A Journal of the Plague Year: #26

What a terrible time to stop drinking. In the first week of this glorious new year, I was so disheartened by the attempted coup, the insurrection in our nation’s capital, it would have been SO easy to drown out that despair with alcohol. Similarly, it would have been so simple (and yet impossible) to self-medicate away the death toll of 420,000 Americans lost to the Coronavirus. Conversely, a celebratory drink or two or three would have been totally justified at the inauguration of our 46th President, Joe Biden, and the first ever female, Asian-American, African-American Vice President in the history of the United States, Kamala Harris, not to mention an inaugural day that, across the country, was marred by not a single act of violence in protest, at least not on my radar. I might have raised a glass in approval at Trump’s ban from Twitter and Facebook, his second impeachment by the house, and I might have raised still another glass as his sorry ass, in a helicopter, lifted into the air from the White House, never to return. And then, I decided to dye my hair purple, the kind of decision a man of a certain age makes while drinking. I even went through with it! So many good reasons to be drinking! But I have not been drinking. You might call it a dry January–but, to be fair, I had my last drink on January 2nd, have abstained then, as of today, for only 28 out of these 30 days in the month, and, of course, the month is not over. A single day is a long time.

It hasn’t been easy. Two or three nights ago I watched Jimmy Kimmel, in celebration for his sideman Guillermo’s 50th birthday, show a montage of about 50 celebrities taking shots in honor of the occasion. Today I drove by an open-air beer garden and my favorite liquor store on my way home from an errand. It’s getting a little bit more difficult as the month closes itself out and I know I have a decision to make: was this a dry January–or the beginning of a longer commitment to live without–or with significantly less–alcohol? The jury is out. I miss it and I don’t miss it. As I’ve felt in other years when I have made this same prolonged abstinence, I am mostly glad to know that I can do it. Without withdrawals, without lapses, without any kind of detrimental side-effect (save the purple hair), I have been able to live for a time, quite contentedly, without booze.

I didn’t mean for this entire blog entry to be about drinking or not drinking. It just seems to be a little bit front and center. Maybe, for me, it feels less casual of a thing than it does for most Dry Januarians. My parents drank every day of their lives for as long as I can remember, and in my middle to late-middle years, I find myself to have become the same kind of drinker. I am trying to be super conscious about how my life, or how I feel about my life, changes without it. I know that when I am not drinking, I tend to be more creative. I tend to be more productive. I feel smarter. I tend to be happier–less likely to enter a funk of melancholy. And, as much good news as there is in this new world regarding a more engaged, more compassionate, more representative administration, and regarding an impending mass-inoculation against COVID-19, there is still the residual bad news abounding and leftover in the wake of Trump; for example, today, in Los Angeles, a protest by far-right conspiracy goons prevented people from getting vaccinated! –despite this, as angry as that makes me, I do not feel the impulse to self-medicate. I am less easily rattled or annoyed. I am more present to others–maybe. I’m more engaged, as much as I can be, with my students in distance learning. I think I sleep better and my dreaming is more vivid. I snore less. This is all to the good, but there are things, sadly, that haven’t changed. Without all of that empty calorie, and even with a fair amount of exercise, I don’t think I’ve lost an ounce. I was kind of betting on that. I don’t think I’m eating more to compensate, or eating worse things for me–you know, replacing one poison for another kind of poison. But maybe I am. A single serving of my favorite gummy worm, seven little worms, is only 90 calories. That’s not bad, but there’s an occasional cookie. Too many carbs, perhaps. Thankfully, the resident teenager beats me to most of the snack food. But I bet I snacked less when I was drinking! The dumb part of my brain just wanted to see more miraculous results, and thinks to itself, alas, if there aren’t clear and positive health results (ignoring for a moment the list of benefits above), why bother? Man, I so much wanted to take a shot with all those celebrities! I mean, Guillermo only turns 50 once in his life!

I don’t know how to close. This entry feels somewhat confessional. I don’t want it to be. I don’t want to confess. I want to say that I don’t feel shame about drinking and I won’t feel shame about breaking my abstinence in February, if I choose to do so. I know there are forces in my life and in the culture at large that both want to shame me about alcohol use AND encourage me to keep doing it. What it’s about, I think–what it’s always been about, is consciousness, understanding, being awake to and honest about the relationships we have to the stuff that’s bad for us. I know I’ve said this before in past entries written around the turn of a new year: we need (I need) to drink more mindfully, to be fully aware of why I’m doing it and what it’s bringing to me, both good and bad. Meanwhile, on the eve of the last day of January, 2021, I’m still dry. And I have purple hair.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #25

Cheers!

