Saturday, October 29, 2011

Off Season: Oh, Mercy, Mercy Me


When Ryerson pulled his Impala up to the gates of the cemetery it was after midnight. The place was locked up tight, and swirling snow and fog were blowing in off the lake.

It was a huge cemetery right in the middle of the city, a beautiful place for what it was, large and well-kept and overlooking the water. Ryerson remembered standing at the grave during the service and staring out across all those headstones at the sailboats that were gliding around out on the lake.

That had been late June, the week before the Fourth of July. It had been hot and clammy, and he'd felt badly hungover and queasy in one of his brother's old suits. Ryerson had thought hard and couldn't remember the last time he'd worn a suit.

There was a small gathering of people at the cemetery that day, and he had felt embarrassed and angered by the turnout. He was also puzzled by the fact that he didn't recognize a majority of the people, including a woman with two young girls. Probably, Ryerson assumed, the girls had been classmates of his daughter.

The lock on the cemetery gates was one of those security boxes with push buttons. There must have been some code. The walls on either side of the gate were high, and made of stone. He put the white stuffed bear he was holding in his arms on top of the Impala and tried to scrub the vomit from the front of his nylon parka with fistfuls of snow.

Ryerson returned to the car, turned off the lights, and sat there for a moment finishing a can of beer and listening to Ray Price.

Then, in a burst of inspiration that rose up from out of his mind's muddle, he eased the Impala up against the cemetery gate. Holding the bear in one hand, he managed to climb up onto the hood of the car. He tossed the bear over the gate and proceeded to scramble his way to the top, where there were sharp iron points that dug into his flesh. As Ryerson attempted to feel his way down the backside of the gate he lost his grip and fell halfway down to the pavement.

The cemetery was covered with deep snow. After tromping around for a time in what he thought was the general area he managed to locate the gravesite. His ex-wife’s parents had paid for the marker, and its plainness struck Ryerson as horribly inadequate.

He brushed the snow from the stone so he could see the terrible arithmetic and then stood there for a few moments until he realized that he didn't have anything to say. He propped the white bear up against a cement container of plastic flowers next to the marker and turned away.

When he reached the path and took one last backwards glance, the bear had already been entirely obscured by the fog and swirling snow.

After Ryerson left the cemetery he drove around for a couple hours, drinking the last of his beer and listening to music. The city seemed both abandoned and paralyzed. He eventually pulled off in a used car lot on Lake Street and sat there thinking for a time and then --unthinking, really-- shut off the ignition, stumbled out into the snow, and fished around in the trunk.

Just east of the freeway he found a Middle Eastern market that was still open. The place was empty with the exception of the two guys who were working; one guy was stocking shelves, the other was behind the counter.

Ryerson paced off a couple laps of the store before approaching the counter, where he removed his handgun from the pocket of his parka. He just stood there with the unloaded gun pointed at the ceiling, and there was a moment of awkward silence as he tried to remember how such things were done.

"Be a nice guy and empty the register and put the money in a bag," he finally said.

"What is this?" the counter guy said.

"A cry for help," Ryerson said.

The man bent slightly, his hands disappearing for an instant under the counter. When he stood back up he also had a gun, and he raised it --slowly and calmly, the store's video cameras would reveal-- and shot Ryerson squarely in the chest.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Unattributed Tribulation

From a series of journals recently acquired at an estate sale, and purporting --near as I can tell-- to be the notes for A Choir of Lions: The Untold War. Encompassing Nature, Metamorphosis, Static Coding, and Leisure a Thousand Times Interrupted by Disquiet in Its Myriad Disguises. Complete with Visual Explanations and Appendices on Traveling with Your Pet, Superior Fishing, and Unconventional English, as well as a Comprehensive Glossary for Pool Hustlers, Informed Digressions on Silent Film, Pharmacological Improvisation, the History of Imaginative Astronomy, and Diverse Other Subjects --"A Book, by McGill."

A trio of girls on a canoe adventure [sic]?

With what dissimulation I went to work!

Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we? We are in an empire of laws, not of men, but to the best of my knowledge no one has yet to arrive at a satisfactory answer to that first question.

Where is the star of disaster I wished upon?

Every day is the Fourth of July to the slave of shooting stars.

Pull down the evening bars and shoo the flock away.

--But, sir, there is no flock....

Cronus is now well past his prime, but his appetites remain undiminished!

