those who did, lived in constant terror lest the shells of their own making crack open to display the weakness that was underneath, and those who did not were either crushed or toughened. After much thought, Tom had been able to put the souls of humanity on the simple, uncomplicated plane with bare feet. Some people could walk without shoes with the result that their feet grew tough and calloused, while others could not take a step without the bad luck of stepping on a broken bottle. But the majority, thought Tom with a smile, like Leslie Harrington and Fitzgerald and Connie MacKenzie, would never think of taking off their shoes in the first place."
- Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

I might write an essay comparing War and Peace to Peyton Place. After all, when I was in AP English, our delightfully wacky teacher had us interpreting the likes of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary through the prism of M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled. (Oh yeah, it was the height of that trendy New Age in Phoenix, I do believe.) So, why not Peyton Place?

They're both delicious tomes with a multitude of characters whose lives intertwine. They both have quite a lot to say about society, frankly. They both reveal people who've done all they can to carve out their place in society's hierarchy to be no more than human beings -- just like the rest of us.

In my effort to get rid of all my earthly possessions this summer (a large project, off-putting and almost by definition impossible, very Tolstoy-esque in scope) I have found myself selling some of my used books on (a much more quotidien, practical, accessible endeavor. Very Metalious.)

I read PP a few years ago in L.A. as part of my friend Joe's Trashy Classics Book Group. I thought it was fantastic. I still feel like I know Allison, one of the main characters, and I like her very much. Plus it's so great to talk about how "scandalous" it was when it first came out. It makes you wonder if our grandchildren will watch the films of Oliver Stone and Michael Moore and just roll their eyes and ask what was all the fuss about. Or is all this "It shocked the nation" just revisionist history anyway?

As mentioned in a previous post, I cannot part with The Book (W & P) -- and no one's going to want to buy my thrashed copy anyway. But today I am sending Peyton Place on its merry way, off to work its charm on the next lucky soul.

"'Whaddya mean, get out of town? I ain't got nowheres to go, Doc. This is my home. Always was. Where am I gonna go, Doc?'
'Straight to hell,' said the doctor. 'But failing that, anywhere you've a mind to go. Just get out of Peyton Place.'"

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Well worn

I've decided that I can't get rid of my copy of The Book.

The main reason for this is that my current plan for getting rid of my books is selling them off, and trust me, no one is going to buy my copy of W & P. Let's start with the fact that a whole chunk of the beginning, the about Leo page through about page 80, just plain fell out. That was a while ago. I used that chunk of pages as a bookmark through much of my reading, in fact.

So, since I can't sell it and might as well add it to the select few books I am keeping, I thought I'd go a little over the top and find some deeper meaning in keeping it.

I mean, I'm still claiming to receive cosmic messages from it and all. This week I have been in agony of indecision and I keep hearkening back to Kutuzov's wise advice to Prince Andrei to "when in doubt do nothing." (Can we talk about how I am STILL in love with Prince Andrei?) I do feel compelled to point out, though, Kutuzov buddy -- this is the SAME ISSUE about which I had this indecision in February. So, um, it's great advice and all, but you'll note that what it really leads to is the same issue still being around five months later. Maybe it's time to try something new.

But I really liked the idea I had the other week of looking at the page number as a date and seeing what insight I could glean from that page. Maybe I will open it to today's "date" and see what it tells me. Maybe I will do that, often.

Am I treating it like scripture? Well, maybe. Why not? The other day my roommate and I were riding the bus and she was talking, very matter-of-factly as my pagan roommates are wont to do, about the recent tarot card reading she'd done for herself. As an afterthought she asked me, "You don't really do the tarot much, do you?" To which I replied, um, no because I do not believe in it. (Sometimes she needs gentle reminders about these things.) She met my skepticism head-on though, with a comment about finding the things we need from various places and how I am always talking about receiving "cosmic signs."

I considered this. Apart from the fact that this roommate often takes me literally and it drives me up the wall, and that 99 time out of 100 my tongue is planted firmly in my cheek when I utter the word "cosmic" and the other time it's planted loosely in my cheek -- and that is quite a feat, by the way, saying "cosmic" with your tongue in your cheek -- it really is true that we humans looking for meaning have more in common than we care to admit.

