My grandmother, the tweeter

I awoke this morning with a question: would my grandmother have tweeted?

She passed away before twitter was even a germinating notion and before email was as ubiquitous as it is now. The most prevalent form of social media were the conversations during which she and I would dissect plot and motive from a recent episode of “Murder She Wrote” or “Hunter.”

But she was a correspondent. True, she had a readership of just one: her younger brother who lived in India. But to him she told the news of the day, of the goings-on in her corner of the States, and general musings about her quotidian observations. She wrote in Tamil, a script I only recognized by shape but whose meaning eluded me. Sometimes my grandmother would translate what she was writing; only now does it occur to me that she could have been lying! I doubt it, but…

If she were to tweet, I bet she would have adopted a less publicly public persona. That’s not to say her tweets would be protected. But they might be somewhat disguised, and her twitter handle would likely hearken back to the days of early email usernames when people relished in concocting absurd monikers for themselves, a time when anonymity reigned supreme (rather than the branding and self-marketing that marks today’s norm).

Some options:

@Kalpathi4eva (she was born in the village of Kalpathi, and so…)
@Hunterfan (self explanatory)
@Breadupma (would take too long to explain)
@Loosekanji (so would this)

As for the content, I wonder if her tweets would contain bits of song she would often invoke to underscore a point, draw out unexpected contours of experience, or simply as an excuse to break up the afternoon. Or might they be quotes from the Bhagavad Gita or the Ramayana, two books she read and reread incessantly? Or perhaps, if she were to continue with her flaneuse-like tendencies and resume circumambulating our childhood neighborhood as once used to do, perhaps she would recount odd bits of conversations that caught her as she passed by — below, snippets I overheard during last night’s walk:

 [Young man to a young woman he was walking with]: “Do you smell that?” deep breath “I love the smell of late evening in the spring.”

[Teenage girl crossing the street with two girlfriends]: “Omigod, I am fat. No, I am. I am! I am fat.” Over her friends’ protestations: “That’s rubbish.”

[Young woman sitting next to a young man on a bench in the park]: “I’ve never had a one night stand.”

[Two men standing on the corner smoking cigarettes, the one with worried eyes did the talking]: “Have you heard anything? Has there been any communication?” The other shakes his head.

So, would grandma have been a tweeter? I can’t say for sure, but given the way the platform keeps people in the forefront of my mind’s eye, I’d like to think so. 

A week when Sebald found me

One evening in December T showed me a manuscript copy of A place in the country, a collection of Sebald’s essays that was originally published in German nearly two decades ago. This spring, the English translation was published (and available May 2nd) and I can finally get my hands on Sebald’s take on Rousseau and others whom, it is said repeatedly, he brings “lovingly to life.”

This past week, articles in the key of Sebald found their way again and again into my virtual inboxes — either via email or twitter feed.

A link to the first — Out of the Shadows — was emailed to me by a friend and is written by Uwe Schütte, a former student of Sebald’s. One line in particular stood out to me and suggests to me something about why the sensibility of this writer strikes such a chord with me.

“I never liked doing things systematically,” Sebald declared in the 1990s. “Not even my PhD research was done systematically. It was always done in a random, haphazard fashion. And the more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way, ie, in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field.”

I was alerted to a second piece by a friend via twitter who I turned onto Sebald’s works and whose father, it turns out, had been an avid reader of the author in the years before his death: WG Sebald: Reveries of a solitary walker. Four writers (James Wood, Will Self, Iain Sinclair and Robert Macfarlane) reflect on the significance of Sebald for them and their work. Macfarlane gets it just right when he says:

Sebald’s seemingly passive prose was in fact – to borrow Marianne Moore’s memorable phrase – “diction galvanised against inertia”

At the bottom of this piece was a link to a third piece — the pièce de résistance, as it turned out — penned by Sebald, himself. And for just the smallest of split seconds the truth seemed like it might be a beautifully crafted nightmare… The Guardian had printed an excerpt from Sebald’s newly published collection and called the piece: A Place in the Country by WG Sebald – extract. And from the first words, I heard his voice* begin to spin a tale.