I do not believe there is a means of "infallibly discovering the heart of man."

Not even the heart of the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation?

No. A thousand times no.

Etaoin Shrdlu. Poco Tiempo!

The charm of the show to me is that no one pretends to understand even in a remote degree.

Not matter, but mind. Not things, but men.

Ourselves we worship, and have no son.

The orchestra has arrived. Stop your dancing.

I'm getting ahead of my story.

We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out.

Look, ma, no hands.

[See: Ferdinand LeMothe, pool shark]

I knew what I was doing. I have no regrets and under the same circumstances I would do it again.

Any gum, chum?

All the influences were lined up waiting for me like wolves. I was born, and they were there to devour me.

NO CHAOS DAMN IT!

How much trouble one scoundrel with an abacus and a telephone can cause.

Come sweet hope from they divine retreat come...

The silence of a purple star lights up a falling sky.

Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country is doing to you.

...the number and complexity of the objects he already knows have absorbed all his strength so that any further progress must be impossible.

But words plainly force and overrule the understanding and throw all into confusion...

Chub.

So many illustrious villains!

We may perhaps learn to deprive large masses of their gravity, and give them absolute levity for the sake of easy transport.

This seems to me a very feeble wow.

A father's no shield for his child.

Invisible fence: YES!

Well, bright boy, why don't you say something?

I GIVE YOU THE MAUSOLEUM OF ALL HOPE AND DESIRE!

The ditch is nearer.

Escanaba. The Hiawatha Motel. Dog-friendly Christians.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Man Who Wins The Dog Lottery Is A Lucky Man

Four years ago today a sickly, seven-month-old stray who had already spent three stints in his short life as a ward of the Humane Society took a chance on me.

He was severely malnourished, underweight, riddled with parasites, and missing a tooth. He was not an ideal candidate for adoption, I was told; he had been labeled a loud and destructive dog, an habitual runaway, and virtually untrainable.

I was blind to these accusations. I had been making regular trips to the shelter in the hopes of finding another Siberian Husky that might fill the hole left by my beloved Willis two months earlier, but from the instant I saw Wendell (that would become his name), standing at calm attention and intently watching me bounce a ball that left every other dog in the place either indifferent or in a frenzy, I knew that he was the one.

There was, however, a hold on him. He had just been picked up yet again, a street dog and a scavenger; he was also in very poor health, and his suitability for a "conventional adoption scenario" was being evaluated.

I visited him three straight days during this probationary period, and --other than the fact that he had clearly never been on a leash-- he was always attentive, affectionate, and a perfect gentleman. I also never heard him make a peep. When I mentioned this fact to the staff I was told that he was, without question, a barker, and one of the noisier dogs presently in the shelter's care.

I'm not entirely sure why (other than that first connection, which was probably enough), but after three days I took him home to share my life. It took less than 24 hours for me to realize that I had, once again, won the dog lottery.

Wendell has now been with me through thick (lots of thick) and thin (lots of thin). He has traveled all over the U.S. and Canada with me. For many months we were in the woods of Vermont and I never had a leash on him. Whenever I can get away with it, I allow him off leash, and he never strays far from my side. He has never barked in the house, has never destroyed a single one of my possessions, let alone any of his own toys or those he inherited from his predecessor. He never had to be house trained.

He has never disappointed me. Never. Not once. And he has endured with patience --and, sometimes, almost eerie attention-- my countless lonely late night monologues, stories, filibusters, lamentations, riddles, and bursts of random madness. I have read to him from Aristotle and Wittgenstein and countless other authors who were breaking my brain and making me feel stupid. People he had loved and depended on have disappeared from his life without a trace, but I have not disappeared from his life, and for long stretches during our time together I have desired very little other than to not disappear from his life.

Wendell has kept me going during times when I otherwise did not much feel like I wanted to keep going.

He is now a healthy, happy, adventurous, and astonishingly athletic dog. I haven't yet met anybody who appears to have any clear idea what sort of dog he is --almost everyone seems to have a different guess as to his jumble of breeds-- but I have never had any doubt that he is a guide dog, a service dog, and a first-rate companion dog. And at the bottom of every day --we both live on Hong Kong time-- I tuck him into his Garden of Sweet Dreamers and promise him that I will do everything in my power to be worthy of such a tremendous blessing and responsibility.