And what it really got down to was I proceeded to theorize out loud and surely to the dismay of the girl in the seat in front of us about how what's the difference, really between prayer and tarot, or between being inspired by a Bible verse and thinking a song coming on the radio at the right moment is telling me something?

So why NOT keep Tolstoy by my bed and look for meaningful passages when Ihave to make life decisions? Huh?

In light of the above story, this on-line quiz thingy was interesting:

Which freaky subway person is Linda Napikoski?

The guy that sings to himself at the top of his lungs.

'Which freaky subway person are you?' at

Friday, July 21, 2006

Go on, use "finical" in a sentence

"'Mon cher,' Princess Marya might say, entering at such a moment, 'little Nikolai cannot go out today; it is very cold.'
'If it were not,' Prince Andrei at such moments would dryly retort, 'he could go out in just his smock, but as it is cold, you have only to dress him in the warm clothes that have been designed for the purpose. That is what follows from the fact that it is cold; not that a child who needs fresh air should be kept indoors,' he said with finical logic as if to punish someone for all the secret, illogical forces at work within him." --- p. 513

OK, I love Prince Andrei. I just do. He's even quoted now on my other blog. Now that I'm back from the East and all, I changed my quote over there. Anyway, I went through a lot emotionally when I was in Korea reading about Natasha and Andrei, and I just want to say that I love him. I relate to him, often. I totally and completely rooted for him, even when I was sure (rightly so!) Tolstoy was telling me there was seriously something between Natasha and Pierre. I just knew that Natasha's dalliance couldn't be it between Natasha and Prince Andrei. I just knew it.

Have I mentioned how many parallels there are between Natasha and Andrei and a certain real-life relationship with which I am very familiar?

I digress. So here we have Andrei's sister fretting about his little son Nikolai going out in the cold. Now, as someone who has been a firm believer that the "you'll catch cold" nonsense is no more than an old wives' tale, until I recently acquired pneumonia for which I thoroughly enjoy blaming Ding Ding Dang forcing us to march up a mountain in a cold, spring rain, I passionately agree with Andrei here. Put a coat on the kid and let him go outside, eh?

The larger point is logic, however. How many times do we (I) declare that something is so wholly patently illogical etc. rant rant when trying to squelch the illogical forces within?

I was pondering this quote when I looked down and noted that the page number was 513, and 5/13 is of course my birthday (that's May 13, American style, for you Euro etc. types who write date then month. Sorry!)

I thought, how fun! People could open War and Peace (my edition, recall, is ISBN: 0451523261) to the page whose number "is" their birthday and see if it contains a profound cosmic message for them!

The other day as I was going through all of my books to get rid of them, one of those I felt compelled to keep was an oversize paperback Stars-Birthday-Astrology type guide that has 366 entries telling you all about you based on your birthday. It's just so FUN to look up people's days and see how they compare. I thought maybe I could use The Book like that, too.

Illogical forces are currently at work within me. To whom am I dryly retorting when I should be attending to the fallacies of my days?

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


I believe I quoted this passage a few months ago when I read it. Now, home in Medford, I revisit it:

"The one thing Pierre desired now with his whole soul was quickly to get away from the horrifying sensations he had undergone that day, to return to the ordinary conditions of life, and to sleep peacefully in his own bed in his own room. He felt that only in the ordinary conditions of life would he be able to understand himself and all he had seen and experienced. But these ordinary conditions were nowhere to be found." -- p. 1007

So - yeah. I am back in Boston. I am back in the U.S. and back from Korea and no longer teaching rugrats, and I just think, listen, Pierre, Natasha, really? Is it possible? Can I just make this little thing called life work out?

Returning from another country is a great way to process The Book. I have had several meltdowns and a few wig-outs in the last two weeks as I've been galavanting about the Northeast seeing the people I need to see and answering the questions I need to answer.

And I didn't even see a battlefield in my "tour of duty"! (Unless you count the day we went to the DMZ.) But those classes, those screaming children in the hallways, those incessant orders of advance and retreat from the Ding Ding Dang powers that be, were all a lot like what the armies went through. You know, in a very melodramatic metaphorical way.

