Tuesday, December 31, 2013


1. The Cosmonaut

Outside his window, a yellow sliver of a moon hung upside down over the Gate. It was a dry winter, with patches of summer whenever the fog pulled back. When he was away, he longed for this room with its narrow bed. His life was simpler here and more complicated everywhere else.  

The house had been in his wife's family since the beginning of time, as she liked to remark. She was born into an old property-owning family, which had arranged their marriage. She was still beautiful, with the high cheekbones that marked its women. They had always lived apart, as was the custom once children arrived, but occasionally slept under one roof.

The area was dotted with her properties, a small part of what her family owned. The families ran everything. Like his father and grandfather before him, he served hers as an advisor, a member of the titled class that also included healers, writers, and diplomats. Their power was reflected like the moon, he thought, looking at it again. Members of his class grew up in one or another of these families, their lives arranged by mothers and aunts to thrive within the empire’s complicated networks of relation.

Because epidemics continued to disrupt life, borders were closed and travel was deliberately slowed. The families set up human and cultural exchanges to keep the gene pool from getting stagnant and maintain civilization. To facilitate this, the elite families dealt with each other in a lingua franca that rose above other languages and dialects.

This standard language was his mother tongue, although he spoke the demotic of his childhood and other tongues hed picked up along the way. Others, less obliged to mix with outsiders, learned it at school, if at all. The ambitious learned it well, angling to be absorbed into families that could elevate them and their offspring to a better class.

Like his forefathers, he had gone abroad. It was as a young student that he drew the attention of his wife and her sisters. So while their marriage was arranged, it was at her instigation. This was typical of this island of liberality, but other locales were more political, with greater formality and horse-trading involved. The property-owning classes elsewhere tended to marry their own kind, but her family dated back to the patriarchy, a descent that evoked culture and political power, and made them open to a wider-than-usual range of marriage partners.

The world may be a genetic mélange, but every titled family had its strand and the Vestals kept the rolls. The men lived for and labored at their pleasure. Real power was exercised through congeries of blood ties, a diffused matriarchy. His class moved through its layered world as “relations,” married or adopted into families. There were also serving classes, the untitled, and—beyond the frontier—the tribes and outlaws.

Now that he was back, servers came to stock his larder, make his meals, and clean the house. He wrote notes and left them for the messenger to fetch: one to his wife, one to his daughter, one to a friend, and one to the messenger himself, asking him to spread the word of his return.

The friend was part of a family of scientists and mathematicians. The women often married their collaborators, male and female, but sometimes also took up with the gifted, musicians especially. She was younger than him by half a generation. Life stretched out after the genetic basis of aging and disease was understood. The gender shift followed, with the women first resisting and then overthrowing what the men had run since agrarian days, mixing politics and religion to hold power and make a mess of things. The matriarchal families toppled these hierarchies and took over, their power both local and global—a “loose empire” formed from networks of aristocratic women and their men.

The gifted were the only free men. The titled classes were theoretically meritocratic, but background mattered; the gifted truly were. The untitled could become servers, but being gifted was the only route to a higher station for them and the dispossessed. Among the titled, to be counted as gifted was an ambition and a reward. It reflected talents cultivated by their families and honed by school and experience. Among the untitled and dispossessed, to count as gifted reflected raw talent. It was a shortcut and an apotheosis, but one could fall. The titled had their families, but the untitled only had their gifts. To preserve themselves, they had to make their mark, then find protectors or marry well. Some did neither, burning through their talent and squandering their chances. 

The gifted could direct their time toward their chosen activities. Titled men of working age had to have a profession or a trade. Titled women could have a profession or a vocation if they chose. The gifted alone were free from these impositions. Their only obligation was to perform. 

2. A Visitor 

He wrote the friend in the tongue that he had learned from her. Within elite families, sisters spoke to each other informally, and this was later shared affectionately with selected others. A shift to the standard language meant that the relationship was cooling or had ruptured.

In time, she arrived in her layered clothes, denying that anything but his note itself prompted her visit. Her speech, too, was formal. He breezed through this, talking of this or that until she warmed up, laughing and shifting the conversation bit by bit toward the language of her childhood.

"You are not the only traveler," she said. Her saying it made him realize how much time had passed. She recounted the voyage out and back, and the months with her family in its home city, arranging for her son to find a place there, to be taken in and brought along.

That part of the empire lay close to a dangerous frontier, a place of great lawlessness and patriarchy. If the son were raised there, he would likely have to deal with it. The outlaws coveted the women's wealth, so there were constant incursions. An odd place to land, he thought, but family connections trumped everything else. Without them, he would lead a stunted life in the provinces, thwarting his destiny as they saw it.

The visitor read his thoughts. "It wasn't easy for me, taking him there," she said. "He went willingly, but I worry. They value strangers, but they make them show their worth. It's not like here, insulated by geography."

"I had no choice,” she added. “Boys are hostages to fortune. He has no choice, either, if he wants to serve we intend and earn his place on the Vestals' list." She made a face. "I shouldn't care about it, but pride is my great fault. We share that trait, he and I. I pray it doesn't kill him."

She rose. " I must go. I'm sure you have many, many others to see. I was surprised to get your note, knowing your obligations. Thank you for it" He shook his head. "No, they're only just learning that I'm back, if the messenger has told them yet. If he hasn't, then I'll have a few more days of peace and quiet." She smiled. "I'm sure you're lying," she said.

What was that old Anne Carson poem? "The town of uneven love." He'd thought when he first read it that it was about the feelings between lovers, but perhaps it's about love itself. Her maxim, "We are objects in a wind that stopped," endeared her to the hard men. Would the friend's son become one? A frontier like that made you hard, he thought, no matter how you were when you started out.


Sunday, December 22, 2013


22 December 2013. My sister fell ill earlier this week, undermined by a steroid. Her underlying illness, for which the steroid was prescribed, is worrisome. Illness of someone close inevitably reminds you of your own mortality, given our penchant for self-referencing. So much for empathy! Or, more charitably, perhaps this argues that empathy is ultimately imagining the other as oneself. 