He still gets nervous on a certain type of concrete floor, and I have concluded that such cold, slippery surfaces must remind him of his days as a shelter inmate. He is, though, always lovely to me, and he inspires waves of almost unbearable tenderness every single day. Watching him run never fails to make me happy, and watching him sleep never fails to calm me.

I've honestly never known another breathing thing with such a lust for life.

Dozens of times a day I scratch him or hold him and say nothing but, "Thank you, thank you, thank you," or "Good boy, good boy, such a good boy." Time after time I assure him that we are together as long as we breathe, and longer if there's any sort of decent place beyond this one.

And every single night before I turn out the lights I tell him, without fail, "Sweet dreams, my beautiful boy, my precious pride and joy. Tomorrow we'll try like hell to make some new magic."

If this all seems utterly daft, so be it. I am blessed to have a dog, and if I did not have a dog --if I did not have this dog-- I would be a sad excuse for a human being.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Mongoose Vs. The Cobra

Every month or so I sit down and watch the Ma Lin/Wang Hao Gold Medal table tennis match from the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

A couple years ago I paid $25 on eBay for a poor DVD bootleg of this match.

At the time of the Beijing Olympics I was entirely ignorant about table tennis, and had watched the competition with two questions foremost in my mind: "What sort of person devotes their life to table tennis?" And: "Where do these fellows get their flamboyant smocks and how can I build a collection of my own?"

To say that the Ma Lin/Wang Hao match changed my life is probably something of an overstatement, but I nonetheless can't deny that I harbor an unshakable and inexplicable obsession with this particular DVD.

I usually fast forward to the moment when, late in game one, Ma Lin takes a few steps back from the table and, smirking, fans himself dramatically with his paddle. At this point --in a match that was at the time heavily touted as "The Mongoose vs. The Cobra," the two monsters of the Chinese table tennis machine-- Ma, the older and more conservatively dressed of the two combatants, has game point on his paddle.

Wang, however, stages a couple of furious and inspired rallies, manages to battle back to 10-9, and Ma grimaces and takes a towel break.

The table looks impossibly small. It's almost as if they are playing table tennis on an air hockey table.

Towel break over, one of the television announcers observes that Wang, who with his foppishly highlighted pompadour and patterned gaudy brocaded gold-on-black smock looks like a Hong Kong action movie idol, "is definitely swimming against the tide now." There is no question that Ma has been playing with surgical precision, and he quickly finishes off game one with an 11-9 victory.

In game two, Wang again falls behind before mounting another stirring comeback. His rally falls short, however, when Ma crushes a vicious back-corner cross-spin return to finish off the stylish and feisty youngster. Ma, we are told, is the possessor of "the strongest and most feared forehand on the planet."

Wang,  finally getting into a groove with his signature Reverse Penhold Backhand, breezes to an 11-6 victory in game three, and the commentators note that the world's number one ranked player (and the sport's most flamboyant and bankable star) appears to be getting stronger as the match goes on. In game four he jumps out to a comfortable early lead only to choke it away down the stretch with flubbed shot after flubbed shot. As Ma eases into cruise control and pounces on his opponent's every mistake you can see in Wang's body language that he has lost his poise and is mentally tired. There is an almost cavalier insolence to the way he plays out the rest of the game, which Ma ultimately wins comfortably to take a three games-to-one lead.

By game five it looks like Wang has thrown in the towel, yet after Ma takes a 7-2 lead Wang makes one more aggressive and tactical charge and pulls to within 10-7. Ma, the consummate old pro, takes a strategic timeout, which effectively ices his younger opponent. As Ma clearly stalls and engages in a bit of dramatic grandstanding you can see that Wang is visibly rattled, and even seething. He mutters to himself, and paces like a panther. He shakes his hair violently, scowls, and appears to strum a few air guitar chords on his paddle. Upon resumption of the action, Wang manages one more brief rally before eventually falling 11-9 and surrendering the Gold Medal to Ma.

The commentary throughout the match is consistently wonderful and educational --we learn, for instance, that Chinese table tennis stars are inordinately pampered, are often notorious divas, and routinely have much publicized dalliances with pop stars, models, and actresses-- but there is one moment during the closing points of that final game that I find myself returning to again and again: "This would definitely be a disappointment for Wang," one of the commentators says, "but his place in Chinese table tennis is secure. The 24-year-old star is already a controversial legend in his native country, and last year he won a million-dollar casino match against Zhang Yan, an older star who was disgraced in table tennis's first doping scandal. Late in the decisive game of the match --which Wang won with ease-- he purportedly used a barber's mirror as a paddle, and paused between each point to admire himself in the mirror and make adjustments to his hair. Grandstanding, certainly, and some might say bush league, but, hey, he's still young and has brought a lot of energy to the sport." At which point the other commentator interjects, "In his defense we should probably point out that Wang comes from a long line of barbers, and he has often claimed that he played his first games with a barber's mirror."

