The Onion published an essay recently called “Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life.”The piece was satire, but it’s how many of us respond to the question Mason Currey raises in his entertaining new book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. “How do you do meaningful creative work,” he wonders, “while also earning a living?”
A product of the author’s now-defunct blog, Daily Routines, Daily Rituals assembles the regimens of 161 assorted creative geniuses into a lean, engaging volume. Its brief entries humanize legends like Hemingway and Picasso, and shed light on the working lives of less popular contemporary geniuses, like painter Gerhard Richter, choreographer Twyla Tharp and illustrator Maira Kalman.
The book makes one thing abundantly clear: There’s no such thing as the way to create good work, but all greats have their way. And some of those ways are spectacularly weird.
Louis Armstrong smoked pot (“gage,” as he called it) almost daily and couldn’t go to sleep until he had taken his dose of a “potent herbal laxative” called Swiss Kriss. “Armstrong believed so strongly in its curative powers that he recommended it to all his friends,” Currey writes, “and even had a card printed up with a photo of himself sitting on a toilet, above the caption ‘Leave It All Behind Ya.’ “
late April snow & dust
Corona storm board
THE Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, known for his love poems and leftist ideals, died 40 years ago this September. One would hope he’d be at rest by now. But on Monday, as classical musicians played a Neruda work set to music by Vicente Bianchi, his remains were exhumed to determine whether he died from poison — instead of prostate cancer, the conventional account.
In recent years, other icons of the Hispanic world have suffered the same fate. In 2011, Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected president-elect who was deposed by a military junta in 1973, wasdisinterred to verify that he’d fatally shot himself. (The finding — yes — is still disputed.) The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez ordered in 2010 that the tomb of his idol, Simón Bolívar, be opened to test his theory that the liberator died of poisoning, not tuberculosis. (The theory remains unproved.)
And in 2008, a Spanish judge authorized the unearthing of a mass grave in the southern town of Alfácar to see whether Federico García Lorca, the poet and dramatist who was assassinated by Fascists in 1936, at the outset of the Civil War, was buried there. (The results were inconclusive.)
There is something gothic, but also cathartic, about summoning artists like Neruda, and his close friend García Lorca, back into the realm of the living, making us wonder if death is really the end. A Chilean judge’s decision, in February, to allow an investigation into Neruda’s death, which led to this week’s exhumation, looks like an act of expiation.
Police and workers set up a tent for the exhumation of the remains of poet Pablo Neruda in Isla Negra, Chile.
Maya Angelou has lived a life so expansive and extraordinary that, even after seven autobiographies, she still has more stories to tell. Her latest book, Mom & Me & Mom, explores her relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter. When Angelou was young, Baxter sent Angelou and her brother away to be raised by their grandmother; years later, she called them back to live with her again, the start of a sometimes fractious but eventually very loving relationship.
Angelou says her familial relationships, particularly with her mother, have been crucial in defining her life. “I’m Maya Angelou — whatever that means to whomever it means — because my mother loved me, and my grandmother loved me, and my brother loved me,” she says. “And they all told me I could do whatever I wanted to do.”
Angelou has carried that tradition of strong familial bonds forward, saying, “I just really want to say that I dedicate this book to my son, who’s the bravest, most courageous and most generous man I’ve ever known. My son, Guy Bailey Johnson.”
Angelou joins NPR’s Rachel Martin to talk about her reunion with her mother, a memorable mother-daughter confrontation and her career as a dancer.
I found an old New Yorker under my bed this morning, along with a lot of dust. I’ve got to do some cleaning. Anyway, I kept this August, 2005 issue for a good reason. A very funny, in fact hilarious Kinky Friedman story/interview when he was running for Texas Governor… J.R.
Here are a few lessons from modern American music. First, he not busy being born is busy dying. Second, you can’t hang a man for killing a woman who is trying to steal your horse. And, third, you come to see what you want to see; you come to see, but you never come to know.