Recently, I traveled west to Singapore and Shanghai, and then east to New York City. This happened in a three-week period, with an interval here (Berkeley and San Francisco) between the two trips. I wrote briefly about the two Asian cities elsewhere (j2parman.tumblr.com) and have thought to write more, but the experience hasn't quite jelled yet. I noted that all three cities are less visibly dense than Tokyo. I was surprised how big Singapore is, in fact, and how much open space it still contains. Manhattan and Hong Kong have a rough equivalency, although the skyscrapers of Hong Kong are a more impressive sight than almost anywhere else when viewed from the water - a skyline that won't quit. Shanghai may impress in this regard, too, but it was too smogged up while I was there to see. 

When I wrote up my year-end summations (here and on another blog, berk94708.blogspot.com), I realized how much traveling I did this year. The trips were generally fairly short, although I managed 18 days or so in Europe, practically a record. Nine or 10 days are more like it: enough to get my feet wet, but not enough to get homesick and/or strung out. I don't really like living out of a suitcase, although I've mastered the art. With my odd nature, I find that I desire company, but then have to hold them at bay in order to recover from the physical drain that social interaction causes me. As I get older and more aware of how my body and psyche work, I try to calibrate this (and explain it) more carefully. 

When I look back at the year, I see certain things done and other things not. What gets done is of course a result of consistently working at it, so there are weavings and sketches, for example, but the blogs - particularly TraceSF.com - have received less attention. One of my resolutions for 2014 is to master the WordPress posting process, which I still don't understand completely. I've also asked my daughter to join the party as managing editor, hoping this will improve its rate of flow. I started a sonnet series called "The Barn Partitas" that I want to finish. I've been thinking about other kinds of writing. If I could write the way I weave, I'd be more productive, I tell myself. Make a practice of it, in other words. 

At the end of my 2013 best-of list, I thanked friends and family for making it a memorable year. I think I'm lucky in this respect, that I make friends easily and enjoy our conversations. My sense of time is such (as I've written here before) that I don't feel especially the distance of absence. On the contrary, I sort of pick up wherever we left off, the memories of those occasions regaining immediacy. It's a helpful aspect of my nature, at least to me. 

I don't think one can possess anything except momentarily. One often speaks of friends in the possessive, but friends are part of what makes life wondrous. Like everything else, ourselves included, they're part of an unfolding landscape, nothing to cling to, as the Buddhists say, but nothing is ever really lost, either, the Taoists add helpfully. When the curtain closes, it all vanishes, this world we view from our particular perspective. Or maybe not, who knows? At minimum, something else arises. 

Yet, within this, certain people stand out. It's like there's some prior tie that's still working itself out. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

2013: The List

Best hotel: The Hotel-Restaurant Arce in St. Etienne-de-Baigorry, a small town in the French Basque country. It faces a trout-stocked river, is located at the edge of a picturesque village, and is owned and run by a chef and his family, so the food is excellent.

Best building: For me, that would be Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao. I was skeptical, but it won me over immediately. It's well scaled and wonderfully located. The Serra gallery is remarkable (as is the work itself). Gehry saves the design moves for the public space and lets the galleries be galleries.

Best city: Bordeaux, much to my surprise. It's walkable, beautiful, and calmer than Paris (where I stayed in the Latin Quarter, possibly an error). I want to go back. One night, we ate at a restaurant called La Tupina that features old-style regional cuisine and was really good in all respects. 

Best museum (and/or exhibit): Not the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Serra wing notwithstanding. There was a Tapies show in the making, which might have swayed my opinion, but the show on offer wasn't very good. I loved the Drawing Center in Manhattan's Soho, a very good place to look at drawings closely. I went there last winter. But the highlight of the year was the Diebenkorn show at the de Young in SF. Not one bad painting and more than a few that were breathtaking. 

Best book(s): My reading is so slow and sporadic, but I've enjoyed two collections of literary reviews by J.M. Coetzee. I guess that "literary review" is the right term - he's writing about writers, and he does it very well. Last year, I read most of his autobiographical "Scenes from Provincial Life," also terrific. 

Best live music: The Musicians of Marlboro, a string quartet that played in Berkeley in September - a traveling circus of a group, organized to give young musicians opportunities to perform. They were amazing. If they tour near you, hear them! A perennial runner-up is Davitt Moroney, whose annotated concerts are not-to-be-missed occasions (although I sat one out last spring because I was in a bad mood).

Best recorded music: I've become a huge fan of Angela Hewitt. I listen to her "Well-Tempered Clavier" constantly, and have been slowly acquiring her other work, including Bach, Beethoven, Handel, and Haydn. 

Best magazine or journal: It's still "The London Review of Books." (I like "The Paris Review" less since the new editor took non-fiction off the table.) In (on?) design, I like "Arcade," "Architectural Review," "Architect's Journal," and "Architect's Newspaper." Special points to Christine Murray of "AJ" for her support of women in architecture. (Not great here, much worse in England.) Regarding the principal US design mags, "Architectural Record" and "Contract" are both better than they were, and "Architect" is less hobbled by its AIA connection than I expected. The English ones still have the edge (by a substantial margin) and "Architect's Newspaper," especially under Sam Lubell's West Coast editorship, is almost the only US design mag running real criticism. Much credit! (I also read "Abitare" and "Domus," both consistently very good. I'm glad to see "L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui" is still in print. Recently, I started reading "Axis" again. When I can find it, I like "A+U." There are many others that I admire but don't encounter very often.)

Best criticism: On the daily newspaper front, Michael Kimmelman is excellent and Christopher Hawthorne is often very good. There are a ton of good people writing mostly online (or that's where I read them): Alexandra Lange, Allison Arieff, Alissa Walker, Mimi Zeiger, and Fred Bernstein, for instance. On other fronts, I really miss Frank Rich's weekly political critiques. His "New York" pieces aren't as venomous and lack the excitment of the moment that makes political writing worth reading.

Best bookstore: Three-way tie: City Lights (SF), and University Press Books and William Stout Solano (Berkeley). I appreciate Pegasus, Pendragon, and Moe's (Berkeley) for being here. Others have recommended Turtle Island (Berkeley), but I still haven't been there. (The remnant sale at Serendipity was the single most depressing event I attended this year. The bookseller Peter Miller remarked that digital books may finally separate the wheat from the chaff. I hope so.)

