Saturday, March 16, 2013

Piquant Pi

Thursday, March 14th, 2013


9:00 a.m. I get up, pour some coffee, and sit down to check our email. There is nothing from the contractor who came out to look at the wall on the west side of our building where, according to the home inspector, a high concentration of moisture threatens to bring Snoqualmie Falls into our bedroom. The contractor, a cleancut guy in his 30s, surveyed the situation with supreme confidence and rattled off an itinerary of things he would do to remedy the problem, including the surgical removal of the planks in the boardwalk blocking access to the dirt by the foundation. Two days later he’d emailed us an estimate, which I in turn emailed to the members of our HOA. They, in turn, emailed some questions. T inquired about the surgical removal of plants. Why was this necessary?  

"Surgical removal of plants??!?" I wondered. Did he envision a callimammapygian beautybush dense with ventricles and veins? Or that a team of horticulturists in hospital gowns would be grouped around a potted hellebore in heavy concentration as they delicately maneuvered the shrub to a nearby bed of soft, sandy soil?  

Then I realized his error. He had mistaken the word ‘plank’ for ‘plant.’  

Other more pertinent questions had to do with the actual repair: there was no mention of flashing or sealant, and no mention of what this guy was going to do with the dirt he excavated. Was there a charge for that?  

Was he going to remove the dirt? Z, who was the owner of the big potted plants on the boardwalk, wanted to know why they were considered a source of wall-eroding moisture. I wondered this too. I sent these questions to the contractor. But in the coming weeks, he will not respond to this questions.  

Nor had the attorney in Williston, North Dakota, who had been referred to me by the landman of Legacy Oil. I had emailed the attorney, explaining as best I could the complex saga of my father’s estate, one of three stepsibling’s refusal to sign the Letters Testamentary for the recently discovered property interests in the well currently being drilled. When he didn’t respond to the email, I phoned. He phoned back. Roberta took the call. She explained the situation, and drew his attention to the email I’d sent. He found the email and said it looked complicated, and requested that I fax the pertinent documents, which I did later that afternoon. I eagerly awaited his response. But there was nothing.  

I did get an email from the novelist Rikki Ducornet, who was in Marfa, Texas. She wrote that she’d just seen Jeremy Irons play psychotic twin gynecologists in a pocket movie theater with a cowboy wearing red long johns.  

I wrote another letter to the lawyer in Williston, feeling the utter futility of it diffuse through my body with the sweetness of dandelion greens. Unless there's a lot of money involved, no one is interested in giving help. I can feel the squirm of maggots in Williston. What was once a lively rural town of such rosy-cheeked innocence you could leave the doors to your house unlocked for a month and return to find everything intact is now a dead zone, a grim wasteleand of spiritual hypoxia driven by pandemic hydraulic fracturing, men exhausted by working twelve hour days in subzero temperatures and sleeping and doing their laundry in bleak man camps that make Solzhenitsyn’s labor camp in Kazakhstan look like a Balinese luxury resort. Is it any wonder that a Williston attorney would find my irritating probate problem anything but a dog turd? Why should he bother even to give the courtesy of a reply? Nobody practices courtesy anymore. Courtesy has become a doily, a Victorian antimacassar, the quaint remnant of a bygone era, cinnamon ferns and witty repartees in an Edwardian salon. The world now moves strictly according to the dictates of Mammon. Wit and imagination count for nothing. It's all about "show me the money."  

But I'm proved wrong. Several weeks later the attorney gives me a call. He'd gone over the documents I'd sent and gave me the sad news: even though the mineral rights were discovered after the death of my stepmother, it automatically goes to her estate. Since one of the stepsiblings refused to sign the Deed of Distribution, if I were to proceed further I would need to bring them to court in North Dakota. It simply isn't worth it. I drop the matter.  

I must also admit that the various agents from the oil industry in North Dakota that I'd corresponded with or talked to over the telephone were all gracious and helpful. The industry they worked for might be fucked up and evil, but they were uniformly courteous and conscientious people. Nothing in this life is black and white. Heisenberg was right: the act and quality of the observation being made will create changes within the observed phenomenon. It would appear that there is no objective reality. The marriage between perception and reality is as innate and inseperable as it is erratic and volatile. No wonder the law never made any sense.  

