Wednesday, September 15, 2010

We Are What We Are

Now this is more like it--from another window, drunken bellowing in Russian accompanied by garish (trust me) Russian breakables being smashed; this guy, it's almost a weekly routine with him. Ah, but that's my Brighton.

As I think about it, I have spent an inordinate deal of time and mental capital these past few days entertaining uncharitable thoughts about several elderly people I know. Granted, I've had my reasons; but I wonder whether there isn't happening inside me some reflexive action triggered by the final weeks and days and hours of Jean Valjean--specifically, by their finally maddening martyred passivity. Marius, in fury at misunderstanding (an elemental fury, Misunderstanding with a capital "M"), screaming at the dying hero through helpless tears: Why didn't you say something? Why didn't you tell me? Marius, how I sympathize with you in this scene. The dying voice: How could I? Unanswerable.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Was Here

I was prompted to write last night by the circumstance of hearing a woman scream angrily somewhere outside my kitchen window in rude and not completely comprehensible but English. Which was a strange sound to be coming from my neighborhood which is predominantly Russian. It's true, it's still summer when it's truly crowded here and tempers fray; no bars or "taverns" on the street but several nightclubs, lots of liquor, lots of louts of either sex and every nation. Drug addicts, menacing, Hummers, beggars, caviar kiosks, shop windows festooned with garlands of sausage and dried fish bouquets, panes of sunlight scattered by the elevated line, sand, sea, two Chase banks facing one another at an intersection, a Starbucks filled with teens--this completes the current picture.

I wanted to write about how Brighton Beach to Coney Island celebrated September 11th this year, a Saturday night by the sea--the answer is by dancing--under a hazy black sky; to the north, above the blocks of co-ops, the bandshell park, the New York Aquarium, the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel, were more or less distinctly visible the twin searchlight beams from Ground Zero. In front of the Russian restaurant at the end of my street, Jews who'd grown up in the Soviet Union were dancing in the middle of the boardwalk to schmaltz played on a tape machine by a guy providing live vocals (in Russian) and trumpet solos of some panache--and these sexy people in their sixties were showing off their ballroom moves, some polished, all executed with joy; one congestion-faced dancer let loose a big laughing shout from the belly on him.

I'd have liked to linger in the crowd encircling the Gulag Survivor Dancers but my sister craved a hot dog--that Indian mustard greens recipe, I should warn, even when served with pink rice from Madagascar, may not be found sufficient as a main course, even (especially?) by family members--so we were headed to Nathan's; posthaste. Just beyond the last illuminations of the Russian boardwalk restaurants, two banks of sound speakers and a DJ were blasting dance beats from beneath the concrete eaves of the resting bum shelter at a crowd that many newscasters today would describe as "sporadic," four or five couples gyrating and swaying and a little interracially grinding, in almost complete darkness, before a scattering of interested loners. Above them, looking city-ward, the two columns of light seemed at different points to have burst and leaked their substance into cloaking cloud sprays yet continued their ascent to the roof of the sky; all in silver. (It's lovely--once a year!) Maybe it was a bit seamy. We didn't linger at all here, so I can't tell.

On toward Coney Island we continued past the Russian weekend guy who sits shirtless on a particular bench facing the ocean with a portable speaker that blares execrable Russian pop music, possibly vintage, not necessarily, though, which he accompanies on his electric bass guitar. No one was dancing to his tunes. Did he resent this? I thought so. What, after all, was he doing so different from Mister Solo Trumpet up by Tatiana Grill? Uncourted, unfeted, unhired: he seemed morose. I didn't blame him.

Soon, extremely soon, if not already, we were within earshot of the greatest, the loudest, the writhing-est in the most darkness-est boardwalk dance circle on earth; just up the block and drowning the screams (no mean feat) from the Cyclone, it's The Coney Island Dancers, shattering the lower windows of the stratosphere from a gazebo flanked by a steriod-induced sound system for one full summer now. The packed crowd is in every way enormous. Hand drummers, settled in deck chairs, pound along to the amplified beat of dance classics, thankfully, and not the trance-y European sounding dreck the DJs were spinning in June and July--when I even asked some cops who were there in their little two-man Boardwalk scooter, "Isn't this breaking any laws?" They have a permit, I'm told. Who knows, maybe it was out of respect for September 11th that they turned it down a notch and played some oldies for the dancers at the hidden liquid center of the crowd and the crowd itself which sang along: "Oooh Oooh Oooh--Dance! Boogie Wonderlaa--and!" Dance, dance: from which--as from every dancing step we'd witnessed--it seemed natural to draw conclusions about New Yorkers, New York, Brooklyn...

I'm sorry--should I continue? I drifted off into how stale and tiresome actually drawing those conclusions sounded. I like Victor Hugo's addendum letter to that Italian publisher, where he's been told that Italians think Les Misérables is "about France" and he's writing to correct this once and for the globe.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Was it good.

I finished reading Les Misérables at work today. I sobbed (silently--it would have sounded more like a strange cough) when Cosette and Marius entered the room; I went through four or five sheets of the Kleenex provided in a no-name box by my employer as part of last year's anti-flu contagion campaign along with bottles of bubbly sanitizing gel and a hand-alcohol dispenser installed outside the men's room. I also used up some of the takeout napkins I keep in a pile on my desk beside my big red lucky Chinese money card. My desk--my luck--my tears; someone on the Montenegran cleaning crew tying up a bag of empty paper cups and wadded tissues.

El señor Tormenta

Last night I had to open my other pack of notebooks and start a new one for writing about reading Les Misérables at work, right in the middle of an entry that wound up too lousy to publish. (A highlight: "I'm having a three-notebook night.") Ended up watching half of Nacho Libre. Now a beautiful morning rolls past my window seat. With all the holidays this week, the train isn't crowded. But the MTA construction gangs are out in force again, just like yesterday; the long long-unreconstructed outbound platforms south of Newkirk teem with orange vests making time and a half in slow motion.

It's painful to contemplate, really: Marius, on the morning after his wedding night, meeting Jean Valjean and his confession--the confession of a virgin to a man still throbbing. The bride overflows the bridal chamber and appears dressed in pleated foam, demanding kisses. Her virgin father must oblige. Marius, Marius comma you almost looked like a villain there, you with your normal life.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I'm an Artist

I have been sublimating my anxiety and grief and fear of vertigo at the prospect of finishing Les Misérables at work next door to Ground Zero, into writing a tennis novel. Sunday night, I sat there staring at my notebook where I'd just added "sadly" until a voice inside my head said, "Hmmm." I took a break then; came back, completed and almost posted the entry; took another break; came back and posted the entry "as is" and then started writing this tennis novel. Somewhere in there I also cooked excellent Indian mustard greens for dinner and watched Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, also excellent and highly recommended.

The next day being Labor Day, I'm off work, I'm sleeping late, drinking coffee, farting around on the internet. Tennis comes on TV; I head for the Mah Jong Tiles, level 4, and I beat it in three tries, less than fifteen minutes later. Six hours to fill before I ride up to eat with my sister. I opened the notbook with the tennis novel--not quite a new notebook; there was already a half-page of notes for another novel that I guess remains not quite a ready one to write. The night before I'd made a list of names and I don't know how many paragraphs I'd written. In any case I sat down and picked up where I'd left off and I've kept going and now I've got pages and pages that take place at the US Open plus the opening lines of two sequels in this other black Moleskine notebook that's lying on the other side of me from where my cat Tippi's sleeping--no, bathing. And this other work has been so fascinating to me that I couldn't picture how I'd ever return to writing about reading Les Misérables at work until the conclusion of this year's women's tournament (at least) because how much spare time do I have, really. I have to go with the flow, where the words flow. I'm writing this tennis novel for pure pleasure--pure--pleasure--and I've got to follow that. It's kind of my law. But that doesn't mean I can just stop reading Les Misérables at work when I'm back at the grindstone peering at the grindstone's screen through the almost invisible haze of hazardous building and building and building and building and building and building and building materials being so boldly utilized by all those boys next door. Of course I'm not going to stop reading, for one thing I've made this commitment but you must know, I have no idea how Les Misérables ends and I'm dying to find out.

Dying--like everyone else, actually dying, eventually, maybe soon; this horrible thought again. I did, somewhere, read a spoiler and I know that Jean Valjean will die. I will be reading his death scene while sitting in the building with the best view of a monument to human carnage (no matter what it eventually looks like). And I, too, myself, will someday die. I don't, I really don't want Jean Valjean to die. And so, I have been sublimating my anxiety etcetera and etcetera.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Love is the only ecstasy.

I have a surprise night to myself--surprise following upon violent relief that my sister wasn't lying dead or helpless in her apartment when she didn't answer either phone for a half hour when she'd been expecting my call, but was merely napping through one and recharging the other. (I've got an hereditary tendency to worry.) We've rescheduled my coming-going to her neighborhood for dinner for tomorrow night. Again.

But this really was a surprise, this night to myself. On this long weekend, I have been deeply embedded in my own tennis fantasies and playing computer mah-jong, in no frame of mind to write, until tonight. Today I was closely engaged with the fourth and last level of free on-line Mah Jong Tiles--I defeated it once, earlier this week, and vowed then as I walked into the bathroom to step away entire. Two days later, while tennis balls popped and tennis folk brayed in the background, I was back to the first level: easy. Second one: still almost pathetically easy. The third level, hard enough to be fun: I was sorry to leave it and be back so soon in the fourth, such a laborious battle to win--as I knew full well. So I should have known better: the fact is I can't watch most of these hideous matches these days and as for tennis "broadcasts" with all the commercials please don't get me started. Yes I'll keep it on, but I'm sitting there with my back turned and my eyes busy matching disembodied mah-jong tiles for my mouse finger to click on and make go "Bung."

Sometimes my fantasy alter-ego daydreams are so vivid and uplifting that I step aside to look and wonder what they mean. Like today, some new fillip to a well-worn tale arrives that sends it blazing into new life--true, perfectly true, and even more perfect the whole now--an inspiration wrung out of headache-inducing Labor Day tennis rituals and perfectly, sadly useless. It just is. Sadly, sadly: this is what comes from watching Ana Ivanovic for even five minutes--sadly. I'm just trying to be cute! Poor girl--the uselessness of my pleasures is possibly something, but sadly is Ana Ivanovic; poor, like the Lark, Cosette in rags and wooden shoes, but with not as much crosscourt mobility. Pray: I pray for Ana Ivanovich that she has a great love and the perfect wedding night before her, too; Amen.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Laundresses of Les Misérables

A boat owned by some laundresses, Javert's body bobs up under. At reading this at work today I think I thought something like, Oh dear! I was startled. It was just--but then I kept reading, the plot so compelled me, the plot and the beauty of young love refracted through old, lovesick eyes into prism-casts of brilliant soliloquizing (I love the grandfather).

So it's not until tonight as I am sitting peacefully in my own living room that I am all at once compelled to wonder: What?

What were two laundresses doing owning a boat? (For some reason I remember it as two.) For what? Why? What did they use it for? What were they washing clothes in the Seine from a rowboat--of course not. There were shops full of vats of boiling water and lye where they worked; this is in Zola. Nana's mother was a drunken laundress, just like I might have been in her day (and others). So what's with the boat--ladies? Naturally I find its joint ownership suggestive; even unto the extreme. A shared pleasure craft, is it? Maybe with even a small sail to flutter and double as shade and triple as cover: oh dear. Or maybe, who knows by 1832 how long they've been together: two years? Ten? Twenty? Say fifteen, and say that one of them wasn't always a laundress and that they've begun to get tired of each other. How tired? Enough that they've both got other women who if they could just get them alone in that boat on a nice day, then everything afterwards would be Fine. Doors close, windows open--whatever: it's a common way of feeling. But what happens when these two long-linked laundresses keep feeling this way at the same time? Do they start to fight about that boat? They do. Why do I need your permission to go out in our boat? Why do you want to go out in our boat? Why do I need a reason? Are you going alone? Are you telling me I need a reason? Who is she? Where are you hiding her? This manner of thing become commonplace in the home, in the workplace, by the riverside, say a small crowd, mostly muddy, has gathered to hear it again. Two laundresses, fighting over their boat, their drink-cracked voices ringing true again against the stone feet of the nearby Pont-Neuf: who notices the boat's strange humping as it's rocked from beneath, or the rope anchor's tautening at an added weight that pulls? Who and how many turn from the fight to witness the emergence of something else ghastly?

Or maybe they're just two (or some) laundresses who've got a marginally lucrative and wholly platonic sideline in carp; or they're sisters. What am I, psychic? (Although I think it would have said if they were sisters. I mean, why not? Frankly, for all I know they really were doing laundry from a boat in the Seine--because they were cut-rate amateur Parisian laundresses whose customers couldn't afford to send things to the lye-shops; and their edge on their competitors is that they've got this boat so they can take your clothes out to wash in cleaner water than the rest.)

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

August 22nd Precepts

Precepts written in a notebook on August 22nd:

1. Writing well makes literacy much more useful.

2. Emulation is a cause of good writing. Envy is not.

3. Look it up.

4. Now.

5. Jealous rivalry is obsolete.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Note for the administration

Javert was born in prison. This I'd forgotten: I went back during his suicide chapter last week, to see what he did in his spare time (he read, "although he hated books") and there it was, again. His mother was a fortune-teller. As I've admitted many times, I've never read Les Misérables before, nor seen the show; beyond what I've absorbed through cultural osmosis of its contents (France, stealing bread, raggedy children, sewers) I didn't know what to expect. Spend any length of time tooling around the internet in search of useful stuff about the book, however, and questions you didn't want the answers to get answered too soon. If the teen Eponine fan sites don't tell you, something else will. Javert jumps.

Although not exactly. But first he writes a letter to his employer, the police. In criticism and reviews a phrase used to be common: "where a lesser writer would..." Has this phrase remained in circulation? This drastically Old School-sounding phrase: Where a lesser writer would have made Jean Valjean the subject of Javert's letter, the author of Les Misérables...leaps. The letter is a leap; something stratospheric is at hand, something unearthly it's so strange and fine. What can I compare it to? The final scene of Aida is close. Some Beatles songs, Norwegian Wood for instance. WWI G.I.s sending fan mail to Gertrude Stein from the trenches on account of Tender Buttons. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Albertine. Barbra Streisand. Michael Jackson's Motown Special Moonwalk: hearts everywhere leapt. Javert, himself, leaps--not into the Seine, but into his letter: each numbered point of ten a star to mark the outlines of a new constellation, The Leaping Police Spy.

This letter destroys me; I am in love with it. I weep at my desk as I read it again and again. All the observations of an all-observant life begun and passed in prisons and punishment, only: what he'd seen that still pained him; what rankled; what drove him crazy; what he'd needed, that one night, only, one of the saddest items of the ten: a fellow police spy to spell him. He'd been left too alone with Jean Valjean; he knows it. What he writes: "Thirdly: the mode of keeping track of a man with relays of police agents from distance to distance, is good, but, on important occasions, it is requisite that at least two agents should never lose sight of each other, so that, in case one agent should, for any cause, grow weak in his service, the other may supervise him and take his place." Because as it is, the police have lost both of them, Javert and Jean Valjean. One is free and the other one, having released his prey, is nothing but a dark form, there's nothing left inside this dark form that falls forward into about one o'clock in the morning, to disappear.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Ground Zero Mosque Shows Guts

Finally, new ink cartridges, $18.50 for twelve at the Fountain Pen Hospital. But because I'm soaking the nib section in cold water right now on the advice of the very competent and helpful gentleman behind the counter there, who diagnosed an ink-clog, I am having once again to use--a pen. The shop is on Warren Street. Fortunately, I can afford ink.

I have a friend who is an urban hermit. In fact, I've got two of them. Greenwich Village is their holy place, its streets and shops and rooms their map of pilgrimage and caves. Without money, maybe a little pocket change, there they go, daily. I'm not sure I agree that it's worth their devotion but naturally Greenwich Village in my latecomer's mind is not the same place that exists in theirs. They are old, both of them, deep-rooted hermits of deep faith and their holy place is Greenwich Village. I mean, I think it's very pretty and I've amassed some powerful memories there, myself, thank you. I'm happier to stay away, thank you, for the most part.

Anyway I know this one urban hermit; he's my friend; known him from church pretty well for six years now, last saw him in January when I left there. We met for dinner last night at the Waverly Diner in Greenwich Village, naturally. He hasn't changed; same things to report with different sets of words and symptoms; still very quick and funny and lovable. Still, the neighborhood claims his devotions--too much, I say, as I've just said. I only didn't say so last night because I wasn't getting into that argument again--I refer to the one about the wisdom of choosing to exist without resources in the midst of one of the most overpriced environments on earth. Partly because I get it better now--that is, rich folks being abundant and driving up prices might be a drag, but they can afford to give to charity.

Greenwich Village! Rosy birthplace of American art-hype and pretension! How could I leave you! Naturally Greenwich Village turns out to be much like anyplace else on earth and pockets full of contents are not being turned out into waiting hands, willingly, all that often. It's a hard life for an urban hermit. Looking on the bright side, though, it's a long one. Beacon Hill was similarly full of very old-time urban hermits when I lived there and 25 years later I'd be surprised to find that too many of them had left--again, willingly--were I to go back and look; which I don't want to. Been there, Beacon Hill, Greenwich Village, you name it. So many well-appointed people mixed with freaks, all yakking, yakking to each other, into cell phones, into other people's faces. It's hard, hard for a hermit to concentrate. I like it better where I live, among Russians, whose bitching I can't understand it when I hear.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Torn Coat-Tail

What I also wanted to say but didn't have time to last night because I wanted to watch a movie, is that I appreciated the strip of fabric Thenardier tore out of the coat to keep just in case, when he was robbing Marius. Because I'd read through the entire sewer passage, twice, very carefully, without catching sight therein of Marat's shroud, in any state of preservation: it had gone, while I'd been longing for a glimpse. Frustration. Would it get me down? The whiff of failure, the tinny ring of cheat--the same old conditions, normally, of my environment: would they prevail? No, they would not. Scrap for scrap, shroud to frock coat, Marat to Marius Pontmercy (Baron): I'd be satisfied enough, but the dedicated chapter title makes it feel extra special.

Thank you, Victor Hugo.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

At it again

First--well, before first: zero--of zero importance: my pen's out of ink and I'm having to use--a pen. Another pen on the train this morning. So then first, last night, it occurs to me to wonder: Where did Marius get the bread roll? Forgotten in his pocket; I couldn't remember, either. Went back and looked it up, found the purchase of a penny roll among the hours before his last time slipping through the garden rails to see Cosette. Who isn't there. So, to the barricade: the long night follows, then the fighting, the head injuries, the slash wounds on the arms, the broken collarbone, the unconsciousness. Typically, in being almost dead Marius admits of no half-measures. There's no stirring, no fluttered eyelids, no groans, no murmured names. He leaks blood; he's heavy. Jean Valjean, exhausted, reaching what must pass for a clean well-lit place in the Paris sewer system of 1832 (long before its prime), lays Marius down, rips up his own shirt, binds the wounds, gazes at Marius with "inexpressible hatred" and goes through his pockets. Along with the notebook and its directions to deliver his dead body to his grandfather's house in the Marais, is the bread roll. Which Jean Valjean eats--Jean Valjean steals bread from Marius. Then, able to, fed now, he carries Marius further; through, for instance, quicksand with raw sewage around his neck and Marius like a full tray in a crowded restaurant at both arms' length upraised.

