Friday, August 27, 2010

On old things

At home this weekend in Virginia, what struck me on that first night were the objects, the things that my parents have owned forever that have only recently returned with them from Texas: the plates and bowls with the mottled pattern of faded fruit around the perimeter; the lovely old water glasses; the ceramic pencil mug in the kitchen; the painting of the old man and the boy looking out over the sea that I found tonight in a bedroom closet.  These are the objects, the talismans, that I have used and eaten from and moved around since I was very, very young.  Tonight before I went to bed I washed my face the way I used to, the way I hated, where your skin feels raw and tiny traces of soap remain on your neck and near your eyes, and that was the sensation that brought me back to that broad scope of memory. 

Now, of course, I have a wife, and a daughter, and my own household.  Yet so much of the idea of "home" is still found in these old things.  And everything I own -- goods from national chain stores, items bought in a fit of urgency or convenience or compromise -- seems cheap and insubstantial.  How could a child ever build a life, or memories of a childhood, from the flimsy bric-a-brac I place into her hands? 

When does this improvisation yield to permanence?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

4th anniversary

Today is our fourth wedding anniversary!  After being struck by a bolt of inspiration on Sunday at the gym, I spent the last few nights working on this.  It has been a true labor of love -- it's been fun learning how to use iMovie, culling through our pictures, finding the right songs, trying to tell a four-year story in five minutes.

Of course, I've also gotten no sleep, and I fully expect to get a cold this weekend, but L is worth it.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Book report: "Moby Dick"

I spent most of July reading Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Or, If Thou Preferest, The Whale.  I can't recall a book that was so incredibly tedious to read, yet left me with so much to consider after the reading was over.  After a month-long trudge through chapters and chapters of cetology, the study of whales, and the historical and mythological overviews of the roles of whales and whaling in human history, I find myself thinking a lot about cetology and the historical and mythological overviews of whales and whaling in human history.  I mean, damn.  Maybe this was a good book!

Be warned: what follows is a book report, not for the faint of heart.

I think I spent too much of the book worried about themes I wasn't understanding, or symbolism I was missing.  What is it all about?  Nature and man?  Vengeance?  Obsession?  What does a big white whale represent?  How big is a whale, anyway?  What does the boat look like?  I was never quite sure of any of it.

Melville wrapped the entire novel -- which includes digressions into history, satire, and drama, as well as a few postmodern winks and some oddly bogus science -- in sprawling, languid sentences, long sentences like the horizon on the sea, sentences whose intricacy would be lost below their placid, boring surface, as well as by my own inattention.  I often found myself realizing that something was happening -- there is a whale hunt occurring; men are dying; wooden boats are destroyed with the flick of a tail or the seizure of a jaw -- yet I had missed the action in the thickets of Melville's language. Only when I closed the book to think about what occurred could I appreciate the magnitude of these events: desperate or unbound men gathered on a boat, acquiescing to a madman's wish for revenge against a legendary white whale, the leviathan, chasing the beast around the world until the madman's appetite was satiated, whatever the cost.

But there were a few surprising things I pulled from the book; a few discrete notes from Melville's awesome cacophany.  I really liked Ishmael, the narrator.  He was more prominent early in the book, and later he would mysteriously disappear for long stretches so an omniscient narrator could take the reins.  But as I read Ishmael's voice I felt like he would have been a friend of mine.  He was naive but earnest; friendly, curious, observant, unruffled.  Driven to the sea by his restlessness and frustration with humanity, he easily accepted the exotic people and places he found.  He seemed like a good guy. 

Along a similar vein, I thought this was a very cosmopolitan novel, in its way.  The crew of Ahab's ship, the Pequod, came from all corners of the globe.  Many were Americans fleeing shady circumstances or unhappy lives, but there were others, particularly the harpooneers, from Asia or Africa or the Middle East.  Although the book is rife with the racism of the time, on the ocean no one claimed citizenship or pride of place; they were in a no man's land, where they could not afford the luxury of prejudice, and were forced to work and live together. 

