(from one of the interviews in ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’)
WJ: Tell me everything there is to know about your strange nocturnal passwords and confidential week-long visits to what you referred to earlier as the ‘Natural Homebuilding Institute.
CK: Beekeeping isn’t for sissies!
WJ: Indeed it is not.
CK: I also wanted to take part in the larger conversation about why Emily Dickinson became so reclusive that for the last ten years of her life she didn’t once leave her house and eventually even began hiding from visitors. Are you at all familiar with John Keats?
CK: He was also a fully licensed surgeon, you realize.
WJ: I didn’t realize that, Christopher.
CK: ‘Baseball As An Integral Part of God's Plan’ is an excellent summertime read, btw. Even if you don’t give a rat’s ass about sports, with a few deft strokes it successfully evokes a bygone people and era that was simultaneously simpler and much more complex. Independent scholars sometimes wander into taverns or libraries and try to make sense of this paradox, comprehensively surveying the philosophy, science, technology, statistics, and arts of... arts of... uh... visibly puzzled as to why the game is still so often referred to as ‘the national pastime’, as if at any time in our history it was ever the most popular leisure/recreational activity of the average American!
WJ: What about this “Homebuilding Institute”?
CK: I’m getting there, Dr. James! Most articles cite the dirt or the dust of the batter’s box as a possible metaphor for the little known poem by young Lloyd Westmoreland, the neighbor boy who helped out in the Dickinson family garden and was thought to have an obsession with Emily. He wrote his verse in Latin so as to keep his secrets safe from the prying eyes of the other lads in the village. Here is my own rough translation:
Dust consists of Particles-
In the Atmosphere-
That come from Various Sources-
Soil, Plant and Animal Matter,
Paper Fibers, Meteorite Residue-
Volcanic Eruptions, What Have You.
Dust may worsen Hay Fever-
Circulate outdoor Air through the House!
Keeping Doors and Windows open-
Or at least slightly ajar-
May reduce the Risk
Of contracting this Malady.
However, in colder Climates,
Occupants seal even the Smallest Visible Gaps-
Which keeps fresh Air from the Great Outdoors
From circulating freely inside of the Home.
Because of This,
It is essential to have a Plan
For managing Airflow and Dust.
Overlook this, and you experience
Discomfort and sorrow.
Cosmic Dust is widely present in Space,
Where Gas and Dust Clouds are
Primary precursors for Planetary Systems
Both Near and Afar. Thezodiacal light-
As seen in the Ink-Black Night Sky
Is produced by Sunlight reflected
From particles of Dust in Orbit
Around our Majestical Sun.
In the Long Run,
The Earth's Water and most of its Atmosphere
Will eventually Drift off into
Nameless and Faceless Oblivion,
Rendering the Planet inhospitable
To all known Terrestrial Life.
Until then, we can continue to assume
That the tails of Comets are produced
By emissions of Dust and Ionized Gas
Cooking like a supernatural Stew
Dust also covers solid planetary bodies,
And vast dust storms occur on Mars
That would reduce our conception
Of what is possible in The Red Kingdom
To Tatters and Rags.
Interstellar Dust is found between the Stars,
And high concentrations produce
Written by Lloyd Westmoreland, circa 1875.
Translated by me, Christopher Kirkson, 1896.
WJ: Wow... Yes, I see... yes... it gradually all begins to fall into place...
CK: I ended up writing about some of that stuff in my diary. People were all like, wow, you must have the most exciting diary ever! I was like, hard to say- I haven’t read any other people’s diaries recently. But now that I have a project, now that I have some sort of purpose, I can focus my attention on other stuff. Conversation, for instance. Waking up in the morning, energetic, excited, eager, enthusiastic, etc. This is how we were designed. This is how it is supposed to be.
I know that some of you are slightly weary of hearing so much about the young neighbor boy Marcus. Just this morning I reviewed some of the recent feedback concerning him, and while many people seem to feel that he is a relatively likable and industrious lad, his antics are not especially interesting or different from most small-town boys his age. Besides,as some of you have pointed out- he's not even my kid! He would still be pretty random to you if he were, but the fact that he's not makes it a double or even triple-random type situation.
These are indeed sobering truths to keep hearing over and over again, but judging from the sheer number of times the word "random" has come up in the feedback in regards to the young fellow, I can't help but think that maybe my approach has been too one-dimensional. Hence, starting today, whenever I feel the need to provide a Marcus report, I will search deeper into his essence/activities and attempt to extract a layer of meaning that attempts to speak to some of the larger issues at stake in the neighborhood.
