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2009.05 =>

[APRIL 2009.]

Constabulary Notes From All Over

The industrial hell-pit west of campus now has a slogan on the construction fence: “Renewing the Foundations of Excellence.” Shall we extend the metaphor? Is it that the bottom part of excellence was rotting out, and excellence was beginning to list to starboard?

The only thing dumber than the chorus of people insisting that Watchmen is ART is the chorus of people insisting that Watchmen can’t be ART. I read it for the first time the other day, because I’m only a pretend member of my generation, and it seemed to tickle the viscera and the cerebrum pretty equally, which is what you want, right? It just doesn’t happen that often.

There are worse things in history than the Latin American guerrilla movements, but I’m still not sure about celebrating them, kitschily or otherwise, especially not while eating a melted brie sandwich; yet the guerrilla-themed cafe does have the best melted sandwiches around, and the people are nice and the waffles are also tasty, so: put up and shut up and eat the food.

Watchmen art Art


Danger UXB

Unexploded bomb, uncleared minefield. J. suggested I take bets with with myself and the Internet about whether I could keep my head together until my class was over. Seven classes remain; in my wisdom I scheduled three of them to incorporate movie watching and other undemanding activities; I suppose I could cancel one of the remaining classes if I just couldn’t get out of bed or whatever, for it is improving no one’s soul to take part in these halting discussions under my tutelage. In the end I don’t know why this job reduces me to such a lump of protoplasm—I don’t do it that badly, it isn’t that many hours out of my week, and yet. Perhaps it’s that I don’t believe the inspirational rhetoric of teaching, that I need to find a job with less rhetoric attached. When I am grading, when I am walking to class, I hear in my head the El-P track where Cat Power stops in to be sampled: “Never again—Never again—Never never never gonna get that way again—” When I have furious dreams about the job, they involve getting on a bus to go teach at the public high school in Tucson which I attended for two years and hated with all my heart.

Heard from my advisor the story of a professor who paused in the middle of his Nietzsche class to bury his forehead against the blackboard and secretly write “HELP” in tiny letters. Yet I have not been able to tell either my advisor or my father (another professor) straightforwardly what the job does to me. A complicated shame.

Complicated in part because it is surprisingly hard to discuss this within the environment of graduate school. It’s perfectly acceptable, indeed expected, to talk about disliking various concrete aspects of the job: the frustration of dealing with mercenary students, the humiliation of facing a roomful of silence, the laboriousness of dragging a discussion uphill to some point of abstraction, above all the stacks of inane compositions whose inanity must be entered into, verily relived, if they are to be properly corrected; and yet everyone is committed to a cutthroat struggle under dismal odds whose only possible reward is the chance to do precisely this for the rest of one’s life. Sometimes I think it must be a kind of Stockholm syndrome, rationalized with economic language: “I’ve already invested so much.” Sometimes I think I am just unlike everyone and ought to be put in a home.

I suppose "NO" betters stand to win a piece of your head. What do we "YES" betters get?

A piece of my mind!

(thanks for the bet)


We had asked earlier if he had seen Bergman, Fellini, or Antonioni; he answered that he had seen none of them, but that there was a Buster Keaton film in town worth seeing.”


(thanks J., Daniel)


More from Samuel Butler

Best bit of narrative prose I’ve run into recently:

It was all very well to have made the discovery that he didn’t very much like poor people, but he had got to put up with them, for it was among them that his work must lie. Such men as Towneley were very kind and considerate, but he knew well enough it was only on condition that he did not preach to them. He could manage the poor better, and, let Pryer sneer as he liked, he was resolved to go more among them, and try the effect of bringing Christ to them if they would not come and seek Christ of themselves. He would begin with his own house.

Who then should he take first? Surely he could not do better than begin with the tailor who lived immediately over his head. This would be desirable, not only because he was the one who seemed to stand most in need of conversion, but also because, if he were once converted, he would no longer beat his wife at two o’clock in the morning, and the house would be much pleasanter in consequence. He would therefore go upstairs at once, and have a quiet talk with this man.

Before doing so, he thought it would be well if he were to draw up something like a plan of a campaign; he therefore reflected over some pretty conversations which would do very nicely if Mr Holt would be kind enough to make the answers proposed for him in their proper places. But the man was a great hulking fellow, of a savage temper, and Ernest was forced to admit that unforeseen developments might arise to disconcert him. They say it takes nine tailors to make a man, but Ernest felt that it would take at least nine Ernests to make a Mr Holt. How if, as soon as Ernest came in, the tailor were to become violent and abusive? What could he do? Mr Holt was in his own lodgings, and had a right to be undisturbed. A legal right, yes, but had he a moral right? Ernest thought not, considering his mode of life. But put this on one side; if the man were to be violent, what should he do? Paul had fought with wild beasts at Ephesus—that must indeed have been awful—but perhaps they were not very wild wild beasts; a rabbit and a canary are wild beasts; but, formidable or not as wild beasts go, they would, nevertheless stand no chance against St Paul, for he was inspired; the miracle would have been if the wild beasts escaped, not that St Paul should have done so; but, however all this might be, Ernest felt that he dared not begin to convert Mr Holt by fighting him. Why, when he had heard Mrs Holt screaming “murder,” he had cowered under the bed clothes and waited, expecting to hear the blood dripping through the ceiling on to his own floor. His imagination translated every sound into a pat, pat, pat, and once or twice he thought he had felt it dropping on to his counterpane, but he had never gone upstairs to try and rescue poor Mrs Holt. Happily it had proved next morning that Mrs Holt was in her usual health.