The last third of the book is the pinnacle of the voyage, when Ahab finally finds the white whale, and chases it for three long days (three days of danger, three days of death, three days of Jesus in the grave) until the final confrontation.  And here's the ending of the book (SPOILER ALERT!!!1!): the whale defeats Ahab and destroys the Pequod.  All of her crew is killed, yet none are granted the honor of a described death.  Everyone, all of the characters we have known, and all of the ones we have not, are sent to an anonymous, watery grave.  Save one: beloved Ishmael, the sole survivor of the battle, who floats in the water for two days before he is rescued.  Rescued in order to tell the tale.

A couple of things about this: although the violence and drama of the final days was muted when I first read this section, it amplified as I thought about it and returned to it.  Ahab's death was fitting yet tragic.  The loss of beloved characters like Queequeg and Starbuck was all the more powerful for its understatement (no final words for them, no last memories of home or cries of anguish).  And finally, the cataclysmic end of this book reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.  In both works, the entire universe of the novel is utterly destroyed in the final pages.  The characters and the setting are obliterated, as if they had never existed.  Here, the Pequod and her crew are dashed, except for one.  And of course, Moby Dick presumably survives to barrel through the seas and face other battles.  Maybe that's it, then: none of it remains, none of it matters, save the water, the whale, and a voice to tell the tale.

Moby Dick: I didn't enjoy it, but maybe I love it.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

State update: South Carolina

This past weekend we took Alice on her first flight, down to Myrtle Beach for a nice visit with Aunt Kelsey and the vacationing hordes.  Alice absorbed everything with her standard air of studied nonchalance.  She slept through the takeoff from Newark, pausing from her suckling of the pacifier to smile broadly after a particularly violent lurch upward.  When we held her in the gentlest rushes of the ocean surf, or when we towed her around the pool, buoyed by her hilariously absorbent diaper, she kept her poker face on -- not smiling but not unhappy either, her expressive little eyebrows raised in a face of wary enjoyment.  Hey, if she's not crying, she must enjoy it.  This is our mantra.

Today L told me that our super said that our baby is beautiful, but that she doesn't smile very much.  I was kind of taken aback by this, but I think he's right.  I think I'm learning how to reach her humor buttons -- how to get her to giggle or squeal by crowing her name in falsetto, how to make her eyes curl in a smile from a vigorous game of pattycake or a few fun lifts into the air, where she can revel in her secret identity as Space Baby.  Still, she's not the most effusive kid in the world, but this is fine. She seems to be very observant, and I like that a little better, I think.  Dig deep, little girl -- always investigate -- always ask the question -- remember your intuition, your irony -- take it all in -- save your smiles, but don't be stingy.

We had a great time in South Carolina.  The people are so distinct down there -- many of the vacationers were orange, blond, carefree people, decked in breezy shorts and dresses, coating their words in molasses and tumbling out of SUVs.  Some of the kids down there, though, the ones who seem local, have a certain wildness to them; glaring, wiry young men, and lithe young women in tight shorts with dark tans.  There's a certain hunger there, that attitude you see on the beach avenues but not while you're waiting for a table at Tommy Bahama.  Still, it was great to see Kelsey and to eat like kings for a few days.  I can't describe the exquisite pleasure of settling in to a ten-dollar plate of a full pound of shrimp dusted with Old Bay,  armed with a pile of napkins and wet naps and nice crisp Bud Light with Lime.  It was heaven.  (You know, the older I get the more I realize that it's all I ever wanted: a plateful of shrimp ready to be peeled, and a nice cold beer.  I have many fond memories of this, which makes me wonder why I don't make this happen more often.)

Anyways, I really like the photo above. It makes me think of fatherhood and what I'm supposed to be doing.  I feel like I was doing it right for that brief moment.  Welcome to the world -- I have you -- this is the ocean, it is beautiful -- we will always come back here -- I will always have you.