He's been taking photography lessons at day camp and today they had a little quiz on terminology. He stopped by last night and asked me to give him a practice test. This photography instructor is clearly not fooling around:
LUMINANCE: the ratio of the luminous intensity emitted by an unreliable light source in a given direction by an infinitesimal area of the subject or source, to the projection of that area of the subject or source upon the plane perpendicular to the given direction and its corresponding operational network control.
LUMINANCE COMPENSATION: in the transmission of pictures, whether by facsimile, phototelegraph, box camera, cell phone, or other online lightwave systems using wireless optical fibers, compensation introduced at the receiver by the image-recording device so as to exactly reproduce the luminance range present in primordial nature.
LUMINANCE TEMPERATURE: the temperature of an ideal blackbody or darkroom that would have the same luminance as the source for which the luminance temperature is desired for some incredibly narrow spectral region of color.
LUMINOUS EFFICIENCY: the ratio of the luminous flux emitted to the power consumed by a source of unreliable light; e.g., lumens-per-watt-applied-at-the-original-source.
OPTICAL CAVITY: a geometrically bound space in which light waves can reflect back and forth to thus produce standing waves of high intensity at particular frequencies obtained in a ruby crystal laser with two planes or spherical mirrors.
OPTICAL CHOPPER: a device for periodically interrupting a viable light beam, such as a rotating disk with radial slots through which a collimated beam must pass via the piezoelectric effect.
OPTICAL POWER BUDGET: in an ideal optical transmission system , the distribution of available power that is required for transmission within specified distortion limits or error rates. Components include the light source module, connectors, cable, detectors, and splices.
PHASE CONJUGATION: in image restoration, a method of wavefront control in which the shape of of the particles, distorted by phase changes introduced during propagation in a transmission medium and restored by using a conjugate to compensate for the phase changes that have already occurred.
PHOTOGRAPHY: the branch of science and technology that is devoted to the creation of pictures, usually on hard copy, by exposing sensitive chemically treated paper to random or everyday images, usually in the visible region of the frequency spectrum, though infrared and ultraviolet waves are also included.
QUADRIPHASE SHIFT-KEYING: shift keying in which 0's and 1's are represented by phase shifts of a carrier wave that occur at 0°, +90°, -90°, and 180°. Thus, four different phase conditions or positions are used in the time domain within the period-span of a sinusoidal carrier function.
I was on Karl's porch swing again this evening whining about our postponed trip to the deservedly famous Windy City and all the relatively cool stuff that such a metropolis has to offer a confused stage actor and carver of wood such as myself. After about 45 minutes of silence, the only sounds being strong winds, a few birds, the creaking of the swing, and distant thunder, he cleared his throat and muttered "Willy, sometimes your sociological comments are distinctly reminiscent of things I remember overhearing now and again among my clumsy boyhood companions years ago back in Michigan, when our already well-warped cultural lenses were oh-so-carefully trained on various things and phenomena with all the errant madness and gullibility of poor Don Quixote and Sancho."
I humbly conceded his point.
"Your beloved Windy City differs mainly from this sleepy little town where we are at present in your mistaken belief that over there all your beloved things and phenomena are massed or wedged in considerably closer together, and that somehow this makes them more worth your "attention." This presumed density inspires and excites you, apparently. May I suggest a homemade remedy, simple fellow?"
"By all means."
"Wander up and down the alley behind my house a few times and I'm certain you'll see enough serious massing and wedging to satisfy your big city cravings for awhile. Besides, I'd like to spend a little time alone with this upcoming storm. Your teenage-like prattle has once again wearied me to the point of wishing you temporarily out of my sight, hearing, and as rude as the following might be to say, smell. Until next time, Willy."
I humbly conceded all his points and wandered up and down the alley several times as suggested, until it began pouring down rain and I was forced to take shelter under somebody's toolshed awning.
According to the person on NPR we are all made up of atoms, and if there’s anything we should pay homage to it’s the elementary particle. I’m not agreeing or disagreeing. I’m just relaying positions. With each breath you inhale a million billion billion atoms of oxygen. That sounds like a vague number but actually it’s very precise, which gives you some idea of how small each one is. All of them, together with the carbon atoms contained in your person, and indeed everything else on Earth, were cooked in a black hole some 5 billion years ago. Hence, you are made of stuff that is as old as the planet, one-third as old as the universe, though this is most likely the first time that those atoms have been gathered together such that they imagine or think or believe that they are you.
Here I should also probably address one other core-motivation type question that bears on the matter of veracity and trust raised several status updates ago, viz., why a nonfiction memoir at all, since I’m primarily a stage actor and carver of wood? If human is 5, then the devil is 6, then the bodhisattva is 7, etc. Not to mention the question of why a memoir restricted to single aborted weekend in Chicago, with no other plans than visiting the ol’ swimming hole, riding El trains around randomly, visiting the outdoor sculpture ‘Agora’ on the northeastern corner of Michigan Avenue and Roosevelt Avenue and maybe even jumping up and down in utter excitement, assuming the big city energy still has something close to the same snap, crackle, and pop? Pause for a moment and consider, if you can, simple Rice Krispies, (known as ‘Rice Bubbles’ in Australia and New Zealand), a breakfast cereal that was created by Clayton Rindlisbacher or by Eugene McKay, both of whom worked for the Kellogg company (the inventor/creator is disputed), and later marketed by Kellogg's in 1927 and released to the public in 1928. Rice Krispies are made of crisped rice (rice and sugar paste that is formed into rice shapes or "berries", cooked, dried and toasted), and expand forming very thin and hollowed out walls that are crunchy and crisp. When milk is added to the cereal the walls tend to collapse, creating the aforementioned sounds, also associated with classic big-city excitement.
A swingset, a swimming pool, Billy Joel’s greatest hits playing in the background somewhere.
Children and adults jumping up and down in excitement.
Other children and adults lying under tarps and trees, taking it easy.
Crouching down and drinking deeply of the primordial waters, like so many untold generations before them.
A distinct sense of excitement. An almost unbearable sense of excitement.
The putative title is ‘All for The Best’. Possibly for public TV. In Chicago, this station goes by the moniker WTTW, which stands for Window To The World, because it gives us random glimpses of weird situations from all over the world.
There’s also the VCR monitor for letting people see the provisional intro, whose crudeness is acknowledged up front in the pre-briefing. It’s all set pieces and and shots from photo archives whose stylized warmth does not fit the voiceover’s tone. It’s disorienting, and no one is sure what exactly is up.
Some get up and go out looking for clarification, others just shrug and chalk another one up for the so-called Age of Uncertainty, a 1977 book and television series, co-produced by the BBC, CBC, KCET and OECA, and written and presented by the celebrated Lebanese mystic Khalil Gibran. The content of the series was determined mainly by Gibran’s next-door-neighbor Karl with the presentation style directed by his colleagues in the BBC. Gibran began by writing a series of poems from which the scripts were derived and from these the book emerged which in many places goes beyond the material covered in the relevant television episode. The series was thirteen years in the making and Gibran was left with a very high regard indeed for Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and a newfound respect for the possibilities of television as a medium.
Karl was wise and sympathetic, and whenever the young Khalil’s parents started squeezing his shoes about the lack-of-direction thing, Karl would stick up for him to some extent and say he was trying to find his own path in life, and that not every path is outlined in neon lights like a runway at O’Hare.
Discombobulating perhaps to be surveying so many unusual works, but then maybe they aren’t that unusual to big city denizens. Who among us is in a position to say? Take Karl’s sportscar idea, for example. A functional sportscar MADE ENTIRELY OUT OF PETRIFIED WOOD! People see it, people like it, people want it, buy it, rent it, drive it, whatever! Sky’s the freaking limit in a location like this! When Karl and I have finally turned the dream into a reality we’re gonna drive it up and down Michigan Avenue and make all the people there GREEN WITH ENVY! They’ll want to know where we got it and we’ll just say, sorry, gotta get back to the petrified forest, maybe we’ll shoot you a text later but probably not. Happy shopping!
Discombobulating perhaps to be scanning so many spectacular images, but then again, maybe I’ve just been out of the loop for awhile and images like this aren’t so spectacular these days, I think to myself from my cobwebby booth in Duncan’s Donuts, an atavistic little place in Uptown just north of Wilson Avenue under the Red Line. Bone-crushing reminder of all the work that still lies ahead of us. I’m gonna walk up and down the lakefront all day gathering cool-looking glass fragments and pebbles and when darkness falls I’ll just switch on my headlamp and continue on as if nothing happened. That’s my Protestant upbringing. An ethic and aesthetic that together have made me the success story I am. Tomorrow I’ll take the best ones down to the Magnificent Mile and sell them for five dollars apiece, which will go directly into the R&D for Karl’s aforementioned idea. According to him, we are proud and functioning members of civil society and nothing will make that more evident than inventing a new sportscar made entirely out of petrified wood.
(Certain things you don’t really want to see or hear or say at the new dentistry clinic while “in the darkened underpass I thought ‘o god, my chance has come at last,’ but then a strange fear gripped and I just couldn’t ask” plays on the sound system.)
