Tuesday, March 30, 2010


No idea what to write (last night), just felt like writing. I like the notebook and the feeling of the pen. The blog itself, it looks okay, I guess: I'm a little uncertain. It could use some pictures, maybe, or I don't know what--another column? One with links to quizzes and personality tests, credit scores and acai berry miracles? Yes, definitely, this would help center the text, throw it into relief; too much text making too many demands--this is the problem with prose forms on-line. It's why I "went over" to poetry but the thing is:

If it's possible to read Les Misérables on-line, then readable on-line prose forms exist.

Maybe it's a matter of spacing.

Do I miss sitting in cafés talking and talking about all manner of things including art? I have done this, you know. Was it better than coming home, being alone, going on-line? In some ways, at least for me, it was closely equivalent: what to do that's interesting at night when I'm not working (writing); not exactly wasting time, but spending it very freely, the intellect keeping the whip hand over something speedy and bright-hued: highly caffeinated discourse at a wobbly table; low ceilings, candles, and a flagstoned floor; a stack of paperbacks in which the word Hegelian appears, cumulatively, at least two hundred times, balanced at every elbow. On the sound system, something seventies. A waitress with an ankle tattoo pauses between the tables; suddenly all the paperback books take off in a swirl like carousel horses, the notes in their margins flying up, pounding down. The crowded cafés where readers sat and dipped triangles of pita bread into hummus and struggled to articulate critiques of esoteric views: I miss them, yes, naturally--with a natural nostalgia for the "scenes of my youth" and those friends, those views. I miss a world before WiFi at café tables, before a phone at every hand--a world that was noisy but so much quieter: Imagine, sometimes it was even possible to hear a page turn.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Silver Lining

Tonight I started writing a whole lot of stuff about my former church and then I paused. When I came back to finish, my pen had stopped working. I've been writing with a fountain pen in a Moleskine notebook, a new setup for me; it's been working out well. But I'm superstitious. Now I've got the pen working again I'm inclined to swerve away from explaining why I left that church; except to say, which was going to be my point anyhow, that the rector there who wants to be a bishop someday is no Monsiegneur Myriel. And that this fact struck me forcibly when I first began reading Les Misérables at work.

The novel opens with a description of this bishop's life, character, habits, all exemplary; his humility, his cheerful self-denial, his profound generosity, are illustrated through incidents drawn from his ministry (and based, apparently, on fact) in the Diocese of D. When Jean Valjean arrives, and steals away, and gets dragged back, it reads like the same sort of incident in Monsiegneur Myriel's exemplary life--at first. For then comes the conversion: literally, an inversion, like an hourglass being turned--at which Jean Valjean's becomes the central and exemplary life. Technically, it's very brilliant, this book! On the road he robs Little Gervais and then awakens: a new Jean Valjean. Then he's gone; here is Fantine, Felix, the two quartets, the country, the surprise: Fantine abandoned. Then Fantine leaving Paris with Cosette, leaving Cosette with the terrible Thenardiers at Montfermeil. Time has passed; she comes to M sur M where she finds work in the factory founded several years earlier by the man, now mayor, called Monsieur Madeleine. He is a mystery, his origins unknown; a good, rich, honest, influential man, he is a paradox.

At this point, Victor Hugo pauses. He returns to find a broken pen. He thinks, maybe it would be the better course to lighten up and think about the franchise. In this first volume, naturally, Monsieur Madeleine will meet Fantine and fall in love with her. They will have a love scene in an orchard all aglow with her blonde beauty. Later, sheltering together from a rainstorm, she will confess her out-of-wedlock child and he his past as Jean Valjean, a prisoner on the galleys. Forgiven and forgiving, they will marry, move to Paris with Cosette, and take a box at the Paris Opéra. In subsequent adventures they'll visit London, New York, Lima, Sydney, Bombay, St Petersburg: Around the world with Les Misérables, solving murder mysteries at every stop along with way. Tomboyish Cosette provokes perpetual romantic complications and the infant Valjeans, all five or six of them, tumbling amid luggage, perpetual gaiety. Of course, the epilogue of every volume reunites the happy family with the Bishop and his sister in their garden, still shaded by the wall Jean Valjean scaled that night he robbed them; a Renior father/son scene in the sun-dappled garden, where the Bishop tells the moral of the story and Fantine, surrounded by her children, laughs.