Best object: Probably the iPad Air, because picking it up made me want to buy it. I still haven't, but not for lack of thinking about it. I used my iPhone 5 to navigate through France (with my daughter's help) and was amused by Siri's consistently midwestern pronunciation of French street names. That's a sweet object, too, the iPhone, with a good camera. (And this from a company that plans to build The Ring, another object, gargantuan, and more of a Victorian folly than a good decision.)

Best software: Procreate, a photo-collage app for the iPad. Much like the camera on my iPhone, it has liberated my artistic sense, leading to a slew of photo-collages, most of which are on my tumblr site. Runner-up: Pages, another iPad app, which is like writing on my old Olivetti Lettera. 

Best pen: I'm addicted to Pilot Precise V5 extra fines. (Sounds like a Havana cigar.) When you write with them in a notebook, they don't smudge or run. For someone with my tiny, crablike handwriting, the fineness of the line is a necessity. 

Best flight: I took United from SFO to JFK in the summer and was amazed to find a new plane and good and pleasant service. I wrote United, because it was so different than it had been with them. Was it a fluke? I don't fly often enough to know for sure. The new JAL service between SFO and Haneda (Tokyo) , while not really wonderful, is well-timed, back-and-forth, and Haneda is much closer to the city than the dreaded Narita. Subsequent to my visit to Tokyo in April, the Japanese government gave ANA the bulk of the Haneda slots, so I'm not sure if the JAL service is still being offered.

Best newspaper: A perennial tie between the "Financial Times" and "The Guardian." This year, G gets the edge for its courageous handling of the Snowden affair in the face of UK government insolence.

Best hero: Edward Snowden. Even Putin acknowledged that he did the world a favor. Obama should get with the program. Departed: Nelson Mandela, farewell. On deck: Pope Francis. Say what you will, he's a big change. Late, late, late in the game, but you have to start somewhere. 

Best heroines: Pussy Riot. The Virgin will deal with Putin soon enough. He may even realize this.

Best meal: La Tupina in Bordeaux. I had the lamb. The sight of meat roasting on the fire when you walk in seals the deal. Plus (naturally enough, since it's Bordeaux) a great wine list.

Best dressed: Kenny Caldwell. He's become my role model. Not that I've actually followed through, but it will eventually happen. I like the clothes the men wear in publications like "Monocle" and "Port," but those men are either decades younger than me or, if closer to my age, evidently mountaineering or otherwise caught up in some strenuous activity that ain't gonna happen. Kenny is closer to my reality and he generally looks great. (I don't think that bow ties will work for me, however.)

Best world news: Pussy Riot and Khodorkovsky sprung. Sochi, The Virgin, whatever - glad to see it!

Best personal news: A PSA score of 0.4, after an all-time high of 8.8 or something like that - evidence that my "summer course" of radiation in 2010, designed by my friend Patrick Swift, M.D., worked as predicted. One never knows with cancer, so I think to myself that I've been treated, not cured, but - as he explained - the odds against a recurrence are as good as they can be. I'll take it. 

Best film: I don't think I saw any this year, but I may see "American Hustle," based on the reviews.

Best thing about 2013: Going back to Singapore after an absence of 60 years was a good thing, so a bow to Anthony S.C. Teo and Richard Bender. There are so many other "best things" - new people met and wonderful times spent with friends and family across the planet. Thank you!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Diary: Two lectures and a conference

27 October 2013

On Monday, I heard a lecture by Michael Sieweke, who studies cities like New Orleans and Venice that are shaped over time by the interaction of rivers and the sea. The next night, I heard another by Manuel Castells, a polymath whose current interest is social movements that make use of the Internet to organize and mobilize. On Saturday, I went to a conference on Horst Rittel, Mel Webber, and "wicked problems"* 40 years later. 

A remark in passing by Sieweke to the effect that the current problems in the Venice lagoon (it's turning into a bay) stem from riverine interventions in the Veneto initiated by Venice in the Renaissance reminded me of the singular importance of time. Time was, curiously, mostly missing in the reconsideration of Rittel's notion of wicked problems. (Two people referenced Steward Brand's Clock of the Long Now in the Q&A, but the panelists didn't understand their questions.) The term "wicked problems" itself was questioned - Hugh Dubberly suggested "tangles" and several speakers were at pains to distinguish them from the merely complex. (One speaker noted that so-called "tame" problems are thorny in reality and may be "wicked" without our realizing it.) 

The final conference session, focused on community involvement in the planning process, brought the time issue into focus for me. The discussion hovered around fundamental disagreements about issues. Near the end of his life, Rittel proposed what he called "issue-based information systems," arguing that with community problems, intractable by nature, the best you can do is to track the debate. I think this is true - that unfolding time in fact resolves a lot of arguments, either because the protagonists get past their prejudices or because they die off and the next generation can't see what the fuss was about. 

In the second panel, Stanford's Terry Winograd asserted that we've entered the age of monstrosities, while IIT's Kim Erwin, noting the existence of huge, consequential data pools that contain inaccurate information, said that the problem with "monstrosities" like this is that no one's responsible. (She gave the example of a federal database of people with criminal records. It's estimated to be wrong 6% of the time, and the agency "responsible" won't stand by its accuracy. The current Obamacare portal screw-up and the NSA scandal suggest that "no one responsible" is how the government designs its initiatives.)

Combining these two comments, I immediately thought of Syria, which gives the West no "lever" for intervention (short of armed attack) with the exception of the poison gas removal, an old-style international action for which Assad, of all people, ends up taking responsibility. But I also thought of Castells' discussion of social movements, driven by outrage against larger entities they no longer trust: corporations, the market, and government especially.