9:30 a.m. I listen to a French woman who goes by the Username Saperlipopette read the opening chapter of Balzac’s Les Perdues Illusions. I like this title. It fits my present circumstances.

The novel begins in a printing house in Angoulême, France, in the early 1800s. Angoulême, which is situated on a plateau overlooking a meander of the Charente River in the southwest of France, is a town full of paper mills and printing presses. The presses are still very crude. Balls of wool covered in leather are still used to dab the ink onto the characters. Jerome-Nicolas Séchard, a journeyman pressman in his late fifties, and who is referred to as a ‘bear’ in compositor’s slang because of his great size and continuous pacing to and fro during the operation of the printing press, can neither read nor write. In 1793, during the Reign of Terror, his business is on the verge of extinction when he is hired by a“Citizen of the People” to print the Decrees of the Convention and is given a master’s printer’s license. He becomes the only printer in Angoulême and his business prospers. He marries and his wife gives him a boy before she dies. The boy is named David. He returns home after receiving an education in Paris, and it isn’t long before he and his father are arguing about replacing the old equipment with the new Stanhope printing press, which had a printing capacity of 480 pages per hour.  

I can tell that the woman reading Balzac’s novel is elderly. She doesn’t pronounce words as crisply as the younger woman I listened to read Jules Verne’s L’îsle mystérieuse, but she does read smoothly and attentively.  

I have a hard time concentrating because of my frustrations and anger over finding a contractor. It's like trying to find a date for the prom. I can never get a definite answer. I get equivocation. I get intricate, convoluted reasons for why a particular man or outfit cannot do this job.

I call G, another contractor, the one who originally looked at our problem by the wall. He answered on his cell and seemed irritated by my call. He asked to send him our email and address so that we could set up a time to meet and do a formal estimate. I will not hear back from him either.  

At 11:30 I go do some writing. At around 2:30 I get antsy and decide to go for a run, even though I shouldn’t. I have a chronic pain on my left heel. It’s probably a heel spur, a symptom of plantar fasciitis. I watch a number of treatment solutions on YouTube, including taping. The taping videos never tell you where to go for the special tape they’re using. And all but one show a man taping someone else’s foot. Where is anyone supposed to find someone to tape your foot before a run? I mean, someone other than, say, Mick Jagger or David Beckham.  

I watch the one where a young woman tapes her foot, beginning with an X across the bottom of her foot, and encasing that in swath upon swath of athletic tape. I follow her instructions with the tape I bought before at Bartell Drugs. I’m not sure it’s the right kind of tape. It’s called Comfort Tape. I stick the Comfort Tape to my foot like the woman in the video, get into my running clothes and take off for a run. The heel continues to hurt. By the end of the run, I’m limping. I realize I’m just going to have to take time off. I dread the ensuing depression. Running is my favorite medication. It’s more effective than the Lorazepam. It keeps my head above water until I go to bed and with the help of 1 ½ mgs of Lorazepam, I can get some sleep. I’m not sure the antidepressant is being all that effective. It works, but not that well. Worries never cease visiting my skull or barging in like a SWAT team. I'm always at war with the world. Braced for conflict. Braced for disaster. Wild fires, tornados, and earthquakes. Buildings toppled by giant lizards in a frenzy of rabid destruction, their tails thrashing, cars flying, their jaws crunching military jets like crackers. Such is the palette of my mind: all dark browns and lampblack and steel gray and madder red. The colors of war. The colors of scorn and abhorrence.  

I don't like confrontation, but when it happens, I tend to get off on it. It's a dry drunk, as they say in AA. The free-floating antagonism is related to the decay of our society, the corporate hegemony and how it erodes the social membrane. There is something wrong when lawyers and contractors and people of other ilk and profession don’t reply to queries, voicemail messages or email. It's not just a lack of respect. It goes deeper. It's a lack of recognition, a loss of reverence for life in general. It's symptomatic of an epidemic anomie, a malignant narcissism fueled by a self-serving cynicism and apathy. I wonder what it is that is still holding the society together. It looks like the only thing people care about is vanity and money. How do you fight vanity and money?