These are good lessons. Bob Dylan provided the first, Willie Nelson the second. The third belongs to Kinky Friedman, who, in the nineteen-seventies, travelled around the country with his country-and-Western band—Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys—annoying audiences with a series of goading, satirical songs with titles like “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” and “Asshole from El Paso.” In the eighties, after the band broke up, Kinky reinvented himself as a mystery novelist. In the past twenty years, he has written seventeen mysteries starring a detective named Kinky Friedman—a Jewish cowboy from Texas who has quit a singing career for a life of sleuthing and one-liners in New York City. Today, Dylan and Nelson, whose onstage thrones in the great concert hall of musical divinity were installed decades ago, seem to intend to ride their tour buses forever. Kinky, who never learned to sit still much, has grown tired of his second career—this year, at the age of sixty, he announced that his most recent mystery will be his last—and has sought out a third. He intends to be the governor of Texas.
Red Pine poem 253:
- Children, I implore you
- get out of the burning house now.
- Three carts await outside
- to save you from a homeless life.
- Relax in the village square
- before the sky, everything’s empty.
- No direction is better or worse,
- East just as good as West.
- Those who know the meaning of this
- are free to go where they want.
- Han Shan was a T’ang Dynasty folk hero, the archetypal “Zen lunatic.” He was said to have been an elusive character who scrawled his poems on precipitous basalt cliffs or the broken walls of forgotten mountain villages. According to legend, Han Shan would sometimes come down from his mountain hermitage for a meal of leftovers, hobo-like, at the back door of Kuo Ching monastery where his side kick, the equally ragged and silly Shih-Te, worked in the kitchen.
- Though Han Shan and Shih-Te appeared destitute and perhaps simple-minded, people believed Han Shan to be a Manjusri—an incarnation of the bodhisattva of wisdom—and Shih-Te to be a Samantabhadra, bodhisattva of compassion. And while they are treated as the original Zen lunatic duo, in T’ang China there was already a long tradition of Taoist sage-fools stretching back through Lao Tzu, and beyond, to the mountain-dwelling shamans who periodically instructed China’s earliest governors and emperors. Sometimes sage and governor were the same person at different life stages, for occasional solitude, far from society was considered integral to developing the character of a ruler.
- Once a government official came to Kuo Ching monastery hoping to interview Han Shan, to find out if he was truly a wise man, but all he saw was Han Shan’s back slipping out the back door. Later the governor sent messengers high up into the peaks of Cold Mountain where Han Shan was said to have his hermitage. In the fog they shouted an offer of clean robes, rare incense and a comfortable room if he would come down and become the governor’s advisor. Han Shan kicked scree down at them, called them thieves and disappeared into the upper mists.
- So said the traditions. In fact, there may have been no historic individual named Han Shan. ”He was from the early T’ang period but the dates of his life in the various accounts differ by a hundred years, from the mid-seventh to the mid-eighth century. The name “Han Shan” translates as “Cold Mountain,” and refers not only to the poet (or poets) but also to a mountain and to the poems themselves. Han Shan’s poetry transcribed from rock faces, tree trunks and crumbling walls and the handed-down stories of his life were quite possibly a conglomeration of works and legends of various hermits, poets and wandering monks associated with that region.
- POETS on the PEAKS, John Suiter
- HAN SHAN, THE COLD MOUNTAIN POEMS, tr. Gary Snyder
Rudolpho Anaya’s 1972 novel Bless Me, Ultima is a classic of Chicano literature. The story begins for Antonio, 6, when Ultima comes to live with his New Mexico family in 1944. Ultima is called a witch, but she considers herself a woman with healing knowledge of medicinal herbs and remedies.
February storm ends-
prayer flags wave in
The Vatican is an old boys’ club. Tradition going all the way back to Peter says it’s a man’s job. But wouldn’t a woman, one who isn’t the least bit timid, be interesting in the role? Like a cool black nun who comes to the throne after 30 years doing God’s work with little recognition. She’d be the first pope in heels. Maybe from the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, in Harlem — the real Sister Act. Get a singing, swinging sister to jazz up St. Peter’s Basilica. I guarantee people would tune in.
I doubt Benedict is thinking about canonization. He’s probably not thinking about anything but retirement, a chance to pray all day and read the paper.
THIS IS THE DAY
The March on Washington
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Documentary photojournalist Leonard Freed was one of the 200,000 people in the crowd that day. He died of prostate cancer in 2006, but a new book of his photos from that day, This Is The Day: The March On Washington, was released in February.
Scott Simon talks with Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, who wrote the essay in the book — as well as Freed’s wife, Brigitte, who was also there on that hot summer morning:
“It was a self-assigned story,” she recalls. “Nobody asked him to do this story.”