At the end of September 1965, having moved to the French-speaking part of Switzerland to continue my studies, a few days before the beginning of the semester I took a trip to the nearby Seeland, where, starting from Ins, I climbed up the so-called Schattenrain.

The long sentences stretch out before the reader like a guide, comforting without revealing too much truth at once. The information is meted out in metaphor, location, and imagery that provides necessary details while resisting the trap of over description. Sometimes called wandering, other times called poetic, and often evoking the feeling of traveling from one where to another, these sentences beckon, are invitational and unfolding, are an apt form of the pedagogical (if the reader will let them be so).

I thought immediately of another excerpt, this time from Emerson’s essay “Experience” in which he writes:

Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. … We animate what we can, and we see only what we animate. Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them. It depends on the mood of the man, whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem. There are always sunsets, and there is always genius; but only a few hours so serene that we can relish nature or criticism.

I often read Sebald as both composer and conductor, orchestrating the reading experience as a transportive one in which a casual glance at a lamp or a stone carving is an instance license to travel through time and space and to feel both local and global resonance at once. Nothing is unconnected everything, which is not to say that everything is necessary connected; rather, he seems to be writing with the purpose to move the reader to consider each words as tethered to a portal of further inquiry. He is an artful master of stringing beads, in the Emersonian sense, and describing while also delivering experience. And yet, Sebald strikes me as one who is free from the trappings of the current academic epidemic of writing as self aggrandizement; his purpose seems to be driven by a different purpose, while maintaining a palpable gentleness and humility.

In the excerpt reprinted by The Guardian, Sebald has written about Rousseau and his affection for the monastic Île St. Pierre in Switzerland. Here, he ponders the ways that returning to the island effected Rousseau’s writing:

Compared with these dark days, the Île Saint-Pierre must truly have appeared to Rousseau, when he arrived there on 9 September, as a paradise in miniature in which he might believe he could collect himself in a stillness, as he writes at the beginning of the “Fifth Walk”, interrupted only by the cry of the eagle, the song of an occasional bird, and the rushing of the mountain streams.

And now, I must order my copy of his volume, which I glimpsed in hard copy during a weekend sojourn with a friend — images, photographs, drawings jumped out from a very abbreviated flip-through. It promises to be as engaging and moving a read as the rest of Sebald’s oeuvre.

*To hear Sebald in his own voice, you can listen to him being interviewed by Michael Silverblatt on the radio program Bookworm, transmitted a few days before his death.

In the echoes of others’ words

“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something — because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him. — And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts.” — Bertrand Russell

“Whereas a work has something irreplaceable and unique about it, a product can be reproduced exactly, and is in fact the result of repetitive acts and gestures.” — Henri Lefebvre

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may
be the measure of our lives.” — Toni Morrison

“I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sat reclined;
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran.
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man…..”
— William Wordsworth



Shedding Skin
— Harryette Mullens

Pulling out of the old scarred skin
(old rough thing I don’t need now
I strip off
slip out of
leave behind)

I slough off deadscales
flick skinflakes to the ground

Shedding toughness
peeling layers down
to vulnerable stuff

And I’m blinking off old eyelids
for a new way of seeing

By the rock I rub against
I’m going to be tender again

What it takes to write

In her piece for the New Yorker titled, “How I get to write,” Roxanna Robinson describes the precious, sacred morning time between the end of sleep and the beginning of writing. The time — or more precisely, the space, the gap in the day when remnants of slumber still linger before the day’s demands become all-consuming.

I brush my teeth, get dressed, make the bed. I avoid conversation, as my husband knows. I am not yet in the world, and there is a certain risk involved in talking: the night spins a fine membrane, like the film inside an eggshell. It seals you off from the world, but it’s fragile, easily pierced.