Monday, October 10, 2011

Night Comes Down: Night Falls


Some nights you'd sit there tracking moonlight across the floor, or studying the garage roof next door as if it were a radar screen. Your mind on a very low flame, a few tired words alternately see-sawing in the silence or surfacing through the waves of static. You'd sit there barely conscious, but the moment you'd try to climb into bed and close your eyes the whole chorus would convene again with a vengeance. The woozy carnival of hypnagogia. Channel surfing long before the advent of cable television and remote control. So random, stuttering, and relentless was your consciousness in those hours that you would make an exercise of trying to isolate a particular fragment, and then attempt to concentrate your mind on the fragment's origin, trying to trace it back, if possible, to its original source. Sometimes it would be a line from a book or a television commercial, other times it might be something you'd overheard in school, or a snippet from a song or a random conversation. You would find yourself obsessing about an outrageous pair of shoes you had seen weeks earlier on a complete stranger in a grocery store.

Ultimately, towards dawn, you were always left with nothing but the barely-beating heart of the sleeping world. The ceaseless surf of even the smallest quiet town. The furnace. The pining of the clock. The world on the back burner, as close as the modern world comes to stasis: You were left with only you and what remained of the night, the retreating darkness, shadows receding on the walls, the cruel pinch of exhaustion, the terrible reality that you were going to have to sleepwalk through another lost day. What was that they were saying about what?

Eventually, every night you would reach a point where you could not fall asleep but you could nonetheless not be truly awake. You were reduced to fumbling around, grasping, in a dense and hazy subterranean no man's land, lost in the gauzy, impressionistic foothills of sleep. You would take a walk to try to resuscitate your sanity, to get clear thoughts moving again in your head. You moved in slow motion through a woozy, muslin-filtered border country, imagination and hallucination bleeding into reality. You heard what sounded like chanting. You heard the clanking of dog tags. You heard the distant tolling of a clock, and a burst of faint music sucked from a car window somewhere out in the town. You heard a baby crying, then someone laughing, retching, congested laughter. You heard a radio playing in a junkyard. You heard what sounded like a piano. You heard wind chimes twisting in a backyard somewhere. You heard the barking of a dog, answered by another, in the next block. You thought of the men across town, in the slaughterhouse, exhausted on their feet in the slippery dead mess, blood bubbled everywhere, the tangy reek of animals being broken down into meat. Some teacher would send you there from time to time to stand at the mouth of the tunnel that took the tired men to and from the slaughterhouse and out to their cars and trucks in the parking lot. You would stand there in the last of the darkness with a little collection can for UNICEF, and you would shake your can at the blood-soaked, broken-knuckled zombies as they plodded past, blank-faced and clutching their empty lunch pails, moving almost unconscious into the bruised light that was just then creeping into the eastern sky.

Somehow, though, you escaped and you got saved, and now Albert Ayler takes you across catwalks in your imagination, down fire escapes, and right out into a landscape that is both hallucination and reality, into a city that feels utterly paralyzed yet purrs the whole night through; through empty streets, past other half-dreaming houses where there are still signs of the half-life of the sleepless, glum lamplight and the blue wobble of TV screens in dark windows. You wander along a river humming with idling industry and the great under-throb of the city at three a.m., the sprawl of shadows, the litter and moonlight and longing and the great hold-out behind and beneath every heartbreak; the silence violated in myriad and mysterious ways and the compromised darkness; the way light launches little sneak attacks and cameo appearances even while a city sleeps, all the creeping, sleepless things, and still that doomed saxophone rising like a prayer somewhere in the night you can never entirely banish from your muddled brain, a wish at least, a promise, an apology, a stirring monologue, a beautiful loose thing traveling like a breathing kite from a small puddle of light cradling a park bench or an abandoned mattress.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Me When I Start Wondering About The Longest Utterance Ever Produced By A Parrot


Psittalinguistics: The Science of Talking Birds. This Being a Brief History of That Subject Along With Diverse Examples from the Archives of the Bergen Institute of Cultural Parrotology. (Third Revision of a Work in Progress.) Dedicated With Gratitude to Robert Burton.

A parrot, it has been alleged, was responsible for planting many of the more heinous perversions in the head of Tiberius, the most depraved of the Caesars, this after the bird had had read aloud to him (by a sociopathic dwarf tutor in the Caesar's employ) from an early and particularly pernicious primer in lechery. (See: A. Towson Dandridge, A Psychological Portrait of the Tyrants of Antiquity, Stanhope and Adelman, Manchester. 1949.)

We also learn, in Dr. Renata Steenblom's Unnatural Nature (University of Winnipeg, 1963), of a parrot that was allegedly capable of divining --and divulging at inopportune moments-- the innermost secrets of its mistress, including sexual fantasies of a shockingly explicit nature. The bird was notorious for regaling unsuspecting visitors with a tortuous impression of the poor woman's whinnying orgasm.

According to Fr. Xavier Empson's Curiosities of Catholicism and Marvels of Mariolotry (Eternal Image Press, Skokie, Illinois. 1957), there was, once upon a time, a parrot belonging to a tavern owner in a small village in Italy, and this bird was renowned for its ability to recite the Rosary (in Latin) in its entirety. One day, Empson recounts, the bird solemnly proclaimed, "It is the will of God, and I am but His humble servant," and promptly fell over dead.

From the pages of the children's magazine, Highlights, we learn of an unassuming insurance adjustor and confirmed bachelor in Dallas, Texas who purchased a blue-fronted parrot which, upon being installed in the man's home, was discovered to have committed a number of Faron Young songs to memory. The bird was capable of singing these songs in their entirety, and in a passable impersonation of the country legend's voice.

The annals of parrotology are full of similar wonders, from the ancient world to the modern. In a little known short story by the Russian writer, Gogol, a bird is called upon to testify in a court of law as a material witness to its master's infidelity.

There is an obscure novel, Lucifer's Bird, by a Depression-era Georgia writer by the name of Ernest Winter, which featured a talking parrot that was believed to be possessed by Satan. The bird's sinister commands and insinuations lead a God-fearing local deacon to engage in acts of depravity that shake a small southern town to its core. William Faulkner reportedly attempted a screenplay of this novel for Charles Laughton, but there is apparently no surviving evidence of this aborted project.

In the days before teleprompters, one often heard stories of Catskill comedians in their dotage who resorted to being fed their lines by parrots, which were perched on stage in full view of the audience. One such bird, Ezra, was said to be such a quick-witted master of improvisation that in time it became an actual and valued partner to the comedian Dickie Knickers. Before it eventually passed away from advanced years (the bird survived the old comedian by more than a decade), the parrot had established itself as a successful solo act --if something of a novelty-- in its own right.

The early blues musician Ishman Bracey is another performer who was alleged to have used a parrot as a prompt, often, some accounts allege, after Bracey had become so inebriated that he could no longer remember the words to his songs.

There was a minor dust-up in academia in the 1950s when a man named J. Richard Stevens published portions of his doctoral dissertation in a then reputable scholarly journal. Stevens' thesis, which was immediately and loudly discredited, was that a number of Emily Dickinson's poems had been almost literal transcriptions of the utterances of her beloved parrot, Desdemona.

In the early days of television, talking birds were often used to provide voiceover narration for cartoons, largely in an attempt to cut costs and circumvent union restrictions. The practice apparently continues --albeit somewhat clandestinely-- to this day, most prominently in the dubbing of low-budget animated films from Asia.

The debate over animal cognition, featuring Dr. Irene Pepperberg's famous gray parrot, Alex: Dr Pepperberg's pioneering studies with Alex proved conclusively that the prevailing and pejorative notion of a "bird brain," is grounded in ignorance. Many birds --parrots most particularly-- have very large brains indeed, and possess a cognitive sophistication that is as wondrous as it is little understood. Dr. Pepperberg's work with Alex is almost as important and influential as the better-known work on animal communication and referential speech that has been conducted on the great apes.

Alex's obituary from the New York Times.

The Yellow Naped parrot, the most virtuosic and versatile of the Amazonian talking parrots, can often master an impressive vocabulary of upwards of eight hundred words, and is also capable of singing, dancing, whistling, and doing uncanny impersonations of animals and household appliances.