Second, they finally reach the exit. Dusk on some unpopulated shoreline, the river Seine, safety, just beyond one iron-barred grate. But it's locked. They're going to die there. Jean Valjean lays Marius down on a little stone ledge there and collapses with his back against the grate. By good fortune: because Thenardier suddenly appears from some crook for crooks in the sewer and he's got a key but he hates Jean Valjean. Whom he fails to recognize with his back to the light. He also, just like he did with his father at Waterloo, mistakes Marius for a corpse and then robs him; but saves him.

What a great book! I remain pissed at my educators for not requiring me to read it in school--if not repeatedly, starting at an early age, then at least once would have been nice. Helpful. I've regained my equanimity. My mother tells me that she had to read Les Misérables in junior high. It was never even suggested to me that I recall; my mother wouldn't have because, she says, the story of Jean Valjean being pursued and pursued and for what, traumatized her. Was this reaction widespread? I wonder. Is that why they stopped teaching it in public schools? Maybe parents complained. I remember my father taking me to meet with my English teacher when I went crazy from reading Crime and Punishment in tenth grade. Mr. McSheffrey! I loved him. Though I don't know how Crime and Punishment slipped in there; normally he had us reading A.J. Cronin novels.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Better (Believe Me) than Beowulf

I have been a little overwhelmed by what I've read of Les Misérables at work these past two days. I cannot escape the feeling of having encountered the whole kit and caboodle in its most literal and active form. It prostrates me--somewhat unhelpfully, I'm also reading Faulkner; this afternoon, on the train, I took a further faint during the first story in Go Down, Moses when "Uncle Buddy forgot that. He was standing facing the front door and right in front of it, with the fyce right in front of him yelling fire and murder every time it could draw a new breath; he said the first he knew was when the fyce gave a shriek and whirled and Tomey's Turl was right behind it. Uncle Buck said he never even saw the door open; that the fyce just screamed once and ran between his legs and then Tomey's Turl ran right clean over him. He never even bobbled; he knocked Uncle Buck down and then caught him before he fell without even stopping, snatched him up under one arm, still running, and carried him along for about ten feet, saying, 'Look out of here, old Buck. Look out of here, old Buck,' before he threw him away and went on. By that time they couldn't even hear the fyce any more at all."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

I'm Gumby Dammit! *

I still have no adequate explanation for why I spent almost $15 at the General Store in Oyster Bay, Long Island last weekend on a Gumby and Pokey figurine set, instead of buying something useful. To repeat. Reading Les Misérables at work was supposed to be weaning me from trivialities. But there they sit, green astride orange with big eyeballs, across my living room. Gumby and Pokey: maybe also a little like how Jean Valjean is carrying Marius unconscious with a broken collarbone through the (so far rag-free) Paris sewer system. But it's a stretch. A stretch!

I remember thinking I would pose them on my desk at work, in the underutilized World Financial Center space beneath my two flat-screen computer monitors. I'll admit, I pictured the picturesque ways I put them exciting co-workers to manual interactions (always healthy). But when I yanked them out of their packaging--and I am such an ass, I'd spent extra to get the "1960's Editions"--the sad fact appeared, plain as Play-Doh: Gumbies and Pokies are not what they were. God knows what Play-Doh is now; I don't want to. Oh, all right, Wikipedia: "Its 2004 United States patent indicates it is composed of water, a starch-based binder, a retrogradation inhibitor, salt, lubricant, surfactant, preservative, hardener, humectant, fragrance, and color. A petroleum additive gives the compound a smooth feel, and borax prevents mold from developing."

Of course I had a Gumby way back when I was eating Play-Doh (always in moderation) and I think I liked my Gumby, but not that much. Or maybe it was very much indeed and I was scarred somehow--I really can't recall. I don't remember ever owning a Pokey before, either. For that matter. What is clear in my mind is that Gumby's legs would bend up to the back of his head; Gumby did backbends; Gumby could almost come to seem woven. Gumby, now, no. A disappointment; but, so far as it was mine, quite trivial**. I only pity the poor kids trying to figure out how to have fun with it, because the toy of Today is stacked against them.

* "This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by NBC Universal."
** Come to think of it, I believe I might have had a Pokey with a wire exposed.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Dying for Love

I was thinking the saddest commentary of all on femalekind was that Dian Fossey acted alone. Then I reconsidered. For who's to say that women of a thousand different races haven't left their people for another species to live with and protect? Clearly, its failure to catch on with a great many other heavily-documented white women signifies little or nothing at all.

Here I make a mental note to embed a link to a Google search for "women who fight poachers" at "protect," a task which I am in no position to perform at this moment as I am writing in a notebook with a pen. Ironically (?), my S.T. Dupont Paris fountain pen which was a gift and with which I've been writing these entries since March ran out of ink while I was writing "mental to" and I'm now on the last of the dozens of itsy-bitsy little bit of ink cartridges that were part of this marvelous gift. And it's a Friday and I'm already home so I can't get to that fountain pen store in Tribeca for new ones...quelle catastrophe!

Listen, it's hard. It's hard to plan a day trip with being away from the cats on top of all the logistics involved in making one day, back and forth, anywhere, happen--Jane Austen was very right about this--clearly requiring more and keener, less cat-centered minds than mine. Especially when there are perfectly good notebooks and (many) other pens strewn throughout the whole apartment.

I also need to remember to put a Google link for "females who fight poachers" inside something about how maybe not all the females who do so are women. Meaning, human women and thereby doing something to redeem "femalekind" in the first sentence. And also definitely not meaning that some women who do it are really transsexuals. Although some of them very well might be, if at all possible that's not what this part should say.

When I get around to typing these words to post on Reading Les Misérables at Work and I do that Google search for "women who fight poachers" for the link, I don't expect to find entries pointing to long lists. Anyway. But it's hard. What can we do? It's hard to leave the home--Cosette, still sitting in a morning dress on her bedroom windowsill, one pitched battle, with massacre, one desperate escape and one history of the Paris sewer system later: Cosette is still in the house! I feel as if I could go and see her sitting there, worried tears and joyful meditations chasing one another in her downcast eyes which seem to sparkle, from below. Typical behavior in the young female principle--and very appropriate, too. It's better for Cosette to be at home. Picture, her ex-sister, Eponine, who went out, who lost her home, is lying dead beside a pile of rocks with one breast showing. A Top Corpse in World Literature, but still.

I'll have to revise that first search, I guess. But I couldn't have been more than twenty when it seemed to me I realized I didn't have it in me to be a naturalist like I had always hoped to be. Not just because of the science studies involved--although this became the huge consideration--but really because I didn't believe I could stand to watch wild animals die all the time as a result of human stupidity. It would have made me so sad, crazy-sad. Would I have snapped and fired at poachers? Who cares? It never had the chance to happen. Now, I'm an older woman. No one needs me in a window: all those seats have been taken. I too can go out, now.

But I'm not going to no jungle with a shotgun to guard monkeys from armed men trying to kill them for their aphrodisiac properties. Yet. Mother.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Jean Valjean is in the Paris sewer system. And so is my nominee for Best Inanimate Object in World Literature: the scrap of Marat's shroud that's said (said--by anyone other than Victor Hugo? I don't know) to have been discovered hanging from a broken hinge of a long-gone grating at a mouth of the Grand Sewer--and then, once recognized (uh-huh), left in place--by Bruneseau's salutary expedition of 1805-1812. Marius is down there too but he's unconscious. The suspense I feel is very great: after thirty years of further rotting in the midst of major construction, is the scrap--the "morsel" as Isabel F. Hapgood translates it--or any part of it still there? (Morceau, it must be.) And if it is, will they see it? I'll have to be reading so carefully now!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Giant Ambani

So today at work I read a mention of a petrochemicals billionaire whose new 27-story mansion with heliports will rise in full view of one of Bombay’s largest slums; this being a Distinction because all the slums in Bombay are enormous. Tonight it occurs to me, as I’m continuing to “process" this homeowner's tale, that maybe he has it in his mind to be an Inspiration. That he’s thought it through and now he's thinking: They’ll see it and wish to become me—they’ll see it and think that it’s possible—and they will work harder and harder until some of them even get out of that slum.

So I spend another hour at home on the internet trying to get what I can on this guy and his house, which I must report that as far as I can tell isn’t finished since 2007—but I can’t really be sure because there’s nothing accurate and new enough out there about the matter. Nor can I learn enough about Mukesh Ambani’s mind to tell whether he’s thinking to Lead by Example. He appears to be somewhat ridden by his wife but that’s the one and only insight I’ve been able to glean. (And good for her, by the way!) Otherwise, zilch, more zilch, and repetitions: I’ve almost had it with Google tonight.

But the rich—right? Lording it over the rest of us! Forever and Still! Who cares what they’re thinking? Everyone knows what they’re thinking: Hey you down there! Work harder! That is exactly what is going through their minds and I don’t need to read this on the internet to know it for a fact. Because for all their flaws and blessings, the rich are just like you and me. Or me at least, judging by how often I think the same thing myself. Hey you Mister I Sit on an Overturned Bucket in Front of a Convenience Store with a Cup For a Living! Work harder! I would have built in Manhattan, though—or better yet, across the river in New Jersey, for the view. Build a dock and a private ferry line while I was at it.