The “fine membrane” of the previous night is one I want to stay with for longer than I usually am able to, save during breaks and time away — that is to say, physically away. While I don’t agree with all of what she writes (i.e., I love breakfast and, when I allow myself to indulge, truly enjoy the taste of coffee) —

I go down the hall into the kitchen. I don’t like breakfast, but it’s necessary to get through it in order to get to coffee.

I drink instant because I don’t care how it tastes, all I want is the kick. And I don’t want to wait for perking or dripping.

— I do have a deep appreciation for her articulation of the importance of undisturbed times to delve deeply into the gossamer hints of thought that require space to germinate and sprout.

So I don’t read the news or listen to it. Nor do I make a single phone call, not even to find out if the plumber is actually coming that day to fix the sink, which he has failed to do now for five days in a row. One call and I’m done for. Entering into the daily world, where everything is complicated and requires decisions and conversation, means the end of everything. It means not getting to write.

The reason the morning is so important is that I’ve spent the night somewhere else.

This is nowhere I can describe exactly, only that it’s mysterious and limitless, a place where the mind expands.

Being awake and ready for writing and being awake in order to be social are two utterly different things. My family knows this well…


Still more daily routines of writers were made available recently by Maria Popova over at

The Daily Routines of Famous Writers

including, Ernest Hemingway:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.

Maya Angelou:

I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop — I’m a serious cook — and pretend to be normal. I play sane — Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work.

Don DeLillo:

I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle — it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent — you don’t know it’s passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes — I stopped smoking a long time ago. The space is clear, the house is quiet. A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.

William Gibson:

When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.

Anaïs Nin:

I write my stories in the morning, my diary at night.

and, for E, the wise musings of Benjamin Franklin — seen here in this graphically organized daily routine:

Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule

and now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare to sleep so that I can get up and write.

Finding the pockets

Beginnings and ends of semesters are frantic. Middles are not much better. But there are always pockets, and this week was full of the most magnificent pockets — even amidst the height of administrative banality.

Two pockets have to do with teaching, notes of an experience that were foreshadowed unexpectedly several weeks earlier in these tweets by author Teju Cole:teacherunknowing

…and the grace of unplanned and fated encounters.

And a third, an essay by Uwe Schütte about being a student of W. G. Sebald — see “Teaching by Example” that begins on p. 42 of the latest issue of Five Dials magazine. In it, he writes of being a student, learning, being taught, and also of fate. And, a beautiful embrace of the humility of teaching. For instance, of his time with Sebald, the German author who spent most of his adult life in the UK, Schütte writes:

What I learned from him was more than a thing or two about literature. I also learned what it means to be upright and detached in the bonfire of literary as well as academic vanities. And I learned the probably somewhat un-British lesson of speaking one’s mind in situations where it is necessary to do so.

Living by example, really.

today’s playlist

Those of us who write — for work, for play, for all the bits in between — think and talk to a great degree about voice. But so rarely in all that talk is there discussion of what the damn words actually sound like — the timbre, resonance, rhythm, cadence. What do our words sound like in the world? Spoken by others we may never meet? Or, for that matter, what is the sound of our voices as we dare to say the words we so boldly write, as we so baldly claim our voice.

And then, thoughts of voice — of timbre, resonance, rhythm, and cadence — took me to these voices, and I was soothed, intoxicated, transported.

It amazes me what people can do with their voices, what they choose to do, what they think to do. Alexi Murdoch is a recent discovery. The live rendition of “All my days” has been on a loop for the past hour and half. Can ears be transfixed? Mine are. (It only underscores the abject lack of quality of my own voice as I have participated in a few renditions of “happy birthday” in recent weeks…)

Near the end of a conversation (included below) between John Berger and Michael Ondaatje, all of which I love and highly recommend that everyone give a good listen to, they each reveal what path they might have pursued if they were not writers.

