30 November 2014

"dissonance made eloquent"

I just got back to Alfred after spending most of Thanksgiving week in New York City, cat-sitting for Tigris and Euphrates out in Ridgewood, Queens. Thanks for the job, John. There's a 6:30 pm bus from Port Authority that gets into Alfred at 1:15 am. I like that bus because you can get stuff done in the city and sleep on the bus rather than spending lots of daylight hours on the bus, not that looking at the Catskills and Southern Tier is a problem. So I dozed on the bus and went to bed pretty quickly after the bus got me home in the early morning. Got up in the morning and went off to Wellsville after my morning walk. The convenience store here in Alfred used to carry the Sunday Times but they don't anymore. So it's off to Tops Supermarket in Wellsville and then pancakes and one sunnyside egg at the Texas Hot. I usually sit at the counter and there's plenty of room for me, my paper, and my food. This morning, I was toward the kitchen end of the counter and a bit later than usual. After a bit, I found myself cheek-by-jowl with several of the employees as they ate their breakfast (French toast and sausage) or lunch (salad), but not brunch. Whatever meal was appropriate for their "lifestyle." There were different conversations on either side, mostly about life, but they were more "there" than the conversations in New York City. Not really intrusive but not ignorable either.

As I sit here several hours later, reading "In Praise of Impracticality" by Bill Hayes in the Sunday Review section of the Times, I am struck by his description of what a New Yorker misses when not in town. "By this, I don't mean missing the Rockettes at Radio City, New Year's Eve in Times Square, or some amazing exhibit at the Met. In New York, there is always something amazing happening somewhere that one ends up hearing about only later. What I meant instead was missing the evanescent, the eavesdropped, the unexpected: a snowfall that blankets the city and turns it into a peaceful new world. Or, in summer, the sight of the first fireflies in the park at twilight. The clop-clop of horses' hooves on cobblestones in the West Village, mounted police patrolling late at night, or a lovers' quarrel within earshot of all passers-by. Of course, what is music to my ears may be intolerable to another's. Life here is a John Cage score, dissonance made eloquent."

That's it: in Alfred or Wellsville, the nearby conversation butts into your consciousness and it's difficult to ignore, partly because you're likely to be considered rude or unfriendly or you actually know who it is they're talking about. Probably no one on South Main Street was delighted to hear the "clop-clop" of my suitcase wheels as I came up from the bus stop a bit after one in the morning. The sidewalk was a slushy mess and there were no cars on the street.

24 November 2014

Shadow Country, Mother Nature, and poetry

Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen is a grand book: in scope, in narrative, in size at almost 900 pages. It's a grand read all along but, every once in a while, there's a passage that is particularly wonderful. To wit ... (on pages 660-661 of the Modern Library paperback edition)

One afternoon over lemonade and cookies, discussing our [Everglades] wilderness with the children, she quoted some opinions of the poets. A Miss Dickinson of New England had concluded that the true nature of Nature was malevolent, whereas the self-infatuated Mr. Whitman of New York found undomesticated Nature merely detestable. What could such people know of Nature, Mandy inquired, pointing at that huge motionless gray-green beast across the river: nature was not malevolent, far less detestable, but simply oblivious, indifferent, and God's indifference as manifested in such creatures was infinitely more terrifying than literary notions of malevolence could ever be. To regard such an engine of predation without awe, or dare to dismiss it as detestable -- wasn't that to suggest that the Creator might detest His own Creation?

"How about the mosquitoes?" complained Eddie, ever anxious to return indoors.

Lucius led us to the nest of red-winged blackbirds, parting the tall reeds so we could see. Losing its mate after the eggs had hatched to a snake or hawk, or owl, the male bird, flashing his flaming shoulders, had simply resumed his endless song about himself (like Mr. Walter Whitman, said Mandy, smiling), by dint of which he won a second female, and now this pair was busily engaged in constructing its new nest on top of the old one -- on top, that is, of the live young, which were squeaking and struggling to push their hungry bills up through the twigs. The horrified children longed to rescue the trapped victims, although this meant that the second clutch would be destroyed. Lucius forbade this and his mother nodded. "Even victims are not innocent," she whispered to no one in particular. "They are simply present. They are simply in the way."

Instinctively I had to agree, though Lucius and I could never explain to each other just what she meant. Her words made me feel odd. One moment a man bathing in the river celebrates his sparkling life and the next he is seized by the unseen and dragged beneath the surface, which moves on downriver as placid as before. God's will, Mandy would say. Man's fate, I agreed. Are they the same? But since long ago I had lost all faith, Mandy knew it was useless to discuss this.

21 November 2014

crystalline plans

The Bergren Forum this week was on "Multiphase Ceramics for Nuclear Energy" with S.K. Sundaram, a researcher in the Inamori School of Engineering at Alfred University. I won't surprise you to know that I was struggling to keep up with the description of the research on ceramic and glass materials that are being studied as receptacles for nuclear waste. A ways into the talk, Sundaram showed some pictures of crystals and I had some context. This isn't the one he showed but it has some of the same feel. This is perovskite from http://galleryhip.com/crystal-structure-minerals.html.

It looked like a view down on a ranch house in Texas designed by Lake|Flato or the Talbot House on Nevis Island by Taft Architects. Here's the Talbot House and its plan from the Taft Architects website: