De Quincey

Homer is, I think, rightly reputed to have known the virtues of opium.

–Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater

Finally the moment has arrived for me to appreciate De Quincey. I’ve waited years, I’ve namedropped him in stories, I’ve wondered what it was Borges saw in him. But I stayed away until now, when a narrative about the pathologies of addiction carries lessons I’m actually ready to taken in. Serendipity. Fate. The grinding of the great wheels.

De Quincey is a windbag. The book is blissfully short and would be shorter if not for caveats, preambles and convoluted ex-chronological asides. And I’m reading the 1821 original, not the 1856 revision where from even further illusionarily objective remove he added yet more windbaggery. Still, I now completely understand Borges’s fascination. Because De Quincey’s mind–thanks in no small part, no doubt, to the opiates–is a labyrinth.

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Perspective: The Farmer in the Dell

Remarkable how much harder it is to muster the energy to blog when I don’t have lovely images lying around to fill up extra space.

You were probably starting to feel complacent and self-satisfied because I haven’t berated you about your carbon footprint lately.

Well, here I am to put an end to that.

This gulf oil spill thing is pretty depressing, no? It has put me back into that too-familiar mindset of paranoiac dread, wondering how I can wander around in my idyllic paradise taking photos of wildflowers and smugly watching the average miles per gallon meter on my fancy new cash-for-klunkers-mobile creep past 40, while out there in the world two thousand gallons of oil per hour are spilling into the Gulf.

Let’s just put that in perspective, shall we? Every year for the past 50 years, leaking oil pipeline in Nigeria has spilled more oil than the Exxon Valdez. Every year for the past 50 years. What are they (BP, Shell, etc) doing about it? Not a lot. Why? Because it’s not happening off the southern coast of the U.S.?

Meanwhile, my sister tells me, U.S. and Canadian concerns in the mountains of Guatemala strip mine for gold using blast streams of arsenic, which contaminates the water table, making it poisonous to all forms of life. And it all just flows downriver to the sea.

Then there’s the garbage patch. The 2.8 million tons of pesticides used every year worldwide. Those de-oxygenated ocean dead zones the size of New Jersey. The 3.7 billion dollar sunscreen industry (slather on, rinse off in ocean, repeat).

One starts to wonder why there’s any water in the ocean.

The only thing that’s working on our side, the only thing that keeps me lying on my back in the grass in the backyard eating soft serve with my legs up on the picnic table thinking of whimsical names for the clouds, is the fact that the earth is still, for the moment, bigger than we are.

There’s a certain little ditty that creeps up at the back of my mind at times like these and won’t go away–it helps me to remember I’m not doing enough, even when I really, really wish I could just get the damn thing out of my head. It goes like this (sung to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell”):

We’re f@¢king up the earth
We’re f@¢king up the earth
Hi-ho the derry-o
We’re f@¢king up the earth.

Everybody!

Expatriates and Homebodies


A coati in the gardens outside Tikal.
Nasua narica

So I went to Guatemala the other week.

I don’t get to travel that often. Travel costs a lot, and my life strategy has been to spend just barely enough of my time working to keep myself alive, so as to have as much free time for writing as possible and not much else. I have heard this strategy questioned more than once exactly on the basis that it doesn’t permit me to travel. “How can you have anything to write about,” goes the conventional wisdom, “when you haven’t done anything?” My college advisor asked me that, among others. It sort of pissed me off. I’d like to give more credit than that to the imagination: sure, you can’t write compelling fiction in a vacuum, and yes, uncountable great writers spent their lives wandering the earth. But it’s a matter of how you look at the world, not what you’re looking at. Thoreau never left New England. Emily Dickinson barely left her house. There are new and unique things to see, even in things you’ve looked at a hundred thousand times.

That said, every time I do manage to abroad, I come back with ideas spilling out my ears–like what happened when I went to Yucatan. The conventional wisdom isn’t wrong, it’s just narrow. And it presupposes a certain level of financial independence, doesn’t it? Travel is hard–not just emotionally and physically (as I have well learned), but financially. So is writing. Just ask Nabokov, Lord Dunsany, or Anthony Bourdain: it’s a lot easier to bum around the world telling awesome stories when you don’t have to worry where your next meal is coming from. But nothing beats experience.

Upon returning from Guatemala, I have gained the following:

  • Exactly 25 angry red mosquito bites, mostly on my ankles, hips, and the backs of my knees, that will not f’ing go away.
  • Stomach parasites.
  • A persistent, atmospheric lightheadedness that, for a few moments before waking, makes me believe I never left. Or else that I’m entering the preliminary stages of a mushroom trip. Whether this has something to do with the aforementioned parasites, maybe in the style of those freaky bugs that alter the personality of rodents to make them more inclined to commit suicide by cat, I know not.
  • Enlightenment.

Was all of the former worth the latter? Yes.

So for a little while, this blog is going to turn into a travelogue.


A colossal ceiba tree that grows at the gate to Tikal.
Ceiba pentandra

More next week.