Although most Americans were hearing King’s words for the first time, he had actually delivered some of the same phrases in a Detroit speech a couple of months before.
“That having been said, it doesn’t mean that his charisma wasn’t extraordinary,” says Dyson. “King … stood at the sunlit summit of expectation and articulated a dream as golden and as powerful … now as it was then — and Leonard Freed captures those people who King felt were worth fighting for.”
Freed’s wife recalls: “Leonard didn’t stop taking pictures until the last protesters had headed home. I think what we see is the remarkable recording of the silent dignity of the masses of black people and their allies.”
Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda in Stockholm with his wife Matilda after he received the Nobel Prize for literature.
A Chilean court has ruled that poet Pablo Neruda’s body be exhumed for autopsy, according to the Pablo Neruda Foundation. Neruda died 12 days after the coup that overthrew his friend, President Salvador Allende, and some suspect that Neruda was poisoned. Allende’s body was also exhumed in 2011, and the official cause of death — suicide — was confirmed.
Woody Guthrie wrote thousands of songs in his lifetime — but as far as anyone knows, he only wrote one novel. Recently discovered, House of Earth is the story of a young couple living in the Texas Panhandle in the 1930s. They dream of building a house that will withstand the bitter winds and ever-present dust that constantly threaten the flimsy wooden shack they call home.
The novel is being released by Johnny Depp’s new publishing imprint at HarperCollins, Infinitum Nihil. It was Depp’s publishing partner, historian and author Douglas Brinkley, who tracked down the lost novel after he stumbled across a reference to it while doing research. When he sat down to read it, Brinkley could hear the same Woody Guthrie he had grown to love through his music.
“Woody Guthrie has something that every artist would dies for: a voice,” says Brinkley. “You can read House of Earth and you know it’s Woody Guthrie. You know it’s coming from the heart.”
When Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, first read the book, she had a different reaction. “The opening chapter was so sexy,” she says, laughing. “I just went, whoa, Dad, where are you going with this?”
Both Brinkley and Guthrie suspect that in part, it is the sexually explicit material in the book that kept it from being published after it was written in 1947.
eating all i can
at Vegas buffet,
so is everyone else
Stanley Karnow, the award-winning author and journalist who wrote a definitive book about the Vietnam War, worked on an accompanying documentary and later won a Pulitzer for a history of the Philippines, died Sunday morning. He was 87.
A Paris-based correspondent for Time magazine early in his career, Karnow was assigned in 1958 to Hong Kong as bureau chief for Southeast Asia and soon arrived in Vietnam, when the American presence was still confined to a small core of advisers. In 1959, Karnow reported on the first two American deaths in Vietnam, not suspecting that tens of thousands would follow.
Into the 1970s, Karnow would cover the war off and on for Time, The Washington Post and other publications and then draw upon his experience for an epic PBS documentary and for the million-selling “Vietnam: A History,” published in 1983 and widely regarded as an essential, even-handed summation.
A fellow Vietnam reporter, Morley Safer, would describe Karnow as the embodiment of “the wise old Asian hand.” Karnow was known for his precision and research — his Vietnam book reaches back to ancient times — and his willingness to see past his own beliefs. He was a critic of the Vietnam War (and a name on President Nixon’s enemies list) who still found cruelty and incompetence among the North Vietnamese. His friendship with Philippines leader Corazon Aquino did not stop him from criticizing her presidency.
Bernard Kalb, a journalist, former State Department spokesman and longtime friend who met Karnow when they were both working in Hong Kong in the 1950s, said Karnow described journalism as the only profession “in which you can be an adolescent all your life.”
“You never lose your enthusiasm and the depths of curiosity to engage with the world. That’s what it means,” Kalb told The Associated Press on Sunday. “Stanley took those particular drives of adolescence all through his life.”
Karnow’s first book was the text for “Southeast Asia,” an illustrated Life World Library release published in 1962, before the U.S. committed ground troops to Vietnam. It was partly a Cold War time capsule, preoccupied with Communist influence, but was also skeptical enough of official policy to anticipate the fall of a key American ally, South Vietnamese president Ngo Dihn Diem, an event that helped lead to greater American involvement.