After my run I put my sore heel up on a pillow and watch a show I saved about French cathedrals, Les cathedrals dévoilées. It is said that the cathedral is essentially an experience of light. Light is the most important architectural element. The rose windows of Chartres cathedral, for instance, celebrate the passage of light through a material, metaphorically transmitting a message of divine passage through the human body while telling the story of David's triumph over Saul, the birth of Jesus, the Last Judgment and Christ wtih the twenty-four Elders of the Apocalypse. The delicate stone tracery that holds the stained glass in the rose windows of the cathedrals is due in large measure to the quality of the stone itself. Most of the cathedrals are clustered near what were once quarries of calcareous stone. Notre Dame de Paris benefited from two nearby quarries, one at Charenton and one at Val de Grâce. The deeper into the quarry the workers went, the higher the quality of stone was discovered. This allowed for the finer stone tracery and sculpture. It was also crucial that the quarry was near a river for transport. An expert in Gothic architecture named Arnaud Timbert shows how the blocks were sculpted and initialed by the sculptors for payment at the end of the day. A 13th century artist from Picardy in northern France put together a portfolio of thirty-three sheets of parchment containing two-hundred and fifty drawings intended for sculpture, ecclesiastical objects, architectural plans and mechanical devices, such as a perpetual motion machine, a water-driven saw, lifting devices, and a machine for straightening the struts of a leaning house. The book survives and can be found in the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris.  

Roberta comes home carrying two sacks of groceries, one including a four-pack of Virgil's root beer. This is heavy stuff. It amazes me she is able to carry these items up our steep hill, nearly a mile in distance. I watch the news on our French cable station while she makes fettuccine Alfredo. It's all about the new pope, Joge Mario Bergoglio, who will be called Francis, after Saint Francis of Assisi, and who had been archbishop of Buenos Aires. He appeared at the white balcony overlooking St. Peter's Basilica as thousands cheered below, and said “I would like to thank you for your embrace.” The crowd cheered back:“Habemus papam!”waving umbrellas and flags. 

I don't get any of it. I fail to understand how one man can get so many people excited. I find their beliefs touching, it's moving to see so many people find faith in something, in anything, when the world seems so overwhelmingly in the grip of Mammon, of war, of evil. But I can't understand it. This man is just a man. How could one man have a direct line to God? And is there a God? Is there a single intelligent being responsible for moths and grass and oysters and diphenylamine? For human beings? For dinner theater? For mathematics and matrimony vines? One guy? With omniscience? One single supreme being who can hear the pleas of a banker in Athens, Greece, create storms of ammonium hydrosulfide on Jupiter and minister occasion to the birth of a star trillions of light years distant, and do all this simultaneously, including the trillions of other events and traumas and prayers and tragedies occurring throughout the known physical universe? An omnipotent being? A being who is responsible for good and evil? For epilepsy and polio? For facial hair and opium? Who created hawks and ladybugs and geraniums? Who created silence and space and tumefaction? Who also created whatever extraterrestrial beings use for eyes and ears and mouths and whispers? 

Whispering seems so quintessentially human. It is what human beings do when they want to say something without disturbing other human beings, or make an unflattering observation about someone in the same room, or issue a piece of provocative gossip. But is this trait really all that anthropocentric? Do extraterrestrials whisper?  

Do extraterrestrials have popes?  

Do extraterrestrials have countries and borders and trampolines?  

Do extraterrestrials, any extraterrestrials, make movies about their planet being invaded? Or suffer xenophobia and racism? Dance? Pin nude pictures to the wall? Do extraterrestrials have a concept of nudity? Or drama? Do they act? Make speeches? Thunder invective? Carouse in gay apparel? Wallow in illustrious sorrow?  

Or is the phenomenon of being human so uniquely and profoundly human that it is impossible to even envision what life for an extraterrestrial intelligence might be like?  

And what, exactly, is intelligence, anyway? Most of the time, I don't feel intelligent. I feel stupid. I might be intelligent, but I don't feel it. Would visiting the pope alter my attitude about anything? Would I feel a sense of holiness in his presence? I wish I could share in the emotion all those people in the Vatican rain shouting Habemus papam were feeling.

During dinner, we watched Episode Six of Season Two's Enlightened on HBO, the one that ends with Amy (Laura Dern) glancing back through the passenger seat window at Levi (Luke Wilson), standing in the driveway, looking utterly incredulous and stupefied, as she and Jeff (Dermot Mulroney) go off on their dinner date. We watched Questions pour un Champion during dessert, then got ready to go see the Seattle Shakespeare Company's presentation of Love's Labour's Lost at the Center House.  