A man emerges from an exam looking weary, punch-drunk, and red-eyed. I am the only other person in the waiting room. He addresses me directly:
“Sir, do I look like I just got the ass-kicking of my life or what?” “Uh...” “She was just cutting out one of my molars to reinstall it up front but the knife slipped and she sliced off the tip of my tongue. “Holy shit.” “Yeah, no kidding. She told the helper person to put some stuff on it while she prepared to sew it back on, except the helper person couldn’t find it, so she says ‘try this other stuff’ and the helper was like ‘no problemo’ but you see, there WAS a problemo, because this other stuff was mislabeled and I ended up with concentrated sulfuric acid on my wound. There was a distinct sizzling sound, like you might hear at a steakhouse. I yakked all over the helper person at that point and he must have had a queasy stomach because he yakked all over me in return. We both started trying to clean it up but it was impossible to tell whose yak was whose.” “Wowsers.” “Yeah, it was all this intermingled yak everywhere. Anyways, the dentist decides to put the molar relocation on hold and just glue my tongue back in place with this new organic glue that she said was taking the dental industry by storm. I was like ‘do I even have any tongue left?’ She was like ‘sure, sure, no problemo, it’s just a little charred at the edges.’ I told her at this point to shoot me as full of painkiller as the law would allow and send me home with quadruple the amount she would have normally prescribed, figuring I was probably in about four times as much discomfort as originally planned. She was all like, ‘no problemo, I’ll send you home with ten times the amount!’ You would think I might be kinda happy at this point but in fact I broke down and started crying. The helper person started rubbing my shoulder and saying ‘there, there, Randall, no need to cry. It will all be better soon.’ He leaned in and gave me a kiss on the forehead. I swear at that moment I felt like I was on drugs or dreaming or something and asked the dentist to give me some kind of reality check, so she pulled up my x-rays and started pointing out all the other potential trouble areas we would probably have to contend with in the future.”
At this point he burst into tears again and sat down next to me. He seemed so scared and confused that I took his hand in mine and quietly repeated the reassuring words of the helper. “There, there, Randall, it will all be better soon. Just hang in there.”
(from a recent National Geographic interview with Pete’s dragon/dramaturg Elliot)
“Most of Pete’s first mentors were raised in a pre-Stanislavskian era, you realize, in which the primary acting concepts were no longer considered very successful by the studio honchos, no matter how much time and energy were devoted to them in a touching but laughable attempt to make them pertinent, helpful, provocative, cool, and, of course, financially viable. (Boisterous laughter.) The simplest everyday phrases that were finding their way into scripts at the time, such as ‘this is to be my symphony’ or ‘where did you get this ravioli?’ or ‘the storm windows, obliterated’ or ‘hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no more no more no more no more until you’re ready to do your fair share of the chores around here semi-cheerfully (more boisterous laughter) without having to be asked, begged, or bribed’ took on new and mysterious meanings for a simple and relatively innocent fellow like Pete, even if the era which spawned them started to appear more and more in the guise of a fragile grandmother-type-figure, rocking back and forth in her rickety chair with a loyal pet in her lap, sipping a gin-cranberry and listening to the piece for radio “Embers” by her old pal Samuel Beckett.”
Tried explaining to some 9-year-olds during our little art lesson this morning about the potential dangers of repeating oneself too much once one has finally hit on a bankable formula and the dealers and galleries have started lapping it up like crack-infused lemonade or limeade or orangeade. The ades are very, very, very hard to resist, I assured them. “You’re using fairly primitive tools, children, but to considerably sophisticated effect. I’m proud of you. All of you. You’ve come a long way this summer. All of us here at Camp Howdy Doody are excited, eager, motivated, energetic, fired up, animated, dynamic, spirited, impassioned, enthusiastic lifelong learners- correct?” There was some semi-wild cheering, and then absolute silence. “I am impressed by your progress thus far- I just want you to progress even further!” “In a straight line?” Suzie asked me. “Whatever sort of line you prefer!” “What about floating off up into space? Or tunneling down into the earth?” “That would indeed constitute progress, in my book.”