Could still happen.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Beneficial Use

Is it just that I've come to dislike my addiction to internet reading? Of the kind, I mean, that I keep at, despite myself? I really hate it: trolling the columns of comments (many too short!) page after page. Watching the race wars ignite and explode from afar: I like it.

I've got a problem.

Good internet reading is reading Les Misérables at work at every opportunity and reading it again when you're through. I know this. I strive to be better but I backslide into all the multi-vocal bilge collecting under news reports on Alvin Greene. Then I pull myself up by my bootstraps real hard and far enough to wonder: What happens to my feces?

Because I've started Book 2 of the fifth and final volume of Les Misérables at work and it's all about the Paris sewer system now. The characters are off stage and it's history, it's social criticism, it's visionary, it's an intermission: it's literary architecture now, of the awe-inspiring monumental type, and the highest of pleasures to read when I can find the time which I have not been finding lately (see above). So anyway, back to me over here, one night last week I came home, sat down at my trusty home computer, and spent a couple of very enlightening hours reading about biosolids. I have to say, as a New Yorker, knowing that about 50% of what I produce goes to a good cause is kind of a lift.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Nuristan Eye Camp Team

This morning, stuck at Prospect Park station, waiting on a sick passenger to be taken away two stations on and wondering, as whenever this happens, how it doesn't happen every day. But probably it does, such a big city system. Anyhow, the procedures are not such that the sick person is slung onto the platform so as to allow the trains to keep running. Evidently. But something like this, yet kinder--obviously--seems like it would be a good procedure. On every platform, or on every train, there could be a fold-up cot and pop-out curtains to surround it; at every other station there could be a station nurse on call. The nurse could enter, diagnose, and as necessary deputize some other passengers to assist with the sick one's removal. Bonus salary points and free rides to be awarded to the swift.

Yesterday at work I came to the end of the barricade. Also the end of Grantaire, offering himself like a chair leg flung onto the fire--with absolute lucidity; utterly humble; he dies hand in hand with Apollo (or, The Man He Loves) a hero's death. The understanding of the barricade and of the house doors that will not open to the insurrectionists who finally seek escape--the understanding that their revolution did not "catch" so those inside the houses only battened down their hatches, only waited out the hours until the army, as it must, could finally storm the barricade and kill everybody left inside--the understanding that this doesn't matter, or matters so little that even a person who was drunk at the outset and slept through the climax could wake up and still know what side to be on in the end, without hesitation--and that maybe, always, the quieter side of the firing squad makes better standing: all this understanding that Victor Hugo has so painstakingly built up and conveyed to the reader, he gives to Grantaire in an instant, like a whispered cathedral. So that to read about Grantaire, even at work, could make a person more brave.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Yesterday at work Gavroche died singing while his little brothers stole their breakfast from a swan. Remember that Jean Valjean, encountering him the night before on the Rue l'Homme Arme when Gavroche delivered Marius' letter, exclaimed--comprehending--He's hungry! And of course he was hungry, always; and there had been no food inside the barricade for hours: everyone inside the barricade was hungry. Gavroche was a great spirit, a hero, a Phenomenon, everyone can see this and it's true. But Jean Valjean sees more clearly, most truly, the starving child raving in its hunger, too near death.

This morning I looked all around me at the people on the Q train who by Church Avenue or so are like one or two of everyone on earth--Tibetans, cowboys, headhunters, unmarried gay people, every rarity represented--and I felt glad or momentarily glad that my tax dollars help pay other people's way out of ignorance and poverty. Then I felt glad at being able to feel glad about that because it meant I wasn't yet as bad a person as I often sound in conversation, for instance when the topic is disability fraud or teachers' unions or obesity or why some black women read such pornographic novels on the train. On this sunny bright-colored morning I felt glad to do my part towards springing a few more grossly fat malingerers and rude sex fiends from the prisons of their lonely rooms so that here they could be, here we could all be, equally free to ride into Manhattan together.

But then I thought: We're only the lucky ones. Others remain housed, and have no freedom. Others go unseen, outside the reach of care. I can pay all the disproportionately high taxes I occasionally won't mind paying and still people mostly children in Brooklyn will lack food. We who can get up, put on clothes and walk out our front doors into public--where it is really so much more interesting to be and very often safer--for all that we complain about the work load or the lines are engaged in taking pleasures. I had to stop off in downtown Brooklyn to visit the Social Security office. The guards downstairs caught the lady in front of me bringing her breakfast along--buttered rolls in foil--and let it pass. Public offices, cool, carpeted, with rows of seats and some other guards to chat with as familiar faces drift among the novelties: for those of us who can get there, the lucky ones, another Luxembourg garden.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


By comparison with how I read normally, from a book in my hands, I am reading Les Misérables at work more like a very slow reader would be reading it; maybe someone learning to read in prison, or in childhood, or in recovery from an accident or stroke. Simply unable because I am working to consume the text the way I crave to--all-consumingly, with focused greed and both ears stoppered, adder-deaf between the heaving pages--each day I take a very little at a time: I nibble. I go back to the beginnings of chapters and re-read to where I last left off: in fact, I gnaw. As if, dropped from intelligent space, it fit right into my diet of berries and bone marrow, I'm reading Les Misérables at work like a Neanderthal woman on the go.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Irresolute Me

I've really backslid on my resolve not to read on-line at work anything other than Les Misérables. Hard to fathom, really, why it didn't get easier to resist New York Magazine, at least. I had a good moment last week, though, at the home page for the New York Review of Books where every single article and "NYR Blog" post was written by a man and the only name of a woman visible was "Emily Dickinson," featured in an article by a man writing about an event he'd read at where the other person reading, also about Emily Dickinson, was also a man. The event was at the New York Botanical Garden which is too distant for me to ever get to, seemingly, as I have never been.

To reach the NYBG: I add another resolution to the suburbs of a sprawling list. Here in the inner city of this list I'm living with the resolutions I've fulfilled. They didn't vanish, no, they don't, with their fulfillment: they get fuller, more lively, all the time more color in their cheeks and vigor in their big strong limbs. Almost they hold me captive except I choose them. Upward mobility: what might have been in the back of a mind making plans to be "better" for its own sake--I declare.

I'll write more manly: I'll say, instead, my fulfilled resolutions are my Praetorian guard and the unfulfilled, Greco to my Roman, nothing but hoi poloi. I've got my core, creaking leather and broze hinges, under command, sandals slapping the cobblestones in tandem with intent to ricochet and cause affright. Unfulfilled resolutions, scratching themselves through their underclothes, sleeping in haylofts and hollow elephants, throwing dice, haunting the doorsteps of celebrity courtesans, trolling shady public colonnades for news, news, news and spitting to the left from superstition: the big To Do, easily dealt with, going nowhere but up to no good.

Or else, or also: I am inside the barricade with my fulfilled resolutions, some of whom are tied to posts and awaiting execution as police spies (a sexual allusion). All together we demand to be perfected.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Aspects of Eponine

Eponine, significance of her: man's voice; passing resemblance to a bat; eventual cross-dressing; pride in literacy; happy childhood; pretty face; viciousness; wounds. There is so much to think about about Eponine. This past weekend I did a Google search for Eponine and found some of her fans, their outposts with photos. Because of course she is in the musical and major there: "the other woman," rival to the oh-so-ugh-too-sweet Cosette whom a certain kind of girl, a certain kind of boy, too, just rejects out of hand--Cosette the way-too-straight one. Which, I don't know: maybe it is hard to show on stage amid choruses and melting greaspaint the differences between compelling and attractive, even arresting and attractive. That the more bizarre is not necessarily more beautiful is a concept quite foreign to modern musical theater (at least). That the evils of her upbringing and her society have given Eponine a twisted heart destined to stop young, through some misadventure punctured; and that what she finally achieves of "redemption" through "love" is inseparable from the fatal harm she's tried to cause--and dies happily believing she has caused: these are aspects of Eponine that I think may not have survived intact the passage from book to Broadway. I'll have to see someday. Meanwhile I think about her and with her truest fans I blink back tears (19), walking around downtown outside work, or sitting at my desk, reading and re-reading her end, not wanting to leave that dead girl's tragic body in the dark and mire.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dolce far niente

My night so far, so sweet and idle. Listened to a neighbor practicing an oboe part in some orchestral piece I thought it might have been Tchaikovsky--which might have been the power of association acting on me living among Russians as I do. And still the night is young. I could a little later take a walk, stroll down the boardwalk to where The Beach Boys are scheduled to be playing at the bandshell as the headline act in Old Man's Band Night. Or I could sit at home and watch The Runaways (from Netflix) and eat coffee cake with it as I had planned. What do I feel like doing? I'll ask--I'll answer--at the moment, neither. Right now I feel like making marks inside a notebook with my pen, marks responsive to a speaking voice inside my head. Somewhere up above and just behind the eyes, I think, I believe it's coming from...

Have you been reading this series, Top Secret America? Dana Priest, top journalist, bar none. There I sat, at work, when I should have been reading Les Misérables, reading this series instead and receiving so clearly the picture of life in these top secret office parks that go on forever on top of what used to be farmland, where all day and night thousands and thousands and thousands of temps sit wearing headphones through which come voices of people who might be plotting to HURT US or something; along with, for instance, 45 minutes of me laughing hysterically at my sister's phone imitations of Mira Sorvino and Rabbi Schneerson.

