This Ship Is Full of Turtles

MY DEAR PARENTS, -- This ship is full of Turtles. We stopped here and they came out in boats. There is turtles in the saloon under the tables for you to put your feet on, and turtles in the passages and on the deck, and everywhere you go. The captain says we mustn't fall overboard now because his boats are full of turtles too, with water. The sailors bring the others on deck every day to have a wash and when you stand them up they look just as if they had pinafores on. They make such a funny sighing and groaning in the night, at first I thought it was everybody being ill, but you get used to it, it is just like people being ill. -- Your loving daughter,


-- Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica (1929)

Cleveland’s Funeral

I'm told, by the way, that Cleveland's funeral was a strange affair, attended by drunks, mysterious riffraff, and all his shadowy family. Feldman and Lurch, with a dozen other bikers, formed the usual MC funeral formation around the hearse. The service itself was performed by Cleveland's great-uncle, the Reverend Arning, who was a dwarf; Cleveland's sister Anna, flown in from New York City, wore his leather jacket at graveside; his father's lover, Gerald, wept hysterically and had to return to the car. Abdullah stood the whole time, so he has said, with his arm across Jane's shoulders, dreading the moment that she should begin to cry, but, like the lover of a cancer victim who has been dying for a long time, she seemed strong and resigned and without bowing her head, watched impassively the Reverend's sorrowful, tiny hands, the subdued antics of the crowd. She wore a weird, pointy black dress that had been her mother's forty years before in rural Virginia, so that she lent her own touch of comic sadness to the funeral Cleveland could not have designed any better himself. I now regret very keenly that I missed it. I wanted to say good-bye.

When I remember that dizzy summer, that dull, stupid, lovely, dire summer, it seems that in those days I ate my lunches, smelled another's skin, noticed a shade of yellow, even simply sat, with greater lust and hopefulness -- and that I lusted with greater faith, hoped with greater abandon. The people I loved were celebrities, surrounded by rumor and fanfare; the places I sat with them, movie lots and monuments. No doubt all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated everything.

-- Michael Chabon, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1988), 296-97.

Down and Out in Paris and London

Two bad days followed. We had only sixty centimes left, and we spent it on half a pound of bread, with a piece of garlic to rub it with. The point of rubbing garlic on bread is that the taste lingers and gives one the illusion of having fed recently. We sat most of that day in the Jardin des Plantes. Boris had shots with stones at the tame pigeons, but always missed them, and after that we wrote dinner menus on the backs of envelopes. We were too hungry even to try and think of anything except food. I remember the dinner Boris finally selected for himself. It was: a dozen oysters, bortch soup (the red, sweet, beetroot soup with cream on top), crayfishes, a young chicken en CASSEROLE, beef with stewed plums, new potatoes, a salad, suet pudding and Roquefort cheese, with a litre of Burgundy and some old brandy. Boris had international tastes in food. Later on, when we were prosperous, I occasionally saw him eat meals almost as large without difficulty.

When our money came to an end I stopped looking for work, and was another day without food. I did not believe that the Auberge de Jehan Cottard was really going to open, and I could see no other prospect, but I was too lazy to do anything but lie in bed. Then the luck changed abruptly. At night, at about ten o'clock, I heard an eager shout from the street. I got up and went to the window. Boris was there, waving his stick and beaming. Before speaking he dragged a bent loaf from his pocket and threw it up to me.

'MON AMI, MON CHER AMI, we're saved! What do you think?'

'Surely you haven't got a job!'

'At the Hotel X, near the Place de la Concorde--five hundred francs a month, and food. I have been working there today. Name of Jesus Christ, how I have eaten!'

After ten or twelve hours' work, and with his game leg, his first thought had been to walk three kilometres to my hotel and tell me the good news! What was more, he told me to meet him in the Tuileries the next day during his afternoon interval, in case he should be able to steal some food for me. At the appointed time I met Boris on a public bench. He undid his waistcoat and produced a large, crushed, newspaper packet; in it were some minced veal, a wedge of Gamembert cheese, bread and an eclair, all jumbled together.

'VOILA!' said Boris, 'that's all I could smuggle out for you. The doorkeeper is a cunning swine.'