It was warmer outside than I expected, and colder. I wasn't sure on the entire way to the theater whether it was colder than I anticipated, or warmer than I anticipated. March is like that. It is full of ambivalent weather and so makes the mind ambivalent, flowering and crumbling in irrational equivocations. On the way, Ronnie told me that March 14th is Einstein's birthday, and that the number 3/14 is the number for pi, 3.14159265359, which is an irrational number.  

This production of Love's Labour's Lost was set in the 1920s, which I initially found off-putting. It has become such a cliché. Why, I asked Ronnie, do directors like staging Shakespeare in the 1920s so much? Maybe it's because everyone drank so much. It was a time of brassy extravagance. Frivolity, enterprise, and tragedy. Extremes of behavior burned in luxurious disregard. Everyone spurned the obligations of the future. Doom stood outdoors in the midnight banishment of raffish soirées, austere and inexorable, an ominous spirit amid falling snow.  

The Center House stage is semi-thrust stage. There was a white piano to the left of the stage, and a chaise lounge which appeared to be upholstered in Astro Turf off to the right. As the audience entered and looked for their seats and shifted their weight and adjusted their arms and legs and visited with their companions or played with their cell phones, the male actors stood on the stage drinking cocktails and conversing, all dressed in formal dinner wear, tuxedos and tailcoats. A constellation of mirrors hung above, just below the stage lights.  

The presentation was terrific. The audience laughed heartily throughout. I had tears running down my cheeks. I've never paid much attention to this play. I've always found it tedious and confusing. But this time I really got it. There isn't much plot to it, it's all language. Shakespeare really let go on this play. It's full of flare and wit and surprisingly meaningful lines, streaks and flourishes of provocative thought, elegantly delivered. Considering the overall vanity and studied superficiality of the characters and situation, lines such as “Make us heirs of all eternity,” “It adds a precious seeing to the eye,” and “As love is full of unbefitting strains, / All wanton as a child, skipping and vain, / Formed by the eye and therefore, like the eye, / Full of straying shapes, of habits, and of forms, / Varying in subjects as the eye doth roll / To every varied object in his glance,” surprise the mind with pith and scope. I realized that this play is a feast of language. The story is negligible. It is the words, hot and prodigal, that make the play a play.

In bed, we talk about the play. I ask Ronnie what character in Shakespeare I most resemble and she tells me Hotspur, because I'm grumpy, quick to lose my temper.  

I ask about Hamlet. Doesn't Hamlet qualify as a notorious grump? If I was younger, she says, I could be Hamlet. But Hotspur was a young guy, I correct her.  

That's true. I guess you could be Hamlet if Hamlet lived and got to be older.  

You mean If Hamlet lived to be 65, and lived in a one-bedroom condo apartment, and collected social security?  

Yes, Roberta answers.  

So that would be a viable Hamlet?

Yes, Roberta agrees.  

A contemporary Hamlet of existential angst vilifying cell phones and computers and Bill Gates and belligerent baristas?  

Yes, Roberta concurs. Ok, I'm going to sleep now, Roberta announces. Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.  

What keeps me from being a total asshole, I wonder as I lie in the dark.  

I'm not sure. I am an asshole, I know. I possess asshole qualities, though it might be something of an overstatement to say I'm a total asshole. I'm not a total asshole on the scale of, say Dick Cheney or Donald Trump. I'm not a sociopathic, megalomaniacal asshole with a golf iron and a country club. I've been horribly unfair and unfairly unpleasant to a lot of people a lot of the time. I've been stubborn and willful and selfish and narrow. My attitude about life tends toward the dark. My head is full of morbid soliloquies and the tangle of cypress vines draped with the kind of sickly moss that is nourished by gloom and swamp gas. I am frequently given to making howling declamations anathematizing the stink of humanity and the futility of life. This is me. This is what I am. This is who I am. It is I, Hamlet, King of the Crabs. 

 

1 comment:

David Grove said...

I saw that movie, Irons as twin gynecologists. Love Cronenberg: he leads me into uncharted territory of my brain. I thought of him every time I drank a Kronenbourg in Paris.