This book, this life -- they're bigger than us all! Bigger than I can get my mind around! But "these ordinary conditions were nowhere to be found" doesn't quite do it. On the contrary, I've come back to my house with the girls and the balcony and the Orchard Street treetops and the 96 bus and the woman at my local Dunkin' Donuts on Boston Ave who after nine months remembers me AND MY MEDIUM ICED COFFEE CREAM NO SUGAR ORDER!!

I think even Pierre might agree with me that in the epilogue, the ordinary conditions are to be found. They just might be right there waiting for you. Right where you left them.

Monday, June 26, 2006

It is finished

I have returned from Korea.

I finished reading War and Peace on the plane, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Now, wouldn't you know that my seatmate to the right on that long flight would be a man from Serbia with some Russian heritage who was most intrigued to see me reading Tolstoy, and to learn that I had read other Tolstoy as well as other Russian authors. I thought - really? Are we known as such plebes that we aren't even thought to have read phenomenal Russian literature? I'm such a fan of Russian lit. Dostoevsky and Nabokov and then there are gems like The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov...anyway, I digress.

I finished the book!

I also finished my stint in Korea.

The Serb/Russian man asked me what one main point I would take from the book. One? I was incredulous. But I said, after a moment's reflection, you know, it's that there is something bigger than us all guiding this whole thing (life).

And it's not simple. It's not simply "God." Tolstoy, they say, did come to terms with Christianity in his way. But I mean, the epilogue just went on and on about this philosophy he's been sprinkling throughout the book about historical events; the free will or lack thereof of kings, generals, and so forth; the interconnectedness of it all; and how the farther we get from events in history -- or in our lives, I daresay -- the more sense they make.

Needless to say, I had a fabulous plane ride home. Sooooo much thinking. I can honestly say, between the comfy seat (in the big middle five-seat row, but the bulkhead gave some leg room) and the many things I had to contemplate contending with upon arriving back on U.S. soil, that I wanted that journey to never end.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Drawing near the end

I love Natasha! Why? I don't know!!! Pierre, too. And I LOVE the philosophizing Mr. T continues to engage in as the French army flees and falls apart and the Russian army falls apart too, for good measure.

I have a mere 160 pages left to read.

I have a mere 16 days left in Korea.

Monday, May 08, 2006


Besides this, the entire staff of the Russian army was now reorganized...Very serious consideration had to be given to the question whether it would be better to put A in B's place and B in D's place, or to put D in A's place and so on--as if anything more than A's or B's satisfaction depended on this. - pp. 1183-1184

I dare say that reminds me of a Borders restructure or two!

Lately some of my friends and co-workers here have seen me with my tattered copy of The Book again, and this makes them ask the perfectly logical question: "Aren't you done yet?" Well, perhaps not perfectly logical, seeing as if I WERE done I likely wouldn't be carrying it AROUND now would I? But yeah, today was the first day in weeks and weeks --like maybe six or seven of them--that I've taken the book to work with me in my backpack and had time to read a bit in the coffee shop during my afternoon break. And there probably were things I could have been doing for the play as I sat sipping my cappuccino, but I read instead.

Also, I have received my first official "I'm done" from a friend back home who took the plunge, and that's scary. He totally kicked my butt! I still have 200 pages to go! I would like to point out that he needs to comment a bit on here though, now that he's DONE.

But only comment up to page 1200! Don't tell me what happens!!!

Monday, May 01, 2006

I'm the decider!

Napoleon, with his usual assurance, not that what was right was right, but that whatever entered his head was right, wrote to Kutuzov the first words that occurred to him, though they were utterly meaningless. - page 1182

Of course, then the exchange that follows between them does nothing to bring about peace. But Moscow and the citizenry and the army -- and Tolstoy -- are still regrouping and reckoning with Borodino and the march of historical events. It's taking me an exceedingly long time to read this part. I'm on the page-a-day plan. I am just too busy. My afternoon coffee shop time is now entirely given over to doctor appointments, play preparation/rehearsals, or some combination of these. At night I fall into bed and am lucky to get through one page before falling asleep! So maybe I won't even finish The Book before leaving Korea!

But don't we all know someone like Napoleon?