It is disagreeable to eat out of a newspaper on a public seat, especially in the Tuileries, which are generally full of pretty girls, but I was too hungry to care. While I ate, Boris explained that he was working in the cafeterie of the hotel--that is, in English, the stillroom. It appeared that the cafeterie was the very lowest post in the hotel, and a dreadful come-down for a waiter, but it would do until the Auberge de Jehan Gottard opened. Meanwhile I was to meet Boris every day in the Tuileries, and he would smuggle out as much food as he dared. For three days we continued with this arrangement, and I lived entirely on the stolen food. Then all our troubles came to an end, for one of the PLONGEURS left the Hotel X, and on Boris's recommendation I was given a job there myself.

-- George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

Why Italy?

Klaus and Kaspar walked in silence. They hadn't been on such good terms for the past year or two; a minor dispute had broken out between them, and they'd stopped seeing one another or even exchanging letters. Klaus took this very much to heart, while Kaspar simply accepted it as somehow inevitable. He said to himself that it lay in the very nature of things to find oneself misunderstood at times, even by a brother. He didn't want to keep looking over his shoulder at things in the past; they were over and done with -- unworthy of further thought. He preferred to keep marching straight ahead and considered it harmful to gaze back at former ties. Now, finding it unbearable to remain silent at Kaspar's side, Klaus began to speak of his brother's art, encouraging him to take a trip to Italy some time so as to come into his own as a mature artist.

Kaspar cried out: "I'd rather the devil came for me right this minute! Italy! Why Italy? Am I suffering from an illness, must I be sent to recover in the land of oranges and pine trees? Why should I go to Italy when I can be here, a place I like? Would I have anything better to do in Italy than paint, and am I not able to paint right here? Or do you mean I should go to Italy because it's so beautiful there? Isn't it beautiful enough here? Can it possibly be more beautiful there than here, where I live and work, where I behold a thousand beautiful things that will remain when I myself have long since rotted away? Is it possible to go to Italy when one wishes to be productive? Are the beautiful things more beautiful in Italy than here? Maybe they're just more sophisticated, and for this reason I prefer not to see them in the first place. When sixty years from now I've reached the point of being able to paint a wave or a cloud, a tree or a field, then we'll see whether or not it was clever of me not to go to Italy. Can I be missing out if I havent seen those temples with their columns, those humdrum town halls, those fountains and arches, those pine and laurel trees, those Italian folk costumes, and splendid edifices? Must one wish to devour everything with one's eyes? I find it infuriating when people accuse me of harboring plans to become a better artist in Italy. Italy is just a trap we bumble into if we're stupendously dumb. Do the Italians come visit us when they wish to paint or write? What use is it to me to go into raptures over bygone cultures? Shall I -- if I am honest with myself -- have enriched my spirit by these means? No, I'll just have spoiled it, made it cowardly. Let an ancient, vanished culture be as magnificent as it likes, let it trump us in vibrancy and splendor, there's still no cause for me to go snuffing about in it like a mole; I prefer to observe it, as long as this is feasible and amuses me, in books, which are constantly at my beck and call. In truth, lost, bygone things are never so utterly worthy of our estimation; for when I gaze about me in the present, which is so often disparaged as lacking beauty and grace, I find no dearth of images that delight me and beautiful sights enough to fill both eyes to overflowing. This mania for all things Italian that has strangely, shamefully beset us makes my blood boil. Perhaps I am mistaken, but even twenty bristly devils stinking up the air and waving their horrific pitchforks around wouldn't manage to drag me off to Italy."

Klaus was shocked and saddened by the vehemence with which Kaspar was gauging matters. He'd always been like this, and, as things stood, it couldn't be anticipated how a person might succeed in establishing fruitful relations with him. Klaus said nothing, merely offered his hand in parting, for they had reached the place where he was staying.

-- Robert Walser, The Tanners (New York: New Directions, 2009), 102-103.