Like so many others, Karnow initially supported the war and believed in the “domino theory,” which asserted that if South Vietnam were to fall to communism its neighbors would too.
But by war’s end, Karnow agreed with the soldier asked by a reporter in 1968 what he thought of the conflict: “It stinks,” was the reply.
“Vietnam: A History” was published in 1983 and coincided with a 13-part PBS documentary series. Like much of his work, Karnow’s book combined historical research, firsthand observations and thorough reporting, including interviews with top officials on both sides of the war. Decades later, it remained read and taught alongside such classics as David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” and Michael Herr’s “Dispatches.”
Don’t weep, insects-
lovers, stars themselves,
Just by being,
thus no sins.
Reflecting the popularity and interest in Issa as man and poet, Japanese books on Issa outnumber those on Buson, and almost equal in number those on Bashō.
Issa was born and registered as Kobayashi Nobuyuki (小林 信之), with a childhood name of Kobayashi Yatarō (小林 弥太郎), the first son of a farmer family of Kashiwabara, now part of Shinano-machi, Shinano Province (present-day Nagano Prefecture). Issa endured the loss of his mother, who died when he was three. Her death was the first of numerous difficulties young Issa suffered. He was cared for by his grandmother, who doted on him, but his life changed again when his father remarried five years later. Issa’s half-brother was born two years later, and when his grandmother died when he was 14, Issa felt estranged in his own house, a lonely, moody child who preferred to wander the fields. His attitude did not please his stepmother, who, according to Lewis Mackenzie, was a “tough-fibred ‘managing’ woman of hard-working peasant stock.” He was sent to Edo (present-day Tokyo) to eke out a living by his father one year later. Nothing of the next ten years of his life is known for certain. His name was associated with Kobayashi Chikua (小林 竹阿) of the Nirokuan (二六庵) haiku school, but their relationship is not clear. During the following years, he wandered through Japan and fought over his inheritance with his stepmother (his father died in 1801). He wrote a diary, now called Last Days of Issa’s Father. After years of legal wrangles, Issa managed to secure rights to half of the property his father left. He returned to his native village at the age of 49 and soon took a wife, Kiku. After a brief period of bliss, tragedy returned. The couple’s first-born child died shortly after his birth. A daughter died less than two-and-a-half years later, inspiring Issa to write this haiku (translated by Lewis Mackenzie).
Issa wrote over 20,000 haiku, which have won him readers up to the present day. Though his works were popular, he suffered great monetary instability. Despite a multitude of personal trials, his poetry reflects a childlike simplicity, making liberal use of local dialects and conversational phrases, and ‘including many verses on plants and the lower creatures. Issa wrote 54 haiku on the snail, 15 on the toad, nearly 200 on frogs, about 230 on the firefly, more than 150 on the mosquito, 90 on flies, over 100 on fleas and nearly 90 on the cicada, making a total of about one thousand verses on such creatures’. By contrast, Bashō’s verses are comparatively few in number, about two thousand in all).
Issa, ‘with his intense personality and vital language [and] shockingly impassioned verse…is usually considered a most conspicuous heretic to the orthodox Basho tradition’. Nevertheless, ‘in that poetry and life were one in him…[&] poetry was a diary of his heart’, it is at least arguable that ‘Issa could more truly be said to be Basho’s heir than most of the haikai poets of the nineteenth century’.
Issa’s works also include haibun (passages of prose with integrated haiku) such as Oraga Haru (おらが春 “My Spring”) and Shichiban Nikki (七番日記 “Number Seven Journal”), and he collaborated on more than 250 renku (collaborative linked verse).
Issa was also known for his drawings, generally accompanying haiku: ‘the Buddhism of the haiku contrasts with the Zen of the sketch’. His approach has been described as ‘similar to that of Sengai….Issa’s sketches are valued for the extremity of their abbreviation, in keeping with the idea of haiku as a simplification of certain types of experience’
If Lebowski Calls, Will You Be in? Or Out Bowling? Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman’s ‘Dude and the Zen Master’
I come late to everything. My first R.E.M. album was “Green.” I just started “Deadwood.” I have not seen the entire “Gangnam Style”video. The great exception to my tardiness is “The Big Lebowski.” While most fans of that Los Angeles story from Coen brothers about mistaken identity, German nihilists, Sabbath observance and bowling were straphangers on the bus — the movie was no hit when it was released — I grokked its genius on first viewing, at a cineplex in North Haven, Conn., in 1998.