Double Yellow Head parrots have long been recognized as accomplished opera singers, with extraordinary range. They are among the more excitable and motor-mouthed of talking birds. (See: Robert T. Nicolai, Caruso in a Cage: The Incredible True Story of Sergei, the World's Most Famous Singing Parrot, Bristol House, 1983.)

Budgerigars have been known to have vocabularies in excess of one thousand words. One such parrot, Victor, purportedly demonstrated that birds are capable of engaging in actual conversation, and was alleged to be an influential teacher and mentor to many other birds. Victor, according to its owner, presided over a de facto academy for talking birds, and a lexicon of the parrot's impressive vocabulary, along with an archive of its recordings, can be found on the Internet.

N'Kisi, a New York parrot with an almost 600-word vocabulary and psychic abilities, is purportedly capable of reading the thoughts of visitors.


There have been innumerable documented cases of talking parrots thwarting robberies, as well as engaging in espionage. 

Pretty much unrelated, but I want one: Nothing talks louder than a bird pistol, even if, strictly speaking, it does not utter a word.

Bryce Hunt, a PhD student at New York University, is compiling an exhaustive, annotated collection of talking bird samples and other recorded utterances in popular music, with an emphasis on hip hop. Hunt has been promising for six months to send me a copy of his findings to date, but I have yet to receive this research. I can attest, however, that in December of last year --in the young man's Brooklyn apartment-- I reviewed a sample introduction to Hunt's thesis and found its scholarship impressive.

Other literary examples:

Eudora Welty's, The Shoe Bird

Excerpt from John Skelton's 16th century poem, "Speke Parrot,"

Flaubert's "Un Coeur Simple." (See also: Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot)

Somewhere in the works of Balzac (and I have thus far been unable to find the source of this story, although I maintain a clear memory of it nonetheless) there is a parrot that recites "The Lord's Prayer."

There is also, of course, the foul-mouthed parrot in Errol Stanley Garner's, The Case of the Perjured Parrot.

More recently: Joe Coomer's The Loop, which features a home invasion by an elderly parrot given to cryptic utterances.

“In the seventh century, Shui Shi Tu Jing published the Book of Hydraulic Elegancies. Indeed, one continually finds descriptions of such technological wonders as mechanical flying doves, dancing apes, and talking parrots in the literatures of Islamic nations, India, China, and Greece. In fourteenth century Florence, it was none other than Filippo Brunelleschi who designed a mechanical stage to bring Paradise to life.”

--Oliver Grau, "History of Telepresence: Automata, Illusion, and Rejecting the Body."
“This defect or imperfection that stands in the way of man's communicating with animals, why isn't it as much our fault as theirs? For we don't understand them any more than they understand us.”
--Montaigne, "Apology for Raymond Sebond"
“Yet the animals are not incapable of being taught also in our way. Blackbirds, ravens, magpies, and parrots we teach to speak; and that facility with which we see them rendering their voice and breath so supple and manageable for us, to form and constrain it to a certain number of letters and syllables, testifies that they have an inward power of reason which makes them so teachable and determined to learn.”

--Montaigne, "Apology for Raymond Sebond"
“This story of the magpie, for which we have Plutarch himself as sponsor, is strange. She was in a barber's shop in Rome, and did wonders in imitating with her voice all that she heard. One day it happened that certain trumpeters stopped and blew a long time in front of this shop. After that and all the next day here was this magpie pensive, mute, and melancholy, at which everyone marveled, and thought that the sound of the trumpets had stunned and deafened her, and that her voice had been snuffed out together with her hearing. But they found in the end that it was a profound study and a withdrawal within herself, while her mind was practicing and preparing her voice to represent the sound of these trumpets; so that the first voice she used was that one, expressing perfectly their runs, pitches, and variations; and for this new acquirement she abandoned and scorned all she had learned to say before."

--Montaigne, "Apology for Raymond Sebond"
“An old Danish shipowner sat and thought of his young days and of how he had, when he was sixteen years old, spent a night in a brothel in Singapore. He had come in there with the sailors of his father's ship, and he had sat and talked with an old Chinese woman. When she heard that he was a native of a distant country she brought out an old parrot, that belonged to her. Long, long ago, she told him, the parrot had been given to her by a highborn English lover of her youth. The boy thought that the bird must then be a hundred years old. It could say various sentences in the languages of the world, picked up in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the house. But one phrase the old China-woman's lover had taught it before he sent it to her, and that she did not understand, neither had any visitor ever been able to tell her what it meant. So now for many years she had given up asking. But if the boy came from far away perhaps it was his language, and he could interpret the phrase to her.


