Thursday, January 28, 2016

Metaphysics and the Common Cold

In the fog of a mid-winter cold, I find myself whistling "I Should Care," a lovely, insouciant ballad that establishes an atmosphere of emotional ambivalence from the opening line. It's been recorded many times since it was introduced by the Tommy Dorsey band in 1945 for the film Thrill of a Romance. In fact, it was recorded four times that first year. The young Frank Sinatra sang it, and it's a favorite of pianists, with Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Barron among its many interpreters.

We might expect the opening line, which is also the song's title, to be followed before long by "... but I don't." yet further expressions of diffidence follow. The vocalist embroiders the theme with, "I should go around weeping...I should go without sleeping." She (or he) goes on to report that "...strangely enough I sleep well," though here a minor caveat is introduced: "except for a dream or two."

So does she care after all?

The contours of the tune work toward the same ambivalent effect. It's been described as "strongly chromatic, with several deceptive resolutions." My own untrained gloss would be that the tune is  slippery. It's not easy to whistle. The melody seems to drift off the mark, descending by slow steps through a harmonic field rich in melancholy and yearning.

What's really at issue here? It's a break-up, of course, and the last two lines fill in the story as the melody reverses direction, ascending to a high note:

"Maybe I won't find someone as lovely as you..."

Mistakes made, love lost, self-protective indifference. keeping a stiff upper lip. The challenge lies, I think, in making the song sound light and wistful, before it finally folds back on itself to reveal its emotional core.

"But I should care ... and I do."

My favorite rendering is a recent version by the Italian vocalist Diana Torto with the Kenny Wheeler Big Band. Her voice is playful, maybe a little coy. And the big band sound that follows immediately upon the final confession, "...and I do." carries an explosion of romantic feeling, though the musicians are nevertheless obliged at that point to follow the descent of the chart into melancholy ambivalence once again.

Yes, I should care. Well, caring is what people do. The social fabric consists of myriad threads of affection, loyalty, enthusiasm, duty, and heartfelt concern. Some are reciprocal, others not. In any case, such connections serve as the foundation of our self esteem and the burden of our days. We care instinctively because we find natural affinities all around us—loved ones, friends, exciting events and activities, beautiful works of art. The cultivation of such things is what give our lives body and direction. But we also care because we know we should. To turn away from someone in need would be a crime, a transgression against humanity, a betrayal of our nobler selves.

Yet we do turn away, every time we drive past a panhandler at a freeway exit, for example. We might feel bad about it, yet hold back due to a calculus of sympathies by which we overlay both our fellow-feeling and our suspicious streak with a skein of tightly reasoned arguments as to what the most effective distribution of our charitable resources might be.

Powerball winner Roy Cockrum tells the story of a time when he was in holy orders, and handed out cash to a homeless person who had turned up at the monastery gates. One of the senior brothers pointed out that there would be a line of people the next day, after word got around, and then he would be able to help nobody. "That is where I was trained that boundaries are essential," he said. "There are people in need all over the world. I hear from such people every day. Every day. But without boundaries, I have nothing left."

I'm no expert, but it seems to me that Jesus envisioned a universe where loved ones and abject strangers are treated alike—an odd vision, if you ask me, which expands but also dilutes the meaning of the word "love." Love is a preferential thing, an act of judgment and discovery, inexplicable and profound. Happy is the man (or woman) who has succeeded in developing a social universe rich of such reciprocal pleasures and obligations, shared values and interests.

One of the values active in such a world should be to extend those pleasures to individuals who have never had the benefit of such an environment. Though it's only one element among many, we love and admire people due to the breadth of their compassion.  

I was thumbing through Jean-Paul Sartre's youthful novel, Nausea, the other day, in the course of another errand, and I came upon a passage near the end of the book where the narrator, Antoine Roquentin, is desperate. He's lost interest in everything, his friends bore him, and he finds himself withering:

Now when I say “I,” it seems hollow to me. I can’t manage to feel myself very well, I am so forgotten. The only real thing left in me is existence which feels it exists. I yawn, lengthily. No one. Antoine Roquentin exists for no one. That amuses me. And just what is Antoine Roquentin? An abstraction. A pale reflection of myself wavers in my consciousness. Antoine Roquentin . . . and suddenly the “I” pales, pales, and fades out.

