Friday, September 26, 2008

How's the water?

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

David Foster Wallace, a young writer who died recently and tragically, used this story to make a point about how some of the most crucial realities are the ones which its most difficult to perceive or discuss.

It introduces a speech - a wonderful speech, I think - which was reprinted in the Guardian, September 20th.
The speech is particularly concerned with that most crucial reality - our innate, hard-wired, automatic conviction of our own self-importance, the way our experience of the world inevitably, naturally, centers around ourselves.

Wallace describes this conviction as one example of how we can be automatically quite sure of something which is utterly wrong.

And he goes on to explain and insist that - although this conviction is innate and "natural" [of course we grow up seeing everything from our own point of view. How could we not?] - we do actually have a choice about whether or not we "do the work of somehow altering or getting free of (this) natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self."

Its not a preachy or moralistic speech and he grounds it in real experiences - like having to shop for supper in a busy supermarket and then drive through heavy traffic at the end of a long day's work. He talks about how that experience might be seen and responded to in very different ways. Depending on our mind-set. Depending on the choices we make about how we see things.

And he concludes:
"... if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options (ie. other than the default setting). It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: the only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship."

"..there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom....

It is about simple awareness - awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: 'This is water, this is water.' "*

One reason I wanted to post this here is that I'm convinced he is right - both about the naturalness of our self-centredness (how can we not be centred in our self? its where we begin, its the point from which we experience everything) but also about the choices we have - at least some of the time - about how we see and live in the world.

I know its not the same kind of choice for everyone and maybe the choice is easier for some than for others. But its the explanation which I think - which I choose to believe - best explains the phenomena of love and friendship and compassion and giving in the world. And it offers hope.

The second reason I wanted to post this is that this exactly expresses the way my mother was - how she saw the world, how she interracted with people, taking the time to do the little things, asking the woman on the check-out when her shift ended, saying something kind or encouraging. Paying attention and making the effort.

I love and miss her so much, but this has also made me think, through a lot of tears, about how much I owe her for showing me this way of being as necessary and possible. For teaching me something about the water, and how to swim.

* For the full text in the Guardian, click here

top picture, graffiti around Spitalfields, Brick Lane.
bottom picture, graffiti on the South Bank, near London Bridge.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Three Things

Part One
Status report: I'm currently in the busiest couple of weeks of the year, with new students arriving on Monday - so work, just lately, has been of the kind to make my head explode with the range, quantity and complicatedness of things to be done.

However a busy weekend has become less busy. Today I was to have been doing this with my sister and BIL - but due to a very sore throat and some glandiness around the neck I have decided to stay home and loaf. Freshly made loaf just done in the bread machine, yum, loafey slippers and still in my loafeycosy dressing-gown at 10.08.

I am sorry not to be there, esp. as its a beautiful day - but I am glad to be here. And I have unexpected blogging time.

Part Two
LG's birthday today.

Her birthday outing - with 2 friends, to Camden Market - was yesterday and for once both M and I were permitted to go with. So long as we kept our distance of course.

LG is now scarily 14. Though she has, effectively, been scarily 15 or so for at least 3 years.

Happy Birthday wonderful girl.

Part Three
No link.
(Except maybe a certain wildness in common to parts 2 and 3?....)

A little furry creature used to live in a cabin in the Catskills.
it was a sort of temporary lodging for him

but his residency came to an end when Steve discovered that he was, himself, (ie the little furry creature, not Steve) providing temporary lodging for some other, smaller organisms.....

And so, it was decided to return him to the wild

I wonder if he is still there, lurking in the undergrowth?

Thursday, September 18, 2008


... in Williamsburg:

empty (1)

seen from (2)

leaned through (3)

seeing by the light of (4)

looked at in (5)

and seen through





And next, the view I have as I sit at my computer - newly relocated from a situation looking at wall with my back to the room, to a far better spot facing the room and next to the window.

And i can see down the side of the house, past the guinea pig hutch and the bikes - dirty window marks -

into the garden - michaelmas daisies & New Zealand flax -

and gold-heart ivy.

1 & 2, windows in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
3, window and gentleman in Manhatten, Murray Hill.
4, New York Public Library

5, The U, either to or from Coney Island

6, Red Apple Rest (more pictures of this fab. building
7, inside the abandoned Bank building, Liberty NY.

8, inside an abandoned laundromat, the Catskills, NY (also more pictures of the laundromat
9, Nyack antique shop

Sunday, September 14, 2008

places of power

Kelder's Farm, Route 209, Kerhonkson, NY

I've been reading Neil Gaiman's American Gods. It has been on my to-be-read list for some time and I'm so pleased that this was the one i picked from the pile. I love his use of language and his imagination and wit seem endless and effortless.

Imagine my delight when I found, in this book, the perfect accompaniment to this giant gnome photograph - an answer to the question (on all our lips) "Why?".

Two central characters are en route to a roadside attraction called the Hotel on the Rock.

One of them explains the appeal of roadside attractions - that, in America, these phenomena are places of power.

'Its perfectly simple,' said Wednesday. 'In other countries, over the years, people recognised the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would just be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples, or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or ... well, you get the idea.'

'There are churches all across the States, though,' said Shadow.

'In every town. Sometimes on every block. And about as significant, in this context, as dentists' offices. No, in the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beerbottles of somewhere they've never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat-house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognise that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.'

'You have some pretty whacked out theories,' said Shadow.

Hence - the largest gnome in the world.

*Neil Gaiman, American Gods, p.125, 126-7 Headline pub. 2002

Thursday, September 11, 2008

dangerous poetry (and keys)

Thursday Theme - keys

keys alongside a ride on Coney Island

and in other news...
(sorry, too lazy busy to think of a link here)

my weekend paper reported that one of the UK exam boards (responsible - along with other exam boards - for public Grade 11 school exams) has banned an anthology of poetry from its curriculum because a poem has been deemed "dangerous". Its a poem by Carol Ann Duffy which expresses anger, frustration and intention to go out with a bread knife and "change the world".