The authors Jeff Bridges, left, and Bernie Glassman, who use Mr. Bridges’s film “The Big Lebowski” as a philosophical guide.
THE DUDE AND THE ZEN MASTER
By Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman
Illustrated. 272 pages. Blue Rider Press. $26.95.
How did I love “Lebowski”? Dude, let’s count the ways. I loved Jeff Bridges as Jeff Lebowski, the pot-smoking, White Russian-drinking, pacifist bowler known as the Dude. I loved Philip Seymour Hoffman as the obsequious toadie to the other Lebowski whom the Dude is mistaken for. I loved the absurdist plot, something about a missing rug. And I seriously loved Tara Reid, pruriently painting her toenails.
But above all I loved the movie’s deep unseriousness. In the second year of graduate school I spent my days jostling with Foucauldians, trauma theorists, critical-race-studies scholars and other people generally hostile to frivolity and fun. Seeing “The Big Lebowski” was like sneaking over the monastery wall for a night at the Chicken Ranch.
It was with befuddlement and a nontrivial amount of anger that I saw come-lately DVD fans turn “The Big Lebowski” — a movie I thought resisted cultural criticism — into a text to be groped for meaning. Some of the worst offenders have been the armchair Buddhists, who have found Zen koans in various catchphrases from the movie, to be puzzled over in their quest for enlightenment.
So I would prefer to dislike “The Dude and the Zen Master,” the edited transcript of a five-day “hang” on a Montana ranch with Mr. Bridges and the Zen teacher Bernie Glassman,who wrote about anti-hunger activism in his 1997 volume “Instructions to the Cook.” This book’s audience is the worst kind of Lebowski fan: one who takes the movie seriously. And probably the worst kind of Buddhist, for whom some lines here and there about the inevitability of suffering and the need to accept the world as it is justify another year toking weed and watching Comedy Central in Mom’s basement.
Actor Jeff Bridges Plays Not My Job
Jeff Bridges made his film debut when he was 4 months old and has been acting ever since — he has appeared in dozens of films and won an Oscar along the way, yet will always be known for his defining performance as The Dude in 1998′s The Big Lebowski. He has now co-written a book drawing life lessons from the character called The Dude and the Zen Master.
Because Bridges is one of the Bridges of Hollywood, we’ve invited him to play a quiz aboutThe Bridges of Madison County. He’ll answer three questions about the 1990s literary and movie phenomenon in a game called “You will never again know a passion like this.”
Learning To Live In The Moment With ‘The Dude’
Now, if you think The Dude — the main character in the The Big Lebowski — is no Zen Master then Bernie Glassman and Jeff Bridges would like a word with you. That’s because one, a well-known Zen teacher, and the other, the guy who brought Leboswski to life, have written a new book together titled, appropriately, The Dude and the Zen Master. It’s a delightful, whimsical little text with a very serious intent.
Glassman and Bridges are friends who’ve spent a lot of time talking about Buddhism and what it means in everyday life. Their book’s gentle conceit is to use The Dude and his response to situations thrown at him inThe Big Lebowski to unpack the essence of Zen’s promise. With chapter titles like “The Dude Is Not In”, they show us The Dude as a kind of intuitive Zen Master.
“I dig the Dude,” says Bridges at one point in the book. “He is very authentic. He can be angry and upset, but he’s very comfortable in his own skin. And in his inimitable way he has grace.”
No matter what happens, Bridges explains, the Dude is there, getting upset and then quickly adjusting with good humor and natural kindness. He shows up and in Zen that is what really matters. Just showing up. That’s because being present for whatever appears without pushing it away or demanding it be different is the only way we can act with real freedom. As Glassman writes, “Trillions of years of DNA — the flow of the entire Universe — all lead up to this moment. … So what do you do? You just do.” You remain curious, open and aware even as you act.
Everett Ruess spent the last five years of his life criscrossing California and the Southwest, accompanied by a series of faithful burros.
Everett Ruess could have been one of this country’s greatest wilderness writers, a poet and author on a par with John Muir or Edward Abbey.