Castells' description of social movements "horizontality" and peculiar stasis reminded me of a group process workshop (Tavistock Institute, et al) that I took in the early 1970s - a process without a task. Occupy has tasks, of course, but is studiously leaderless. Castells, who's in the midst of working out a theory, said that Occupy is the confluence of cyberspace and public space. He mentioned what he called the "space of autonomy" - by occupying public space (or any space that is nominally public but in reality controlled by others), Occupy shifts that space temporarily into the public realm, making a broader point - a symbolic point - about how constricted our space of autonomy really is. My sense is that Occupy's influence will be felt later, that it will seem much more impactful in retrospect. Some of that influence may simply be that it channeled the zeitgeist at a time when no one else was able to do so.

Another of the panelists, a Berkeley engineering professor named Eric Paulos, showed a slide of a 1984 project by Mark Weiser, "Aspen TV," that anticipated Google street view by roughly two decades. "I have dozens of examples," he told me later. What he was showing is the lag behind an idea's first appearance and its "sudden" wide currency. Rittel is like that - devoted to the Socratic method, he wrote relatively little, but has had an outsized influence over time, not always with attribution. As Michael Sieweke's Venice lagoon example shows, influence is a two-edged sword. Castells said that social movements aren't always benign, which brought the post-World War I Freikorps and Brown Shirts to mind, the genesis of the Nazi's parallel armed force. The Tea Party was asked about in the Q&A, another social movement that could go either way.

*: "Wicked problems" was defined by Rittel and Webber by a list of attributes. If I were to define it, I would say that it's a problem that can only be resolved, not solved  - that will arise again in some other form. Housing people decently is a classic example - a problem pretty much forever. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Barn Partitas

I. The Road as Lived

1. Journey 
Much that could not be written: the look back
often in company; small wonder, then,
their wariness. He scanned the long horizon:
roads sinuous and tree-lined; shrines, chapels;
terraces; cars and ferries; rooms with views—
all the possible venues that figure
when someone else is the journey’s purpose.
Can one explain the road as lived? Reason
has no answer. When questioned about it,
the I Ching gave him “Splitting Apart,” apt
and to him optimistic: things must break
so something new can gather force, appear.
“Things must”: how fate permeates the road!
And each one sees it as it is for her. 

2. Memory 
"And what would that look like?" she might have asked.
The question looks ahead, if doubtfully,
but his mind tends toward retrospect: what's formed
has taken place, associative scenes
stretching back to time’s bending point, where he
regained consciousness of self and others.
The scenes arrive like Swedenborg’s heaven:
not a great distance when they first appear
from where he is or was. The observer
in these scenes is also present,
a filmmaker’s eye, but more holistic
in what he takes in on the journey through:
green walls behind the mosquito netting;
white cotton with its narrow line of wet. 

3. Wildflowers 
"Abandon no one": this was his maxim,
not that it was believed. Love and friendship
mix badly between the sexes; they want
one or the other. He learned it slowly,
noting along the way how, unfolding,
time opens life up, makes it possible
to find the river again in that space.
And while she may only put her feet in,
there’s a glint of warmth in her eyes and voice.
All because time has turned the ground over
and those wildflowers that betrayal scorched
emerge, bloom again in a new season.
The gate is always there, the hedgerow
sometimes a wall, else more of a curtain. 

4. Here 
In one sense, visceral, then burned, scattered;
in another, each and every, imbued— 

how quickly memory attaches, grips
one's sideways glance of things, raises places
from their background status. One picks them up;
one picks up on them. Present here, one says,
telling a story that overlays death
with what lives on. I used to picture it
slipping between time's folds, a shimmering
into and out of material life.
It's not quite the Noh play I imagined.
Despite the flames and ashes, so much persists:
not just what we trash or give away, nor
what we think we see. Being here, he, too.  

5. Blue 
Did she notice him, his eyes fixed on her,
line-dancing along the periphery,
gestures toward a sky that reminded him
of the lapping Caribbean Sea, blue
with bars and shoals, the pelicans skimming?
He could picture her at home in that scene.
Would she come closer, answering his wish?
If the room emptied out, then just the two,
alone in the semi-dark, the palm fronds
swaying, imaginary though they were.
Or would he come for her, carried along
by the rising and falling of the song?
Gravely she thanked him as he left; no kiss
but only words, the kiss left unspoken. 

6. Ever 
Whatever else he might have been, he thought,
an opportunity wasn’t it. Still,
he could see why the word came up. Squandered
is how time can feel when expectations
falter. The transformation shocks us. Love
charts a path that rarely proves tenable.
Yet nothing’s lost, the I Ching added, soon
after, but after what, exactly? Words
like disaster came to mind. But was it?
There they were, as close as ever, despite
the distance on some levels. The layers
drop away, the venues change. “It may
just be this,” she told him awhile back. Yes,
it may. Our reality, he’d say. 

7. Winterreise
Sometimes only boughs are visible, near
as passersby on crowded city streets,
close enough to touch, but we hold back, fear
to touch the way we might if between the sheets.
A different season—hedgerows form a square,
hawks drift past the doorstep, the sea fog-edged—
held in the mind, this thought wards off despair,
even as the boughs bend close, winter full-fledged.
They say there are hot springs hereabouts, far
or near, I know not. Heat intuited
glimmers in consciousness like a faint star
and yet proves faithful and deeply rooted.
Somewhere in this Milky Way, steam rises.
Make for that, a traveler surmises.

("Here" is for Donald Cremers in memory of Frank Sclafani.) 

II. Encounters with Others

1. Hints 
So maybe it’s true, these charges leveled.
I could see it. My history precedes me:
a life smooth to the touch and yet beveled,
even knife-like, and sharpened to a T.
Yes, it may be true. I feel like smoking
or playing slow music in a dark room.
There may be a blue lamp, someone soaking,
barely vertical, diktat from the womb.
You know how the chorus goes, the long moan,
the short gasp. Yes, definitely like this.
I’m sure I’m guilty as charged on the phone.
(But one could also say, “An odd life, miss.”)
Imagination plays a role, a touch
of ambiguity, small hints and such. 

2. Heft 
The word from eight (the hexagram): Union.
Life has its hubs or maybe its nodes. One
finds one’s place, tries to avoid confusion.
The whole is organic after all, fun
while it lasted, you could say, a tear
welling up, but then it orbits around
the brass ring you missed might just reappear,
only golden this time, and what’s lost is found.
The whole is dramatic after all; full
of everything that leavens existence—
from bees abuzz to the massive white bull
that carried Europa north. “Resistance
is futile,” she thought, tightening her hold;
imagining its heft had made her bold. 

