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.