But we’ll never know for sure, because Ruess disappeared without a trace in November 1934. With two burros trailing behind him, he left the remote southern Utah town of Escalante, heading down the desolate Hole-in-the-Rock Trail towards the Colorado River in search of his favorite things: beauty and solitude.
About a week down the trail, Ruess ran into two sheepherders and camped with them for a couple of nights.
And then, author David Roberts tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz, Ruess rode off into a nearby canyon and vanished from the face of the Earth.
Roberts is the author of the new book Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer.
He says Ruess was only 20 when he disappeared, but he had spent the last five years of his life making grueling journeys across California and the Southwest.
Beyond Ishiyama, with its back to Mount Iwama, is a hill called Kokub-uyama-the name I think derives from a kokubunji or government temple of long ago. If you cross the narrow stream that runs at the foot and climb the slope for three turnings of the road, some two hundred paces each, you come to a shrine of the god Hachiman. The object of worship is a statue of the Buddha Amida. This is the sort of thing that is greatly abhorred by the Yuiitsu school, though I regard it as admirable that, as the Ryobu assert, the Buddhas should dim their light and mingle with the dust in order to benefit the world. Ordinarily, few worshippers visit the shrine and it’s very solemn and still. Beside it is an abandoned hut with a rush door. Brambles and bamboo grass overgrow the eaves, the roof leaks, the plaster has fallen from the walls, and foxes and badgers make their den there. It is called the Genjuan or Hut of the Phantom Dwelling. The owner was a monk, an uncle of the warrior Suganuma Kyokusui. It has been eight years since he lived there-nothing remains of him now but his name, Elder of the Phantom Dwelling.
I too gave up city life some ten years ago, and now I’m approaching fifty. I’m like a bagworm that’s lost its bag, a snail without its shell. I’ve tanned my face in the hot sun of Kisakata in Ou, and bruised my heels on the rough beaches of the northern sea, where tall dunes make walking so hard. And now this year here I am drifting by the waves of Lake Biwa. The grebe attaches its floating nest to a single strand of reed, counting on the reed to keep it from washing away in the current. With a similar thought, I mended the thatch on the eaves of the hut, patched up the gaps in the fence, and at the beginning of the fourth month, the first month of summer, moved in for what I thought would be no more than a brief stay. Now, though, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever want to leave.
Spring is over, but I can tell it hasn’t been gone for long. Azaleas continue in bloom, wild wisteria hangs from the pine trees, and a cuckoo now and then passes by. I even have greetings from the jays, and woodpeckers that peck at things, though I don’t really mind-in fact, I rather enjoy them. I feel as though my spirit had raced off to China to view the scenery in Wu or Chu, or as though I were standing beside the lovely Xiao and Xiang rivers or Lake Dongting. The mountain rises behind me to the southwest and the nearest houses are a good distance away. Fragrant southern breezes blow down from the mountain tops, and north winds, dampened by the lake, are cool. I have Mount Hie and the tall peak of Hira, and this side of them the pines of Karasaki veiled in mist, as well as a castle, a bridge, and boats fishing on the lake. I hear the voice of the woodsman making his way to Mount Kasatori, and the songs of the seedling planters in the little rice paddies at the foot of the hill. Fireflies weave through the air in the dusk of evening, clapper rails tap out their notes-there’s surely no lack of beautiful scenes. Among them is Mikamiyama, which is shaped rather like Mount Fuji and reminds me of my old house in Musashino, while Mount Tanakami sets me to counting all the poets of ancient times who are associated with it. Other mountains include Bamboo Grass Crest, Thousand Yard Summit, and Skirt Waist. There’s Black Ford village, where the foliage is so dense and dark, and the men who tend their fish weirs, looking exactly as they’re described in the Man’yoshu. In order to get a better view all around, I’ve climbed up on the height behind my hut, rigged a platform among the pines, and furnished it with a round straw mat. I call it the Monkey’s Perch. I’m not in a class with those Chinese eccentrics Xu Quan, who made himself a nest up in a cherry-apple tree where he could do his drinking, or Old Man Wang, who built his retreat on Secretary Peak. I’m just a mountain dweller, sleepy by nature, who has turned his footsteps to the steep slopes and sits here in the empty hills catching lice and smashing them.