Or, as Ani puts it, "everyone is a fucking napoleon." Well, not to put too fine a point on it:

Now you think, so that is the way it's gonna be
That's what this is all about
I think that that is the way it always was
You chose not to notice until now
Yeah now that there's a problem you call me up to confide
And you go on for over an hour 'bout each one that took you for a ride...
- Ani DiFranco, 'Napoleon'

Her song is actually about the music industry, although it's also about a lot of other things, of course.

We expats over here are intrigued by tales of massive immigrant protests and political uprising back in the States. I heard on the AP Radio News a wonderful Bush sound bite. In response to the new Spanish version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" he was saying people who want to be U.S. citizens ought to learn English. He said, "And they should learn to sing the national anthem in English!" And the way he said it was just so classically -- Bush! Faux folksy, adamant, a slight feel of bewilderment. I couldn't help wondering if he can sing the national anthem. No one can sing the national anthem! Or if he knows all the words. I remembered Ramona Quimby's "by the dawnzer's lee light" as she puzzles over it and decides a dawnzer must be a kind of lamp.

And so time marches on, as do we all. Armies are on the move; emperors are born and emperors die, and their empires often do the same, if it takes a bit longer.

To recap for those who missed it, I would like to point out that, yes, I have just quoted Leo Tolstoy, George Bush, Ani DiFranco, and Beverly Cleary in one blog post. Imagine all four of them as guests at one dinner table!

Friday, April 28, 2006


Oh my goodness! Prince Andrei! What?!?! So amazing...pages amazing...

Monday, April 24, 2006

"The man who will not give his name"

Pierre felt himself to be an insignificant chip fallen between the wheels of a machine whose mechanism he did not understand but which worked smoothly. - p. 1149

So, the question is, will it be Sonya and Nikolai or Natasha and Andrei?

I personally think - I think? - it will be Natasha and Andrei. Not that my personal parallels and cosmic signs I've been taking from this book have anything to do with that, who, me? No! ; )

But if that's true, I do hope Mr. T. has something waiting in the wings for Sonya. I feel bad for her.

I named one of the girls in my advanced conversation/writing class "Natasha" last week. It wasn't particularly a War and Peace thing, but I do love that name. In German class in high school, my name was Natascha, a slightly different spelling. Well, last week the kids in this class, whom I adore and will miss terribly when I depart and who have great conversation skills and write me fantastic compositions every time, asked me for new English names. They were bored, after years at Ding Ding Dang, with their "Tony" and "Tom" and "Carol" and whatnot. Like, every single class I teach has a "Sally" and a "Jenny" and a few "Joey"s and we foreigner teachers are ALWAYS trying to get them to let us pick more original English names when we start up new classes, but it's always this whole long drama and "Oh, they're too hard, the kids can't say them," whatever.

But my advanced kids can say a lot of things! And I teach them many things! And they love me! And I love them! So I was only to happy to give them new names: Torrance, Everett, Wayne, Donovan, Daphne, Angelina, Gisele, Meredith, and Natasha. I looked at them, pondered their personalities, and made my choices. Overall, they're pleased.

But I digress. Oh, Natasha. Everyone in this book seems so special and comfortable to me right now.

When Pierre was on trial, the little riff about trials and interrogations being less concerned with seeking the truth than eking out a desired result was good food for thought.

There are six days left in April. Just thought I'd mention that.

(It may seem this post was not about The Book, really. And yet it was, it was...)

Saturday, April 15, 2006

"They saw everything upside down..."

Poor Ellen! Poor Moscow! And the poor Emperor!

I've slowly but surely been resuming my reading. Dipped a toe in here, done a wrist-deep splash there. This book has truly been my Korea companion. I've gone into hiding, I've gone into a haze of foreigners and activities and late nights, I've gone into a full plate of artsy activities, I've gone into give-work-your-all mode. And with each plunge headlong the book has been with me, mirroring my steady progress. The war keeps marching along, and the peace is always there waiting in the wings.

Moscow's inhabitants have fled to distant provinces and Tolstoy comments that people looking back at that historical period think everyone was engaged in heroic acts. People looking back do not see the personal human interest stories of the moment.