The point being, the voice I hear as I write, the voices coming through wires into highly cleared ears--what's said is said, what matters is how it's edited. The other point being, What are those people defending down there in Top Secret America? Other than their firms and their own Life Styles? Defending the freedom to make lots of money and buy suburban houses and "vehicles" and drive to impenetrable workplaces to do unmentionable things on the taxpayer's dime--yes, I think so? Yes. They are defending a life that feels sweet to them. Now would they defend it on the barricades, to the death? The last point here being, how much, how infinitely much, it is to be hoped that they don't start to feel any need to, considering what their version of a toppled omnibus might be.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Marius left the horses behind him.

When Marius isn't there I don't miss him, or his pallor, or his honorable poverty, or his long walks and moony meanderings; Marius in love especially I do not miss. But whenever he returns to Les Misérables, poetry appears. Approaching the barricades at the Corinthe, penetrating the pitch black streets of Saint-Denis in a journey likened to entering a cellar--nothing but broken street lamps and no window candles allowed--Marius creeps street by street, guided by memory and fingertips alone, until he perceives up ahead something big, white, animate. It's the two horses that the insurrectionists have unhitched from the omnibus they've toppled for use in their barrricade. Now the horses are wandering lost among the empty streets. Marius approaches: and at this point a scene occurs that isn't in the book. It happens in the space between two paragraphs.

Marius approaches through the dark. The tall thin pale young man pauses to calm the two gigantic white horses, exchanging wordless language made of breath with them; his long hands stroke their necks and faces. One horse nuzzles his pocket, its lump of revolver, and one the black locks that stray over his forehead--Marius and his magnificent, epic, poetic, beautiful forehead walking smack into a benison shaped like a symbolist poem, complete with velvet whiskered lips invisible.

Monday, July 19, 2010


You know, at times I really wish I were the kind of person who could sit down and write 1,800 or 18,000 words about whether the internet has made me stupider. Me--or rather, everyone else and maybe me too, just a little.

Oh, you know, to be so and so easily convinced that I was doing something important, socially worthwhile, while I was working up pithy précis of the extant literature and taking such care over the data so as to achieve that perfectly circular inconclusive arrangment with every bunch of it. Happy as a cross between a rich gay florist and a clam in the deep cold salt mud, spitting after, the independent scholar-journalist, I wish I could be.

What a trip it's got to feel like! I mean to feel right and whole or wholer, righter, while opining at length; the doing and the consciousness of doing both rewarding. (Not to mention maybe even a check on delivery, or a PayPal credit, or a couple of events passes or something--I know how it works and I wouldn't be choosy like the others are.) I suppose I would be thinking, "Frankly this should come from me. I've got the answers and if I haven't got the answers I can get them and what's more I can pack them up so nice it makes you dizzy and your eyes spin. Mine might be the last words you'll ever read on the subject--" I mean, need to.

It's me I see me weighing in. Paragraphs unspool from my soft fingertips like spider webbing; here and there a trapped fact gasps. I'm leaving it all up to you, the experts, to slap the engines with your special monkey grease and keep my traffic high. My job, once you deliver the readers, is I keep that page view session long and longer ever longer. The hardest stuck will stay to fill my comments boxes...stay forever. I like I'm imbibing something enzymatic--fruity, meaty, mineral--feel rich. Hot. Creepy.

Look over here instead! It's me starting an important new paragraph. Which in addition to its personal importance is important because here is where I admit that if someone gives me a nickel for every time I make a mental note to make a Google search but in ten minutes or less I forget to so then I don't, then that will make too many nickels please. I would rather get paid every fifth lapse in quarters for laundry.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Pluckers Wanted

Tuesday I had to leave off reading Les Misérables in the middle of the insurrection, at a wine shop, in the middle of a conversation. Work had intervened. Yesterday and today I had no time to get back there. Lately I miscalculate the hours I'll have available for reading, and squander precious minutes checking headines in The New York Times: Have they capped the well yet? Has there been another bomb? A new discovery? A scandal? Like bird killing in Brooklyn. 400 Canada geese--Canada geese which I remember when they were rare and a sight to see!--transported from Prospect Park to a gas chamber. Except they haven't been frozen for serving to someone, anyone, some holiday soon, I approve; even though their bread scrap diet wouldn't have done much for their quality of flesh or flavor.

I see this as a sign--that a massive and controversial goose culling feels good--that I'm really getting older now. This vacancy relieves me, the return of stillness to a pond I haven't visited in months relaxes me; the lawns and waters, refreshed by two days of rain, must be cleaner already, and smaller species feel they've got a chance again to hear themselves think. The geese sont gone; innocent for sure yet being so many they made for a big bully. A park bully, swept off to oblivion. What kind of society gives out food stamps and then lets itself get overrun by game birds? Which when it finally kills it throws away? Back at home I surf the internet, descrying the outlines of a plan that feeds a lot of hungry people--once or twice, anyway. Not to mention those fine fat-roasted potatoes on the side.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Burial

The effort of will involved in not reading New York magazine on-line: is it beyond me? In the continuing heat am I being sapped of strengths essential to discrimination? What I've mistaken for instinct, in fact requires practice. Like writing. I feel so unappreciated. From Zane Grey, wisdom: Don't--look--back.

Have to prepare something for Bastille Day. Reading at work of the insurrection of June 1832--the barricades, the skirmishes, the character of fighting in medieval streets with antique weapons, handmade cartridges--the character of Paris, where while fighting rages in other quarters the theaters are open, restaurants serving. The people face the soldiers: the difference here, in New York, would be that the soldiers would be aliens, not from here, half-hillbilly with blank faces; we would not feel "our" army confronting us, or even "theirs" of The Authorities. Here it would feel like the rest of America's army had come to do battle against us. Best tactic: throw a whole lot of prostitutes and 20-somethings at the problem, then pick them off singly, in alleys, as they stagger away. Perhaps this is already happening. Although if it is, the pace of our victories must have slackened in the last ten years with the city grown so much more wholesome. All the babies, the brand names and big boxes, the bike lanes, the hidden cameras, the secret contingency plans and mysterious drills: chill calm on the rails during train delays when one by one the passengers diagnose, "An exercise. Making us safer."

Three hundred thousand in the streets follow the hearse that bears George Steinbrenner's coffin. Up ahead, a line of shields, boots, helmets, black visors bristles. Someone in the front ranks hurls a new model iPhone which shatters on the pavement; a shard of screen glass spins and catches sunlight, looks too much like something sparking. Incomprehensible barking blasts from an electric megaphone; TV news helicopters drop clatter into counterpoint with one last giant tandem lock and load. Short pause; then, quickly, conflagration. Or rather: one side, made up of strangers from Arkansas, pours out conflagration on the other side whose ranks are grossly swelled by people more intent upon recording it than taking up the confrontation proper. At least one hand of each busied with camerawork or typing--the loss of arms, cumulatively, fatal--the rain of responsive projectiles, more like a drizzle. General retreat impeded by ambitious bloggers who linger at the mouths of side streets to "document" the carnage. Bud Selig last seen ducked behind a double-wide McLaren stroller toppled on its side.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Something Awful

Record heat wave in New York! A vestige of royalty visits Ground Zero! Mexicans everywhere! Last week I'm on the train again, in the hot morning, waiting in an air conditioned car while another car pulls up across the platform, passes. Unjostled, my pen makes nervous aimless sour blue marks. What happened to Les Misérables? I "took a break" and started reading blogs again at work--"blogs" being "everything"--on-line magazines, first paragraphs of boring essays, books reviews, even public comments. I have fallen. Why? Just gravity? Or something mechanical? There I was, hewing to the confines of my snake hole, when someone took the soil away. Bare air, aimless pointless tepid, full of fluff and dropped apostrophes. I feel undefended from the voices of the living.

On Saturday I have dinner, out of guilt, with my downstairs neighbor, she's 83 or some years old. We go to the Mexican restaurant nearby where all the Mexicans go and I'm in a bad mood. I observe myself enduring another conversation about skin cancer. Then it's on to chimpanzees and inevitably we discuss the one in Connecticut that bit a woman's face and hands off. It occurs to me that all old people must have discussed this story repeatedly and at length. It's one they've got memorized. It's one that got through. They find significance in it. What is this significance? What are old people trying to teach us when of all the stories out there this is one they pick to tell and tell again? Do they think it was an omen? Did they detect some kind of warning in it when it happened that they're trying to get someone to heed?

I try to put myself in her shoes--their shoes--those of all the old men and women who keep the stories, the oral traditions, the gatekeepers of narrative merit and meaning who have determined that the lady, her face and her friend's chimp make the cut. With them, I nod my approval over the elements here combined: horror and bloodshed being given, there's so much more. Connecticut real estate. Enormous incisors. First responders struck faint and aghast. Echoes of "African" savagery. White women being foolish, vainglorious, brave. Diapers, drugs, red wine and comeuppance. Yes, I suppose there were many transgressions here.

I tell my neighbor, just to add to the horror, I don't really recall the details, I think the cops had a problem--but I tell my neighbor over dinner that they couldn't tell, when they saw the woman on the ground, was she human? Or another animal? My neighbor shudders. "Because without our skins we look like animals," I say. For what? Why am I being so unpleasant? Just because tejano music stinks? Because this heat wave is too hot and long? I should have asked her then, Why again with the Connecticut chimp rampage? It's like a code I'm not in on; like a key to confidences rich in meaning but slipped into my sweaty palm it's nothing but an object I can't recognize. It only puzzles and annoys me. "Oh that stupid chimp story again! What do they see in it!" It makes me mad at her.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I Heart NY

Dear People of New York: Happy Summer!!! Please don't wear open-toed shoes if you haven't got toenails.