This is a classic existential lament, gussied up with abstractions but also harboring a truly poetic element. I was impressed by it when I was in high school. It struck a chord.

 ... Outside there were streets, alive with known smells and colors. Now nothing is left but anonymous walls, anonymous consciousness. That is what there is: walls, and between the walls, a small transparency, alive and impersonal. Consciousness exists as a tree, as a blade of grass. It slumbers, it grows bored. Small fugitive presences populate it like birds in the branches. Populate it and disappear. Consciousness forgotten, forsaken between these walls, under this grey sky. 

In the same year that Nausea appeared (1937), Sartre's one-time teacher and elder contemporary, Gabriel Marcel, described a similar metaphysical uneasiness more analytically in an essay with the heady title, "Value and Immortality."  

It seems to me probable that metaphysics amounts to nothing else but the activity by which we define an uneasiness and manage partially (and, moreover, mysteriously) if not to remove it at least to transpose and trans­mute it, so that far from paralyzing the higher life of the spirit it tends rather to strengthen and maintain it... . To be uneasy is to be uncertain of one’s centre, it is to be in search of one’s own equilibrium ... If I am uneasy about the health of one of my relatives it means that the apprehension I feel on their account tends to destroy my inward stability ... Uneasiness is the more metaphysical the more it con­cerns anything which cannot be separated from myself without the annihilation of this very self.

Marcel sums up these observations in the following terms:

A secret voice which I cannot silence assures me in fact that if others are not there, I am not there either. I cannot grant to myself an existence of which I suppose others are deprived; and here “I cannot” does not mean “I have not the right”, but rather “It is impossible for me.” If others vanish from me, I vanish from myself.

In their different ways, Sartre and Marcel expose an obvious truth: the interconnectedness of beings and the fundamental role played by the threads of the social fabric in our sense of ourselves. But the word "social" might be out of place here, in so far as it connotes norms and conventions that don't necessarily answer to our deepest personal need for connection, for recognition.

Sartre went on to fashion a career out of dissecting alienation, shame, and other attenuated states of mind, while Marcel explored the more complex dialectic at work in mature relationships. But be that as it may, I find it intriguing that at the end of Nausea, when the protagonist is at his wit's end, feeling that he has neither past nor future, he gets a lift from a recording he hears of a woman (Bessie Smith?) singing a jazz number:

Some of these days
You'll miss me, honey

He sees glimmers of salvation in the recording; he's moved by it, and he celebrates the efforts of the singer and also the songwriter, whom he envisions sweltering in the summer heat as he pens the tune on the twenty-first floor of a New York skyscraper.

She sings. So the two of them are saved: the Jew and the Negress. Maybe they thought they were lost irrevocably, drowned in existence.

The metaphysics of caring can get a little thick—to the point of hysteria and cliché. Let me give you an example that might be easier to relate to: that cold I was talking about. My head is full of cotton and I don't really care about anything. I can lie on the couch for half an hour without being bored or thinking about anything. Nor is this a condition of Zen-like attentiveness. Rather, it's a condition of vacuity. And the little voice that would normally being urging me to get up and do something, or questioning my ambition, my sense of self, is silent.

But a few minutes ago I stepped to the window, looked out at the melting snow on the yew bushes just outside, and felt a flicker of emotion. I could feel my eyes, my self, reaching out more actively to things I've always cared about—the passing birds, the beauty of the morning. I could feel myself becoming active and engaged again.    

I guess caring about a yew bush isn't such a big deal. But you've got to start somewhere.