And yet actually those personal interests of the moment are always so much more significant than the general issues that because of them the latter are never felt -- not even noticed, in fact. The majority of the people paid no attention to the general course of events but were influenced only by their immediate personal interests. And it was just these people whose activities were of the greatest service at the time. Those who endeavored to understand the general course of events and hoped by self-sacrifice and heroism to take part in it were the most useless members of society...The law forbidding us to taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge is particularly manifested in historical events. Only unconscious action bears fruit... - pp. 1126-1127

This book is full of riches. Hoping to take part? I've done that. "Unconscious action bears fruit." Indeed.

Well, Happy Easter! Go in peace.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Sparkling & Quivering

Napoleon sits on a hill contemplating Moscow, the city he is about to roll into as the citizenry evacuate. He thinks:

"'Yet there she is, lying at my feet, her golden domes and crosses sparkling and quivering in the sunlight. But I will spare her. On those ancient monuments of barbarism and despotism I will inscribe the great words of justice and mercy....And that above all will make Aleksandr smart, I know him.' (For Napoleon the chief import of what had happened lay in his personal contest with Aleksandr.) 'From the heights of the Kremlin -- yes, there is the Kremlin, yes -- I will give them just laws , teach them the meaning of true civilization , and make generations of boyars remember their conqueror with love." -- p. 1046

It's nice when theories turn out correct in life, eh? Such as mine that I would read War and Peace and discover a lot in common between Napoleon and George W. Bush. Hello!

I can hear it now, my trusty copy of The Book crying, "Linda, why hast thou forsaken me?" I can't quite believe it's been more than two weeks since I read and blogged. I'm only 46 pages past where I was then (1000), too. I've been really busy. I have concocted a lot of activities for myself and when I don't have something to do I have been disappearing into the haze of the foreigners watering holes and my English teacher friends and just generally trying to forget the things in life making me uncomfortable. I also have to finish reading the awful book we are doing for our reading group, which meets in two days and I have 200 or so pages to go.

But I just wanted to check in and let the world know that I have found this whole the-wounded-into-the-Rostovs'-house thing fascinating. I am on the edge of my seat about Natasha and Prince Andrei. You had to know it was going to be him.

And besides, my slacking off gives you slowpokes a chance to catch up!!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Must hitch up, time to hitch up!

I paused my War and Peace quest this past week. Hitting page 1000 made me realize that I've really been progressing through it at a steady clip, and it will be over before I know it. I am going to miss this little world that I've entered, and I will miss the characters I've come to know, and I will truly miss gaining all my little insights from it. But mostly I will miss just being in it, experiencing it finally after years of considering taking the plunge.

You are welcome to read the above paragraph as if it is about Korea instead of War and Peace. It might well be.

Today I brought the book with me to work, and thus had it with me after work, reading it on the subway to and from downtown this evening. I feel like I'm getting reacquainted with Ellen and Pierre and everyone. Pierre basically left Borodino shaking his head and asking "What the...?" Boy is he going through some emotional-philosophical upheaval!

Tonight on the subway I met a guy from Afghanistan. ! I mean, who ever meets someone from Afghanistan? It was really, really interesting to talk to him. I hope we can become friends. The weirdest thing -- apart from the very fact of having a conversation with someone from Afghanistan -- was that we automatically had something in common being foreigners in Korea. That's how bizarre it is, at times, to be here.

Naturally, the conversation at one point touched on Bush and American soldiers. (Those being two VERY different things, of course.) That was interesting, too.

So Pierre has left Borodino and seems to be ready to just say, what IS this? What are we all doing, and why, and how? Count Rostopchin gets into it with him about the proclamation, and Pierre simply stands there, his expression not changing. I imagine after what he's just witnessed, a little thing like this bigwig warning him off seems utterly ridiculous, although he likely will have to disappear.

Prior to that, with no room at the inn, Pierre dozes in his carriage dreaming of sitting at the table with his benefactor and many others, epiphanic wisdom floating into his brain. Tolstoy captures so well that sensation of waking up and then trying to get back into your dream, and how disappointing it is when the scene changes.

I feel bad for him about his crazy wife, but I did like that he didn't seem to care one whit about indulging in conversation about it. He's so over it. He's so over so many things, but he's still seeking, too. At long last, I can relate to Pierre. He's just being bombarded by insights and life. He can't help it.