Sabbath Cup

Yesterday, Saturday, I wrote:

I was beginning to enjoy watching instant-play Netflix selections on my computer. Beginning to--hell, I already was, deeply, enjoying this on weekends. I looked forward to more, and more, and more: Brit coms, Woody Allens, documentaries; I was going to watch Cape Fear with Juliette Lewis this weekend. I enjoyed sitting there at my desk, the filmed world at my fingertips, while I would eat a square or two of dark chocolate, the kind with sea salt, and drink my excellent Ethiopian coffee. This activity was so fun! So nice! I was enjoying this new way to have weekends; I thought I might start having a few weeknights this way, too. Not terribly often, of course: with my long commute I have short weeknights, and I've been writing about reading Les Misérables at work most weeknights lately, when I've been home. Most, that is: but not all! Not every night am I bent over my notebook. I need rest and leisure. I'd added instant-play films to my new instant Netflix queue, planting my future with fruit-bearing shade trees--that is, somehow, their equivalent. I had a lifestyle ahead of me, dammit!

What happened? My neck hurts. I'm sore from that chair and the thought of screen-staring revolts me: I think it's hurting my neck. What's the point, anyway? What's the difference whether I watch something this week or next year or never? What does it matter? If it weren't for my neck, would I be asking? I wish it weren't hurting. It doesn't seem fair that rest makes me sore--that I feel no better for it, but rather and further depleted after my work week by the very measure of my self-reward: as if I were back bingeing, sickening, grossly, upon my leisure activities and running almost audibly to fat. My chocolate squares, my cups of coffee, my Netflix queue: I'm recoiling from them, pained and startled; I'm confused and ready to feel chastened. The pain in my neck puts the fear of God into me.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Employee Handbook

Yesterday I finished reading Book 7 (the second to last) of the first volume of Les Misérables, taking advantage of a rare slow morning at work to confront the scenes I'd been avoiding--Fantine's sickbed, and then the courtroom in Arras. I'm not sure what I'd been expecting. Something grim and dire, the limits of the bearable in "great" art being familiar to me from afar (and from Puccini). The rumble of the cataract I was approaching raised a picture in my mind of waste and wreckage: mighty falls ahead. But what happened was the falls flowed upward. I was lifted, sitting at my desk, onto a higher plane by Jean Valjean's behavior in the courtroom. Solemn, joyful, comforted, amazed, all before lunch hour: I was soaring, for awhile there, taking deep breaths, and when I walked away from my desk my step was light, my posture ideal. It is good to read about heroic acts, maybe especially while at work: it raises the spirits, elevates morale. Strangely enough this never occurred to me when I was reading the Bible every day. I'll have to keep it in mind, when I return to that practice, so maybe I'll find it more helpful.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Monday I read Les Misérables at work until I had to leave Jean Valjean on the road to Arras, where Victor Hugo left him, too; next comes an interlude with Fantine that I dread almost as much as I do Jean Valjean's arrival in Arras. I don't know what will happen next--I've never read this book before, never seen the musical or any of the movies. There was a TV miniseries version when I was a kid; it had a musical theme, five notes that went "Lay Miz Ah RAH BLAH!" which my sister used to sing, largely to annoy me. I can't remember watching the show. Most likely I was up in my room listening to music and "turning," which was something that I did from childhood through high school, in the dark to records or the radio, turning fast and clockwise in a roving circle with my arms outspread: a Sufi! Except I wasn't praying, I was escaping into daydreams as I still so often do, although without the turning: I have too much furniture now, too many "breakables" along with cats, and downstairs neighbors; besides this is a broken habit. Drinking replaced it, and smoking and smoking pot, as daydream tools. Those habits broken now as well, I daydream as I can, while walking, doing dishes, laundry, every task and chore; while at work, all through my lunch hour walks and bathroom breaks and ups and downs on elevators; while sitting on the beach. But especially while walking: it's a walking meditation in its way but the object isn't God, it's me. Or more precisely, a manifold resemblance to myself, but always more successful; often me, but often not. My avatars, my others, fleeing stardom, keeping wealth, are only two in number but as Spencer Tracy says in Pat and Mike, they're cherce. And, evidently, they're staying; at least they're with me still. My daydream fame flares up at the touch of a talk show, the flip of a celebrity magazine page; tennis tournaments send me into a deep, detailed space defined by what should have existed, but didn't.