3. Chemistry 
Melancholic, I read: analytic
and literal. Mix sanguine in and then
you get what Hegel called dialectic.
(It can seem bipolar, now and again.)
Literal, yes, that rang a bell: a clue
why metaphors sink like lead in quicksand.
The glass, famously half empty: that’s due
to some negative universe, a band
most often playing in a minor key?
Mix sanguine in and things look much brighter.
It takes hold so quickly. The chemistry
is such that everything soon seems lighter.

When that glass fills up, claret or amber,
the bow, taken up, regains its camber. 

4. Three 
Morphine clears a path; it was requested,
he learned at the wake. The bigger friar
of the two—perhaps he was a father—
set his remarks on women and offspring:
how life’s quickening registered as joy.
(Invoking it seemed oddly apropos.)
Three generations of the female line
were noted. The eldest, recently dead,
witnessed this mutely. My theory (self-awareness
persists a bit) foundered on a body
from which all signs of life had departed.
“All used up” came to mind, admirable
in its economy of means. No doubt
that her material life lost its spark. 

5. Fork 
"Ask someone else," the woman said, turning
back to whatever it was, blocked from my sight.
In the cafés of life, I'm still learning
to distinguish a wrong move from a right.
We spoke of art as he drank his wine, art
that sometimes lived in, the remove as slight
as one remembered. Did he give a start?
Time's distance is no match for the flight
of memory. Like how I can hear you
as they must have too, your door open. "Sounds
like thunder," they might have said. If they knew,
geologic terms could have made the rounds—
seismic, perhaps, or volcanic—but then
memories fork, don't they, now and again? 

6. Neck 
Long-legged with dark slippers, tatami
cushioning the blow; hair clipped, wedding ring
a bronze band; a boyish face. Can't you see?
Her neck was how a lover views it. Sing,
oh muse, of how her back would arch, taken
dog-wise, wet from earlobes caressed, parting 
lips somewhere along the way. Mistaken
as we sometimes are, drifting, departing
all too soon, her cries echoing, leaving
marks, sheets pulled by hands grasping. Holding still
until taken, until taken, the thing
aching as it often does, taken ill.
Impatient as we sometimes are: depart
too soon, drifting, humming, living one's art.

(“Neck” is in memory of Gabriele d’Annunzio, 1863–1938.) 

III. Notes to Self

1. Somewhere 
Inside the room, inside the head: one could
write stories of such stasis: nothing goes
right or wrong; there’s neither must do nor should.
Around the desk, around the chair, life flows
like a mysterious substance. Women
came and went. The book lies upside-down, tent
of paper and board, small markings like Zen:
those koans, so hard to read, if they meant
anything to anyone else: doubtful.
Cats also came and went. A jay lands, screams.
The mind wanders in its confining skull.
Somewhere, it thinks, a woman dreams or creams.

Wake! A cloud of sanguinity draws close.
A black bee, meandering, snorts a dose. 

2. Prokofiev 
Prokofiev wasn't so very nice. 
"Like you," you might have said, eyes turned away. 
His wife, devoted, kept the flame. "The spice 
of cruelty stays with you," I heard her say, 
remembering his self-centeredness. "Tough luck 
if he was cruel; the spice of it rubbed raw 
the mind that animates the parts that fuck, 
and of course he was brilliant, as you saw." 
Your eyes turn back, then look away again—
at least they do so in my thoughts. Days pass 
between us, even weeks. Like a surgeon, 
time cuts things up: big, silent gaps, alas. 
"I light a cigarette," she said, "and touch 
the parts that ache, though by now not as much."

3. Love
I want to write out love’s true story: hearts
melded into flesh, is that how it is?
The truth of love—many scenes, many parts!
Each folds back on the other: how it is.
He takes her trembling self in hand, rocket
that she is. He’s like a match, and as dumb,
column-straight, ignition in his pocket,
then bent down at the gate, mind switched to numb.
How like a horse plowing, running blindly—

love is a field to him, love is a course.
That another's aflame, a rising sea
behind those eyes, deep in that matted source—

these facts pass like trees and houses, the road south,
the beaten path, the curve of lips, the mouth. 

4. Two
I want to write out love’s true story: talk
accompanies love, does it not? Before
and after is the rule, but sometimes you talk
throughout, albeit in single words or more,
short phrases or demands. Conversation
comes in between, those moments of cooling
after the long sprint, the respite of come,
when our beings briefly reign, no fooling,
as twin monarchs of all we survey: bed
and linen, walls, a view. For some reason
the mind is freed. Unwritten, what is said,
yet remembered, some of it—the season,
what you asked, how I felt; reality
consisting then of us, we two, only.

5. Yet
I want to write out love's true story: none
should imagine themselves safe from its wiles.
Promises are made and broken. The sun
is barely risen and we're plunged in: trials
that blaze up at some points or are subtle,
a word or two inserted: how it is.
A once-intact world becomes a muddle.
Where did it go, you ask, where went the fizz?
More to the point, where went concord, hard won?
Time counts for nothing. Years fail to add up.
Understandings fall away. The wan sun
will have set on them long before you sup.
And yet, and yet: desire pulls you in:
a flash of good humor, a look: heaven.  

Monday, May 27, 2013

Off the Road

On 19 April, I flew to Tokyo from San Francisco, launching what proved to be more than a month of travel punctuated with stopovers in Berkeley and San Francisco. Flying to Los Angeles on 21 May for a four-day trip to the fourth city in my extended itinerary, I started to miss certain aspects of here:


The view west from my bedroom window, which takes in a bit of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the coastal range extending north past Mount Tam: I never tire of it. I look out at it when wake up and just before I go to bed. My mind often climbs those hills and remembers Stinson Beach and points south.

The barn, as I call the shed in the backyard that houses many of my books, one of my two writing desks, a pair of Corbu sofas that my oldest son gave me, and decades of memories, some set down in the diaries I've kept since student days. Most of the physical evidence of my life as an editor and writer is there, too. 