In the last two days, I've given two ninety-minute talks about travel to audiences totaling more than two hundred people. I did it because I said I would, and I said I would because I thought people might enjoy it. I also enjoy it--enjoy spinning narratives on the fly, guided only by the images I'm projecting on the screen. Small town restaurants, the glory of the mountains, oceans, and deserts, long frigid nights in the tent, the smell of sage in the air, the interesting people you meet along the way. Those attending seemed to enjoy this kind of story-telling, too. After the second talk, which was open to the public, a woman came up to me and said, "Will you be teaching your Minnesota course again next year?"

"Well, I don't know," I replied. "That's a long ways off."

"I hope you do," she said. "I wanted to take it this year, but it filled up in ten minutes."  

Would any purpose be served in distinguishing between things we care for (which are people, animals, and plants) and things we care about, such as coin collecting or cross-country skiing? I don't think so. More interesting, perhaps, would be to examine the difference between things we care about naturally and instinctively, and those we care about because we think we should. Alongside the joyous interest we would place the troubled concern of which Marcel speaks, and the obligatory efforts that a thinker like Kant might urge us to undertake, driven by a sense of duty. 

Somewhere therein lies a zone of anguished soul-searching, and also an abiding mystery with transcendental overtones—both easily obscured, if not entirely obliterated, by the arrival of a common cold.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Art of Conversation

What was it Antonio Machado once said? "To have dialog, first ask ... then listen." That's all  well and good, but depending on who you're conversing with, you may end up listening quite a bit, while sharing precious little of your own experience. No, the same irregularity and exchange—musical, natural, and harmonious—that animates other aspects of life is also present when social intercourse is at its best.

I’m thinking of those times when conversation flows like the shifting configurations of a surf rather than the thunderous drone of a waterfall. Friends talk, listen, change the subject, crack a joke, inquire, and assert, spurred on by the energy of conviviality. Small groups of interlocutors form and disperse again as individuals head back to the bar or the buffet, only to form again in new constellations guided by an unspoken but widely shared aesthetic of variegated mingling.

You may step away from a conversation to grab a snack from the sideboard, fully intending to return, only to be caught up in a new coagulation of small talk. Anyone who proudly holds to the lofty ground—"I don't make small talk"—is not going to have much fun, because small talk is the foyer where we hang our coats, looking for the doors into a deeper exchange of thoughts and experiences. 

Playwrights, novelists, and filmmakers struggle to render such conversations convincingly. When they fail, we refer to the dialogue as stilted. When they succeed, we feel that a curtain has been lifted on the beating heart of life.

But the dialogue that appears in works of art is often antagonistic, or at any rate serves little purpose beyond the interactions it vivifies. It’s there to move the story along. People still read Shakespeare just for the music of the language, of course, but Chekhov is far better are rendering conversation authentically. I attended a performance of Tom Stoppard’s play Acadia not long ago, in which the dialog left me deeply impressed. 

I read a  book recently called, simply, Conversation. It consisted largely of references to what famous people have said about conversation and about the conversational habits of people they knew. You can probably guess who figured prominently: Samuel Johnson, De Toqueville, Thoreau, Henry James. 

What? No Goethe? No Diderot? The book is less a history than a miscellany, of course, because most great conversations are private, and the art of conversation doesn’t develop from generation to generation with the passage of time. Each conversation begins the world anew, once again alive and fresh—unburdened by history.

The book’s subtitle is “A History of a Declining Art,” to which the rejoinder would be—that depends on who you’re talking to! As the Egyptian aphorist Ptahhotep wrote some 4,500 years ago: “Good conversation is rarer than an emerald, yet we can hear it from a slave girl at the millstone.” 

I would love to have listened in on the conversations that took place between E. M. Cioran and Gabriel Marcel as they walked home through the streets of Paris after attending the theater together. Why? because they seem so different temperamentally. In his works Marcel limned the foundations of hope, the mystery of being, and the critical importance of "availability," while Cioran's habitual attitude toward life can be judged from the titles of his books: The Trouble with Being Born, The Temptation to Exist, The Fall into Time. And here’s another tantalizing bit: Joseph Brodsky once remarked that Roberto Calasso was the only man in Europe whose conversation was totally worthwhile. (Or was it the other way around?)

We invited some family and friends over to celebrate Hilary's retirement the other day. There was no way to know how well our guests would mingle, but the flow of conversation was lively and sustained. A few coincidences also fed the mix. Brian used to sit in occasionally (twenty years ago) with Don and Sherry's band; Jane is tutoring Somali students at the school where Michel used to work; my cousin Pat went to high school in Silver City, New Mexico, back in the late 1960s, when Dana was a Vista employee there. Brian, who's a marketing executive, arranged with my brother-in-law, David, who's a teacher, to speak to his class. Thus strangers soon became friends, and a frigid winter afternoon became a warm and human one.

Travel talk never hurt a party, and it was fun to hear about Jeff and Fran's recent trip to St. Lucia, and Brian and Marnie's fifteen-day excursion to Morocco and Andalusia. "At the medina in Fez, you choose the chicken you want, they take it away, pluck, butcher, and wrap the bird, and return it to you, ready to cook, in fifteen minutes."

Earlier in the day I had been working on a slide show for a talk I'll be giving soon on the National Parks, and I enjoyed sharing a few words of advice with Maggie, who's trying to decide between the Grand Canyon and the Northwest Coast for a spring trip. She also told me about a more harrowing trip: a Turkish friend of hers signed a petition for peace and found herself suddenly out of a job, wanted for treason, forced to flee.

Jane told me a little about how her new book is doing, Don and I made some plans for working together on the packaging design for Sherry's Kickstarter funded CD. Becca told me about her mother's tribulations getting her ailing computer back up to speed. Jeff told me about a new website called Agate that he thought I might be interested in. 

Rick was excited about a photographer he discovered a while back who was covering the water-quality story in Flint, Michigan—and still is. Greg is revising his book about anti-gravity to reflect the latest lab results (though from what he told me, it seems the relevant experiments haven't actually been conducted yet). 

Mary told me about a novel she's reading, Day After Night, about the Palestinian refugee crisis just after WWII, and Michel told me a little about a plan he has for a new system of musical notation focusing less on pitch and more on color.   

I fielded a few questions myself about life at home, now that Hilary is here every day. Short answer: "Nice!" Slightly longer answer: "We often go out, either singly or together, so the days do have a different flavor, but all the same, nice!"

I'm no Chekhov, and this brief litany of subjects has precious little of that conversational buzz that arose from every corner of the house during the gathering. That's one of my favorite sounds.

This morning, the rooms are still full of flowers. There are a few bottles of unopened champagne on the kitchen counter, quite a bit of middle Eastern food from Marina Greek deli in the fridge, and a palpable residual warmth left behind by all of the beautiful people who stopped by the celebrate Hilary's retirement yesterday. 

Yes, conversation is an art, and it seems to be alive and well, at least in this small corner of the universe.   

Monday, January 11, 2016

Ivory Gull: I Should Care

Nature is mysterious. Among the more intriguing of the inexplicable phenomena it throws in our path is the movement of birds. Bird migration is not well understood, and it's even more difficult to explain why birds occasionally diverge widely from their common range. But it certainly adds to the fun.

Duluth is a year-round hot-spot for unexpected arrivals from the north. Unusual sightings from my early birding days (the late 1970s) include the sight of a wimbrel wandering in a field at a resort near Castle Danger and a parasitic Jaeger harassing gulls just offshore out on Park Point.

In recent days many visitors to Canal Park have spotted an extremely rare visitor from the Arctic: an Ivory gull. I had heard about the sightings, and I knew we were heading to the North Shore for our annual new year's ski, but I didn't put two and two together until we were half way to Duluth, and Hilary was reading an article about the bird to me from the Star-Tribune.

"We could go out and see if it's still there ...  after we pick up some sandwiches at the smoked fish shop." Of course we could!