Sad? I think, instead, efficient. Sustainable. Certainly Green. I got on the road to renunciation at an early age, and it started with turning. By now the fact is that I don't want very much more than I actually have because I've had everything I wanted, instantly, for years, in my head; I've led two exalted lives in addition to my own, delightfully enhanced; I've had a love that's lasted, literally since high school, and I've had perfect freedom to sleep with everyone I ever wanted, too. I've almost always owned a Karmann Ghia black convertible with red upholstery. Who wants a real car after that? And I should need a Master's degree when I've won Wimbledown? And an Oscar? You see what I'm saying.

Simplify, simplify!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Train Rides

Monday after work on the train, having left Jean Valjean on the road to Arras, I look up from my book (Paul Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar from 1975, with hippies!) to think about India and train episodes I enjoyed there; and I observe the people about me, wires trailing from the ears of half of them, phone things in their hands. To my left, a young maybe Turkish man in a leather jacket with a Chinese dragon on the back is listening to a work for solo violin. I feel something shift: the plates of my tactile existence grind briefly and heave, stayed and balanced--for the moment--at relief.

Tuesday heading to work on the train, I write in my notebook for the first time in a week. Home life: so intervening! Family and friends and eating and theater; cleaning the house; petting cats; going on-line or napping; watching televised tennis or babbling over the healthcare debates: so time-consuming. Like hippies! Who ended up where? Dead from hepatitis. Inventing the i-Pod commercial.

One time in India on the train I was riding in 3rd class, some long trip between large destinations, and a young family--husband, wife, two little boys--took the seats facing mine. They were sweet; poor; spoke almost no English beyond the words required to ask all the personal questions that everyone asks there (Was I married? being foremost among these); all very thin and small. They offered me Indian sweets, from a small box they'd bought for their journey, probably an extravagance. I took one, maybe two if they insisted, and ate. Immediately upon swallowing whatever it was, something terrifically sweet, I remembered my Lonely Planet guidebook's warning about train theives who drug you with candy and make off with your possessions and money as soon as you've fallen into a drugged slumber. I'd given one of the sons an empty Altoids box and the other probably a pen and the sweets had been produced reciprocally; even so, it struck me, mightn't the whole thing have been planned? I was riding in 3rd class on a whim, had been enjoying the hot dusty breeze through the glassless barred windows. My companions were small and dark and did resemble Gypsies. They were poor.

I continued to sit there and smile, pleasantly, without language; continued to feel, towards this small, sweet family, a liking, really a fondness, inspired by their sweetness and kindness--by their charm. At the same time I prayed. I bargained with God. I said, I remember so well, that I would be much more careful here (there) after and wouldn't take candy from strangers ever again; I promised to stop being an idiot: Just get me, I begged God, to my next destination, and not in a drugged stupor, and with all my possessions intact. For many miles in Rajasthan I prayed this. The family rode the train not a great distance; at a station well before mine we exchanged sweet smiles and Namastes.

What would be funny, it just occurs to me now, is if whoever had sold them the knockout drops cheated them.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Porpoise Spit

I fear I have been ripping through Les Misérables at a rapid pace. I read too fast at work. I've trained myself for speed in the workplace over years of working with words on a screen. Hand it to me on paper, I downshift at this signal to study with care. Also from a book I know how to look up and stare at the wide world, maybe half-unseeing maybe more, but the process is useful: it helps with the reading and it helps me to live while reading--I emerge, surfacing, for a breath of my own thoughts, my blank stare a mist-spurting blowhole of which my fellow train passengers, understandably wary, take note. They have seen something.