This morning I got up to find a comment posted to one of my blog entries! How exciting is that? I will tell you. It’s pretty exciting. It’s rare, these days–it’s rare in general, but it seems more rare these days–in part, I know, because I have not been writing. Guess what the blog entry was about–the one that received a comment? “Stop the Block by Writing About the Block: A Resolution.” It was published on the blog site a year ago, right after Christmas, 2019. Curious about what I had to say about writer’s block a year ago, because, as I stand here with my coffee after sorting the laundry on this bleak, wet, Saturday morning, I am fully aware that I have hardly written a word since September, I re-read my blog entry. In the first paragraph, I confess, “Inexplicably (or not), I have hardly written a word since September.” Hmm. I sense a pattern. I wonder if I went back another year I would find a similar confession. I think it’s true, generally speaking, that the time between September and January seems to be a creatively dark time for yours truly, inexplicably (or not). Mostly I think it’s explicable. Let me explicate.

I blame the beginning of the new academic school year. Getting the ball rolling in a public high school and in my own realm as a classroom English teacher, is always a monumental undertaking. Even though, most often, everything is already in place in terms of planning and curriculum, there is just something pretty exhausting about the first few months of a new school year. But this year–oh my–this year was an entirely new jarful of bees. Is that a thing? I was going for a colloquial metaphor there, and I think I may have missed the mark. Bucket of rats? Nest of wasps? Barrel of monkeys? No, none of those are good. Let me just say that it was terrible. This fall we had the monumental undertaking of reimagining everything we do for the virtual-world classroom, for distance learning. That means that every single lesson had to be re-written, re-formatted, transformed into some interactive slide-show. Curriculum had to be condensed. Time had new meaning. The school day itself, reinvented. Suddenly, we relied on help from our colleagues more than ever before and we were feeling blessed and lucky if we had a strong team. The boundary between work and home became completely blurry. I found myself grading or planning until 7 or 8 o’clock at night and receiving text notifications that Johnny had finally turned in his essay at 1 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday.

Needless to say, it was difficult, if not impossible, to write a poem, a story, or work on my memoir, or record a song, or read a book for pleasure. This is how I explain the lack of creative productivity from Autumn to Winter, especially this year. And while this transition or transformation from the school house to the virtual google classroom was, in itself and by necessity, a creative act–it did not satisfy the soul in the same way as writing what you think might be a pretty good poem.

So, how do we get started again in this new year, a year that promises to be a continuation of the pandemic nightmare of the last nine months–with the optimism added to the mix of a couple of vaccines and a new administration? If I look again at last year’s resolution blog entry, I find that I had set myself a number of goals and even went so far as to design a kind of checklist to track my progress–inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s virtue checklist from his autobiography. And just like Franklin admits about his project, mine, while it yielded early results, ultimately failed–but not in its entirety. Write a thing a week? I think I was able to do that, or close to it, at least until September. Read for pleasure more often? Not nearly as much as I would have liked. I did not, for example, read a book a month. Write an album’s worth of songs? Nope. However–music was made this year in small increments and in some new collaborations. Close, but no cigar. Make arrangements to speak to people who will help me? No, I did not do that. This one rankles, perhaps, more than the others. Why is it that the things we know are necessary are sometimes the hardest things to do? I’m no psychologist. Meditate more often? Well, no. In fact, while I didn’t give it up and maintained a loose practice of meditation, I jettisoned altogether the tracking of stats on my Insight Timer. Spent some time, instead, with Sam Harris on his Wake Up app–which yielded some good results, but still, was insufficient on its own. I’ve never quite gotten used to the idea that someone should be talking at me while I’m trying to meditate, even if it’s Sam Harris. And lumped into the goals about seeking the help of others and a stronger meditation practice was some totally sincere and earnest stuff about better general health. This didn’t work out too well, either. I don’t think I’m alone when I admit that I do not think the isolation during the COVID 19 pandemic has done a single bit of good for my health–except for the fact that I have not contracted COVID-19.

If I were to set goals for myself again for 2021, they would look almost identical to these. But we all know instinctively or intuitively, and the research bears this out, that resolutions often fail. I know I’ve written about this before. We also know, though, and teach our younglings, that goal setting is somewhat paramount to self-improvement, yes? So what’s the mystery? What’s the key? I think it is possible, and advisable, to go ahead and make the goals. Yeah, write them down. Revisit them often to remind yourself about what it is that you want. But ultimately, you must be kind to yourself, you must be forgiving, you cannot beat yourself up, wring your hands, gnash your teeth. And you have to accept the fact that certain things may happen that are completely out of your control, things that may wreak havoc on your best laid plans: a pandemic comes to mind. 330,000 American casualties. The death of a mother-in-law. The dire cancer diagnosis of a brother-in-law. Another dire cancer diagnosis for a friend. Wildfires. A democratic society on the brink of dictatorship. An election year fraught with danger and divisiveness unlike anything most of us have ever seen, an election that feels to everyone of all political stripes to be of monumental, earth-shattering, history-making, dire consequence. The continued violence against black and brown Americans in the streets of our country and a justice system that repeatedly fails to do the right thing. We’ve had a lot this year to take us away from our goals, to make us feel pretty sheepish, frankly, about self-improvement, especially when and if we have been lucky and/or privileged, as I know I have been.