On Ouroboros, the Wheel, Constancy, Flux

So here we are. We know what we know. There are certain givens: time, matter, energy. We come out of them, we plod and stutter through them, we go back to them. There are also unknowns, and of these—their quantity, their breadth and scope—we haven’t got a clue. But we progress. We live. We add to the knowns. From within them, our discoveries seem vast. Yet our carvings away at the unknown, which ought to correspond in moment and consequence, after contemplation, after living, emerge as imperceptible. Death, God, Fate, Consciousness. We can be overwhelmed by these unknowns, we can proceed in spite of them, we can ignore them to our peril. We can fall back on what we know. Time, matter, energy. But more likely, more often, we fall back on what we are. Consciousness. Ephemeral, yes. Indeterminate, yes. But there. Present. A focal point of known and unknown, a pinhead upon which angels and mortals dance even though it can take them nowhere but where they are.

What is all this, exactly? I suppose it’s an argument against fear, and for striving. I look across the table, across the gulf from screen to screen, and there I find identities in the same situation, existing at the same summit of incomprehensible, familiar, unknowable, and inevitable. And sometimes I’m shocked at the far more tangible gulfs in ideology and apprehension that result from what is essentially the same. And other times I’m shocked any of us manage to communicate at all. But we’re all going to the same place: death. And we all came out of the same set of resources: matter, energy, life, the past. And we’re all trying to occupy the heads of our own pins with recourse only to those same resources. Trying to maintain equilibrium and to progress at the same time.

Sometimes I wish I could pull off my head, pull of my worldview, my set of both rational and irrational connections to life, matter, energy, the past and the unknowable, and plunk it on top of somebody else for a little while. On the other hand, the prospect of somebody, anybody, doing the same thing to me—no matter who it is, Ghandi or Dr. King or Einstein or Tesla or Marx or Erin or my father—frankly, terrifies me. I try to overcome that. I strive. Just like I take what I can get when it comes to the head-popping-off, head-hopping, etc. And I consider myself lucky, when it occurs to me to do so. And other times I hate myself, because it isn’t luck at all, it’s how you use what you’re given.

And that’s what striving is. We do what we can.

Forgive me. I realize I’ve been stating the obvious here, and just because I’m formulating it in these vague, mystical terms doesn’t make it any more meaningful. There are parts of this argument I’ve been having with myself that I can’t formulate except in my head, and occasionally, when the moment’s right, in person.

Ask me about it sometime.

Transcendental Gastronomy

What follows are Brillat-Savarin’s rules for achieving the perfect meal. As far as I’m concerned, among the poetry of the rational they ought to be considered on par with The Art of War, Ovid’s Art of Love, and the Phaedo. They open with a solemn invocation to a Muse of Eating invented on the spot, and they close with immortality—but what’s in between is the stuff of everyday, run-of-the-mill happiness.

But the impatient reader may ask, how, in this year of grace 1825, must a meal be contrived in order to combine the conditions which procure the pleasures of the table in the highest degree?

That question I am about to answer. Compose yourselves, readers, and pay attention; Gasterea inspires me, the prettiest of all the Muses; I shall be clearer than an oracle, and my precepts will go down the ages.

Let the number of guests be not more than twelve, so that the talk may be constantly general;

Let them be chosen with different occupations but similar tastes, and with such points of contact that the odious formalities of introduction can be dispensed with;

Let the dining-room be well lighted, the cloth impeccably white, and the atmosphere maintained at a temperature of from sixty to seventy degrees;

Let the men be witty without being too pretentious, and the women charming without being too coquettish;

Let the dishes be few in number, but exquisitely choice, and the wines of the first quality, each in its class;

Let the service of the former proceed from the most substantial to the lightest, and of the latter, from the mildest to the most perfumed;

Let the progress of the meal be slow, for dinner is the last business of the day; and let the guests conduct themselves like travellers due to reach their destination together;

Let the coffee be piping hot, and the liqueurs chosen by a connoisseur;

Let the drawing-room be large enough to allow a game at cards to be arranged for those who cannot do without, yet still leave space for postprandial conversations;

Let the guests be detained by the charms of the company and sustained by the hope that the evening will not pass without some further pleasure;

Let the tea be not too strong, the toast artistically buttered, and the punch mixed with proper care;

Let retirement begin not earlier than eleven o’clock, but by midnight let everyone be in bed.

Whoever has been present at a meal fulfilling all these conditions may claim to have witnessed his own apotheosis; and for each of them who which is forgotten or ignored, the guests will suffer a proportionate decrease of pleasure.

Jean-Anthelme Brillat Savarin, Physiologie du goût, ou Méditations de gastronomie transcendante

It’s hard not to notice: the man’s got an ego on him. But he’s not wrong, is he? This stuff is gold. Interpret some of these things metaphorically, the way I do, say, that line about giants in the bible, and he could really be talking about my local writing group in Noho the other week, a recent weekend with my gaming pals, a night of blissful exhaustion and bisquick pizza cooked over a propane burner on a trail somewhere under the stars, or a protracted dinner with the Homeless Moon. Some of the most rewarding experiences of my life.