Whereas to look up from a screen (I will pause to salute, from a distance, the Kindle, from which looking up would be possible even though it is a screen; while to read Les Misérables, all of it, from something even smaller, say a phone--I can see nobility in that, if not actual greatness) while working at a desk, doesn't fit the way screens work. It can be done, in an indoor cloud-counting sort of way, but more commonly one looks aside--as if a phone or other task were calling--or shuts one's eyes entirely against (and this is key) the light, to rest them. The screen glows and the text embedded in its molten face is hardly still: up and up it floats to vanish quite away, like cinders in a chimney; re-reading is rewinding, a time-lapse reconstruction of a vanished structure undertaken to repeat its dissolution.

So I read too quickly but I've found a satisfying way to compensate, and go back a chapter or two (the chapters are very short, most of them) every time I start reading Les Misérables at work. This is a different way of living while reading: it's more like working. I'm sort of assisting. As if retracing Les Misérables on my screen were making it thicker and darker, turning it heavy and solid; as if looking longer and twice were the means of restoring it to book form.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Property of Cameron Mackintosh

Started and finished Book IV of Fantine at work last week and even started Book V, which I backtracked over to start again, along with the end of Book IV. That would be the chapter called "The Lark" which concerns the child, Fantine's child, Cosette, and her sufferings. This is the chapter the famous (Bayard) illustration's from, the one adapted for the poster for the musical--the windblown child. She is four or five and living with the Thenardiers, an awful couple and their two awful daughters; all of them abuse her, beat her, scold her; she eats their food scraps as she's crouched under the table; she's got nothing but rags to wear. Her mother sends money, more money being demanded all the time, for her upkeep; they make off with it. But Fantine can't have Cosette with her because there's no husband to make it alright to have had a child, and she wants to make an honest living. She sends the money, sometimes late, and can never get away to visit, not having the funds to do both. Cosette "grows" shy and puny. Her tiny hands are red from work and cold. Her life is awful. Before dawn she's sent to sweep the street, in her rags, in all weathers, with an enormous broom. The famous illustration shows her with the broom and her bare feet in a puddle.

Since I've started reading Les Misérables at work it's brought me to tears several times. Book V of Fantine had me crying while I ate lunch at my desk--I was reading, crying, and eating a sandwich, getting a lot out of that hour--but the end of Book IV and "The Lark," somehow, left me not exactly cold but certainly dry-eyed. I looked at the picture: what a great image; and what a great re-purposing of it was in store, selling that show. (I've never seen the show.) It's instantly recognizable. Reading and re-reading, my mind sidestepped away from the little girl under the table, the motherless child, to the icon that's been made of her, and from there to the icon's manufacture. Here I am, looking up the design team, and finding my way to the fine print at the bottom.

Friday, March 12, 2010

On the Road to Les Misérables

Let me be clear. I think reading Les Misérables at work ought to be not only popular, but common. At the same time I believe that everybody else knows best how to minister in the moment to their own sweet sakes. As the founder of this movement, as a movement founder, I'm not imposing haste upon its spread, its growth. You're sitting in an office, at a desk, in a room, in a corner, in a cubicle--anyway, at work--with nothing to do but fill time. This doesn't mean you're unimportant! It means that your department in a battle over money won the right to seat you there: of course you're not useful--you're not a tool, you're a trophy! Possibly you even sit there on your own behalf, there where your fortunes and merits have brought you, dropped you, in front of your screen, your files, your phone with voice mail and caller ID, your wall space and desk space ornamented with colorful objects and pictures you've selected to recall you to yourself. Quite possibly you've got a pile of work to do--but you can't face it. This doesn't make you weak or lazy! What are you, a machine? No, that's a machine, what you're staring at. You need a break.