Meanwhile, it helps to find things and people that inspire you and move yourself in those directions. Even during the pandemic, when attendance at a yearly writers conference was impossible, we found a way to conduct a mini-conference through zoom. I participated in a manuscript exchange with some friends from the Warren Wilson MFA program, and this weekend, on the first and second day of the new year, we have organized a virtual reading for poets and fiction writers from that same program. We are finding ways to connect to the tribe. And these things, just over the last couple of days, plus this lovely comment that I found this morning on last year’s blog entry, have put a charge in my creative reservoir. Lo and behold. I have written almost 1500 words.

So, finally, happy new year to you, readers, friends, family. Let’s hope 2021 is less of a shit show. I’m guardedly optimistic about that, but the bar is pretty low, isn’t it? Nevertheless, we have lots to be hopeful about. I wish you the best of luck with your goals for the new year. May you tap into your own creative impulses, whatever they may be, in order to experience a rich, productive, life-giving new year. Cheers!

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #24

My classroom now has a blue refrigerator, a recording studio, a vertical turntable, a small personal library of classics and contemporaries, childhood art by the resident teenager, and two dogs.

September 15, 2020

Yesterday was the first official day of school for students in my district, the first time in my 32 year career that the school year would open with distance learning on account of a viral pandemic, and, as it turns out, the first time in my 32 year career that school would be canceled on the first day of classes for inclement weather, in this case, hazardous air, the result of the wildfires in Oregon. It was maybe the first time Oregonians have ever prayed for rain. The weather folks told us we would get some yesterday, but they began hedging, and, again, as it turns out, they were wrong about the rain. The air in Portland and in Milwaukie is still hazardous, but our district is open for business today, encouraged us all to work from home–as most of us would have done anyway.

So, today, we had the first day of school, each teacher meeting with one group of kids as part of a home-room-type situation, showing them the ropes of the google meets, laying down some technology expectations, and showing them some tips around navigating some new features of the google classroom. It’s a google world now, I tell you. I met with my 25 students, talked my way through a presentation, had exchanges with three or four kids who were brave enough to show video and unmute their mics–but for the most part, it was quiet, and I felt a little bit like I was talking to myself. But none of the things that freaked me out last night at one in the morning and kept me awake for three hours–you know, being interrupted, constantly chatted around, distracted by inappropriate things in the video feed or the instant message bar, students refusing to leave the meeting, me having to kick them out–NONE of that stuff happened. On the one hand, I was super pleased, but on the other hand, with so little feedback, the stuff teachers usually get, a sense of their style and personality, an opportunity to hear every kid’s voice at least a little, watching them interact and respond to each other, watching them smile or laugh at our attempts to put them at ease–I had no idea really about how any of it went! I meet with this same group tomorrow for round two of practicing The Google Meet. At least, today, my fears that this would be a train wreck were assuaged and I will go back at it tomorrow with far less trepidation. On Thursday and Friday of this week, academic classes begin in earnest. For me, two groups of 9th grade English and one group of seniors in IB Literature.

The prediction or the assessment or the outlook on the move to distance learning is that we will proceed in this manner at least until November, or for a full quarter of the school year. No one is expressing confidence that at this magical moment everything will have shifted. I think many of us are psyching ourselves up for the long haul. And many of us are pondering and musing about the way this shift away from traditional brick and mortar schools, out of necessity, will change the nature of schooling and education in irrevocable ways, forever, or at least, for the foreseeable future.

Necessity is the mother of invention, says Plato. It feels true that we are reinventing our schools. What’s unclear, unnervingly so, are the ultimate outcomes, either good or ill. I don’t know that anyone will ever be able to argue against the effectiveness of students and teachers physically in a room with each other, but I worry nonetheless about this particular trajectory. In my half glass full sort of orientation, I believe that there might be aspects of the brick and mortar model we could happily lose, and their loss would be, as Elizabeth Bishop writes, no great matter. Others we lose at our own risk and peril. The optimist in me believes we may at some not so distant day strike just the right balance. Meanwhile we soldier on. I’m happily, gratefully, doing the best I can with what I’ve got, chanting my new favorite mantra: better than nothing. It’s better than nothing. WAY better than nothing.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #23

If it ain’t one thing, it’s another thing. Welcome to the shit-show that is 2020. First, we had the coronavirus. Schools close from March all the way to the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Teachers learn on the fly to conduct the business of teaching and learning from a distance. George Floyd is murdered, one more death in a catalogue of violence against black men at the hands of police. Then, civil unrest, of which, Portland seems to be the epicenter. Then, in Kenosha, another black man is shot seven times in the back while he reaches into his car where his children are watching. More civil unrest in which people are shot and killed, in Kenosha, in Portland, the violence exacerbated by members of right-wing extremist groups converging on protests for justice to “keep the peace.” An endless litany of Trump administration scandals, only two of which include the reveal that the president knew how deadly the virus was before making a number of public claims to the contrary, and additionally, that his administration has syphoned millions of dollars away from a fund to help New York City Firefighters suffering from illnesses caused by the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center–this story, no-less, published on September 11th. The virus, after killing nearly 200,000 Americans, shows no signs of abatement, and schools across the country decide to continue with distance learning at least until November, but more likely, indefinitely.