The question is proffered by Berger to his friend and interlocutor at around the 39:50 mark. He says, with his inimitable and somewhat rounded style of articulation, “If you could swap  your talents you for another of any kind, do you know you’d choose?”

Ondaatje responds with an eager “Oh yeah…” even before the question completes its exit from Berger’s mouth.

“I would want to be a piano player.” And, having said this, Ondaatje smiles momentarily, as if to take in his own response — one that he has clearly pondered many times before this one.

Berger: “huh…”

Ondaatje: “Well, what would you do?”

Berger — smiling, perhaps self-consciously or in a self-congratulatory manner, and nodding, his tan head prominent against his white shirt whose sleeves are messily rolled up — responds: “I would want to be a singer.”

Ondaatje: “And what kind of singing?”

Berger: “Doesn’t matter [shaking his head]… just … it–it doens’t matter…uhh… the devil or the fairy decide.”

Ondaatje: “Well we’ll meet in the next life and join up.” [laughing, and joined by Berger’s enthusiastic laughter at this proposition]

The guitar fantasy — the one about being able to create altogether new worlds with a simple wooden object, strings, and fingers in concert with voice — still lingers… Maybe in another life, indeed…

For now, in honor of the Nick Drake kind of week I’ve been having, thank you to my friend who first brought his music into the realm of my consciousness all those many, many years ago. A classic (albeit somewhat overused classic at this point):

Forgetting and remembering

Another literary stumble upon this week as I walked, bleary-eyed (the result of more than a fortnight of evenings dissolving into mornings with little sleep, whilst gestating an edited volume into submittable form — 98% there — and succumbing, unwittingly, to a cold virus that is making the rounds) into Book Culture hoping for…. no, not hoping; I entered assumption-free, just seeking. And I was not disappointed. In addition to the Bishop correspondence collection, I found a book comprised of little notes and scribbles that Roland Barthes had made, apparently on a series of index cards, for two years following the death of his mother.

This sentiment of loss stood out in particular.


From: Mourning Diary: October 26, 1977-September 15, 1979 – Roland Barthes



Other than the familiar retreat of walking or writing (or reading or photographing or cooking), teaching has been the cushion to soften reentry’s crash landing, one that is characterized less by violent or jerking movements and more by a persistent cloud of disorientation. I wrote in a letter to a friend the other day that it is in the space of teaching — one where I have the chance to also be a learner and fellow looker and seer — that I am speaking a language that I recognize and that makes sense to me. The procedural apparatus surrounding those moments is utterly foreign, at best, demoralizing, at worst. This is perhaps what marks last night’s class as especially moving — I take no credit for it except to thank myself for having the good sense to be in collaboration with thoughtful and humane people, two of whom shared stories and experiences with the students in the form of dialogue and an exercise (although to say “exercise” feels diminishing somehow) on reflection and seeing and, quite frankly, retaining one’s humanity in the midst of the seemingly intractable institutional morass.

On that note… Should the time come for me to resign — because at this rate, who knows if I’ll make it to retirement — I should like to think I can be as precise and concise as William Faulkner was in his letter of resignation from his position as postmaster, addressed to his superiors at the University of Mississippi:

[October, 1924]

As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.

This, sir, is my resignation.



For more, see Letters of Note.

earliest memory

“What is your earliest memory?” — these were the words embroidered onto a square pillow at the center of a photograph posted by Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade or vintage goods. More often than not, Etsy posts offer both commerce and food for thought and this time was no exception.

Austerlitz, the last book of W. G. Sebald, is a narrative dissection of human memory.

This is the opening line from an article by Jens Brockmeier titled “Austerlitz’s Memory” in which he explores the author’s narrative style that brings forth memory in unsettling ways. In AusterlitzSebald is once again explicating quotidian realities that undergo changes, both subtle and seismic, as Nazi rule upended, evacuated or extinguished the lives of German Jews who had, for so long, been citizens of the very landscapes in which they had become the focus of persecution. Of this now-quintessential Sebaldian prose, Brockmeier writes:

No doubt, Austerlitz demands a serious reader who follows attentively a meandering syntax without clear paragraph structure, a peculiar mixture of the narrative voices of the protagonist and the narrator, several layers of free indirect thought and discourse, and wide-ranging associative chains that encompass extensive accounts of very specific details that may or may not contribute to a labyrinthine plot, if we can call it a plot at all.