"The one thing Pierre desired now with his whole soul was quickly to get away from the horrifying sensations he had undergone that day, to return to the ordinary conditions of life, and to sleep peacefully in his own bed in his own room. He felt that only in the ordinary conditions of life would he be able to understand himself and all he had seen and experienced. But these ordinary conditions were nowhere to be found." -- p. 1007

Friday, February 24, 2006


I've reached it. Page 1000. It's all downhill from here.

But I really won't want it to end! And I've even found myself holding back this week: I have slowed my reading pace, because I feel like War and Peace is a little world I'm inhabiting and I'm not ready to move.

As mentioned in my main blog I read a chunk of The Book, specifically the Borodino battle scenes, while sitting in the back row of the random sweat-smelling auditorium where we will hold preschool graduation this weekend and where on Thursday we had a rehearsal that purported to be a run-through but was more like a disaster. Needless to say, it was a strange juxtaposition of the mess of 5-year-old children delivering speeches, poems, songs and dances and the mess of soldiers delivering cannon fire, messages to their commanders, prayers. One was a chaotic battle gone awry but nonetheless destined to go down in history, and the other was great literature!

I'm definitely worried that Prince Andrei is going to die. He's spending a lot of pages feeling that he's about to die. And it's interesting to see how it makes him grapple with life, including the reminiscence about Natasha delightedly telling him a story one evening and him truly understanding her. It made me wonder--again--why did their relationship have to be doomed? Or, was it not, and she just sucks for screwing it up? I really related to Natasha and saw so many echoes of my falling for a twit in their falling for each other.

You may recall that while I've meant to read this book forever, part of what has re-sparked my interest of late is what I can gain from it vis-a-vis the current political situation in the U.S.A. Specifically, Napoleon=Dubya. Well that was ringing true in this week's reading! Things fall apart for Monsieur l'empereur and he just sits there atop his horse kind of shocked: Wait, I can't lose a war! Everyone's supposed to be admiring me! What's going on!

"This man, predestined by Providence for the deplorable, ineluctable role of executioner of peoples, persuaded himself that the motive of his acts had been the welfare of peoples, and that he could control the destinies of millions and do good by the exercise of his power!" - p. 981

In fact, that quote would be perfect, except I don't give Bush as much credit on that score as many analysts do. I think he's far more insidious than misguided. (And he's plenty misguided.)

"He boldly assumed full responsibility for what had happened, and his beclouded mind found justification in the belief that among the hundreds of thousands of men who lost their lives, there were fewer Frenchmen than Hessians and Bavarians." --p. 982

Tolstoy grappled with war, I know. It brought a lot of things to his life, not the least of which was wisdom that influenced this very masterpiece. But in this turning point scene, he reiterates how very senseless it is, how absurd to slaughter our fellow men, and how it is still more folly to think we actually understand history.

His mathematical-philosophical-historical motion musings at the start of Book Three Part Three are utterly brilliant. In fact, I hereby urge all of you, absolutely regardless of whether you're reading this book now or ever will, to go directly to your nearest bookstore, do not pass go, do not collect $200, and pick up the Signet Classic paperback ISBN 0451-52326-1 edition and read pages 985-991. Mr. T. is brilliant.

Friday, February 17, 2006

"Ah, with head all mazed, Living in a foreign land..."

I have definitely, officially got into a routine, which can be remarkably similar to a rut. A mere o-i-n-e away, in fact. I realized this today when I went, as usual, to the IKEA cafe (remember, it's just a cafe, no furniture store) in the shopping plaza across from my work. After the woman greeted me and I ordered my cappuccino, I turned and decided to sit at the second table from the counter instead of at the first table, and in the big comfy couch facing the door instead of the big comfy couch facing the kitchen and espresso machine area. I don't know why; I used to bounce around the tables in there but in the last couple weeks have sort of taken a liking to "my" spot on that particular couch. Well, I went for a new one today and I realized there are decorations on the wall that was in my new line of sight that I have literally never observed were there, including a very amusing one of the back of a witch and dangling broom that look like she has flown into the wall.

Isn't that pathetic? That I've been that unobservant? I've gone there two, three, four, sometimes five days a week for more than a month. I'd observed the other three walls, notably the one with the quote (in English) from Frost's "The Road Not Taken" along it. It was weird.

