17 February 2008

Forest. Janet Taylor Lisle.

The MV LeConte, one of the smaller boats in the Alaska Marine Highway Fleet, has a small bookcase stocked with children's books provided by an organization in Juneau, and it was from this "library" that I chose Forest to divert myself on my journey.

But it is not a diverting book. (Perhaps this is why it is reduced to spending its time floating up and down and up and down the fjords of Southeast.) It concerns a young girl's discovery of a race of intelligent squirrels in the forest surrounding her town, and her efforts to prevent their extermination by the town's adults. The resourcefulness and discernment of the girl and her brother were, I suppose, heartening, but the brutality and obtuseness of the adults were chilling. I suppose I should admire the book for departing from the usual excessive optimism of things of its general size and shape and font size, but I am a lazy reader and don't much want to be reminded of the harsh realities of the world, and I was glad the book was not very long.

15 February 2008

On Beauty. Zadie Smith.

The night I spent in Frankfurt, I had no alarm clock, and I had to be at the airport at six in the morning.

I could ask the hotel front desk to wake me.

I could go buy an alarm clock.

Or I could lie in my little kapakahi hotel room (with what looked something like a storage space soaring over the corner where the miniature bathroom had been stuck in, and a great big mirror over the narrow bed to make it all seem wider) eating peanuts and raisins and Turkish deli chicken and reading Zadie Smith all night.

Thus it is that I have only the haziest idea of Zadie Smith and how it was that her book was on beauty. My vague impressions:
  • Smith sure can hear people talk
  • Odd that my haphazard book harvesting yielded, in a single week, in two different countries, two novels with major characters named Zora
  • What, Rembrandt again?

Adding Machine

I've been waiting for my adding machine for more than three months, and at first, today, I was delighted to learn it had arrived. No more trying to store Social Security numbers in a little battery-powered calculator that would hold only one at a time, and in any case turned itself off as soon as it felt my attention had grown less than lavish, leaving me to look up the number all over again. Hooray!

But the new machine is monstrous and malevolent, and sits there on my desk holding me in its baleful gaze and pronouncing its judgment: "Thou nullity!"*


* For what was all working for a living but a procuring and a pimping for the money-bags, one's lecherous tyrants the money-bags, so that they might breed. . . .

Murphy applied at a chandlery in Gray's Inn Road for the position of smart boy. . . . This was the first time he had actually presented himself as candidate for a definite post. Up till then he had been content to expose himself vaguely in aloof able-bodied postures on the fringes of the better-attended slave-markets, or to drag from pillar to post among the agencies, a dog's life without a dog's prerogative.

The chandlers all came galloping out to see the smart boy.

"'E ain't smart," said the chandler, "not by a long chork 'e ain't."

"Nor 'e ain't a boy," said the chandler's semi-private convenience, "not to my mind 'e ain't."

Murphy was too familiar with this attitude of derision tinged with loathing to make the further blunder of trying to abate it. Sometimes it was expressed more urbanely, sometimes less. Its forms were as various as the grades of the chandler mentality, its content was one: "Thou surd!"

--Samuel Beckett, Murphy

The Ancientry

It was getting on toward noon and the computer would not cease its grandstanding, so I picked up my magazine and went to sit in the lunch room for a bit. I was admiring Sandra Tsing-Loh's identification of herself as "whitish" in race and thinking I might have an answer to That Question at last when J appeared, with yogurt and banana, and asked if he might sit.

I assented.

My eyes straying from the text of the magazine, they fell upon an ad for a cell phone with very, very large numbers on the screen display and buttons.

Hmm, thought I, and flipped back a page. There, the ad was for some means to the removal of wrinkles.

I was a little bit alarmed. "Clearly, I am reading an old people's magazine," I said to J, showing him the ads.

"What are you reading?"

"The Atlantic," I said, closing the magazine and flipping it over so he could see the cover.

No recognition dawned. "I am not familiar with the Atlantic," he said. "I guess I'm not old enough . . ."

And I am even more doddery than I thought.

14 February 2008

Valentine's Day

At the French bakery there were trays and trays of heart-shaped tarts with strawberries and blackberries, and so many couples celebrating all over the place that I had trouble finding a place to sit, even though I took my lunch hour late.

And on the street outside, another loving couple:

09 February 2008


This is the story of a very young man with hooded eyes and an overlarge black overcoat.

His name, which I do not remember, started with an L and seemed to be a surname, but it was impossible to be quite sure. I met him yesterday outside a restaurant we lunched at after the Obama rally. J greeted him with amusement, listing all the many occasions recently when he’d run into him by accident, and exhorted him to caucus for Obama. But L was dubious. Obama hadn’t outlined any concrete plans in his speech, L said. He’d been long on uplifting phrases and short on specifics. Not like Hillary. L had been to hear Hillary the night before, and Hillary had gone into great detail about her plans for when she was in office.