For these two German authors, writing at different times, one (Brockmeier) in response to the words of another (Sebald), himself consumed with the responsibility to communicate affectively and still somewhat dispassionately — but not without effecting the reader, nor, I suspect, himself — the narrativized life of a character whose history embodies events experienced by many others living and growing up in the time of World War 2 … these are great burdens to carry, let along to represent in story.

Sebald’s writing provokes a question in me about the significance of poetics and narrative — what if the subject matter is ugly? How does one write beautiful prose about horrific events? The filmmakers of the documentary War Dance — that follows the lives of children who are recruited to become soldiers in Uganda (as part of the L.R.A.), some of whom have barely reached adolescence — during a panel about beauty in film, wrestled with a similar question: “How do you make a beautiful film about a difficult and deeply upsetting topic?” And the film, both narratively and visually, is stunning.

We ought to remember, of course, that some of our memories are not even our own. They have been given to us, pre-wrapped and fully assembled; yet even these take on new veneers with each retelling. Brockmeier has studied Sebald’s writing, particularly the careful attention with which the latter crafts the nature of remembrance:

The prose of Austerlitz intermingles fact (or apparent fact), recollection (or apparent recollection), and fiction (or apparent fiction), making them indistinguishable. What interests me, however, is not the challenge this prose poses for the critical, narratological, and epistemological reflection of these borderlines, but something else: in blurring the borderlines be- tween the documentary and the fictional Sebald seems to come as close as possible to tracing the dynamics of remembering and forgetting.

Remembering is intimately tied to forgetting; I think often of dreams I can’t remember.

In her Nobel Lecture delivered in December of 1993, Toni Morrison reminded her audience of a simple and awesome truth, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

My earliest memory is tethered to storytelling — of listening to stories, of lining up my toys to listen to my stories, of constructing tales about my very origin. Another memory, that I am convinced is more mine than given to me by others, focuses on an exchange I had with my grandmother about purchasing $.25 root beer from the vending machine with neighborhood friends with whom I recall spending large blocks of time while my family and I lived in an apartment complex soon after immigrating to the States; this was less of a conversation than an ardent pitch to convince my older namesake that root beer was not, in fact, a version of beer.

These recollections are always of summertime, of heat, of feeling the hot concrete underneath my feet while walking barefoot along the swimming pool, of riding Hot Wheels and racing miniature cars, of being admonished for having friends of both genders, of learning to speak English but not being hampered by my limited language proficiency, of being four turning five.

But these are the linguistic memories, preserved in my mind as storied chunks; I’m not sure what the earliest sentient or embodied ones are, but I do know that I am soothed by the rhythm of a rocking chair or moving train.

I am rereading Sebald alongside Brockmeier now, in part as a way to return to an essay I began last summer and in part to hold on to the glimpses of my own humanity that I re-discovered in this past year; as a promise to do something, to do language justly, to live purposefully.

the folly of language

There’s much fun to be had at the expense of the English language — that is to say, at the expense of the version of English spoken here in the States:

  • We park in driveways and drive on parkways.
  • One often pays a toll on freeways.
  • Night falls but day breaks.
  • Suits are packed in a garment bag and garments are packed in a suitcase.

In searching around the web a bit, I also came across several pages* devoted to the sheer silliness of English:

  • We must polish the Polish furniture.
  • He could lead if he would get the lead out.
  • The farm was used to produce produce.
  • The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
  • The soldier decided to desert in the desert.
  • This was a good time to present the present.
  • A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.