The pace of ordinary life is difficult to recapture or reinstate on the road. I make an effort to work in real conversations while traveling, by which I mean those that occur open-endedly, as opposed to the purposeful transactions that, no less valuable in their specific way, make one kind of record but not another. My mind is peculiarly holographic in capturing conversations of both kinds, but the business-related ones, like work itself, accrue through repetition. They create knowledge, perhaps, rather than memories in a deeper sense. Sometimes the colleagues become friends and the subsequent conversations shift the frame. 

Elsewhere, I've described my odd relationship with time. This was much in evidence in Tokyo, where my associative memory came in handy in resuming long-interrupted friendships (like that with Minoru Takeyama, below). The best of these reflect a mutuality in that respect. The river is never the same, Heraclitus said, yet it's helpful to start "where we left off," even if there are now two young children in the room or a new dog and a new house.

It happens here, too. Urban life rations our interactions, and then there's my own solitary nature, "alone with others," as Stephen Batchelor put it. This is held against me, from time to time, but then a doorway opens up and we remember who we are, whatever our circumstances in other quarters. Urban life is both simple and complicated, as Mick Jagger might put it. We live as tradition dictates, for the most part, yet also with the fact that life is always pulling us in other directions for which the precedents are thin. Thin as ice, some might say, but perhaps also like the screens that the court women of Sei Shonagon's era (the 1100s) set out to divide space into time just long enough to unfold a bit. 

I won't speak of tsunamis here - my mind is on rivers one can cross by foot.

Saturday, May 4, 2013


4 May 2013

Daikanyama street scene.

To Tokyo and back. Ten days there was my longest stay since May 1989, my first visit. (I was briefly in the Kobe harbor as a three-year-old, quarantined with the measles.) My view of Tokyo is time-lapse or episodic, so I don't pretend to be an expert, but perhaps I qualify as an interested observer.

Tokyo felt more inwardly focused this time. Attending a big developer reception for a project whose opening I witnessed 10 years before, I was struck by the preponderance of middle-aged and older Japanese men in black suits - and the absence of foreigners and business women. At the party when the project first opened, its halls were filled with a global melange - locally-inflected, of course, but much more international in feeling, and with business and professional women in sizable numbers. I heard that the second reception, which I skipped, drew a more diverse crowd. The hotel where I stayed, in Roppongi, also had its share of foreigners, but they seemed less in evidence than I remembered from previous visits (in 2002, 2005, and 2007). 

The departure of international firms from Tokyo is odd given Tokyo's obvious urbanity. It remains the Asian hub of higher education - more leading universities per square hectare than anywhere, along with numerous others; wonderful, walkable districts like Daikanyama and Todoroki; a linked transit system that can get you practically anywhere in the metropolis; two airports, one close to the central city; and numerous transit-served urban centers that place office towers in close proximity to a range of amenities. On paper, it should be competitive - and a revival of Japan's economy would surely help. 

In reality, Tokyo was harder to navigate this time than it was six or ten years ago. Small conveniences, like Western-friendly maps in the subway telling the fares, are often missing, even in relatively big stations like Ebisu (where I saw a handwritten sign, "Roppongi 160," a response probably to hundreds of inquiries from perplexed foreigners trying to reach that popular business destination). Meeting with a team that develops an annual ranking of global cities, I said that even in the Bay Area I've personally benefited from Google Maps' transit directions and the Clipper card that lets me move seamlessly from train to tram. (If only they'd throw cabs in!). Augmented reality might take this further, overlaying what we see with the information we need to make sense of it. If San Francisco is easier now for me, a near-native, think what a difference it would make for Tokyo! Absent that software, Tokyo is less seamless than it used to be, which - along with the earthquake, tsunami, and reactor triple-whammy - may account for Singapore's rise as the new Hong Kong, making Tokyo's claim to be East Asia's leading international city ring hollow. Given a more seamless Tokyo with a less insular, patriarchal mindset, it could be a whole new ballgame. 

Shoji Hamada's studio complex in Mashiko.

Into the country
Last Saturday, following my friend Joni Waka's advice to "make hay while the sun shines," I went with him to visit a master potter at his house/studio in the countryside northeast of Tokyo. Masayuki Miyajima is in the lineage of "national treasure" Shoji Hamada, whose studio compound in Machiko we also visited. His own teacher - who worked directly with Hamada - is or was also a national treasure. Miyajima, who's married to an American potter who lives and teaches in Ohio part of the year, is lately interested in Persian motifs. I bought a bowl from him in this style. One difference between Japan and here is that a master potter in Japan can make a living - the art is valued. That makes sense given pottery's long cultural importance in Japan.

The area in which Miyajima lives is a river valley, the hillsides of which are about the same height as those that define the much-wider Napa Valley in California. It's a river valley, but the river has been dammed, pushed to one side in order to make room for and irrigate rice fields. This is a farming area, the farmhouses and their buildings organized as compounds with single main gates. Unlike here, the area is still farmed - you don't see the second homes of rich folks from the city. They have their own retreats, Joni told me.

Peter Koch's edition of Parmenides, with illustrations by Richard Wagener.

A cure for jet lag
The day after I flew back, my daughter and I went to the studio of Peter Koch, master printer and publisher of fine-art books, which in his case is as much a literary and historical exercise as pure artistry, although that's also involved. Offering us white wine and making himself a martini, Peter brought out copies of Herakleites, translated by Guy Davenport, and Parmenides, translated by Robert Bringhurst. He showed us the latter book's gorgeous woodcut illustrations by Richard Wagener and read us several of the poet-translators' versions of the fragments. Peter and my daughter have in common that they both graduated in philosophy. He charmed us both by saying, "I went to graduate school in philosophy for two weeks - long enough to realize they took it seriously." Between the fragments and the wine, my jet lag mostly dissipated, although - having slept until noon that morning - I spent a restless night digesting what I'd heard and imbibed.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


14 April 2013

Tokyo soon, a 10-day visit - my first in six years. "The lovechild of LA and Paris," I thought, when I first visited it 24 years ago. The last time, I went to the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park. It was in the summer, so very warm. The shrine is isolated from the metropolis. Several years before, I went out to Miyazaki's Ghibli Museum, which involves taking the subway and then a "cat bus" that drives along an ancient street with a tree-lined canal and detached, older houses. I'd never seen anything like it in Tokyo. In the early 1990s, staying at Ark Hills, I remember seeing an old-style house in semi-ruin, walking around the neighborhood uphill from the development. Minoru Mori for some reason often set his properties up against Buddhist temples, shifting their graveyards. Atago Hills, for example, looks down on one. I think it's good that the dead are present in a community, part of its fabric. We live in time, and the dead are part of it.