The Failure to Prize the Chance

The failure to prize the chance to spend time in a cosmopolitan city highly enough to refrain from giving it up in favor of an upstart one-horse town. Friends whispered into his metropolitan ear: "You'll be a fool if you don't set off at once for this backwater. Each and every inhabitant of this clod-and-furrow municipality (well furnished with nice places to go for a stroll) is awaiting your immediate arrival, the thought of which fills them with genuine pleasure." "Are you telling me this would be an opportune moment to swap metropolis for hamlet?" asked the problematic character. "Yes," they replied in chorus, whereupon he prepared himself for the journey with an alacrity utterly in keeping with his rural longings. With incomparable uprightness he resolved to become an honest cobbler or farmer. All at once he struck himself as so problematic as to be in every respect in need of repair, and while he sat in the railway carriage he thought of the beauty that lies in solidity and the solidness of beauty. His friends had doltishly sent telegraphic inquiries to the charmingly situated hamlet as to whether the moment was opportune for the arrival of their protégé, and the representatives of respectability had wired back with surprising speed: "Why, of course!" Privately, however, they were saying: "We'll show him a thing or two." Might he in fact have made a miscalculation concerning the character of this small town? Meadows, fields, trees, houses, the town gates, streets and street urchins -- as all these neatly enumerated objectivities watched him ingenuously, trustingly approach -- smiled. Straightaway they were seized by the far from pleasant feeling: "He is impertinent, and why? Because he has faith in our uprightness. And for what reason is his trust in us clodhoppers so boundless? Because he doesn't take us terribly seriously. He assumes we are simpletons one and all. Shall we demonstrate to this shiny, spiritual, well-travelled fellow that he has misjudged us? Yes -- that's what we'll do." After they had reached an agreement on this score, they asked him: "Do you consider this an opportune moment to join forces with us?" "Yes," he replied. Hearing this guileless, incautious reply, they started laughing and said: "In that case, you would appear always to have taken us quite seriously. It turns out that you have posed yourself all sorts of questions on our account. To convince you of our fickleness, that is, of the fact that we are not entirely without intelligence, we declare to you that you have made on us the impression that you don't deserve that this moment might be opportune for you to endear yourself to us. You turned up here -- because you were waiting with the utmost caution for a sign of our favor -- at the most inopportune possible moment, and so we are informing you that we hold you, on account of your upright longing to become our esteemed fellow citizen, in contempt. We thought you were strong, and now you stand as a weakling before our eyes, which mock you." And in fact this is just how matters stood. I hope that many a deracinated soul will take a lesson from this essay and acknowledge that putting down roots is not so easily done. Besides which, people the least bit considerate of the need to preserve the orderliness of things are more likely to court disfavor than favor.

-- Robert Walser, Microscripts (New Directions Publishing and the Christine Burgin Gallery, 2010), 95-96.

Completion Is Vital

So good was I feeling about my decision to abort my wilderness sojourn that I hiked out this morning, packing along my first of many retreat loads. "Go to town, buy yourself a popsicle!" my inner voice told me.

On the ridge I stopped in on a friend, to tell her the good news. Mary is her name, and a small, primer pink and gray trailer is her home. She was working, in the buff, in her garden when I drove up. I reckon I surprised her, for a harmless toot from the Cranbrook's horn sent her scurrying for her trailer's door like a sinner for a Bible on Judgment Day. Much to her chagrin and embarrassment the door had somehow locked itself. Hence, Mary was forced to sit naked on her doorstep while I climbed through one of the trailer's windows and opened the door for her from the inside.

"Oh, hi, Mary," I said, opening her door. "C'mon in. Is that a new dress? You didn't happen to buy it at the emperor's garage sale, did you?"

Mary bore the humility admirably, kicked me out of the trailer, dressed, emerged with a pair of ice-cold Lucky Lager beers, then started the greeting anew:

"Good morning, Robert. What a surprise."

"Good morning, Mary."

The sky was a vast sea of blue salsa, with the sun simmering in the middle of it like a jalapeno pepper. We unfolded a couple chaise lounge chairs and set them beneath the shade of a behemoth fir.

A "chat" with Mary is like strapping into one of those carnival Tilt-O-Whirl rides. That is to say, her mind uses evolution to support theories on physics to support theories on religion to support theories on politics to support theories on National League expansion to support theories on creation . . . and so on. That is to say, her wit wanders wondrously.