And so it goes, this folly of logic throughout the English language. Of course, some linguists may be able to provide etymological history for why certain conventions for how we say what we say to mean what we mean came about. Saying and meaning, however, are two different things.

Once again, Twain provides sound wisdom on the matter: “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is … the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

So I have been ruminating, while sitting amidst the remaining boxes of items prepared to be transported from one location to another, whether the apt phrase to use as this particular spell-of-time called sabbatical nears its conclusion is “going back.” Does one ever really go back, which is not the same as the more achievable act of going backward — i.e., on a bicycle, as a running technique to strengthen the forgotten leg muscles, in knitting (or so I’m told, because knit one, pearl two was too much for me to grasp).

“Going back,” however, attempts to evoke the sentiment of returning to something or somewhere stable. We go back home from vacation or go back to our offices having forgotten a book or keys — going back is as reassuring as it is unnerving. The latter is the reason that many choose not to attend their high school reunions for fear that going back to the physical structure of the educational institution may catalyze once again the social arrangements that existed ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. (Time travel is less daunting in some respects.) Going back can feel worse than anti-climactic; it takes on the veneer of the gruesome. Going back can feel as if nothing has changed. And yet, if nothing is unchanging, can we really go back?

The folly of language is also its beauty. Our inability to communicate in a manner that replicates our very thoughts for others is what gives rise to heart-stopping prose and enchanting descriptions — Sebald elucidating the poetry to be found in the way smoke billows or the anthropomorphic qualities of black silk as in this passage from Rings of Saturn where he is describing the actions of a dying man:

Apollo had burnt all of his own manuscripts in the fireplace. At times, when he did so, a weightless flake of soot ash like a scrap of black silk would drift through the room, borne up on the air, before sinking to the floor somewhere or dissolving into the dark.

Each time I read about Apollo Korzeniowski My mind’s eye follows the soot around the room, instinctively raising my chin as if I expect the ash to be twisting and floating near me, wherever I happen to be while reading those words. (One of those times happened to be while seated on a large slab of granite at the Met Museum in New York City along east wall of a room that contained the Temple of Dendur, the centerpiece of the Egyptian collection at the museum. The entire northern wall of the room leans inward and is made of several hundred small panes of glass giving visitors a feeling of closeness with the adjacent Central Park — closeness and airiness, inside and outside, embraced and alighted.) Does it matter whether the ash was silk-like or not? Is this a debate of historical accuracy? Can adjectives alone make or break history?

“Going back” viewed as an incarnation of returning may be cognizant of change; that is to say, if the traveler has changed — by the mere passing of time, through encounters and glimpses into other ways of being and living — so, too, has her home — even if only having gathered dust that was previously absent.

Yet, both “going back” and “returning” feel heavy, laden with the past rather than buoyed by the wisdom of history.

When words in our language fail us or, worse, stifle us, we turn to other tongues.

I recently learned that the sanskrit word “bhu” is used to mean both “being” and “becoming” —

How can that be? For so long I have pitted the two against the other: being as alternatively stagnant and resolute; becoming as responsive and generative. But both, and? How does one orient oneself to accept this as not merely duality or compounded noun, but what is? If so, can one be going back and returning?

In Korean, the word “han” connotes both despair and acceptance, sorrow as well as a desire for vengeance though without action; the definitions rendered in English are inherently inadequate, so devoid are our words of the implied cultural meanings and referents to which “han” signals almost before its utterance.

In a contrasting vein, the Greek word “kalon” — the Platonic descriptor of beauty — struggles to gain apt expression in English. Rather than attempt to paraphrase, I will quote directly from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

More typically kalon appears in contexts to which “beautiful” would fit awkwardly or not at all. For both Plato and Aristotle—and in many respects for Greek popular morality—kalon has a particular role to play as ethical approbation, not by meaning the same thing that agathon “good” means, but as a special complement to goodness.