Sometimes, when I’m in an energetic mood, I draw clear water from the valley and cook myself a meal. I have only the drip drip of the spring to relieve my loneliness, but with my one little stove, things are anything but cluttered. The man who lived here before was truly lofty in mind and did not bother with any elaborate construction. Outside of the one room where the Buddha image is kept, there is only a little place designed to store bedding.
An eminent monk of Mount Kora in Tsukushi, the son of a certain Kai of the Kamo Shrine, recently journeyed to Kyoto, and I got someone to ask him if he would write a plaque for me. He readily agreed, dipped his brush, and wrote the three characters Gen-ju-an. He sent me the plaque, and I keep it as a memorial of my grass hut. Mountain home, traveler’s rest-call it what you will, it’s hardly the kind of place where you need any great store of belongings. A cypress bark hat from Kiso, a sedge rain cape from Koshi-that’s all that hang on the post above my pillow. In the daytime, I’m once in a while diverted by people who stop to visit. The old man who takes care of the shrine or the men from the village come and tell me about the wild boar who’s been eating the rice plants, the rabbits that are getting at the bean patches, tales of farm matters that are all quite new to me. And when the sun has begun to sink behind the rim of the hills, I sit quietly in the evening waiting for the moon so I may have my shadow for company, or light a lamp and discuss right and wrong with my silhouette.
But when all has been said, I’m not really the kind who is so completely enamored of solitude that he must hide every trace of himself away in the mountains and wilds. It’s just that, troubled by frequent illness and weary of dealing with people, I’ve come to dislike society. Again and again I think of the mistakes I’ve made in my clumsiness over the course of the years. There was a time when I envied those who had government offices or impressive domains, and on another occasion I considered entering the precincts of the Buddha and the teaching rooms of the patriarchs. Instead, I’ve worn out my body in journeys that are as aimless as the winds and clouds, and expended my feelings on flowers and birds. But somehow I’ve been able to make a living this way, and so in the end, unskilled and talentless as I am, I give myself wholly to this one concern, poetry. Bo Juyi worked so hard at it that he almost ruined his five vital organs, and Du Fu grew lean and emaciated because of it. As far as intelligence or the quality of our writings go, I can never compare to such men. And yet we all in the end live, do we not, in a phantom dwelling? But enough of that-I’m off to bed.
Among these summer trees,
something to count on
Regardless of who wins the presidential election, we already know now how most of the electoral map will be colored, which will be close to the way it has been colored for decades. Broadly speaking, the Southern and Western desert and mountain states will vote for the candidate who endorses an aggressive military, a role for religion in public life, laissez-faire economic policies, private ownership of guns and relaxed conditions for using them, less regulation and taxation, and a valorization of the traditional family. Northeastern and most coastal states will vote for the candidate who is more closely aligned with international cooperation and engagement, secularism and science, gun control, individual freedom in culture and sexuality, and a greater role for the government in protecting the environment and ensuring economic equality.
America’s political map may have its roots in the way each region’s settlers tamed social anarchy.
But why do ideology and geography cluster so predictably? Why, if you know a person’s position on gay marriage, can you predict that he or she will want to increase the military budget and decrease the tax rate, and is more likely to hail from Wyoming or Georgia than from Minnesota or Vermont? To be sure, some of these affinities may spring from coalitions of convenience. Economic libertarians and Christian evangelicals, united by their common enemy, are strange bedfellows in today’s Republican party, just as the two Georges — the archconservative Wallace and the uberliberal McGovern — found themselves in the same Democratic Party in 1972.
But there may also be coherent mindsets beneath the diverse opinions that hang together in right-wing and left-wing belief systems. Political philosophers have long known that the ideologies are rooted in different conceptions of human nature — a conflict of visions so fundamental as to align opinions on dozens of issues that would seem to have nothing in common.
Hallucinations can be terrifying, enlightening, amusing or just plain strange. They’re thought to be at the root of fairy tales, religious experiences and some kinds of art. Neurologist Oliver Sacks has been mapping the oddities of the human brain for decades, and his latest book, Hallucinations, is a thoughtful and compassionate look at the phantoms our brains can produce — which he calls “an essential part of the human condition.” In this chapter, Sacks examines auditory hallucinations. “Hearing voices” has long been the classic signifier of mental illness, but many otherwise healthy people just happen to have hallucinatory voices in their heads, according to Sacks. Hallucinations will be published Nov. 6.