Today at work I re-read Victor Hugo on social duty--that everything has to start with the lives of the miserable and aim at their improvement, always. A clumsy paraphrase. I sat down tonight to write a bit for here and this is what I started writing: "That was a long damn spring. Grueling weather-wise and otherwise insane. Full-blown misanthropy its legacy to me: and now no one has enough clothes on. (Either?)"

I live at the beach. I am already weary this season of seeing little black girls who've recently "developed" walking around the neighborhood, blocks away from the boardwalk, in the skimpiest of string bikinis. Shopping in the convenience store. Up on the train platform. With big tits in bikinis. I know, I know the display most probably means they've already been molested, their modesty stolen and broken in front of them; I know they don't know any better than to repeat, repeat, repeat their roles in crimes committed against their own persons. Which are sacred. They are the miserable. I recognize them from Les Misérables. In one scene that takes place on a freezing April night in 1832, Little Gavroche shivering in rags gives away his scarf-like garment to a destitute girl who's outgrown her own rags; her legs are showing. He is a hero. I'm thinking, I should start carrying t-shirts around to hand to these poor girls: Here sweetie, you should put some clothes on, here.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Muscular Prose

I am sorry. Reading The Road on the train really put me off my game so far as writing about reading Les Misérables at work is concerned. Although I had meant not to apologize or blame. But there I go. I have continued to read Les Misérables at work; at present I am deep within the Saint-Denis volume (4), among the chapters on Slang. The Road I thought was very clever in the end. It also made me cry. The reading of the writing I found deeply unenjoyable but then it wasn't done any favors by sharing my reading days with Les Misérables given that I prefer a more generous writing style anyhow. Child of God which is 35 years older than The Road I read next and liked much better. Now I keep wondering whether Cormac McCarthy believes he's improved.

I suppose he must.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

My Space

I was seriously distracted while trying to start Volume 4 of Les Misérables today on account of the young guy who's moved into the cubicle behind mine at work getting a financial product software demonstration all afternoon. One on one, from a young guy with the same--the very same--gruffed-up young guy at work voice as his--to the point it was freaky--four feet away from my head.

I'm telling you.

But I love Victor Hugo's tone for the July Monarchy and that revolution--the choice of serenity; really the choice of elaborately elevated but undeniably airborne high-mindedness. A tone above irony: beyond irony into what stratosphere? Truth? Purity? The realm of Goddess Wisdom? It's the sound of elder status attained, taken, pulled off.

Just remembered: early this morning I dreamt that I was re-reading Proust again and it was making me so happy!

Monday, May 17, 2010

I Struggle with the Modern

Watching the Mets play baseball is exactly like watching the final season of Dynasty.


This past Christmas one of the brokers we work with had a kind of Jerry Maguire moment but rather than writing something original he sent everybody copies of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. He'd seen the movie and loved it and then read the book and loved that too and he thought everyone should read it. There were copies all over the place and I ended up with one. It's the ash-gray cheap paperback movie release edition with Viggo Mortensen in ashes on the cover. I kept the book at my desk and had never thought to read it as I'd never wanted to--had planned, in fact, always to avoid it--but later it occurred to me that I ought to, seeing as how I was reading Les Misérables at work and The Road seemed to be about misery too, but modern. Last week I started it. I haven't gotten very far. First impression, coming from Brooklyn: in a depopulated world surely they could have found a Razor Scooter somewhere for that kid.

Power Point

Sunday Night Baseball: What do I need to hear about Bob Uecker? I want to hear about the baseball.

Blackening the screen, I return to writing about Les Misérables. One day last week I was trying to read one of the most exciting sections of one of the most exciting series of scenes and chapters ever written, while at work, when suddenly one of the conditions of my employment as outlined in my job description required me to leave my desk and go down to the building lobby to greet and escort some people from a foreign company upstairs to a meeting room. Previously I'd booked the meeting and the room; but when on my way to the elevator I stopped to check that the room was empty, I found it occupied. I looked through the window in the door and saw sitting around the table a bunch of guys I recognized as working here; two I knew their names. Immediately I judged this meeeting to be of no further importance and opened the door and gave them five more minutes, since it would take me that long to get back with "my" meeting's participants.

The guests waiting at the security desk downstairs proved to be three very nice Canadians (all Canadians are so nice), two men and a woman, who run a mining company in Canada, accompanied by the broker from a Canadian firm who was escorting them through their day of meetings with fund managers whom they hoped to persuade to buy their stock. If the manager buys and the company strikes gold (in this case, literally) then the value of the fund will rise with the value of the shares, putting more money into the pensions and retirement accounts whose own managers, in turn, have invested in the fund. I was about to write that brokers have a hard job; in fact all these jobs are hard, much harder than mine. But they pay very much better and I assume, having chosen mine, that they too were willingly chosen--I don't begrudge, and I usually like, the higher wage earners I meet every day. Every other person I bring upstairs for a meeting makes unimaginable magnitudes more than I do of money; so, I make other things. I'm like Marius, living poor to leave more room for contemplation--don't you see?

Anyway, back upstairs with the Canadians I've told them to dawdle in the "washrooms" in case the room still isn't vacant and in fact it's not. I end up parking them just outside, on and around a nearby credenza, and I open the door again. I see these guys I recognize, again, right by the door is one guy who's in some kind of charge here, seated around the table in shirtsleeves with their hands--there must have been six or seven even of these guys--identically holding their heads from behind in interlocked fingers, making their elbows like wings, happy as kids full of sunshine and hamburger; and then the one guy I haven't seen before, he's wearing a suit, he's standing and giving a financial product software demonstration from a laptop and projector on the pull-down screen. And he is very far from being finished. With smooth haste he continues to enumerate the range and speed of features for processes he's still only halfway through listing. The presentation, clearly, is timed to suffer fewer interruptions than it had that afternoon: the shirtsleeves I recognize burned this guy's gasoline very fiercely, cruising among show-offy digressions while he stood there for over an hour in his suit. I've got the door wide open at this point and the Canadians are widening (not rolling!) their kind eyes at the unstoppable torrent of technical jargon that's reaching us, so much like one of their nation's own numerous natural wonders I imagine. At last the shirtsleeves seem to have taken their fill and they come lumbering out in the style of their leader, a heavy lumberer, leaving ungracious tramp-marks all over the tail end of the guy's presentation while he's left to unplug his equipment; I offered but he didn't want help. Nor could I tell him that I thought he was the true professional in the room and that with the advantages of a top-tier degree and influential family connections he'd no doubt have been sitting where they were. Indeed, this would have been no sort of compliment. And I wanted to get back to my reading.

Men at work: no wonder there's so much written about them. There really is a lot of action there.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

No Such Thing as Too Much Coincidence

Today at work I realized at the very the end of the day that I had a hole in my pants. High on the inside of the left leg, up near the crotch, not visible (I asked) but big enough to be embarrassing. Don't know when it appeared; I recall that since around lunchtime I'd wondered vaguely how I'd sat in water because I felt a little chill. These pants, as I figure it, are at least 10 years old and possibly 20. Back when pants lasted I bought them. There's no replacing them now. Now that they are rags, in which I sat (unwittingly) at work and read the chapters re-introducing the now destitute Thenardiers; although that name is being withheld by Victor Hugo to protect the dignity of the novel's construction. I'm wondering: was it, is it, the wild role coincidence plays in Les Misérables that has (apparently) kept it off college syllabi? When Léon in Rouen runs into Emma and Charles at the opera, that's nicely done, classy, sophisticated. When it transpires that Marius has been living next door to and even at one point paying back rent for the Thenardiers--whom he has spent all the spare resources he has upon seeking in distant towns so he can thank the father for having saved his father at Waterloo (hah!)--and he's in love with the girl who was the child they once abused; but she's gone now, and the daughters once so favored by fortune and their mother have turned hoyden and worse, entering his small quarters in all kinds of ragged undress, arousing his pity, his aching pity--and mine, and anyone's who can read it as something other than a great comeuppance for their former cruelty, although it's that as well--when, I mean, major characters turn out to have been sharing a connecting wall (with a peek hole in it no less) inside the same dwelling where two other major characters once lived, then certain judgements might perceive a surfeit of things too improbable too neatly done, at least for serious readers.

But I don't.

Monday, May 10, 2010


Les Misérables was funny today! I was laughing at my desk at the grandfather's tirade against student protestors and at the lancer great-newphew Theodule who is a fool standing there trying to attract Marius's share of the inheritance by agreeing at every pause in the screed; to no avail. I hope! I am on the side of Marius. He fell for Cosette today and it made him hilarious.

What a great book!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

La Règle du Jeu

One day last week I was distracted from reading Les Misérables at work by the news that an angry mob was headed downtown to protest the fat cats on Wall Street. There would be a massing, I learned, at City Hall from 3:30 to 4 followed by an angry short march south. Employed as I am I couldn't get away from my desk until somewhat past five; but I was able to pass a portion of that time in reading the account of the salon to which Marius would be taken by his grandfather as a child among elders. The ultras, survivors of the Terror, refugees returned at last to live once more under a king in a Paris so changed they can barely look at it, hating the new in their old age, hating their old age in the new, up-to-date in despising Napoleon--an irony--they frighten the quiet child. There is a quality of having been unearthed about them; they avoid direct sunlight; I don't recall any mention of food. A contemporary reader draws the obvious conclusion: Anne Rice read her Victor Hugo.

And all the rest of us read her.

I felt tired on my way to the train which I was catching at Rector Street but I decided to walk a block out of my way to observe the angry mob. It seemed too good to ignore as material. Here I was trying to write every day about reading Les Misérables at work and with the revolution in progress one street up I go home to my rooms? What else was I doing a short walk from Wall Street if I didn't bear witness in the spirit of the book I now admire above all other novels?