I must say that I like having this comforting little ritual for my reading of The Book, though. I do occasionally read bits of it elsewhere -- the subway, my bed. But my subway rides in Daegu tend to be short, so we're talking a page here and there, and lately I've taken to reading other things on the weekends and goodness knows that late at night I read about three sentences before fading off to sleep.

So, Rostov and Princess Marya, huh? I like this, but I really hope Mr. T's got something lovely in store for Sonya. I feel sorry for her. She's been so loyal and true while Natasha falls in love with someone new every five seconds and swears it's for life.

And hey! Borodino! Remember when I was babbling about "the" War and Peace battlefield in Nelson DeMille's The Charm School and swore soon enough I'd know what I was talking about, when I got to it in W&P? Well, it was Borodino (I think!) And the battle is about to happen! I've just finished the chapter where Tolstoy delineates how entirely NOT according to plan the whole thing was, despite historians' assurances to the contrary, assurances designed to make Napoleon and or Russian military commanders look brilliant.

The amusing part of today's reading was Julie -- she rather reminds me of a homecoming queen -- finding it so hard not to speak French and her guest the militia officer crying "Forfeit! Forfeit!" each time she slipped. It seems that with the newfound loathing of all things French the Russians in the rich nobility circles pay a little fine to the "Committee for Voluntary Contributions" whenever they slip up or utter a Gallicism. That in particular kind of reminds me of the "Voldemoort Swear Cup" at Cambridgeside Borders. The whole thing actually reminded me of my students, especially my pre-schoolers, who are just so delighted with themselves all the time that even though they know they're supposed to be speaking English and not Korean in my class, they can't help bursting forth sometimes. It was great fun, that chapter.

I guess Pierre's off to ride with the regiment now, for real. Maybe he finds meaning in his life at Borodino; I'll know soon. He's got to be the thinly veiled "fictional" representation of Tolstoy, with all his seeking and being an outcast with a healthy dose of dumb luck, religious inquiring and genuine good will, and so on. I think Tolstoy writes about him with a more disdainful tone earlier on in the book and then grows to like him because he probably did the same thing with himself.

As I sat in my couch facing a different direction today, getting a much needed new perspective, I received a bit of inspiration from The Book. Cosmic sign? Perhaps. I was stressing -- crying, even (good thing I'd sat facing away from coffee girl, you see) -- about a personal emotional decision, and then Kutuzov gives his sort of pep talk to Andrei about patience and time being the answer.

"'I'll tell you what to do, and what I do. When in doubt, my dear fellow--' he paused, 'do nothing.' He spoke with deliberate emphasis." -- p. 896

I needed that.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Lovin' the Tsar

now reading: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

"Pfuhl was one of those inordinately, unshakably self-assured men -- self-assured to the point of martyrdom, as only a German can be, because only a German bases his self-assurance on an abstract idea: science, that is, the supposed knowledge of absoute truth. A Frenchman's self-assurance stems from his belief that he is mentally and physically irresistibly fascinating to both men and women. An Englishman's self-assurance is founded on his being a citizen of the best organized state in the world and on the fact that, as an Englishman he always knows what to do, and that whatever he does as an Englishman is unquestionably correct. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and others. A Russian is self-assured simply because he knows nothing and does not want to know anything, since he does not believe in the possibility of knowing anything fully. But a German's self-assurance is the worst of all, more inflexible and repellent than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth, science, which is his own invention, but which for him is absolute truth." - pp. 770-771

I wonder what, if anything, Tolstoy might have added if he had written 100 years later, or 50, about the a U.S. citizen's self-assurance? Perhaps nothing, but perhaps something. How would Mr. T's world view have been different even thirty years later? He was so observant. If he had written 50 years later, it would have been a time when the U.S. had become a major player in European war (namely, World War I). Man, I'd like to hear from him today.

I like the way he wryly analyzes the German's self-assurance. I frankly like the way he questions just about everything. I love his scene of the generals and important people who influence the tsar trying to outdo each other with their brilliant strategies; people latch on to their opinions creating factions, but most people just shift their allegiance to the trendiest theory, the guy who's got everyone's support at the time.