So there you are, somehow, at work. Possibly it occurs to you that you ought to be using this time more effectively. Since you won't spend it working, and you can't leave your desk, or have a conversation, or groom yourself, or play a game (there used to be games); you stare at your screen: For heaven's sake don't shop! It's not good for you. (Since you will anyway just don't do it to excess.) But possibly you're out of money, or you've given up your on-line shopping for another cause--neither of which marks you as a freak or a loser. "Enough already" sums something up for you now, that's all. You choose content.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Another About

I should have started with "a description of the project." The setting (my own: vague, generic; a cubicle, a screen, a city; specifics as they come, naturally). The first try, the first choice of translation and format; and why I changed my mind. In Praise of Project Gutenberg. The impetus, of course: the unbearable web with its toils, the depression attendant on reading so much that is trivial; the terrific stupidity of blogging, and yet here's another one.

Reading Les Miserables at Work. Could this be the movement I've been destined all along to found? At least I've started. It took awhile. I had intention, and resistance, from within. I dragged my feet through many blog posts--my "feet" being brain parts, the drag being reading from a glowing screen cascades of blog posts. Among which is there any point in differentiating between articles and essays and reviews, entries and items, listicles, slideshows, and readers' commentary? The last, a category of its own: the sea of cigarette lighters that skirts the concert stage (or cell phone screens, now: the app for rapture) comes to mind but it's too grandiose an image for what goes on below the text. The message pads on dorm room doors, I've just remembered (or were those more like e-mail?). Graffiti, of every kind, an element; front porch of the general store, that kind of agora, an element too, with its eventually hatefully tedious rocking chair wisdom; the newsroom of movie lore, of wisecrack and heartbreak, another and maybe its best face. I read today during an unnecessary detour to The New York Times some comments growing from an article on how people who share beds aren't having sex, much. Clicked my ruby heels three times and wished myself back on the road out of Paris with Fantine.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Double Cooked Pork

Sun and warmth, of sorts, to start the work week. Busy again yesterday, but managed before lunch (Liberty View Chinese, with the Statue of Liberty view--France again) to reach the end of Book III. The day in the country had moved to a private room at Bombarda's overlooking the Champs Elysees. Tholomyes, Fantine's lover, had prepared a long-promised surprise for the four young women. I'd been thinking, last week, that perhaps all four young men would propose a group wedding, and that the afternoon might reach a climax in the entrance of a priest--or, I suppose, it's being Catholic France, in their all repairing to a chapel. I had forgotten--or not really forgotten, I'd just failed in understanding, really--that the book is called Les Miserables. The young men say they'll be right back, they're going to fetch the surprise. The four young women wave to them from the window and stay there looking out at the busy street where an old horse has just dropped dead and the stagecoaches keep rushing off from Paris in trails of dust made golden by the setting sun; and in an hour as had been arranged the waiter brings a letter which Favourite, the one who can, reads. The young men, four students, have returned to their respective homes in the provinces to take up their respectable future lives so as to make their parents happy; they will marry, others. But the meal is paid for. (In my own defense I would mention that I imagine marriage to be miserable and marriage to a balding 30-year old student, most so: grisly.) This denouement is hardest of all, or maybe only hard, on Fantine. She had been deeply in love with Tholomyes and--this revelation has been saved for the very last line of Book III, pinned like a medal to its gorgeous cruelty--she's had his child.

My fortune cookie fortune: "In dreams and in life, nothing is impossible." Well.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Last Week in French Painting

Last Thursday at work read a very small but brilliant part of Les Misérables including this from the trip to the country: "...those adorations which burst forth in the manner of pronouncing a syllable, those cherries torn from one mouth by another...celestial glories." Friday had no time to read any at all before "getting out early" so I wandered uptown to the Met's French painting galleries. Ended up on a bench in a room full of Corots, facing half a wall hung with late views of a pond glimpsed through trees, all silvery leaves and silvery waters; the first green past black for the lower foliage; off across the water in the sun, a sandstone wall. The physical beauty of France as eternal verity, as creed, envelops; it swaddles and comforts even as it stirs. It's safe to be stirred by it: teapot tourists click contours in a crowded gallery, their tempests welling, almost spilling...