Given that I think there are some films and computer games which may have a negative impact on the behaviour of children and young people, I suppose I have to acknowledge that there may room for debate. Theres almost always room for debate.

But this decision seems to me to be both stuff and nonsense.

Though Carol Ann Duffy is one of my favourite poets, I didn't know the poem in question.

Here it is:

Education for Leisure

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets.

I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.
I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.

I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something's world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.

I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
for signing on. They don't appreciate my autograph.

There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he's talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

Apart from meriting inclusion in the school curriculum because it is such a good poem, it seems to me that it would also be an ideal focus for classroom discussion of violence, anger, frustration, education, being an aggressor or a victim on the street.... And shouldn't education involve relating literature to life and relating experience to the curriculum... and...?

Anyway, the wonderful Carol Ann has written a poem in response to this decision, published for the first time in the paper last weekend (The Guardian, Saturday Sept. 6, 2008):

Mrs Schofield's GCSE

You must prepare your bosom for his knife,

said Portia to Antonio in which

of Shakespeare's Comedies? Who killed his wife,

insane with jealousy? And which Scots witch

knew Something wicked this way comes? Who said

Is this a dagger which I see? Which Tragedy?

Whose blade was drawn which led to Tybalt's death?

To whom did dying Caesar say Et tu? And why?

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark - do you

know what this means? Explain how poetry

pursues the human like the smitten moon

above the weeping, laughing earth; how we

make prayers of it. Nothing will come of nothing:

speak again. Said by which King? You may begin.

is she just wonderful, or what?

"how poetry pursues the human like the smitten moon
above the weeping, laughing earth" - isn't that extraordinary and magical use of words?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

more communication

Thursday themes are great for when i feel like a lazy blogger - i'm always likely to have some at least slightly relevant photos to slap up here......

but after posting last Thursdays "Communciation" pictures, i came across just a couple more relevant pictures from my recent US visit.

And I also actually gave a bit more thought to the topic (hmmmm a hazlenut in every bite)
so I am now being a not-so-lazy blogger, and doing a follow-up post.

With writing.

Its hard impossible for me to imagine what travelling would be like without the instant communication which we take for granted.

In fact I'm not sure I would have visited the US at all if I hadn't developed friendships through blogging and then email.

And I've also been thinking about the ways in which communications and communities spring up, all over the place, with the slightest opportunity - flickr is designed primarily for sharing photographs, but people use the comments box (and even the tags labelling the photos) in all sorts of ways... communicating and developing relationships...

I do believe the instinct and need for communication is one of the most characteristic, universal and inherent human qualities. Speaking, myself, as a recovering introvert.

While away, on both of my USA trips, I didn't miss M or LG at all.

But I texted them frequently and emailed. So, we were in contact... so in a way it didn't feel as if I was so very far away...

[Eddy checking for new emails dozing]

I wonder how much I might have missed them if I'd been mobile- and computer-less? It would certainly have felt odd. If I was travelling completely alone, rather than visiting friends, I would definately buy a lap-top to take with me.

Tho it has occurred to me to wonder whether these advantages might mean that i am missing out on some aspects of travel... there is a certain appeal to the possiblity of being really adrift and out of contact. But i don't think I could trade the internet for that experience, at least not at this stage in my life.

I agreed - rather reluctantly - to let M buy me a mobile phone about 5 years ago. On the explicit understanding that he would accept that I wouldn't always have it with me.
[he doesn't accept it]

But of course I was soon appreciating the convenience of being able to text him with shopping lists or additions to shopping lists. And some of its more qualitative uses.

We didn't speak on the phone while I was in the States

[telephones in the NYC public library]

but knew we could, if we needed.

[telephones in Grand Central Station]

I didn't write any letters or postcards.

I would be sad if people stopped sending postcards altogether, but i seem to have stopped doing so myself.

So, I think I will start again. Next holiday or outing. New resolution.

[mailboxes nr. Liberty, NY]

LG is also extremely appreciative just now of all this wonderful communication technology. Actually, I think she's too accustomed to it all to be truly appreciative - but she makes extensive use of it.

She had an additional week in the Channel Islands, after M and I returned to London and to work.*

Now she is home she is spending an inordinate amount of time sat at a computer (whenever possible, M's new computer with the handily-extra-large screen) and engaged in multiple MSN conversations - catching up with London friends, and keeping in touch with Jersey friends.

In particular a certain recently-acquired Jersey boyfriend.....

*{not v. happy with colour-communicating-mood idea after all... did it communicate anything?}

Thursday, September 04, 2008


1. on the wall which leads into the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern
2. Rose Alley, just around the corner from the Tate Modern
3. East London, near Brick Lane
4. somewhere in London, can't remember where....
5. a pavement in Greenwich, South London.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Coney Island

Here are some more pictures [and moving pictures] while i'm on a roll, from my trip to Coney Island with Ched.

People were still on the beach when we arrived


queuing for the shower.

though Beer Island looked already deserted.

Before long the wind was gathering force
[vid should appear, blogger seems a bit slow to load....]

and the evacuation began

It got pretty wet.

The sandwich boards were dancing and racing across the boardwalk, driven by the rain and wind.

We took refuge in the warmth and friendly shelter of a clam bar, ate sausage and watched the rain.

['nother vid]

Once the weather eased off a bit, we meandered around the streets and through an arcade where the Tunnel of Horror was closed

but there were other entertainments

And then we headed back to the station,

through the puddles,

leaving it all behind, wet but warm, tired and happy