Then there was a wind storm.

And then came the fires.

As of today, 860,000 acres have burned. Estacada, 23 miles away from where I live, and Molalla, 22 miles away, have been ordered to evacuate. Oregon City and Canby, respectively, 4.3 miles and 13 miles from where I live, have been ordered to get set for orders to evacuate. And my town, Milwaukie, about 9 miles from downtown Portland, has been told to get ready. We are wringing our hands–should we be packing? Has anything changed? Nothing has changed. What should we take? Where would we go? Why am I coughing? Has anything changed? Nothing has changed. Over three days, essentially, the alert level has remained perfectly consistent. We put some supplies in a bag. We’ve made some lists. We’ve gathered up some key paperwork. I’ve taken pictures of valuable instruments and books. None of our clothing is packed.

Mostly, we’ve closed all the windows in the house and we try to stay inside. We haven’t seen the sun since Wednesday. It’s hard to be outside for any length of time. The Northwest regions of the United States, and in particular Portland and its vicinities, are reported right now to have the most dangerous air pollution in the entire world, the effects of which cannot even be guessed at by health officials. A week ago it was 90 degrees and clear; now, it’s smoky, foggy, and cold. It looks and feels what I imagine it would be like to live in a war zone.

In the beginning stages of the pandemic shut-down, as frightened and sad and weirded out as I was, I was feeling centered and purposeful, maybe even a little bit inspired, as strange as that might seem. I was meditating daily. My Journal of the Plague Year series was reflective, contemplative; I was finding inspirational favorite poems to read and record. I was interested in bringing comfort to others if I could, through poetry, encouraging words, reasons to be hopeful. Even this summer, I found zoom meetings with my writer friends to be sustaining and motivating, and I found literature to read that made me feel human and less afraid. But as I approach a school year, my 32nd, for which I have to reinvent everything I know about how to do my job, as the pandemic rages, and as the state of the union gets more and more depressing, I think a fatigue has set in, finally–one that has proven to be difficult to shake. And this fire on top of everything else is doing its level best to take me to dark places, away from the things, the habits and practices of mind and body, that I find healthful and helpful. Sometimes I feel hope slipping. Sentence by sentence I have slogged through this blog entry over the last four hours or so. And, as I’ve noticed that I haven’t written a single word for the better part of a month, maybe that’s part of how we get through this, sentence by sentence. For me, sentence by sentence means returning to the written word, returning to music as best as I can, and bringing the best of what I can to the new school year. Those of you in my boat, so many of you, all of you, I imagine: how do you move forward, sentence by sentence? How can you help yourself so that you are better able to help others. How can we use our gifts to light ourselves and our communities out of this mess?

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The Magic Mountain (Reaction Vlog #3)

Welcome back, friends, to the third installment of my attempt at a literary reaction vlog. I approached it a little bit differently this time. Less text. Almost entirely vlog. I’ve created two parts. The first part is a kind of “previously, in The Magic Mountain” type of introductory video, designed to catch you up, albeit superficially, on what’s happening in the novel, 176 pages in. The second part is a new reading accompanied by my reaction in real time. I think I like this approach, except, wouldn’t you know it, technical difficulties resulted in a reaction video without audio–so, what you have here is a second take. I know, it’s kind of cheating. It was super frustrating, because most of the time, in keeping with the “reaction video” concept, the first take is the best and the one you want to keep. Oh well. Without further ado:

Part One: Previously, in The Magic Mountain . . .

Part Two: Chapter 5, Eternal Soup and Sudden Clarity . . .

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #22

Photo: Los Angeles Times

I live in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. You might say that it is the closest suburb to downtown, just south of the city center by a 15 minute car ride. In my town of Milwaukie, there are often small groups of people on the sidewalks of 99 or at the Farmer’s Market downtown holding up signs that say Black Lives Matter and deriding the current administration. While I was at the market Sunday buying Lavender plants for the yard with my wife, cars coming down the highway would honk their support for the sign wavers. No trouble. No conflict. No police. If there were alt right-white supremacists in the area, they kept quiet.

Downtown Portland has seen large scale protests for sixty days running in response to the murder of George Floyd and a spate of police violence against black Americans across the country. Early on, things were vandalized or destroyed. People looted businesses where storefront windows were shattered. Fires were set. If you were sympathetic to injustices perpetrated against Black Americans in this country and in particular aggrieved by Portland’s abysmal history along these lines, it was easy to understand the rage. But further sleuthing revealed that much of the violence and vandalism could be attributed to people outside the BLM movement, inciting the chaos either because they deliberately wanted bad PR for the movement, or they were just opportunists, looking for an excuse to act out. At any rate, what is absolutely clear is that the vandalism and the violence perpetrated by civilians represented a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of people in peaceful protest. Nevertheless, riot police were often in conflict with crowds. Tear gas and rubber bullets were commonplace. People got severely hurt.