She then pulled out a pocket dictionary and asked if she could read the definition of ‘progress.’ (She’s pulled this kind of stunt before, btw.) “By all means,” I responded. “Ok... let’s see here... forward or onward movement toward a vague destination; advancement; improvement; a sense of ongoing excitement.” “Ok then,” I continued. “What about ‘destination’? It might help to know that one as well.” “Ok, let’s see here... destination: place to which a person or thing is going; journey’s end; stopping place; goal; objective; excitement.” “Ok, that helps, Suzie. Thank you. Let’s check one more- how about ‘place’?” “Sure thing, Mr. Murphy... a particular portion of space; portion of space occupied by a person or thing; a state of unfettered excitement; irrepressible life-force.” “Uh... ok... Let’s check ‘space’ while we’re at it.” “Good idea... give me a sec... Ok, here it is- space: continuous unlimited area or expanse which may or may not contain objects, and may or may not partake in the typical human excitement.” “Ok then. I think that settles it. No need to repeat yourselves if you’ve got an unlimited area, right?”
There was a brief pause, and then suddenly I could see the light bulbs going on over their heads. Suzie piped up again. “Why do we have to keep using all these primitive tools?” “It’s all that we have on hand at the moment.” “Well, let’s go to the art supply store and see what else is available!” “But that’s where we’ve been going for tools since I was a kid at Camp Howdy Doody! I thought we were gonna try to stop repeating ourselves!”
Another brief pause. “Have you ever read Gertrude Stein, Mr. Murphy?” asked Suzie. “A little.” “What about that famous passage in The Making of Americans?” “Which one?” “The one that goes ‘Always from the beginning there was to me all living as repeating. This is now a description of my feeling. As I was saying listening to repeating is often irritating, always repeating is all of living, everything in a being is always repeating, more and more listening to repeating gives to me completed understanding. Each one slowly comes to be a whole one to me. Each one slowly comes to be a whole one in me. Soon then it commences to sound through my ears and eyes and feelings the repeating that is always coming out from each one, that is them, that makes them slowly of each one of them a whole one.”
Another pause. “Ok then,” I said. “maybe Gertrude Stein feels differently about repetition than me.” Suzie gave me a narrow look. “And we should listen to you more than Gertrude Stein? She was close friends with a lot of famous painters, you realize.” “Yes, I realize... whatever that means...” “Let’s look it up, shall we?” “Sure.” “Be fully aware of; conceive of as real; understand clearly; convert into actuality.”
Even though we get along fine, for the most part, that doesn’t mean that the major works of the era don’t sometimes cause dissention and confusion between us.
We try talking it out, talking it through, from beginning to end, talking about the pros and the cons, swapping observations and anecdotes, both personal and professional, in a wide range of human dialects.
Even though we were raised in relatively similar family/social environments, the major works sometimes divide us. Our conversations can easily become unhinged and explosive. I tell him to calm down, and he tells me he’s already calm, which he clearly is not, so then I accuse him of lying, and refer to the deleterious effects that this or that major work has had on his sensitive and overly-impressionable psyche. I tell him, essentially, that he should think about having his psyche aerated. He then accuses me of suggesting that he has serious psychological problems, to which I say no, that’s not really case, but, look, even if on the off-chance it were, that shouldn’t be such a terrible thing. Lots of people need to have their psyches aerated, I assure him. The major works are so contentious in this particular area that our reference points soon dissolve into an unnavigable and disease-ridden swamp. Serpents, scorpions, leeches- all manner of personal and professional dangers.
We get along fine, I think I said that, in almost all other areas. For instance, taking the baseball and gloves out to the back yard and playing catch. This might very well be the simplest game ever invented. The ball is thrown back and forth. That is the only objective. It is perfect for us, I think, because it can be played in utter silence. After we’ve had a nasty disagreement about this or that major work, sometimes it’s best to just downshift, and by that I mean shut the fuck up, and let the thing float off somewhere and assume its proper perspective. That’s not to say it won’t float back and cause more dissention between us. But in the meantime, it might be enjoyable to play simple catch for awhile. If the neighbors are grilling we might go and sample the food. If the kids are playing lawn darts we might join in for awhile. If any area animals are slinking about hoping for attention or handouts, we’ll probably give in and offer some, which perhaps corrupts their natural incentive for hunting prey and companionship out in the wild, but they look so hungry and cute, and they are asking with such politeness and deference. The major works have such different attitudes on how to deal with beggars that some critics have suggested throwing the whole body of theory out along with the disease-ridden bathwater and just navigating by instinct on a case-by-case basis. The area animals all have names, even if only a very few people know them. They have private lairs that few human beings ever visit. To befriend one is to take a little bit of that primordial nature into one’s own private system, where it very well might disrupt the tidy social categories already established there. The major works soon become firewood. Or children’s coloring books. Even so, we persist on talking it out, from beginning to end, making lists pro and con, swapping observations and anecdotes, both personal and professional, in a wide range of primitive dialects.