"The boy had been deeply, strangely moved at the suggestion. When he looked at the parrot, and thought that he might hear Danish from that terrible beak, he very nearly ran out of the house. He stayed on only to do the old Chinese woman a service. But when she made the parrot speak its sentence, it turned out to be classic Greek. The bird spoke its words very slowly, and the boy knew enough Greek to recognize it; it was a verse from Sappho:


"The moon has sunk and the Pleiads,

And midnight is gone,

And the hours are passing, passing,

And I lie alone.


"The old woman, when he translated the lines to her, smacked her lips and rolled her small slanting eyes. She asked him to say it again, and nodded her head.”

--Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Hill Pilgrims


Many years ago, shortly after my arrival in this place, I discovered a hill in the middle of the city. This hill had long been a sanctuary for moonstruck teenagers, and the rocks and trees were painted and carved with the optimistic and elementary arithmetic of young love; there were charming addition equations to be found up and down the hill.

An old man who'd allegedly once traveled the world would ride his bicycle each evening to the park at the foot of the hill. The old man was in search of aluminum cans, and he would gradually make his way to a swinging bridge that hung above the stream that wound its way through the park at the bottom of a bluff. From this bridge he would sing Schubert's lieder in a striking baritone.

At dusk a procession of local teenagers would climb through the brush to make clumsy love to the old man's songs. This ritual had been a local tradition for two generations, dating back to the first days when the old man --then, of course, a much younger man-- had returned to the town from many years of traveling and hardship. The truth, though, was that no one really knew anything about the hill singer, or understood a word of his songs.

Over the years the town changed a great deal from those early days. It had grown much larger, and was now a place of immense loneliness and institutionalized trepidation. People came to the town from all over the world to suffer; the place had become an international capital of anxiety, of waiting and fretting and fear that was mulled over and expressed in myriad languages. All of this suffering, anxiety, waiting, fretting, and fear was related to the mysteries of the human body and its frequently malign secrets.

These pilgrims brought with them dark and troubling questions, and were entered into a vast lottery for answers, for which they might wait weeks, months, or years, often with little or no satisfaction. The Agency that administered the lottery had become a gargantuan bureaucracy that was plagued by inefficiency and indifference. The Agency was also alleged to be as corrupt as it was massive. The pilgrims often paid exorbitant sums simply to enter their names in the lottery, this despite the fact that it had now been many years since anyone could recall the Agency handing down anything even remotely resembling a satisfactory answer.

The squalid rooming houses and motels that had sprung up around the Agency's vast headquarters were overcrowded with desperate souls. This desperation in time led some of the pilgrims --many of them quite aged-- to venture to the hill in the middle of the town, where they, like the legion of local teenagers, would crawl through the brush and make love to the old man's songs.

Word quickly spread that these passionate excursions had an oddly consoling and salubrious effect, and soon more and more of the lottery entrants began to make the trek up the hill, and the woods and bushes were crowded each night with trysting pilgrims, their cries of equal parts anguish and passion rising like an animal chorus that lent additional poignancy to the old man's songs.

The old man, however, could not live forever, and one evening the procession of pilgrims and teenagers arrived to find only silence on the hill. For weeks a gradually diminishing number of the amorous and desperate continued to make the hopeful journey, but the old man did not return.

Whether or not it was a coincidence remains a matter of conjecture around town (many of the older residents never heard the hill singer, and to them he remains more myth than reality), but shortly after the old man's disappearance the exodus of pilgrims began, a trickle at first, and then a massive retreat. If there were to be no answers, then at least there should have been the comfort of music and unexpected passion. The rooming houses and motels were largely shuttered, and the town fell on hard times. And then, less than a year later, the Agency headquarters were destroyed in a massive fire of suspicious origin.

Those of us who remain --and there are fewer of us by the month-- find ourselves living in a city of ghosts and ruins, and the hill in the middle of town is now a neglected and seldom visited reminder of our shameful past, littered with aluminum cans, moldering condoms, hastily discarded items of clothing, and rocks painted with the most abject obscenities.

I recently noticed this bit of graffiti scrawled on one of the sheets of desecrated plywood that has been nailed over the old Agency entrance: “Here even the butterflies are slightly stooped, walk with a limp, and are going nowhere.”