Then in the coming weeks, outside of a wide assortment of graffiti art, the protests continued, but large scale destruction, looting, and violent protests had diminished and peaceful demonstrations seemed to be the order of the day. But in the last week or two, despite this fact, violence against protestors by local police and, horrifyingly, by unidentified federal agents from Homeland Security, has increased. Goons dressed in camo are abducting people into unmarked vehicles without identifying themselves or stating any reason for detention or arrest. An American vet was beaten for simply asking the officers to remember their oaths. A young man was shot in the head with a rubber bullet that shattered his skull. Local mothers in a line of protection in front of protestors were tear gassed. Local dads showed up with leaf blowers to protect the moms and others from the gas. A group of military veterans showed up to protect the dads with leaf blowers who were protecting the moms protecting the protestors. And then there was this woman in the photo above who showed up naked to confront the police and federal agents. Faced with all that feminine power, at least in this event, they backed down. I don’t know her name. I don’t know her story. But she has become iconic, an awesome demonstration of courage, a brilliant metaphor reflecting and/or deflecting the impotence of our nation’s current political leadership.

One thing is perfectly clear. Things got increasingly worse when the federal agents descended on our city. And the protests got substantially larger and more violent, drawing thousands and thousands to the Portland city block surrounding the federal courthouse. Somehow, between a Mayor and a Governor who stood against the presence of federal agents in our city and other factors perhaps obscure to me, the agents have left almost entirely, and last night the protestors emerged again in large numbers and without incident. Here are the opening sentences of a news piece from Dan McCarthy of KATU news:

Portland Police Bureau says protesters, not officers, were doing the enforcing downtown Thursday night. 

Police said demonstrators put out fires and told others to stop climbing the fence in front of the federal courthouse. 

As a result, police said they didn’t have any interactions with demonstrators downtown.

There are people on my facebook newsfeed who are certain that Portland is lost, that the city is burning, that the looters and the vandals and arsonists have won, that Portland will soon become a wasteland, some anarchist hellscape. Totally misinformed, no doubt watching Hannity every night, having never seen the city for themselves, knowing not a single soul participating in this historically monumental moment to save democracy and restore it for ALL of our citizens, these poor folk remain in the dark. I, for one, have never been more proud to be a Portlander, even if my vantage point is 6 or 7 miles away from the action, just down the road a peg in Milwaukie. For a few weeks there it seemed we were at the very center of the universe.    

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The Magic Mountain (Reaction Vlog #2)

Already, I find it necessary to amend the rules of the game. The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, in my edition, is nearly 700 pages long. I would have you know that I am not what you could call a fast reader. Initially, I thought that each of my reaction vlogs might be about a different piece of literature. At my rate, that would mean a new reaction vlog might go up every other month or so. And while I promised in my introductory entry that I would not be reading out loud and commenting on an entire novel, it does seem kind of ridiculous to do a reaction vlog for the first four paragraphs of a novel, and then a few days later another for the first four paragraphs of a different novel, especially if the somewhat selfish goal of this project is to get myself to read more, and to read books that have been beckoning for some time! So, here is my conclusion: I intend to finish The Magic Mountain. I can see myself doing several reaction vlogs along the way. One every 50 to 100 pages, say. That way, you, the viewer, get a sense of closure and continuity. That way, I, the blogger, can finish a damn book.

Here’s another idea that might be helpful. Rather than providing a series of cold readings and reactions throughout, before each new video, I will attempt to provide some context, in other words, address what kind of twists and turns have occurred since the last reading, try to describe what I have learned that might be helpful to you as you read, watch, and listen. Ergo:

Today I read about 60 pages into The Magic Mountain. This is what I’ve learned and observed:

  • Our hero, Hans Castorp, is a young man studying to be an engineer, specifically one that designs sea faring vessels. His parents died when he was very young, he was raised for a time by his grandfather until his death, and then finally was raised by an uncle. Outside of his early and somewhat traumatic experience with a number of family deaths, Hans has led a life of privilege.
  • Hans loves to smoke cigars. He can’t imagine a life without cigars.
  • Hans, as is established in the first four paragraphs of the novel, is on his way from his hometown of Hamburg to Davos-Platz in the Swiss Alps. He’s headed there for two reasons. First, a doctor advised him, that after intense schooling and examinations, the 20-something year-old should have a change of scenery, take in some new air. Secondly, while he is there, he will visit his cousin Joachim for three weeks.
  • Joachim Ziemssen is a young army lieutenant on an extended stay inside a sanatorium in the Alps.
  • What’s a sanatorium, you may well ask. I did. And I found out that during the late 19th century and into the 20th, when tuberculosis killed one out of seven people living in the United States and Europe, a “cure” was believed to be rest and relaxation in a more hospitable climate inside a sanatorium, essentially, a resort for people dying of TB. Joachim does not appear to be seriously ill. In fact, many of the characters living with Joachim do not seem seriously ill–but clearly, as Joachim reports, they are, and residents are dying all the time; in winter, when travel is difficult, their bodies are sent down the mountain on bobsleds, and a resident, he says, died just days before Hans arrived for his visit, a resident who had been living in the very apartment, sleeping in the very bed, where Hans will stay for three weeks. Joachim tells Hans that most of the deaths happen “behind the scenes” and the residents are usually kept in the dark, but on one occasion Joachim witnessed the disturbing death struggle of a young woman who was, in essence, refusing to die, hiding under her bed clothes, kicking and screaming, while the doctor kept telling her not to make such a fuss.
  • It seems grim, yes? And yet, while it’s not a “comic” novel, there are moments of hilarity peppered throughout. Some extremely colorful characters populate the sanatorium. A Russian married couple in the apartment next to Hans are playing some really strange erotic sex games late at night. A woman can whistle with one of her collapsed lungs. And there are these wild conversations, between Joaquim and Hans, and between the two cousins and the physicians and residents of the sanatorium, that, while philosophical in nature, sometimes border on the absurd. Conversation, it seems, is a big deal in this novel. Not so much to further the plot, maybe a little bit to develop character, but mostly, it seems to me, to push forward certain thematic threads.
  • Time and space, baby. Which has the most influence? How are they inextricably tied? Is time a thing? Does it really exist? Can it be measured or defined, really? Why does it sometimes go by so quickly and other times so slowly? Is dying so terrible? What does it mean to be ill, or healthy for that matter?
  • The narrator of The Magic Mountain is a third person omniscient that sometimes refers to himself in the first person plural, the royal WE. It’s funny, especially as he seems careful not to characterize Hans in a negative light: “As is apparent, we are attempting to include anything that can be said in Hans Castorp’s favor, and we offer our judgements without exaggeration, intending to make him no better or worse than he was.”
  • The novel is structured in 7 total numbered chapters, but each chapter has a number of titled sections.
  • The prose, again, an English translation from the original German, continues to be scintillating.

That was somewhat difficult to do economically. Perhaps it will be less necessary as we move through this tome. I sense, because the essential plot of the novel has already been laid out, that catching you up, dear reader, might not be as necessary moving forward. I could be wrong about that, but as I see it, the dramatic questions seem to be thus: How will this three week stay with Joachim at the sanatorium change our good friend Hans? How is the mountain magic? Is Joachim in serious danger from his TB? Will he survive the visit? Will the questions raised by the above thematic threads be answered? Is TB contagious? Otherwise, why would a husband and wife live there together when only one of them is sick, or a family for that matter? Inquiring minds need to know. A quick little research excursion reveals that, yes, TB is contagious. It spreads, oddly enough, in the same way the coronavirus spreads. Is Hans safe? Might he contract TB? How odd that I chose this book first out of all possible books, I, who did not know what a sanatorium was three or four days ago!

Meanwhile, here’s today’s reaction video to a section titled “One Word Too Many” from Chapter 3!

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The Magic Mountain (Reaction Vlog #1)

Okay, here it is. The first foray into a new series whereby I record myself reacting to a literary text I’ve never read. My first choice, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a book that has sat atop my “should read” list for many, many moons now. Below you will find a video of my reading of and reaction to the first four paragraphs of the novel.

A tiny bit of background. Thomas Mann was a German novelist, born in 1875 (it was his birthday just four or five days ago), and he lived until 1955. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929. He lived in exile from Germany during World War II and spent a significant portion of his later years living in other countries, including the United States, ultimately earning American citizenship. Here’s a lovely little description from the folks at Brittanica.com about his literary legacy:

Mann was the greatest German novelist of the 20th century, and by the end of his life his works had acquired the status of classics both within and without Germany. His subtly structured novels and shorter stories constitute a persistent and imaginative enquiry into the nature of Western bourgeois culture, in which a haunting awareness of its precariousness and threatened disintegration is balanced by an appreciation of and tender concern for its spiritual achievements. Round this central theme cluster a group of related problems that recur in different forms—the relation of thought to reality and of the artist to society, the complexity of reality and of time, the seductions of spirituality, eros, and death.

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Mann/Later-novels

Again, I come to this novel by recommendation from a half a dozen writers that I love and respect who claim this particular work to be of pivotal importance to them. William Stafford, former poet laureate of Oregon and one of my literary heroes, wrote a poem for this novel. Father John Misty has a song by the same title. I’m hard pressed to think of stronger recommendations. So let’s give this a go, shall we?