In the midst of some profound subject, she handed me some sheets of her latest poetry. I read them, then asked:

"Now, is this good poetry or bad poetry? -- I can never tell with poetry."

"Oh, a notch above great," Mary averred.

"I nodded; fully trusting Mary's opinion on literary matters, if only because Ernest Hemingway once patted her mother's belly when she was pregnant with Mary. Reason enough.

"So, Robert, how's the year in the woods coming along?" Mary asked, out of the blue. The query took me aback.

"Er, great. In fact, I've finished it."

"Compressed twelve months' adventure into just twelve weeks? I'm confused."

"Think of it as parole for good behavior."

My statement shocked Mary. I dare say, it kicked her in the balls.

"You gave up?!"

"No, Mary, I wised up."

"And what about the book you were writing?"

"Suffice it to say, it ain't gonna happen."

If my decision to pull out of the canyon hadn't kicked Mary hard enough, my decision to give up writing the novel certainly did. The smile that rode so sweetly upon her lips just moments ago turned suddenly to a twisted frown. Veins, where no veins should be, began to throb across her brow. Her face began flipping through every shade of red like a fire captain through paint store samples. Steam spewed from her ears and flames from her nostrils. Her eyes glowed like the cores of nuclear reactors. And the Earth around us began to tremble. I held tightly to the chaise lounge's armrests, sensing I was in for a scolding.

"NO-O-O-O!!!" she cried, she wailed, she boomed.

"But, but, but --"

She bolted upright in her seat, "NO-O-O-O!!!"

"But, but, but --"

"For heavens sake, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO . . . !" she reiterated, now driving home her point with several stiff-fingered jabs to my sternum -- so stiff-fingered, in fact, that I felt she was close to jousting me over backwards in my chair. "NO, NO, NO!" she continued, "You have to finish your year in the wilderness! You have to finish your book! Completion is vital!"

"Geez, Mary, I don't see what the big deal is."

"That's obvious, for if you did you wouldn't be calling it quits!"

"I wouldn't?"

"Hell no, for two reasons; the first being the benefits it bestows upon society as a whole."

"Yeah, but --" I foolishly tried to interrupt, until Mary rolled over me:

"Our society is basically a cowering bunch of narrow-minded sissies, boiling with adventurous urges but lacking the courage to live them. Meanwhile, here -- all around them -- a universe, vast and boundless, is exploding into life; stars collapsing into themselves, nebulas growing at beyond the speed of light, a single cell evolving from slime, armies raping and pillaging, cultures and history, eternity, consciousness, infinity and God. All this, happening right this very second. But what are ninety-nine percent of us doing with the brief, one-in-a-trillion opportunity we call life? We're squandering it, that's what!"

"Yeah, but --"

"This is why when someone like you gets a wee bit brave and drags a tipi into the woods, or walks across the continent, or just stands out on the street corner handing out photocopies of doughnuts, it makes the rest of society a bit more free. It liberates us by prying, a wee bit wider, that narrow slit of acceptable behavior. This is why it's vital for you to complete your year in the woods!"

"Yeah, but --"

"Now I'm going to tell you why it's vital that you finish your book; i.e., the benefits that it brings to you and to you alone."

"Yeah, but --"

"Thought efficiency. You see, presently your mind is an amorphous sea sloshing to and fro, thoughts and theories swirling in chaotic eddies as if caught in the wake of a passing steamer -- an ocean of notions, notions of the absolute."

"Yeah, but --"

"But the process of writing forces you to toss a lasso around all those notions; to rewrite and rethink them, to discard faulty premises and to weave a tapestry of the sensible ones thereby whipping your brain into an ever more efficient thinking machine. Whether or not the book is ever published is beside the point for, ultimately, not a single erg spend writing is ever wasted!"

"Yeah, but --"

"On the other hand, should you abort the book and your endeavor -- tsk-tsk!" Mary paused to wag her finger at me.

"Then what, Mary?"



"Yes, gray matter mush: that's what will become of your mind. And all because you will forever look upon your decision to call it quits as a failure and, identifying with that failure, you will have no choice but to look upon yourself as a failure as well. Penultimately you'll blame the dreamer within you for the failure, since it was he who dragged you into the endeavor. Then ultimately, to protect yourself from future failures, you'll force yourself to stop dreaming altogether. Conformity. It will be at this point that your mind will become mush. And although the universe will still be exploding with awe-inspiring things all around you you will no longer possess the tool with which to ponder it. And so, like so many of us, you will have squandered your one-in-a-trillion opportunity."