Into a room of Monets, what a great painter, grabs the visual world by the beard and shakes it: lilacs in bright sunlight! Done! Manet, even greater, the greatest, his paint synaesthetic feels sounds looks tastes smells like thick icing and long, soft kisses, all surfeit with no sickliness. And then Pissarro: he seems the most industrious of them all and the most honest in his belief that this matters enough to refrain from being flashy, this enterprise of painting the view, for instance, of the new boulevards from your room at the Hôtel de Russie, in all weathers; in all places, painting the views from the points where they come into balance, just as they are. Oh Pissarro, I don't know, they're awfully pretty; but after awhile the whole occupation starts to seem trivial. The pitfall of naturalism: Why bother? if nature is enough. Only when what is seen is understood to have been broken in the seeing and reassembled in the spirit (see Cezanne, also van Gogh; also Les Misérables) can this problem be conquered; meanwhile the victories of flash are provisional, but in consequence they can be very poignant.

(And God knows what to say about Renoir--who may well have been God, come down to play papa with an easel at the best of all times for it; master of another Eden: French painting!)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Little Retracing

Picked up Les Misérables at work today where I'd left off, backtracking a little to a description of Fantine as the two quartets of lovers are spending a day together in the park. But then I decided to reduce the browser window size so the lines wouldn't be so long to read on the screen, and the action kicked me back to the scene where Jean Valjean is returned by gendarmes to the Bishop's house, carrying the Bishop's stolen silver. Monseigneur Myriel Bienvenue, although he will miss the silver, miss eating off it as he's always done, pretends that it had been his gift to Jean Valjean at parting; and he exclaims at his having forgotten the two silver candlesticks. Jean Valjean leaves with all the Bishop's household's silver, with which the Bishop, he tells him, has bought his soul for God. Jean Valjean wanders into a lonely stretch of country, flat, only in the distance are the Alps. Dark is falling. His mind is in turmoil; he is coming apart throughout himself, breaking up, convulsed. He sits almost motionless to commit his last crime: he robs a little boy, Little Gervais, of a forty-sou piece. The boy is a little wanderer, alone, tossing his few coins in the air. One falls to the road and rolls to where Jean Valjean is sitting, by a bush. He puts his foot over the coin. Little Gervais is so brave to confront this horrifying criminal whom he even grabs by the collar and shakes, demanding his coin back. Jean Valjean hardly knows what is happening. He shouts at the boy, threatens, quite absent-mindedly, and Little Gervais runs off. He disappears. Jean Valjean stares at an ancient piece of broken pottery (blue). At last he moves, and notices the coin lying where his foot had hidden it. The sight of it amazes him. He takes it up and looks all around the empty land. Almost all the light has gone. Jean Valjean starts to walk, then he runs, and he keeps stopping to call Little Gervais! Little Gervais! For he'd asked the boy his name. In the midst of breaking apart, he'd wondered what it was. Why? How, even? He's not a polite man nor a curious one; he barely notices--barely seems to notice--Little Gervais. But something, some instinct the convulsion has exposed in him, wonders, and remembers; a presentiment, a flash of prophecy white-hot as the earth's molten core, inquires; noted, the unforgettable name. He calls and calls but doesn't find him. I didn't have time to re-read any more.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

An Unexpected Start

Today did NOT read Les Misérables at work because I had no time to do so. (Unusual; and potentially disastrous if this is a "sign of things to come." But I doubt it.) The wasted hours that came before--they're the kicker--all the things I spent time reading at work instead, before now. Haunting me.

The countless hours I've spent reading the readers' comments appended, page after page, to click-bait New York Times articles about extreme parenting styles in Brooklyn, for instance. Babies in bars, mommies blogging from barstools, block after block shaken by crazes and swept by alarms--finger-severing strollers, placement test tutoring for pre-schoolers: I've read them all, every comment, savoring most the ones that asked Why these people have children? Why so entitled? Hours, literally, reading, following these threads into the lives of awful young parents in Brooklyn. I hunt a kind of satisfaction there.

Other hours at work I'm happy to read political take-downs. Or I'll read all day long about scandals in churches, embezzlements, money pits, schemes--false disability claims and preordained foreclosures, big, blatant misappropriations of aid, funds, grant money--I love to read about thieves and fakers and then I love to read the public outrage. Sometimes I've even gone over to the Post to read the comments there: a lower depth. I need structure.