Rostov has come of age, and Pierre, despite the passage of time, is still just a bit lost, but he means so well. Natasha saw that really early on, too, so she must be destined to be with him! The latest freemason nonsense to take hold in his brain is the numerology assigning the number 666 to L'empereur Napoleon and Pierre's subsequent desperate attempt to make the numbers work for his name to assign himself a pivotal role in the Apocalypse revelation. Oh, Pierre. Le pauvre! He has to find meaning somewhere, in something, and why shouldn't it be Natasha, you know?

So I failed. I did not even come close to writing daily this week as I aimed to. Maybe next week. But Napoleon is pushing deep into Russia, and things are getting intense! When the Tsar blows back into town and gives his speech, throngs pack the square; they hang on his every word, or even pounce upon a scrap of food dropped by him from the balcony. And the people of the rich nobility party circuit are now rejecting France, the French language, etc., and anti-French fervor is sweeping Russia where French was the thing to know a few years earlier.

And so it goes, and so it goes...

Saturday, February 11, 2006

"A king is the slave of history."

now reading: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

The war is on again as Book Three begins. I love the first chapter of Book Three, Part One, which is entirely a philosophical musing on whether historical events, and any events, are fated to be. No act, no politician's idea, no emperor's mistake, no general's accomplishment is the cause, that elusive "cause" of a war, something that the historians nevertheless seek, Tolstoy suggests.

"We inevitably resort to fatalism to explain the irrational phenomena of history (that is to say, phenomena the reasonableness of which we do not understand)." -- p. 731

And isn't the temptation to fatalism a great one? I have been indulging in it a lot lately as I try to puzzle about my life and why I came to Korea, and why now, and why I stayed working for Borders as long as I did, and how I wouldn't have met the people I met and had the experiences I had if it had been any other way. So many decisions that I couldn't explain to myself at the time I made them led me to the place where I am. Who could blame a person for sometimes thinking it must have been meant to be this way? It just must have! Logically I should have done so many other things so many different ways!

Synchronicity is a very appealing doctrine, of which I have become more and more fond of late. When I was working in Chestnut Hill I turned around one night after picking up all of the books to be reshelved that had been strewn around the psych & social sciences sections, and suddenly another book had appeared in the middle of the floor. I swear no one had come by, no customer, not even an employee who could have dropped it. It quite literally came across my path and I picked it up. It was Deepak Chopra's then-new-in-hardcover The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire. I read the inside flap and the mild irritation of "where did this book come from?" fast became curiosity as I noted the book was about finding the meaning in the coincidences in one's life. I clearly had to take the book home and read it that night!

It was a good book. I've given the idea of trusting in so-called coincidences a lot of thought since then. It's not supernatural, per se, but it just strikes me as too metaphysical for the agnostic foundation I have laid for myself. But I find myself going with the flow so often in life, and that flow guides me and does not seem to come from any idea I generate within myself.

"Consciously man lives for himself, but unconsciously he serves as an instrument for the accomplishment of the historical, social ends of mankind." - p.732

Now, this is much like the Lewis Thomas - Noam Chomsky sort of notion that humans are working toward some greater end we can't see or possibly conceive of. When you watch the ants build the anthill, isn't each ant carrying its weight, pursuing its own individual struggle, although we from above see it as clearly a group effort producing an end result? If you haven't read Thomas' The Lives of a Cell, do so. It's brilliant. So the anthill functions like an organism, he says. And Chomsky, who is obviously just brilliant beyond brilliant at all times, has theorized about this with regards to humans' development and use of language, that we are furthering some end we don't, we can't know about.

"History, that is, the unconscious, common, swarm life of mankind uses every moment of the life of kings as an instrument for its own ends." - p. 732

I'm rather fond of this philosophy. It's hard to resist its pull. I had no idea I was going to come across it in Tolstoy. Yet, it seems that I'm not sure how much I agree with Tolstoy here. It's hard to wrap my mind around the inevitability of historical events; don't you want to think things like, say, September 11th could have been avoided?

He does say that, though. If Napoleon hadn't taken offense at Russia's demand of withdrawal, there'd have been no war. If there hadn't been a French Revolution, this war wouldn't have happened. If the sergeants had refused to serve a second term, no war.

"And so there was no single cause for the war, but it happened simply because it had to happen. Millions of men, renouncing human feelings and reason, had to move from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries earlier hordes of men had moved from east to west slaying their fellows." - p. 731

Isn't it also inevitable, then, that we wonder why?