Go to the candidate’s website for detailed policy proposals, J told L. A rally speech is supposed to be vague but inspirational. And if you don’t caucus for Obama tomorrow, all of us here are going to kick your ass.

All of us there looked at L. L just looked anxious.

And then it was caucus day, and I set off down the hill. For the first couple of blocks, everything seemed normal enough, but as I crossed Mercer, I started to notice large numbers of people striding purposefully toward the Seattle Center. I knew I was supposed to caucus at the Center School, but I couldn’t remember where that was. So, hoping she’d lead me there, I followed a woman in a hat crocheted in sherbet and sky blue with a pompom on top, a woven bag striped in various shades of orange and brown, and a black belt marked with patterns that I thought might have been meant to suggest computer circuitry, like in Tron.

I fell into confusion at a place where most of the purposeful walkers merged into a great big line near a makeshift sign that said, “Democratic Caucus--Alki Room.” But I didn’t think I was supposed to go to the Alki Room, and the colorful woman went around the line and onward, so I went around, too.

Then I lost her. Finding myself in an unpopulated corridor between the fountain and Key Arena, I was cast into doubt, but was rescued by a signpost with a map on it, where I learned that the Center School is inside the building where the food court is.

So in I went, past hordes of small children eating fast food under the supervision of their respective minders, and mounted the stairs to the place where my very own line was forming, the line for four or five precincts, including 1718, where I live.

I stood, listening to the telephoning of the women behind me, who were trying to get someone who apparently had no place of residence but someone-or-other’s couch to just borrow someone’s address already, and get to a caucus before the doors closed.

I gazed out over the railing at the toddlers in the food court, and saw a vast expanse of black overcoat coming up the stairs. “Huh, J’s right, the kid does show up everywhere,” I thought to myself. I raised a hand.

“Hey,” L said, still looking anxious, as he dashed past toward the end of the line.

At last, I got through the doors, squeezed through a tiny hallway stuffed with a long table and hordes of signers-in, put down my name, and made my way to the classroom where precinct 1718 was to make its decision. All the right-side-up chairs were taken, and some people were sitting on tables, but there were a couple more chairs someone got down from a table for me and the red-haired woman who walked in just before me.

Some more people came in. We waited, everyone looking happy and asking each other what was supposed to happen next, a question to which no one had any very definite answers.

“Do you know where the precinct boundaries are?” I asked the red-haired woman. “I didn’t look that carefully at the map.”

“I don’t know, but they were really small,” she said. “The guy with the clipboard asked me where I lived, and then he asked me exactly which corner . . .”

“So we should know all these people, then!”

“Yeah, I’m looking around, trying to think if I’ve seen any of these people before.”

There was in fact one who looked familiar: L, sitting there on the other side of the big central table. How did he get there before me, I wondered, when he should have been dozens of people behind me in line?

Eventually, things got started. Someone told us to choose a tally-taker and a secretary while we were waiting. The person whom we’d been waiting for showed up, and tried to get someone else, whose volunteer badge said Noel, to take over the proceedings. But Noel had already agreed to be secretary, and the person awaited had perforce to blunder on.

It would be the blind leading the blind, he said, and it was. He directed things by reading, haltingly, from some pieces of paper densely covered with small black print, and deviating where a deviation seemed in order. Did anyone know what these little orange cards were for? No? Never mind, we wouldn’t use them. Or maybe they were for . . . well, anyway. Did everyone think we should divide the one minute allotted for a pro-Obama speech between two people, even though the rules said it was supposed to be only one? Okay, then. Did everyone think we should have a debate, prohibited though it might be? Very well. But a short one, four speakers for each candidate, the speakers allotted 30 seconds each. And then, okay, we really don’t have time for debate, though you may have thought that was what this was for, that isn’t what they want us to do.

One half of the first Obama-supporter speech had been, oddly, I thought, L. I'd leaned over to the red-haired woman. “The only person here I recognize,” I confided, “is that guy over there who wants to speak for Obama. I just happened to meet him yesterday because he’s the friend of a coworker, but yesterday he was for Clinton.”

“Fascinating!” the red-haired woman said, and we listened to his speech, which was more anti-Clinton than pro-Obama, and overflowed his 30 seconds so the other person never got to say what she thought she was going to say.