It wasn't hard to find the bird. We pulled into the parking lot next to the marine museum and wandered over to the small clutch of people fiddling with their spotting scopes. No one seemed very excited. It was as if they were tending their children at a neighborhood park, but not paying much attention.

Two of the men were discussing lenses. Finally one of them turned to me and said, "The ivory gull is over there, on the far side of the canal. And right here, in the second lamp-post down, you can see a black-backed gull."

The ivory gull was easy to see through binoculars. It was standing all alone, mostly white, but with black blotches on the face and a few black dots on the wings.

This little bird rarely strays from Arctic ice flows, where it feeds on fish and the remains of Inuit sea mammal kills,  and has been known to harass injured polar bears.

What was it doing in Duluth?

A mangled specimen of the same species was found a few days ago on Conner's Point in Superior, just across the harbor. Perhaps it had been attacked by the rare gyrfalcon that's been spotted repeatedly in recent days, hanging out amid the nearby grain elevators. Who knows? In any case, I found it nice to imagine that two young gulls decided to take an exploratory trip to more moderate climes, rather than that a single immature gull had gotten disoriented and later found itself a long way from home.

Taking another long look at the gull, I saw traces of neither sorrow nor confusion on its face. It just looked like a little white gull, with an inscrutable gull-like expression on its face.

An ore boat was approaching the canal through the light fog.

"I'm not a birder," one of the men in the little group said. "I'm a boat-watcher. I have 2,300 images on my website." He repeated the url but it was long and I didn't catch it. 

"That boat is a mile and a half out."

"What's it doing on the lake this time of year?" I said.

"It's a Canadian ship. It's coming into port to refuel," he surprised me by saying. "Then it will head up to Two Harbors to load with ore."

He didn't mention where it would be taking the ore, but as the vessels passed by I took a few pictures and I later looked it up.

The Michipicoten (formerly the Elton Hoyt II) has an interesting history. It was built in 1952 and towed up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers to Lake Michigan. Thus it isn't as large as many of the lakers, and was less often used over the years. But it was eventually retrofitted with a diesel engine and automatic unloaders, and its smaller size made it possible for her to visit some of the smaller ports on the Great Lakes.  

In 2003 Lower Lakes Towing, a Canadian shipping company, bought the vessel and renamed it the Michipicoten, in honor of the river near where the ship is likely to sail.

I had never heard in the Michipicoten River, but notice that it flows into Lake Superior north of Sault Ste. Marie near the metropolis of Wawa, Ontario. (Other ships in the little fleet include the Cuyahoga, the Saginaw, and the Mississagi.)

As the ship entered the canal someone on the lift bridge let go a blast on the horn, and the Michipicoten responded with several of its own. All the birders had come over to the canal to watch it go by. Some people waved at members of the crew who were scurrying along the side-decks. 

It's a majestic sight, watching such a large vessel make the turn toward Superior Harbor, framed by the lift-bridge. Before it had vanished from sight, we all headed back to the parking lot. The ivory gull seemed to have flown off. In any case, everyone had gotten a good look at it.

For most of us, the allure of a rare bird sighting fades pretty fast. But one avid birder, Jim Williams, who often writes for the papers, spent five hours with the bird a few days ago, during which time it only vocalized once.

You can read his report here.

We were happy to sit in the car eating a very spicy Sitka Sushi sandwich made from wild Alaskan sockeye gravlax, with cucumber, shredded veggies, pickled ginger, cilantro, chili sauce, and wasabi mayonnaise, all stuffed into a hero roll. I was saddened to see that the rolls are smaller than they used to be. But in retrospect, I wonder if they just seemed smaller, due to the fact that we'd agreed to split one sandwich, rather than buying our own.

We gave a passing thought to heading over to the Menards in Superior, where a snowy owl had been seen hanging around the parking lot. But to tell you the truth, I don't know where the Menards in Superior is, and we were eager to get up into the woods, where the snow and the trees and the rocks combine to give you a more robust embrace.