Last weekend, I threw the hexagram "Receptivity," number two, with no moving lines. This is my particular hexagram, I believe - my ability is to bring things into existence, drawing on myriad stimuli. My openness to experience is accompanied by a chronic resistance to it, I notice. This is accentuated if I arranged the thing beforehand - signed up for a concert, lecture, or panel. This reflects a nature that is drained by experience, even as I look for it. Something, too, about autonomy - a resistance to falling in with other people's agendas. Work in the formal sense demands this, but we're paid to do it. Family, too, creates comparable obligations. So there's a certain perverse luxury to ignoring obligations to self - treating them as optional. My resistance may have a slightly hedonistic root. I speculate on it because of course I'd like to feel it less.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Diary: A Visit to Key West

On the day after my birthday I flew to Miami and then drove to Key West. The old town, where I stayed, reminded me a bit of Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard, as if that Yankee outpost (as I once knew it) had been transplanted to the semitropics. The Keys stretch out, forming a curve around a bay that's bordered on the north by the Everglades. Visible along the way are the ruins of the railroad that ran from Miami to Key West, meeting a P&O boat with daily service to Cuba, 90 miles away.

My purpose, along with thawing out, was to attend the second half of the Key West Literary Seminar, now in its 31st year. The theme was "Writers on Writers" - literary biography. The speakers, including Lyndall Gordon and Colm Toibin, attracted me. They were joined by many others, a richer fare than I'd expected: Alexandra Styron, Paul Mariani, Blake Bailey, Edmund White, Claire Harman, Geoff Dyer, Ann Napolitano, Brenda Wineapple, Brad Gooch, Kate Moses, Joyce Johnson, D.T. Max, Jennie Fields, Paul Alexander, Robert Richardson, and Billy Collins.

Colm Toibin.
The opening "John Hersey Memorial Address" by Colm Toibin, "On Grief and Reason: Reading Elizabeth Bishop and Thom Gunn," included a quote from Joseph Brodsky: "Grief and reason are poison for each other." Bishop and Gunn, both of whom lost their mothers to madness or death in childhood, became friends during the time when Bishop lived in San Francisco. Her proposed epitaph, Toibin said, was, "Awful, but cheerful." She didn't have much feeling for San Francisco poets, he recounted, but the English-born Gunn was the exception. One thing they shared was their grief, which they both wrote about in a characteristically plain way, unadorned by the kind of flamboyance that death sometimes attracts.

This was on Thursday evening, 17 January. The next three days consisted of talks and panels. Blake Bailey, biographer of John Cheever, Charles Jackson, and Richard Yates, talked about the phenomenon of the depressed, alcoholic, or drug-addicted writer. This found an echo of sorts in D.T. Max's talk about David Foster Wallace and Alexandra Styron's on her father, William Styron. Ann Napolitano and Brad Gooch both discussed Flannery O'Connor, while Kate Moses and Paul Alexander paired up on Sylvia Plath. In each case, the women wrote novels about their subjects, while the men wrote biographies. (Geoff Dyer, uniquely, wrote a memoir about attempting to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence - a book that's said to be quite good on him. Dyer said later that he feels Lawrence is a far better travel writer, essayist, and critic than novelist. This could also be said of Lawrence Durrell.)

O'Connor is interesting for having led a life defined and constricted by illness - she had lupus, which caused her to retreat to her family's farm - yet also transcending it. She and Plath seemed aware of their powers and accomplishments, but Plath willed her destruction. O'Connor also resembles Emily Dickinson, as described by Lyndall Gordon in a talk that quoted her as saying that "you know a poem is good if it blows your head off." (Several people talked about Dickinson, so someone else may have quoted her.) Along with Plath, they exhibited "will" (in a Schopenhauer sense) in the face of obstacle or limitation, coupled with an abiding confidence in their work.

In her "writer's biography" of Virginia Woolf, Gordon asks what Woolf might have done next had she lived. It's a question that arises with Plath, too, whose early death in the wake of a self-seen masterpiece reminded me of the precocious photographer and suicide, Francesca Woodman. Woolf and O'Connor resemble each other in their remarkable self-discipline as writers, but Plath has this, too. The men fared worse. "An alcoholic," D.T. Max said, quoting someone from AA, "is a megalomaniac with an inferiority complex."

Max focused on Wallace's stint at Walden House, a halfway house to which Harvard remanded him after he said he might kill himself. (It was, Max said, partly a ploy to leave the philosophy department "with honor.") Wallace grew to appreciate the lives of the other residents and the plainspoken self-help advice offered by those ministering to them. Much of this found its way into the novel that was his breakthrough. (I remember reading a deeply negative review of his last, unfinished novel that wondered more or less openly if he died in the attempt to make it work. That was a definitely a theme with the men: their struggles and defeats, and the role or place of alcohol and drugs in this process. Malcolm Lowry, I once read, was only really lucid while writing, but that lucidity - for him and others - was tragically episodic.)

One of the questions raised continually in these sessions was how close, really, biography gets at the truth of the life. The novelists, the memoirists, and the biographers talked about their relationships to letters, journals, and the accounts of the writers' families and friends. The 50th anniversary of Plath's "Ariel" and her death was marked by argument among the proponents of Plath and her late husband, Ted Hughes. I learned that the "Ariel" that made Plath's name was not the manuscript she left, but an edit of it made by Hughes. He was her literary executor and heir. The "Ariel" that she left was only published in 2005. Her two missing journals may in fact be in a locked box in her archive, not yet authorized to be opened.