Postscript:

I realize, after watching my video, which, as it should be, was the first and only take, that one of the occupational hazards of doing a literary reaction vlog might be a misreading here and there. I’m not too worried about that, but it seems appropriate to say that Hans is taking a journey by train, by boat, and then again by train in order to get to his destination. In this video, my understanding seems to be that he’s on a train the entire time, that he crosses “abysses” on a train. I think he’s on a boat over these abysses. I make another mistake in understanding that he’s on his way to Hamburg. No, he’s leaving from Hamburg, his home town, to a place called Davos-Platz. In a way, this kind of reaction vlog can be a quick study of how easy it is, even for a good reader, to quickly come to a misunderstanding, especially when speaking extemporaneously, off-the-cuff–something my students do all the time. It’s kind of embarrassing. I know how they feel.

And Oh My God. Coulda shoulda woulda, a fool’s game, I know. But I wish I would have kept going for one more paragraph. The fifth paragraph of The Magic Mountain is a doozy, and totally worth the relative slog of the first four. Not that they were a slog, but they were not, as one might say about an extremely potent novel opening, in any way scintillating. I guess, as I am discovering, one of the benefits of a literary vlog accompanied by blogger text is that a person might, if they are so inclined, write about what they failed to talk about in the video. So I’m just going to share the fifth paragraph with you here and then riff for awhile in conclusion:

Two days of travel separate this young man (and young he is, with few firm roots in life) from his everyday world, especially from what he called his duties, interests, worries and prospects–separate him far more than he had dreamed possible as he rode to the station in a hansom cab. Space, as it rolls and tumbles away between him and his native soil, proves to have powers normally ascribed only to time; from hour to hour, space brings about changes very like those time produces, yet surpassing them in certain ways. Space, like time, gives birth to forgetfulness but does so by removing an individual from all relationships and placing him in a free and pristine state–indeed, in but a moment it can turn a pedant and Phillistine into something like a vagabond. Time, they say, is water from the river Lethe, but alien air is a similar drink; and if its effects are less profound, it works all the more quickly.

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann, translation John E. Woods;

Holy crap. And I say, holy crap, not because of some earth-shattering plot development or character reveal, no, but because of this almost Proustian turn from simple exposition about Hans on a train on his way to Davos-Platz to some profound philosophical exploration about the nature of travel, the way movement through physical space from one spot to another can have monumental effects on a person’s character–in the same way time can–only faster. Anyone who has significantly traveled could attest to the truth of this. I have not significantly traveled, but I know that the first time I flew by myself from one coast of this continent to the other, my life changed irrevocably. I transformed from a pedant to a vagabond–or something along those lines.

This fifth paragraph makes me believe that this novel will be a philosophical one, which excites me; I’ve always been more fond of IDEA than of STORY.

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I’ve Got An Idea: The Literary Reaction Vlog

If you’ve perused the video introduction above, you get the gist of the idea. In keeping with the new interest in the REACTION vlog, in which a person reacts in real time to a media artifact like video or music that they have never seen or heard before, I propose to try a reaction vlog to a literary text.

I have a common disorder whereby I purchase more books than I can possibly read*. I’ve got books on the shelf I bought two decades ago that I have never cracked open. I buy books sometimes because I like the author, because they’ve been recommended to me, because I’ve read a review, because they were written by a friend, or, often, because it is a book I feel I “should” have read. My brand of the disorder is heightened when I find a book I “should” read published in a limited or “fine” edition. So, not only does the volume sit on the shelf for a very long time beckoning to be read, but it also looks very attractive while doing it. I’m not sure what the psychology is here: maybe I think I will be more likely to read a book if it is beautiful to look at and hold and smell. At any rate, if this IS the modus operandi at play here, it hasn’t worked especially well up to this point. The books beckon, they look nice, and they remain on the shelf.

What I’m saying is that I don’t have to look very far and hard for a book I have not read.

You might be thinking, okay, it’s one thing to watch a video blogger react to a song or a video clip, but there’s no way I’m sitting through a video in which some guy reads out loud while reacting in real time to an entire novel. Let me set your mind at ease: I would not do that. Under only one condition would I do that: if I was being paid. Nope, not my job. My job is primarily to amuse myself, get some exposure to some texts that I have long wished to dive into, and hopefully, provide some entertainment, hilarity, and a light dose of instruction for any willing viewer. I have set for myself a certain number of ground rules:

1. I will select books I have never read, promise.

2. I will only read and react to short passages: the opening page or paragraph, a single poem, a section of a long poem, an excerpt from an essay.

3. I will not choose pieces by my contemporaries, unless one of them requests that I do so.

4. I will focus primarily on texts that are considered “classics.” And by that I mean works that have been widely read and revered, works that remain so to this day, and perhaps, works that were published pre-21st century.

