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 Jealous rivalry is obsolete.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.