Someone, perhaps Claire Harman, said that biographers end up knowing their subjects better than they know themselves. But of course even the full trajectory of a life, as revealed by its traces, is a subjective journey for the biographer. Blake Bailey, commenting on a previous life of Cheever, said that the worst possibility is a biographer with a theory, intent on shaping the facts to fit the case and ignoring whatever fails to apply. He also mentioned how "the facts" vary, depending on the source, with objective evidence sometimes contradicting people's memories and those memories often in conflict. This is true in life, too, of course - how a person strikes others is immensely varied, contingent as it is, and our sense of self is equally so. Memoir is a dodgy thing, as Nabokov acknowledged (citing his sisters' presence in Nice, which he'd overlooked in the first edition of his memoir)

Alexandra Styron wrote a memoir of her father grounded partly in her own experience of him and partly in her immersion in his archive at Duke University. She said in passing that "everyone should have the opportunity to get to know their parents after they're gone." What she meant was the we need a corrective to our received opinions, whether it's acquired through time and reflection or by other means. Writing her memoir gave her back her father: like Nathaniel Kahn's film, "My Architect," a journey not so much of discovery as recovery.

Blake Bailey and Alexandra Styron.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Diary: The Quick and the Dead

13 January 2013

Late yesterday morning, a group of us convoyed to a cemetery near Berkeley for an improvised graveside tribute to the matriarch of the family and her husband. She died a year ago New Year's Day; he died more than two decades before. Poems by Blake and Yeats were read, and a piper played an Irish song and then a medley of them. Tears were shed.

The grave sits on a bluff that looks out at San Francisco Bay - a beautiful spot, actually. I was last there when my father-in-law was interred. Since that visit, many others have joined him. His immediate neighbor, Albert Gunnar Jacobson - I studied his gravestone during the Irish medley - lived to be 102, I noticed. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean names dot the landscape. These are flat gravestones, closely set. On the surrounding hillside are more conventional gravestones and the odd mausoleum.

Being there made me think of another graveyard. Three of my cousins, one of their sons, and their father are buried in the churchyard near my family's old summerhouse in Nesodden, a peninsula across from Oslo. I visit their graves whenever I stay with my family there. I like the idea of the living and the dead sharing a place. In the churchyard, a new marker - a rock, really - is added when someone in the family dies. The gravestones we visited yesterday are lined up in an orderly fashion that precludes their gathering. Perhaps especially for Irish families, this seems unfortunate. That the gravestones are close together in Nesodden may be an accident - one cousin died young, and then others followed, prematurely, but there's something about grief that wants solidarity, even among the dead.

One of my family's houses in Nesodden is situated so that the guest room at the corner coincides with a ley line. I thought that ley lines were related to electromagnetic fields, but (a visit to Wikipedia reveals) they mark a trajectory that's both topographical and spiritual. Given the location of the house, I would guess that this one aligns with the church, which in its current form dates from the 11th century, I was told. One night, sleeping in this room, I was visited by my dead cousin. I knew this in retrospect, waking with the thought that he'd left a message about his daughter for me to convey to his father. I did so, and learned from his father that I was the third person who'd approached him with a similar story, the message differing in each case. He then mentioned the ley lines, but the others weren't sleeping in the room or even in the house.

What was odd about this experience was that for a while I had a kind of clairvoyance - I don't know what else to call it. I went to visit my dead cousins in their resting place and could see at once that the cousin who had visited me was still around - his gravestone was "alive" in a way that I could see, while his brother was long gone. I guessed that his concern for his daughter, his one survivor - her older brother having died in a car crash, like her father's brother at almost the same age, kept him tied to that place.

Now that cousin's daughter is married and has two daughters - a good marriage. His widow, too, is remarried and happy. So has he moved on, finally released? I'm not sure. I slept in the same house two springs ago, but in a different room.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


6 January 2013

Yesterday, at the eye clinic at UC Berkeley, the clinician told me that I have a hereditary eye disease that will in time occlude my vision. Its effects can be mitigated, he said, and if gets too bad, it's possible to have new tissue transplanted. Seven years ago, after arranging for my first biopsy, I told a friend that I felt that I was standing in the vestibule of old age. Leaving the eye clinic, it was clear that I've moved further in, somewhere in the parlor now as opposed to those more dire rooms in the back.

Henri Cartier-Bresson later in life.
In nine days, I'll be 66. People have started asking me if I'm still working. Most of them are older than me - younger people don't think to ask. Yes, I tell them, I enjoy my work. I like being part of a studio, working on projects that stretch us and remind me why teams matter. In my own work, like this diary, I do think about the possible audience, but the real motive is self-expression. I would place polemics in this category, also, since they grow out of a personal dislike of how things went or might go. Polemics are about redress.

Virtually everything I do on my own account moves much more slowly than the work I do for others. This is a luxury I grant myself, in the way that I.M. Pei decided, at age 70, only to do what interested him. There's a gray zone between work that's purely mine and work that's nominally personal, but actually taken on owing to ties to others. That work is more like work for others, but with less clarity, sometimes, about who does what and when it's due or finished. One of my resolutions for the New Year is to avoid it. Either it truly interests me or it doesn't.

Samuel Johnson's dictum about the desirability of writing for money is true for me up to a point. That point is repetition and boredom. "Why bother?" is a legitimate question, since prospective readers are equally aware, if they're paying any attention at all, that you've said it before.

Someone posted a "heed time's flight" warning a few days ago, attributing it to the Buddha. I questioned the attribution. "Well, if he didn't, he should have," came the reply, but this seems like a misunderstanding. The Buddha is the great master of the oxymoron. Transcience is how it is, and we unfold along with everything else. Our lives are finite, time is running out, but the context in which we live is vast and interconnected. Every moment has its value, however much we might disparage it.

As I've written elsewhere, I admire the maxim of E.M. Forster and Christopher Isherwood, "Work as if immortal," which I take as closely related to Fritz Perls' admonition, "Don't push the river." It could be laziness, of course, which is where the idea of practice comes in - practice in the Buddhist sense of regularly engaging with it. Having lived almost my entire life on someone else's schedule, practice doesn't come naturally to me. This is another New Year's resolution, to acquire more of that ability.