Cormac McCarthy Cuts to the Bone—Blood Meridian used to be a much different novel. McCarthy’s early drafts reveal how an American masterpiece was born.
Bloodless dawn. The old cowboy sets out across the sharp-footed malpías toward the volcanic cone. On his pack, below the antique swivel-bore rifle, swing two small pouches of crystal saltpeter and ground alder charcoal like the cheap curio of a traveling tinker. He reaches the slope of the cone and scrambles up the glassy flint of now eroded sedimentary rock. Near the top, he takes off his shirt and lays it flat and sets about chipping off pieces of sulfur with his knife and collecting them in the spread shirt. It’s hot, and he works slow, stopping only to wipe his brow and clean the blade of windblown sand. He chops the little pile of yellow sulfur rock fine and unties the two pouches from his pack and upends them into the shirt. The shirt is light, and he dumps its contents into a furrow in the rock and stands back and unzips his fly and pisses into it. The mixture is a grim, black hash. After kneading it together he leaves it to dry in the desert sun.
Once dry, the gunpowder is packed and the swivel-bore rifle charged, and Cormac McCarthy fires both barrels out into the barren waste.
At least this is what I pictured after I came across a recipe for homemade gunpowder in McCarthy’s notes. The laminated recipe, scrawled in small cursive letters on a bail bondsman’s notepad, is part of the Cormac McCarthy Papers—98 boxes of notes, letters, drafts, and correspondences on all of the reclusive author’s works—archived at Texas State University-San Marco’s Wittliff Collections. Bought for $2 million in 2008 as a joint venture between the university and Bill Wittliff (screenwriter of Lonesome Dove), the collection includes unpublished material such as a screenplay, Whales and Men, and drafts of an upcoming novel, The Passenger (not available for reading until after publication). But of primary interest to McCarthy’s most devoted fans are the multiple drafts of the Tennessean’s magnum opus, Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West. The archives give us a unique look inside the working method of an artist who speaks little about his own work—and gives us clues as to how his reticence, when brought into Blood Meridian itself, transformed a good book into a cold-blooded masterpiece.
Writing about a living subject, Sylvie Simmons says, means having “to immerse yourself in that person’s life to a degree that would probably get you locked up in any decent society.” It can also mean abandoning all hope of objectivity. But despite her simpatico feel for the life and work of her subject, Ms. Simmons’s “I’m Your Man” is the major, soul-searching biography that Leonard Cohen deserves.
I’M YOUR MAN
The Life of Leonard Cohen
By Sylvie Simmons
Illustrated. 570 pages. Ecco. $27.99.
As recently as this January, when his “Old Ideas” album arrived, an idiotic news release described Mr. Cohen as “a spiritual guy with a poetical streak.” So even now, nearly 45 years after the release of his first record (“Songs of Leonard Cohen”) and a week before his 78th birthday, Mr. Cohen is not universally understood. Neither is the need for a biography as thorough as this one, perhaps — but Ms. Simmons doesn’t care, and neither will her readers. “I’m Your Man” is a mesmerizing labor of love.
She may be a fan, very conversant with the most devoted of her subject’s fan sites. But she is no pushover. Ms. Simmons, a seasoned rock journalist whose warm-up to writing about Mr. Cohen was a book about that other grand lady-killer, Serge Gainsbourg, is careful to incorporate the many facets of Mr. Cohen’s complicated story.
“Darling, I was born in a suit,” he tells her, alluding to his prosperous, scholarly Montreal family with garment-business connections. He showed early talent as a hypnotist; obviously, it has never left him.
In his teens he was a plumpish fraternity president and cheerleader who played in a country and western trio. “A square-dance band?” Ms. Simmons inquires, in one of their conversational volleys that she injects throughout the book. “What possessed you?” Well, he seems to have enjoyed playing “Turkey in the Straw.”
Mr. Cohen was a man of letters, both poet and novelist, long before he set words to music. His fellow CanadianMichael Ondaatje was one early, attentive critic of his work. “The gospels diverge on exactly when and where Leonard decided to become a singer-songwriter,” Ms. Simmons writes, but she credits Judy Collins, in her early days as “an aristocrat of the Greenwich Village scene,” as the person most responsible for paving his way to a musical career.