"Yeah, but --"

"Yeah but what?"

I had to scratch my head . . . "I forget what I was going to say."

"See there -- mush! It's happening already! To then drive to heart her point, she renewed the attack on my sternum, punctuating each stiff-fingered joust with, "Completion is vital! Completion is vital! Completion is vital! . . ."

-- Robert Johnson, Thirteen Moons (Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 2000), pp. 63-66.

A Guugu Yimithirr-Style Language

Tulo Gordon

If you speak a Guugu Yimithirr-style language, your memories of anything that you might ever want to report will have to be stored with cardinal directions as part of the picture. One Guugu Yimithirr speaker was filmed telling his friends the story of how in his youth, he capsized in shark-infested waters. He and an older person were caught in a storm, and their boat tipped over. They both jumped into the water and managed to swim nearly three miles to the shore, only to discover that the missionary for whom they worked was far more concerned at the loss of the boat than relieved at their miraculous escape. Apart from the dramatic content, the remarkable thing about the story was that it was remembered throughout in cardinal directions: the speaker jumped into the water on the western side of the boat, his companion to the east of the boat, they saw a giant shark swimming north and so on. Perhaps the cardinal directions were just made up for the occasion? Well, quite by chance, the same person was filmed some years later telling the same story. The cardinal directions matched exactly in the two tellings. Even more remarkable were the spontaneous hand gestures that accompanied the story. For instance, the direction in which the boat rolled over was gestured in the correct geographic orientation, regardless of the direction the speaker was facing in the two films.

Psychological experiments have also shown that under certain circumstances, speakers of Guugu Yimithirr-style languages even remember “the same reality” differently from us. There has been heated debate about the interpretation of some of these experiments, but one conclusion that seems compelling is that while we are trained to ignore directional rotations when we commit information to memory, speakers of geographic languages are trained not to do so. One way of understanding this is to imagine that you are traveling with a speaker of such a language and staying in a large chain-style hotel, with corridor upon corridor of identical-looking doors. Your friend is staying in the room opposite yours, and when you go into his room, you’ll see an exact replica of yours: the same bathroom door on the left, the same mirrored wardrobe on the right, the same main room with the same bed on the left, the same curtains drawn behind it, the same desk next to the wall on the right, the same television set on the left corner of the desk and the same telephone on the right. In short, you have seen the same room twice. But when your friend comes into your room, he will see something quite different from this, because everything is reversed north-side-south. In his room the bed was in the north, while in yours it is in the south; the telephone that in his room was in the west is now in the east, and so on. So while you will see and remember the same room twice, a speaker of a geographic language will see and remember two different rooms.

It is not easy for us to conceive how Guugu Yimithirr speakers experience the world, with a crisscrossing of cardinal directions imposed on any mental picture and any piece of graphic memory. Nor is it easy to speculate about how geographic languages affect areas of experience other than spatial orientation — whether they influence the speaker’s sense of identity, for instance, or bring about a less-egocentric outlook on life. But one piece of evidence is telling: if you saw a Guugu Yimithirr speaker pointing at himself, you would naturally assume he meant to draw attention to himself. In fact, he is pointing at a cardinal direction that happens to be behind his back. While we are always at the center of the world, and it would never occur to us that pointing in the direction of our chest could mean anything other than to draw attention to ourselves, a Guugu Yimithirr speaker points through himself, as if he were thin air and his own existence were irrelevant.

Cosma Shalizi’s Notebooks

Haley Nagy, Nagy Family Cookbook

The notebooks are intended, in the first instance, for my own use, a way of storing ideas, references, questions, puzzles, connections, possible connections, mistakes (unavoidably), things to look at or look into. My interests change; my time is limited; I know very little and have less to say about many things. For this reason, many of the notebooks are little more than placeholders. These do grow over time into more substantial documents, some of them anyway; in the meanwhile, it's not my fault if the search-engines serve them up to you.