5. None of the above is written in stone.

6. If this is a train wreck, which is a strong possibility, I will stop doing it immediately.

I would be amenable to suggestions or requests, although it would have to be a book that I already have in the collection (I’m not buying any more books, I’ve decided, at least in the short term, unless it is a book written by a friend). But I think I have my sights set (to begin with) on a famous German novel of the early 20th century, The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann. It is a book on the “should read” list and has been nearly at the top of that list for many, many years, a novel that, for some reason, has come across the radar as a seminal text for many writers that I admire. We’ll see how this goes. Onward and upward. Wish me luck. I hope you are amused and at least a little bit edified!

*Just learned that there is a word for this disorder. It’s called Tsundoku, a Japanese word for people who buy more books than they can read!

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Journal of the Plague Year: #21

Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, has made an executive order that as of July 1st, all Oregonians must wear face masks in indoor public places, or outdoors whenever there are concentrations of people and 6 foot distancing cannot be maintained. As if on cue, my DEVO face masks were in the mailbox the day that order was announced. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had face masks for the better part of a month or two now already, and I have been wearing them, long before the governor’s call, religiously in public places. But those were not DEVO masks. I understand that I am now part of the movement, inevitable, towards the protective-mask-against-the-coronavirus as fashion accessory. I have no problem with this. If we have to do this awkward, uncomfortable thing in the name of public health, we might as well have some fun with it. Yes? No? Yes! I’ve seen some pretty stellar designs. And like the concert t-shirt, a mask with a favorite artist, writer, or band might be a cool way to wave your freak flag, to announce your fan loyalty, to promote your favorite thing. I love DEVO, I have loved DEVO for a number of decades now, and even though they are not my favorite band of all time, they were the first cool band, at least on my radar, to merchandise protective masks. So I got them. Meanwhile, it’s safe to conclude that any individual who believes that a face mask is an affront to their civil liberties is just a very stupid person. You’ve seen the videos of these people throwing tantrums in grocery stores. I have never seen such idiocy. One might conclude, as I do, that in strange and trying times, we see the worst in people come crawling to the surface. I think the opposite is true, as well. We are seeing heroism of all stripes on a daily basis as folks decide to do the right thing in the face of the pandemic and in the face of racial injustice.

It’s a strange time. Things start to loosen up and reopen. While you can’t go to a movie or see a concert, and live music seems to have completely died, you can get your haircut. You can eat at a restaurant serving clients at half capacity. You can go to your massage therapist. Most businesses are reopening to a degree. But in the world of the virus, things are not improving; in fact, they are getting terrifyingly worse. There are states in the union that ignored the virus altogether or that opened up early, and those places are paying the piper. There are only 14 states in the union, the last I heard, where the curve is flattening. I understand that Oregon is one of these, but it doesn’t seem to square with our stats that indicate a significant uptick of cases. And, of course, tragically, the country’s death toll has reached about 130,000, more than twice the casualties of the American War in Vietnam. And while all of this is happening, there are young people playing a game whereby huge parties are thrown and the winner is the first to contract COVID-19. There are folks who argue that the mask protocol is a devilish conspiracy and a violation of their civil liberties. There’s a president holding a 4th of July event at Mt. Rushmore and refusing to mandate mask-wearing for attendees. A former candidate for the President of the United States, who has been squarely anti-mask, is in the hospital with the virus. A republican member of the senate actually advocated the dissolution of the team of experts who are charged with informing the public about how to stay safe because their advice runs counter to “what the president wants.” The stupidity is astounding.

There is something uniquely American about this catastrophe. We seem to be, or many of us seem to be, so short-sighted and selfish, so unwilling to be inconvenienced, so entitled, and so resistant to facts that butt up against our personal wishes and desire for liberty, that we would willingly sacrifice our safety and the safety of our most vulnerable citizens in order to have that party on the beach, to go to that club, to go to that church, to attend that rally, or to shop without a mask. And I say it is uniquely American, especially in the Age of The Donald, because the same thing is happening nowhere else in the world, certainly, not in first world economies. It boggles the mind. I just thought of that Guided by Voices tune–“Everybody’s got a hold on hope/It’s the last thing that’s holding me.” Really, it just popped into my head. I think it might be easy and understandable to fall into despair during this time, 2020, the year that has proven to be such a suck festival. But if we look around and pay special attention, we might find lots of reasons to be hopeful. Maybe it might be good to make a list of the things, globally, socially, and personally that don’t suck. That’s your homework assignment. And here’s another lyric from Father John Misty’s “Pure Comedy” album, a lyric and a melody that chokes me up every time, one that, invariably reminds me that there are always places to find hope and joy, in a drink, a friend that you love, a Talking Heads tune; even the end of the world is no competition:

And, oh, I read somewhere
That in twenty years
More or less
This human experiment will reach its violent end
But I look at you
As our second drinks arrive
The piano player’s playing “This Must Be the Place”
And it’s a miracle to be alive
One more time
There’s nothing to fear
There’s nothing to fear
There’s nothing to fear

 

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