Samuel Butler on Duty and Inclination

By and by a subtle, indefinable malaise began to take possession of him. I once saw a very young foal trying to eat some most objectionable refuse, and unable to make up its mind whether it was good or no. Clearly it wanted to be told. If its mother had seen what it was doing she would have set it right in a moment, and as soon as ever it had been told that what it was eating was filth, the foal would have recognised it and never have wanted to be told again; but the foal could not settle the matter for itself, or make up its mind whether it liked what it was trying to eat or no, without assistance from without. I suppose it would have come to do so by and by, but it was wasting time and trouble, which a single look from its mother would have saved, just as wort will in time ferment of itself, but will ferment much more quickly if a little yeast be added to it. In the matter of knowing what gives us pleasure we are all like wort, and if unaided from without can only ferment slowly and toilsomely.

My unhappy hero about this time was very much like the foal, or rather he felt much what the foal would have felt if its mother and all the other grown-up horses in the field had vowed that what it was eating was the most excellent and nutritious food to be found anywhere. He was so anxious to do what was right, and so ready to believe that every one knew better than himself, that he never ventured to admit to himself that he might be all the while on a hopelessly wrong tack. It did not occur to him that there might be a blunder anywhere, much less did it occur to him to try and find out where the blunder was. Nevertheless he became daily more full of malaise, and daily, only he knew it not, more ripe for an explosion should a spark fall upon him.


You really need to stop smoking those things

Oh, I’m getting off lightly. One of the worst things about my workplace is the restrooms, which are badly maintained, covered in homophobic graffiti and frequented by mad bums. Just now I shared space with someone who was loudly panting in the next stall and narrating his defecation to himself between chuckles and whimpers. That was the day’s two-minute window into hell; now put your head down and keep going.


Dreamed of sauteeing the CD collection. After a while they got soft and marginally edible, sort of papery, but didn’t taste good no matter how much garlic and coriander I threw in there, and I thought: I’m doing a terrible thing, are we really this poor?

but a nice peanut sauce works wonders


Stanford. Outside it’s raining; here in the library it’s warm, well ventilated, well scrubbed. When I was a student this entire wing was closed for earthquake repair—now they’ve fixed it up, and once again I can’t believe how much money I’m sitting in the middle of. This reading room has thought of everything: plush chairs, low tables, golden oil finish on the floors, coffee-colored rugs with spiral plant designs and discreetly cut circles for power outlets, oak shelves that must be an inch and a half thick—they’ll outlast the English language. Something like fifty seats, each comfortable in its own particularized way, and I think five people in here.

J. has been keeping watch on the pair of ravens who have built a huge sloppy nest on one of the outer walls. The young have just hatched—at least something seems to make tiny noises when the parents return—but you can’t yet see anything over the edge. It’s built safe, twenty feet off the ground, and the parents give you the disapproving raven-eye if you get too close. The wall underneath is already fouled with whitish bird leavings. Surely it’s only begun.

one of the most unhappy memories of my childhood was watching some crows knock over a pigeon's nest in my front yard. i'd been waiting all winter for them to hatch.

I heart the way the apocalypse is peaking over the edge of this post...

But we must only peek! History getting uncomfortable doesn't mean history stops....


Hot sun on the decaying porch steps. A cold breeze makes itself known for a moment, then halts, silent potential.

A tiny black-capped goldfinch appeared in the rosemary bush and hopped around for a while. Can birds live by rosemary alone? This one was trying. Amazing how far it could stretch its neck to grab a sprig in the blunt little beak; then another hop and flutter, balancing weightlessness. It flew away when I stood.

It’s always the same poems that come into my head with tiny birds. Blake:

And Father, how can I love you
Or any of my brothers more?
I love you like the little bird
That picks up crumbs around the door.

And Merwin’s Mandelstam:

Goldfinch, do you know you’re a goldfinch,
do you know how much?

How Mandelstam himself said “goldfinch” I don’t know. What sounds the bird might have answered to.


Divest, divest, divest
You have failed in your quest
O sing divest, divest
Cast the burden from your breast
Follow not the poor oppressed
Who hang lifeless from the ropes
Of the chattels and the hopes
That they long ago possessed
You must sell off every share
You must strip your body bare
You must sing divest, divest
And rise up weightless in the air


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