What would I have been back then? Not an aristocrat. I start to add ", probably" but pause to lay out the rules of the game for myself. Had I come from the same sort of family I do--clergy; poor Protestant clergy--and been the same sort of unmarried woman I am, I would have been--what? A governess at best, more likely a maid. Today I am a secretary; but thanks to computers, now I can be a published writer, too! Another pause, while I take a moment to feel grateful for the labor-saving devices that took almost all the white women out of the serving class and set us in front of machines all day instead. Think: with my old drinking problem the same I might have wound up as a laundress. Dead of syphilis. Existence used to be so uniformly hard and dangerous for single women.

Although many laundresses were artists' models.

I was so glad to miss the rush hour thunderstorm today. Work was slow so I got to leave at three when it was still brilliantly sunny outside and come home and do my laundry plus all this writing. That's what's great about women: just give us another two hours and we can accomplish anything.

There were any number of women of all races in the Wall Street neighborhood that afternoon walking singly towards train entrances in office clothes. Otherwise, the streets were filled from side to side with New York City Police officers, police cars, police barriers, police motorcycles, possibly horses, and police emergency vehicles of every sort except the nice fancy ones that they save for the movies and certain parades. Everything but the best for this angry mob, might have been the message here. Naturally I didn't have my camera with me otherwise I could just be saying See Below for what it looks like in the city these days when an angry mob is expected. It's grim. There is very little space for mob activity. A narrow corridor between crowd control barriers from the sidewalk halfway to the middle of the street is what you get, it's really only suitable for steady walking; no one from outside is going to leap the barricade and join.

And this angry mob was exclusive. The unions, swelling out lettered t-shirts identifying their brotherhoods; rough faces, crude laughter, uncouth midsections; plus a couple of short gray haired lady teachers with gigantic rear ends who were limping past when I arrived--one of them was shouldering a sign that read Greed Is Bad which coming from a teachers' union member I liked--and frankly it looked just like Gangs of New York except that the gangs were being ravaged by middle age instead of by club-wielding enemies. That they were being paid to be there was very much the same, however.

Paid mobs: would I have been part of one? If I'd turned "laundress," probably; but if I'd kept it together, I mean, could you ever have found me where money changed hands and mobs were made? No: and why not? Because I would have been too busy working! What would I have been? I can tell you. Coming back from the shops at five o'clock because the new cook forgot to order the peacocks' tongues so it's an emergency; but a mob soldiers crowds are blocking the streets and keeping me from rushing home.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Have started reading Marius, Volume 3 of Les Misérables, at work. It starts with a many-page pean to the street boys of Paris--to the gamin--and then comes a particular boy: not Marius. But the boy "lives" or more properly his unloving parents do in a chamber in a lodging house (the same one Jean Valjean fled with Cosette when Javert got on their trail) next to Marius' chamber. So, then, meet Marius--but not yet. Next comes an old man, over ninety, comfortable, well-housed, in health, with all his teeth, a happy old bourgeois with many, many women in his past. And Marius? A young gentleman and very poor, so far this is all I know.

Where do all these people come from? There are so many, the primary characters have to shove their way through from the back of a crowd--it's always open mic night at Victor Hugo's writing desk, all day and every night somebody new spouting off, showing his flea bites, her mended stockings. Boys in the rafters make rude sounds at the old men on the stage; during the boys' acts the old men talk loudly, clatter and groan back and forth to the men's room, even snore. A warm, sour, semen-y pocket of space expands between the old men and the boys; encompassed by the mutual amusement which they take compulsively in watching (watching women, not alone); a hollow, safe, hidden place in the upper to middle air of the dusky theater, from which a clean man, without possessions, will emerge. And this I suppose will be Marius.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Monday Night

Last night, I write a little something not for publication, as the rain pours down outside into the courtyard making sticky smacky hollow sounds; and the rescusitated radiator heats my bedroom to the very point where sultriness parts ways with comfort; and the train doors at the elevated platform down the block chime, in passing, to conclude recorded messages whose firm white words for once are muffled by the gurgling in between; and upstairs Russians watch a program scored to highlight danger and excitement and suspense; and cats move about my bed or pace purposefully across that squeaky floorboard, drawing looks; and again I check the bedside clock against too late a bedtime--and there's still time: I write the word, Desire.

Why did I want to? As a way to make it end? As if to name were to dispel the meaning of the word and make dead weight: Desire: I've bagged it. Or else I wrote to leave this mark: How far I've climbed across this glacier! From this point I'm starting now and don't return below it--like a ledge on which I camp, half-dangling, and regard the view through noisy handfuls of trail mix. Desire: A lightless view of emptiness and rain; I watch the pewter-colored cloudbursts of my breathing pour away. I decide that I don't need to take an Advil, and that I will sleep, as I used to, in the nude.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Friday Morning

I will never have a child or children of my own, never bear a single one, that is, myself. I sit here trying to pull together strings of words with which I might elucidate these facts--but there is somebody on this morning train playing a harmonica.

At first you think it's a little kid--who're you kidding, a little boy--spoiled and whiny or a deeper problem child; maybe he's had a loss and the harmonica bestowed as pacifier and consolation (though pacifiers are consolations, I suppose--indifferent ones), a harmonica to shape and regulate his broken calm, his teary breathing: in-out-in-out.

But it's too tuneful. Little kids don't play their pacifiers that well. But it's also not a tune--it's not becoming anything you know or recognize, this almost purely rhythmic refrain with minor top notes. Private tootling in a public place: so it's an exhibitionist guy, or a mental patient guy: it's Brooklyn, both are numerous. Somebody playing lonesome hobo on the morning train is playing his harmonica while I make written efforts to bemoan a lonesome womb--lonesome, or wayward? There might be happiness to find in the coincidence but still, the piped distraction is sort of annoying me.

Then it starts to get louder. Which indicates a train musician--oy, not that guy who thinks he's Kurt Cobain! Though he might be dead by now. And he sings and plays guitar, not just harmonica. A Mexican? No, the tuneless tune's not cloying in that way. It's for a lonesome hobo not a woeful; not one sick from cerveza as I used to be most every morning on the train way back in Boston. I look up from these notes that mark my broken meditation on my fruitlessness to see who's coming down the aisle just as the complicated nature of his music strikes me. I can hear, now, the rhythmic counterpoint he blows beneath the simultaneously tongued and tunless melody: an elderly Chinese man, receiving coins and bills into his cap.

I think of Jean Valjean, at the end of Volume 2 of Les Misérables, as he can be observed throughout the years it leaves him in, kneeling outside the chapel window where he'd seen what he'd thought was a horror; now he knows--better. A woman stretched out full length face down on the cold stone floor in prayer, all night, perpetually, is beyond horrifying. To be venerated, horrible.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Thursday Morning

Earth Day! Happy Earth Day, Earth. Back on the train, another beautiful morning pours past the window, looks like Candyland out there. Lilac, wisteria, dogwood, azalea and late cherry blossom: here we are peaking, elsewhere (Haiti, for example, or the Maldive Islands) not. The tough, jutting rocks of this seaboard my homeland, filed and blasted by glaciers (train beds, when they came to be laid, must have seemed familiar) wear light clothes--the soil's not too thick on the ground--but they're pretty. Our spring landscape made in China.

Wednesday Morning

Living at the first stop and choosing the "wrong" train--choosing one with a seat by the window but sacrificing motion to do so. 20 minutes later still sitting in the station, in my window seat, on a stationary train. Selfish and lazy, not the real go-getter type, me--more inclined to choose the wrong train if the "right" one (leaving sooner) is crowded, looks noisy, or has air brakes that squeal. I don't see any point in doing this today, writing aimlessly, as I make this meager tardy show of fealty to the workplace, the employer; except that I've got dinner plans in town that draw me in, so I might was well go to work, too. Today I'll finish reading Volume 2 of Les Misérables (I almost did it yesterday but stopped halfway through the last chapter, unready to leave it). Do I wish I could be cloistered or am I anyway--and this "commuting" some state between hypnosis and the discipline of prayer; lonely but so, so not alone, my eardrums scraped as other women's favorite "songs" escape their earphones. Men bellow, sneeze; a baby shrieks. Like knees on a cold stone floor my senses grind against Wednesday morning; I've forgotten my faith, all I feel is discomfort. Sister thinks: I should have been a litigator!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Getting Religion

Curiously, maybe stupidly, I'd thought about trying to re-read Madame Bovary as a manual on how not to treat a woman. If it could even work that way, I confess I didn't see it this time either. Don't--what? Don't tempt? Don't indulge? Don't marry? Don't even touch? Honey, I've tried all this, and the results are in. Good news, I'm not involved with a poisonous reptile; alas, I am a bit lonely.

Emma Bovary, though, made me tired. She tired me out, sucked me dry and ran me ragged, exhausting my patience for...myself. As it happens. Like one of those jeweled bracelets from India, where a leopard or some such seizes the tip of its own tail between diamond incisors; the lovely lock clicks fast, invisible and perplexing. I massage enamelled jaws and squeeze: nada. Try to fold up my hand bones into a spout, a snout, an old Chinese foot, and shake: a mistake. Now I'm bound to admit things.

