“I don’t know where to begin because I have nothing to say…”
is the opening line from an essay by the poet, Mary Reufle, called “Madness, Rack, and Honey” which meditates, among other things, on metaphors, an ad for a Coach bag, the correlation between suicide and literacy, and wasting time. It’s a good read.
“Reality” and Several New Tee-Shirts
These last several months, since June, I’ve been living, more or less, out of suitcase and away from my books and my desk and so my normal rhythms for work, the ones I’ve developed over the last fifteen years, have been disrupted and I’ve thought less about literature and more about the news (generally bad), how to put my son through college (expensive), and when (and how) to pay off credit card debt (impossible?), which has lead me to read writers’ personal essays, memoirs, and musings about the kinds of things they might not directly put into their novels or poems concerning the ways in which they have contended with what people like to call “reality” (as Nabokov would write it): having a job, paying the bills, raising the kids, and, as Virginia Woolf worried over in a diary entry: how to afford the latest fashion in hats! (I wanted to buy a few new shirts this summer but thought better of it (I don’t need them, I reasoned), then purchased them anyways because they were fifty percent off during an end-of-summer sale. These made me happy for a short time.)
Two days ago it was 109 degrees in San Francisco and I was wearing one of those sleeveless tees. The Bay Area is unusual for its variety of microclimates due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean (which is relatively cold), prevailing Westerly winds, a very hot inland valley, and a landscape of hills and valleys. What this means in practical terms is that summers in San Francisco and nearby are cold and foggy (often 50 degrees) and no one, for this reason, needs or has air conditioning.
On the day two days ago when it was 109 degrees in San Francisco and in the small town where I have spent my summer with my suitcase and a small handful of books, I sat all day in front of a small black fan (the only one in the house and only a little larger than my outspread hand) until 3 p.m. when finally, stir crazy and hot, my boyfriend and I went in search of an air conditioned restaurant. This was not, as you can imagine, easy to find. We finally ventured into a beer bar that had posted a sign on its door ac on, come inside! and although initially it felt cooler than the dry oven out of doors, we soon realized the AC was anemic and overwhelmed by all the drinking bodies sitting at the long bar and picnic-style tables filling the large room, but we sat down anyways (I in no way wanted to return to my seat in front of the black fan) and tried to decide from the dozens of beers on tap which to order.
A man in shorts and a tee shirt sitting to my right was drinking a large Saison, which he said was delicious, and when I asked him what he “did” (he was typing away on his laptop and seemed to be concentrating) he said he was a scholar of ancient religions and that he could read Ancient Hebrew, Akkadian, and another Near Eastern language I can no longer recall the name of. I told him I was Armenian and he smiled and told me the small dog at his feet was named Goliath. One very cold and delicious Belgian beer later (for me), his very pregnant wife arrived red in the face and sweating. She had walked fifteen minutes in the heat from a nearby friend’s house, a friend they were visiting because it was 117 degrees in Davis where they lived (this turned out to be a mistake, for although the town we were in was cooler, Davis, a city accustomed to hot summers, always had air conditioning in its buildings).
By the time the scholar’s wife sat down, the scholar was deep in conversation with my boyfriend about big data and as she tried to order a glass of water, the men continued to natter away. The bartenders, meanwhile, ignored her for five minutes (or more)—they were in the middle of a shift change—until the new bartender finally registered the pregnant woman’s request and handing her an empty glass told her the water jug was near the front door and that she could serve herself. The red-faced and sweating pregnant woman got off of her bar stool (the men still deep in their conversation) and went to retrieve the water, returned, and discovered with one sip that it was room temperature. She asked the bartended for some ice but he said that they had none and the pregnant woman then said her husband’s name two times and began to sob.
The crisis was over ten minutes later after she had drunk a bottle of cold fizzy water and was pressing a bag of ice to her chest with one hand (my boyfriend went to a bar next door to get a bag filled with ice as soon as he heard her sobbing) and petting Goliath with the other.
I too felt like sobbing all day two days ago as I sat in front of the old black desk fan in the hot air during the unusually hot day (a record for San Francisco) and, frankly, the feeling hasn’t left me.
Schopenhauer famously remarked, “Pleasure is never as pleasant as we expect it to be and pain is always more painful. The pain in the world always outweighs the pleasure. If you don’t believe it, compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is eating the other.”
Writing, I suppose, is the strange undertaking whereby each animal—the predator and the prey—is imaginable: one in his pain and the other in his pleasure. And sometimes, even when you think there is nothing, there is a scene in a hot bar on a hot day, a bag of ice held to a pregnant woman’s chest (she, it turned out, was the famous one of the two in comparative religious studies and was off to Cambridge the next day to give a talk), a small dog called Goliath, and thankfully a cool, foggy day in Berkeley today and the time and comfort to record it.