We were in a hurry all the way through, to most people’s evident disappointment. The moderator seemed quite disgusted with his instruction sheet, though he did dutifully start in to the party fundraising portion, after profuse apologies for how horrible it was, reading in a peculiarly stilted cadence for some paragraphs before saying, “Anyone who wants me to skip this say ‘Aye’!”

The response was loud and affirmative.

“They said we have to be out of here by three,” someone reminded us. (We’d started about 1:45.)

We returned to the count. The tally-taker failed to follow her little chart, as it only went up to 25 caucusers, and we had 55: 12 for Clinton, 39 for Obama, 4 undecided. (But most of the undecided turned out merely to have overlooked that blank on the sign-in form. The one truly undecided person remained steadfastly so, given the inadequate time allotted to her to gather opinions.)

“Well, just double it,” someone said.

“But that only takes you up to 50, and we have 55,” someone else objected.

“Well, you just divide,” someone else said. “Are there any math majors in the room?”

There were two, sitting either side of me, but they agreed that a major in math just involved combinations of letters--you ended up no better with numbers than anyone else. “Though I help primary school students with their math homework,” the red-haired woman reflected, “so you’d think--”

They got it worked out somehow. Four delegates for Obama, one for Clinton. Time to go on to choosing delegates to the legislative district convention.

“So you Clinton people, you can go have your little election over there,” the moderator instructed.

Big laugh, except from the embattled-looking Clinton people.

“Your very, very small election.”

Meanwhile, us Obama people decided to dispense with the orange cards and just send whoever wanted to go. Which turned out to include L. I hope he is not as fickle as he appears.

And so I put on my coat (not nearly so big nor so black as L’s) and started back up the hill, where, on the particularly steep block before the one that gets me to my corner, I found myself gaining on the colorful woman with the hat and bag and Tron belt. Except it wasn’t a Tron belt, I found, as my eyes grew ever closer to her behind. It was a map of a subway system. But just when I was a foot or two from being close enough to read the labels for the subway stops and find out what city it was for, I was at my building, and she crossed the street and was away.


After an inconclusive Super Tuesday, the Democratic candidates suddenly decided the state of Washington was some use after all, and rushed to find venues to give speeches. Wednesday night the Post-Intelligencer just said they were planning to be here, but I noticed Thursday morning that they'd specified times and places.

J, from work, is a genuine Obama supporter (not like me; I merely find Obama less offensive than the alternatives), and when I mentioned there was to be a rally, he decided to take the day off and go listen to his candidate talk. And then I decided to go with him.

We got there some hours before the doors were supposed to open, but already there were about two or three hundred people ahead of us in line--one of two lines, Obama having booked a building with two entrances. By the time we'd been there an hour, our line was doubled back around the other side of the block. Our part of the line, the earliest arrivers, was made mostly of very, very young people, much younger than me and J (and neither of us would yet, I believe, be classified by sociologists as having escaped our youth). But looking across at the people who showed up later, I saw faces less fresh and garb less flamboyant, and more people drifting down the block from the bus stop every minute.

A few minutes before the doors opened, three more people joined our party, and then we went inside. Everybody was trying to cram through one door, but J enterprisingly led us around to another entrance, and so we ended up with splendid seats with an unimpeded view of the stage.

We sat there for some hours longer, wishing we'd had more for breakfast and speculating about the seating capacity of the arena. We watched a woman in a white sweatshirt who stood by herself, dancing and dancing to the tiresome music the campaign had provided for our amusement and motivation (or whatever it was they thought all that soft rock and country would inspire in us), and then rooted for her against a lithe and shameless woman in the next section over who decided to challenge her to a contest.

We slumped in despair through a long, long drone a musician read off a piece of paper at us about the video he was going to show, and then through the long, long video itself, which I really believe did contain at some point the phrase "creed, color, sex, and race." I mean, really. I ask you.

Not too long after that, though, things got started at last. Someone told us how many people were there (18,000 inside and 3,000 outside), Christine Gregoire claimed apple pie for the state of Washington, there was lots of yelling and screaming, and then the charismatic candidate at last showed up and gave his speech.

I don't find speeches very interesting, but this one at least was possible to listen to. As Karl says, the man is easy on the ears. And most of his propositions were fairly sensible, I guess. I am uninformed.

I don't think it mattered too much what he actually said, though. Mostly all of those thousands of people just wanted a chance to lay their eyes upon him, for after the great shout of joy that went up when he finally walked up onto the stage, all those ranks of seats sparkled with camera flashes, and then were dotted with ever more empty red chairs, as people skulked up the stairs toward the exits.

There were still at least 80% left, though, by the time Obama finished making his unfulfillable promises and his triumphant exit.

And then, at last, we got to have lunch.