The love lives of how many old fat men, young scrawny men, poetical hairy men, fastidious brainy men, honest dolts, roving rotters, and basically boringly good men, between us, Emma Bovary and I, have we left long black scratches on? Without knowing? Or caring? With our sharp hips and put-downs and our exasperated sighs which are not even personal, but the emanations through us of the same ineluctable agency that flicks our on/off switches with poltergeist glee at terrible moments: something deeply amused at the discomfiture we've caused. Something paring its fingernails, while our unreasoning and disordered superabundance of nerve eats through fatty sheaths of wishful thinking. The Moral Order is the medium of dissolution: Just don't--just don't--what? Just don't corrupt; just don't cause divorces. Just don't push me, Moral Order! I'm tired; but I too was made to be a joke on men and my senses remember the sweet spot: baddah-bing, right where they live. I'm only in abeyance. Do not disturb, do not rouse me from my reading of Les Misérables at work; pass my cubicle by, boys, while I bury my face in a convent.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sanctuaries & Antidotes

Looking out the window of the train into work this week at the greening scenery, clenched buds and eager blossom sprays of pink, yellow, white; exultant ivy...wondering is a blog like a book or a story whose writing can just stop, choked off in a cul-de-sac? One wrong turn, one something made to mark it--poem, paragraph, joke--and you're stuck there, nothing else comes. And I did watch the Mets again last weekend, they're just awful; but the point is that it wasn't true, that last renunciation. Delete the Mets post! This was my idea, inspired by the rumblings of a green and pleasant ride. What a strange occupation this is: to write in a notebook about whether or not to erase writing on-line which may or may not be an invisible iceberg. When I could be playing a racing game on my phone (if I had that kind of phone) or reading Madame Bovary.

Meanwhile at work in Les Misérables, the very suspenseful events which have led Jean Valjean and Cosette to the convent garden are behind us. The action has moved to a strange stage marked by the rigors of a women's religious order; they are strict. Perpetual adoration is no picnic--it's a feat of heavy lifting on the grand scale and there is no relaxation. Life in the convent...Les Misérables is such a brilliant book. I will probably repeat this observation many times. Jean Valjean's first view inside the convent, through a window at night into a room lit by a single taper: he sees a figure stretched out on the floor, seemingly wrapped in a shroud with a length of rope trailing from it like a snake which he seems to see moving, snake-like, around this thing which appears to be dead, a horrible dream-like apparition. But this follows what had seemed to be an hallucination too, an auditory one he and Cosette shared, of celestial voices which filled the garden just as Javert and the soldiers were searching the street on the other side of the wall for them. Jean Valjean runs from the vision at the window, shocked and profoundly, profoundly distressed that such a hideous thing shares with such radiance this empty, haunted place. Which, of course, it isn't. It is full of girls--students--and women--sisters of many orders; there's a school, two convents, and a church: Le Petit-Picpus, a real place, not any longer a convent but there's still the cemetery. Part of the convent garden was used to toss the corpses of guillotine victims into, with quicklime, during the later months of the Terror; surviving relatives of dead aristocrats bought and preserved it. This is where Jean Valjean and Cosette have found sanctuary.

The descriptions of the order in charge, of their worship, their rituals; of the school and the school day, the girls' habits and sayings; of the ladies of the world who shelter there, some only briefly, and the nuns of the Little Convent who come from many different dying orders, "relics of cloisters destroyed in the Revolution"--the details! The anecdotes! How to refrain from broken shouting? To describe and describe and describe life in a convent and be so true and so amusing, with so little prurience--really with none at all, that I can see: a marvel of humanity, a high water mark in descriptive prose, not to mention in respect for women, is what this is. Last night I wrote in bed and thought about it as an antidote to Madame Bovary.

Dead and gone, again, she's still making me tired with her rolling eyes, her greedy arsenic-eating mouth, her bad debts, her neglected daughter (Berthe, who ends up an orphaned child worker in a linen factory) and her husband dying in grief from over-fondling a shank of her dead hair. Horrible woman: no sense of humor at all. I'd been carrying around my fat yellowed Norton Critical Edition from college; last night before dinner I browsed the appended essays (all by men), wondering, In what sense were Emma's lovers "unworthy" of her? Another antidote came to mind while I wrote this: Woody Allen's story The Kugelmass Episode. "'My God, I'm doing it with Madame Bovary,' Kugelmass whispered to himself. 'Me, who failed freshman English!'"

Friday, April 9, 2010

Charles Bovary at the Bat

I'm not going with the Mets this season. Everything they do is wrong. Already, as usual, they can't manage their own pitchers on one side, on the other can't hit, but you don't want them on the basepaths anyway because they're forever running into injuries and outs. Watching the Mets play baseball is like being filled with heavy sand--sand like at the bottom of the ocean, weighted with decay. What am I a drowning victim, lost at sea, already dead? No. So who needs it?

I'm a free agent, defiantly over the Mets. I have laid down that heavy load of anger and contempt, Lord. You know they almost had me again; opening week is like a wilderness honeymoon--certain things get confused with the relief that comes at sunrise: another day. Thank you. Ebbets Field, Jackie Robinson: here I live in the Holy Land; but I missed it by decades, didn't I? Now have I even got time for these phony balonies? Since when?

I'm going to rescue myself and leave the Mets behind. They are a bunch of frail and overpaid buffoons and I don't care if their heart's in the right place: they're beneath me. Like in my life I need to witness and watch more dull-wittedness, mouth-breathing, and want of agility--like I should be seeking more chances to feel unfulfilled, depressed, worse. What am I married to these bozos? Or their mother?

Fuhgin Fuhgeddaboudit.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Inside Fireplaces

"The daylight that came in at the chimney made velvet of the soot at the back of the fireplace, and touched with blue the cold cinders." This is from Madame Bovary, which I began re-reading (in Paul de Man's English translation) Monday morning on the train. It's touch and go with me on this one: it was never a favorite although I found the carriage scene arousing. And now here I was on the train, writing this; avoiding it.

Yesterday at work I read the chapters in Les Misérables where Jean Valjean comes and takes Cosette away from Montfermeil. An 8-year old child slave, bare-legged, wearing linen rags in winter, finally rescued by a man who has escaped from the galleys--finally, successfully--precisely in order to do this. There is a fireplace at the inn kept by her evil keepers, the Thenardiers, and in the middle of the night Jean Valjean notices two pretty little mismatched shoes on the cold hearth. They belong to the two spoiled daughters of the house: it's Christmas, and the custom. He sees that Madame Thenardier has put a shiny silver coin in either shoe for her girls to find on Christmas morning. Then he spots, in the back of the hearth, something called "frightful" which is one of Cosette's shoes, of course she only has one pair, but she still has hope, made of splintering wood and stained with mud and ashes--an empty old sabot, into which he slips a gold louis. (Then he steals back to his room "like a wolf"!)

So, the fireplace in Madame Bovary is Emma Bovary: pretty to look at, all black and shiny but...eeek. Don't touch. What an illusion. This scene comes early in the book, before her marriage; having stopped by the farm where she lives with her nogoodnik father, Charles finds her sitting alone in the shaded kitchen by the fireplace, sewing. It's a warm day and he sees drops of perspiration on her shoulders. Later you learn she's read nothing but romance novels: the woman is filthy embraces waiting to happen. After her, Les Misérables comes as a relief. Still, today waiting for lunch at the food stand I found myself trying to remember which male character wore an earring: the male Thenardier? No, it was Emma's father. And it's absolutely true that when Jean Valjean spied Cosette's sabot in the shy depths of that empty hearth, I saw it against a backdrop of black velvet.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

I have read everything.

Soon after I started reading Les Misérables at work, I began to get agitated over the amount of time I'd squandered reading other things instead. At first, I looked back balefully at my recent on-line reading; the vast number of page views: The New York Times, The Awl, New York Magazine's Sex Diaries, The New Yorker, too (although to read it on-line always made me feel like a pervert); plus essays and reviews from Arts & Letters Daily, with regular stops at The Onion, Slate, Salon, Jezebel, Gawker and Fark (I love the tabloids). My eyes, strained; my weary brain, dulled by my day job and my reading: I blamed The Male Brain, that coddled hive mind, compulsively churning out text to fill columns and screens. My envious eyes raked down the pages, my brain in freefall; I could get vertigo at my desk from the sensation of hard narrow male chests, each in its button-down--pink, blue or white--pressed into the form of a cliff face down which I slid, nowhere to catch onto; dislodged buttons bounced and clattered in the chasms still below me.

By the time Jean Valjean robbed Little Gervais of his heaviest coin--a crime not without consequence in a wonderful, terrible way, it transpires--I would get agitated over how I'd never read Les Misérables before: How, I mean, in the sense of what had caused this omission to happen. What had I read instead? Everything else--including many French novels (all in English translations, to match my English major). French novels! Except no Victor Hugo, but a whole lot of Balzac and Zola and Proust, and naturally Flaubert. So in fact it happens that for college credit I read Madame Bovary twice. Twice. Before I was 21.

Because Madame Bovary was a requirement!

Now, I'm not here to cry over spilt milk or to cast stones at the promiscuous younger woman I became; I could have been worse. But I will take a moment, another among quite a few lately, to ask, sharply: What was that about? Hmm? Mister Men who man the Western canon which is aimed (apparently? perchance?) straight at the rosy knees of Western coeds: Was this really worth the sacrifice? Let me repeat: I have read everything now, except Les Misérables which I'm reading at work, and I am here to say, it's one of the single best things ever written, up there with Hamlet and Macbeth, no lie. It is also a book about social justice and humility, charity and repentance; it is (unfashionably? still?) "improving." Whereas I ask, seriously: Did reading Madade Bovary instead improve me more? Make me fitter for this modern world--a better citizen, a better reader, even? A deeper person, for the reading of a sad book--even while the sadder, better book remained unmentioned, unrequired, and (by me at least) unread? Because I really don't believe so.