Because kalon does not always apply when “beautiful” does, and conversely much can be kalon that no one calls beautiful, translators may use other words. One rightly popular choice is “fine,” which applies to most things labeled kalon and also appropriate to ethical and aesthetic contexts (so Woodruff 1983). There are fine suits and string quartets but also fine displays of courage. Of course we have fine sunsets and fine dining as well, this word being even broader than kalon; that is not to mention fine points or fine print. And whereas people ordinarily ask what beauty really consist in, so that a conversation on the topic might actually have taken place, it is hard to imagine worrying over “what the fine is” or “what is really fine.”

Translation, too, is far from an exact science — for that matter, science is far from being an exact science! All language, however precise, is mere approximation.


Well this is a fine rhetorical corner I’ve painted myself into, out of which the only way out is to embrace the reality that going to campus, to my office, and into the coming autumn semester with a sense of both being and becoming and to trust that things that seem unchanging have also undergone change, however glacial.

In doing so, I’ll ponder another unlikely discursive combination: rooted wanderlust…

The folly of language is also its beauty.

* If you click on this page, you’ll notice that the word “homonym” is used to mean heteronym.


650. That, according to Jordan Weissman, a writer for The Atlantic, who extrapolated the number from claims about workers’ productivity issued by McKinsey Global Institute, is the number of hours the average “working stiff” spends on email at work. His calculations are as follows:

“we spend 13 hours a week, or 28 percent of our office time, on email. Assuming two weeks vacation, that multiplies out to 650 hours a year.”

Nevermind the obvious “buts” that undoubtedly come to mind — 13 hours out of how many? The last time my work week was 40 hours — HA! Who gets two weeks vacation? But I email on vacation! — and consider the following math:

An average year has 8760 hours (or, as the musical Rent has drilled into my mind, “525, 600 miiiinnutes!”) — and a leap year, such as the current one, has 24 hours more. The figure of 650 hours, then, or roughly 7%, doesn’t seem quite as egregious as perhaps it’s meant to be. And frankly, I think the approximation of 650 hours per year, which is less than two hours a day, might be a low estimate…for some people…

After all, email needn’t mean the drudgery of replying to inane requests for the same document, statistic, or reference you’ve already sent along at least ten times. But perhaps it can’t be helped, and perhaps that’s why many of us have multiple email accounts — to perpetuate the illusion that we are entirely different people when we check the gmail account versus the .edu one; that the mindful and present person we can be with the former is all but a ghost when we click open the latter…

What is more appalling, however, is the nonchalant recommendation that concludes Weissman’s article:

“McKinsey suggests that by moving to social media-based information platforms — think some of the more recent versions of Microsoft Sharepoint — would make workers 25 percent more productive. True?”

False! My guess is that the average person working within an institution, be it for/non/or anti-profit, has to communicate with a bevy of others — you know the ones: the humorless, the martyrs, the overly performative types — with whom a generic status update or tweet such as “Skpg mtg. Kthxbye!” just wouldn’t feel right. (And now I’m imagining various members of our institutional administration huddled together around someone’s tablet, smartphone, or laptop as they try to decipher that…)

Nor would it “increase productivity” — another much-loathed phrase — because people would be increasingly running around, even more so than now, fretting over the very mechanism that intends to simplify. People already become stressed when composing messages to an audience of one or a few. Dare we imagine the social paralysis that may descend upon the masses if everything was deemed to be necessarily public?! (…even though a very tiny part of me suspects that private is merely an artifact of nostalgia, alive in our memories alone…)

So, to recap:
Less time spent on inane emails that say the same thing 25 times over? Yes!
Imposed socially mediated communication for the sake of some false sense of productivity? Um, maybe not quite.

of poets and friends

“The poet speaks only those thoughts that come unbidden, like the wind that stirs the trees, and men cannot help but listen. He is not listened to, but heard.”

Thoreau, May 6, 1841, Journal


“As when the light bulb goes out on the stair, and the hand follows—trusting it—the blind banister rail that finds its way in the dark.”

Tomas Tranströmer, Schubertiana