Thursday, November 20, 2014

Diary (1)


In the morning, I make my wife’s sandwich for her lunch at work. The sandwich is made with Miracle Whip, two slices of cheddar cheese, and hard salami on wheat bread. I cut the sandwich into two halves for her and put it in a zip-lock baggy. This morning, I noticed that the tray container holding the salami was labeled: Same Great Taste! New Convenient Container!

My custom is to use the sandwich knife to slice a Fun Dogs wiener into nine pieces. (Fundogs cost $1.08 for ten wieners.) Five slices of the wiener are used as treats to urge my dog to perform her simple repertory of tricks: she sits, shakes, comes, rolls-over and stays motionless with the wiener slice on the floor between her paws until I give her the command to eat it. I take the remaining four wiener slices into the back yard and hide them. Then, I shout "nose" and the dog searches for the little pieces of appalling pinkish-brown meat.

For some reason, this morning, I deviated from my habit. I used four pieces of wiener to reward the dog for her tricks, omitting the command "roll-over" from her performance. This meant that I had five pieces of wiener meat to conceal in my snowy backyard. The dog quickly found the first four pieces, impaled on twigs from vines sere and dead now, dangling from the daisy-yellow siding of my garage. But she didn’t expect me to hide a fifth wiener piece, embedded in the snow next to the empty peanut butter jar that she likes to nuzzle in the back yard. The dog scrutinized me with her big dark eyes. ""Nose!" I said, meaning: "Use your nose to find the treat!" But the dog was no fool: she knew that I only hid four treats in the backyard and not five and so she simply looked at me with a faintly accusatory expression, sorrow at my betrayal of her expectations. "Nose!" I said again. The dog looked at me as if I had gone mad.


A couple weeks ago, two of my partners came to my office in the basement of the law firm where I practice. The visit was obligatory. One of my partners was moving to a large corner office in the building that my firm owns. Since I am senior to the partner moving into that sunny corner office upstairs, courtesy required that I grant my permission. "Do you want to move?" my younger partner asked me. "No," I said. "I have my stuff down here. I am happy in the basement. I guess I will stay here until I die." "You can have the corner office," my younger partner told me. "I’ll stay down here," I said. "This is where I have my stuff."


Until you are forty, or, even, perhaps fifty-years old, all change seems positive to you. Change means progress. Even bad change and harmful events can be interpreted optimistically: if it doesn’t kill me, it makes me stronger. And: you must learn from bad experiences.

From your fiftieth year onward, change is all bad. It represents deterioration and a kind of waning; the idea of progress has proven to be a cruel illusion. The pipes become clogged; the sidewalk is covered with snow with no one to shovel it away. The odometer on your car is inching upward to the fatal mileage when the engine will fail.


My law firm has hired a new associate. She is a helpful young woman. I asked her to go to Albert Lea to investigate an accident involving a woman who had fallen and broken her shoulder at a convenience store. I told the young associate: "Look around Albert Lea. It is a pretty town." I told her to go to Fountain Lake to see the delicately arched footbridge leading from the shore to a miniature island forty or fifty feet away. Near the footbridge, there is a big glacial boulder on the edge of the lake. A bronze mermaid sits on that boulder. She has a pensive expression on her face. "You must see the ‘little mermaid’," I told her.


We met with a new client, a 23-year old woman who had been injured in a car crash. The young woman was very serene and she had symmetrical features. Her skin was extraordinarily pale. The young woman spoke with the faintest accent, a tiny click and snap in some of the words that she used. I asked my paralegal if she could recognize the accent. "I thought it was some kind of speech impediment," my paralegal said. The woman’s mother had a Finnish name. "She is a Finn," I said. "That explains the porcelain complexion." But are Finns as pale as the moon rising over dunes of snow?


Before going to bed, I read "Caput 3" of Heine’s The Winter’s Tale. Usually I encounter two or three German words on each page that I don’t know. I mark the words with a pencil and, then, look them up in my Casell’s German-English dictionary. But I can’t ever remember the meaning of the words after I have read their definition and, even, written the English equivalent in the book’s margin. It seems that I have been unable to learn any new German vocabulary for the last twenty years. This disturbs me. In the middle of the night, I woke up, my mind afflicted by worry. I tried to assuage my worries by recalling the German words that I had noted in the margin of my volume of Heine. One word in particular came to mind: geschniegelt. I had looked that word up in my dictionary. But what did it mean? I had no idea. I tried to recall the context of the word, but couldn’t place it in the poem. In fact, it seemed that I had almost no recollection of the verses that I had read before going to my cold bed. Tormenting thoughts made me anxious. The darkness seemed poised to pounce and crush me.


In my law firm, there is a suite of offices in the center of the building. This is the law firm within the law firm, a place where attorneys with impressive resumes and important clients work. In the law firm within the law firm, transactions involving skyscrapers and factories are negotiated. This interior suite is different from the outer offices – it has cherry-wood paneling and oriental carpets brightening the floors and the secretaries are beautiful and expensively dressed. There is a discrete hush in the corridors and, among the conferences rooms with their vast circular tables, there is a feasting hall, a place where the law firm’s victories are celebrated with lavish banquets. Although I don’t have my office in the suites comprising the law firm within the law firm, I have been there many times and have even, (if I may be bold enough to say so) been feted in the banqueting hall.

On this late afternoon, with the sun setting outside beyond the stockade of barren and leafless trees, I went to the law firm within the law firm. An attractive blonde receptionist with a quizzical half-smile met me at the entry. "You can’t come in here," she said. "Why is that?" "You are not authorized." She was exquisitely polite and her enigmatic half-smile seemed to taunt me. "But I have been a member of this firm for 35 years," I said. "I’ve been a partner for thirty years," I added. "I don’t make the rules," she said. "You can’t come in here." I began to weep. My face was wet with greasy tears and I closed my eyes with shame. "I feel so sorry for you," the attractive receptionist said. She took me by the hand and led me into the basement of the building. Some desks were set up in a corner of a big room and a skylight overhead made the place bright and, almost cheery. Between the desks, there were porcelain and zinc basins. They were conveniently placed in case one of the workers at the small desks had to vomit or began to bleed or suffered from diarrhea or urinary incontinence. "You see," the young woman said. "It’s all set up for you."

I worked at my small desk for a couple hours and was quite content. Then, I went to my car and drove downtown to another law firm where I had some friends. I knew that there was an aquarium in that law firm and I thought it would be relaxing to see the fish swimming in their prisons of glass. The receptionist at the downtown law firm was attractive, with very pale skin, and she recognized me as soon as I came through the door. "Welcome!" she said. "I’ve come to see the fish," I replied. She took my coat and hung it in a closet next to her desk. Then, she beckoned for me to follow her to a narrow escalator leading down to the aquarium.

I toured the dimly lit galleries peering at the strange sea creatures in their tanks. No one else was there. One corridor led to rock-girt pool where two dolphins were frolicking in the water. Water splashed and made puddles on the concrete terraces next to the lagoon. I thought that it was cruel for such large and playful animals to be confined within that small pool of water. But, then, I understood that the law firm was employing the concept of "animal friends" to ease the captivity of their larger animals. For instance, the thoroughbred horses had small goats living in their pens to keep them company and reduce their anxiety. Similarly, the law firm had put an elephant in the lagoon with the dolphins so that the big mammals could play together in the water. As I watched the elephant swimming with the dolphin, the animals came close to the glass window at which I was standing. The dolphin reached out and opened the window. She asked me for a treat. I noticed that there was porcelain basin next to the window on an iron pedestal. In the basin, there were bloody hunks of raw tuna. I took the tongs leaning against the side of the basin and removed a piece or tuna. The dolphin reached out to me with her slender hand and greedily seized the tuna. She had a very pale face, as white as snow. Suddenly, the elephant had come to the side of the lagoon, next to the open window where I was standing. "He eats hamburgers," the dolphin told me. "But I only have tuna," I said. "Look more closely," the dolphin said, her words slightly accented with mermaid inflections. I examined the basin and found some sliders among the big pieces of tuna. With the tongs, I retrieved a slider from the basin. The elephant’s serpentine trunk wrapped around me and, then, the mermaid was pressing her fishy body close to mine and I felt as if I were being dragged into the cold lagoon, pulled from the viewing gallery into the tank.

A little later, the receptionist took my hand and led me to the escalator that ascended to the front desk. She removed my coat from the closet and handed it to me. My checkbook was missing from the pocket of my coat. I reached in my pant’s pocket for my wallet, but it was missing also. Apparently, the elephant or the mermaid had picked my pocket. I couldn’t find my car keys either in my pant’s pockets or my coat. But it didn’t matter. I had no memory as to where I had parked my car in the busy city stretching to the horizon on all sides of this great and powerful law firm.


I am drowned in a sea of worries.


At noon, I will go home and make beef borscht according to a simple recipe that I have developed myself. I will chop onion and cook a pound of stewing beef with the onion until it is browned. Then, I will put the beef and onion into a crock pot that I have prepared with a slow-cooker liner – this makes cleaning the crock pot after the borscht has cooked much easier. I will pour a can of julienne beets into the crock pot together with fresh, raw beets that I have chopped into small pieces. I will add a can of beef broth and a jaw of pickled cabbage. Then, I will turn the crock pot to "low" and cook for five or six hours.

Perhaps, I will stop at the grocery store where my daughter bags food and purchase some dark rye or pumpernickel. Perhaps, I will buy a small bottle of vodka and put it into my freezer so that shots of the liquor go to the brain like a spike of cold iron driven into your skull. I have some excellent pickles that my secretary, Susan, made and gave to me for my birthday. I’ll cut the pickles into slivers to eat with my borscht and dark bread. I will put honey on the dark bread and drink shots of vodka as I drink the bread and eat the pickles. This is self-indulgence on my part. No one else in my family will enjoy this meal as much as me.


A wise man reported this to me: He had gone to a place in one of the Carolinas to assist an elderly woman in moving from her apartment. After doing this work, the man and his wife went to a restaurant. There was a Black waiter who was extremely gregarious, friendly, and cheerful. The man asked him for his secret recipe for happiness. The waiter said: "I treat each day as if it were my new bride. That is with joy, respect, and love."

Another friend told me this: "Stay away from people who are unhappy. Unhappy people do mean and unpredictable things. Spend your time with happy people. Life is too short to spend it with those who are angry or embittered." This is good advice.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

On a Cold Bed




The Greek word for nightmare is "ephialtes." This word also names the famous traitor who led Persian forces through the mountains above Thermopylae to ambush the Spartans defending that pass. Our only source for the history of the Persian wars with the Hellenes is Herodotus and all accounts of the battle of Thermopylae derive from his Histories. When evaluating historical evidence, it is well to consider the maxim "uno testis non testis" – that is, "one witness is no witness." And, indeed, I think there are other reasons to regard Herodotus’ story of the battle at Thermopylae as mythos, that is, more legendary than factual.

First, commentators observe that Herodotus introduces his narrative about Leonidas’ last stand at Themopylae with the word "gnome" – a Greek term related to gnomen, that is "opinion." With this term, Herodotus suggests that what follows is less a sober account of military history, than speculation. Since all but one of the Spartans fighting at Thermopylae died in the battle, Herodotus’ source materials is limited and questionable. (The Spartan survivor of the battle, Aristodemus, suffered disgrace and calumny as a result of returning alive from the fray. He seems to have been unbalanced and tried to kill himself by mounting a berserk suicide charge in the later fighting at Plataea - an attempt that failed and, only, resulted in more blame being attached to his name.) Accordingly, it seems that Herodotus suggests that he is reconstructing the battle on the basis of unreliable evidence.

Second, accounts of the battle don’t make much sense. The Spartans successfully held the narrow pass, a few hundred feet between a mountainous escarpment and the sea, for two days against Persian attacks. Although the Persian army greatly outnumbered the Greeks, the narrow strait of the "hot gates," as the place is called because of its thermal springs, prevented the Asians from encircling the defenders – thus, Persian forces had to meet the Spartans head-on and could not shove enough troops through the pass to overrun their fortified position. The traitor, Ephialtes, led a Persian force through the mountains on a rugged trail that has never been identified in the topography adjacent to the battlefield – I don’t know Greek, but the trail’s name Anopaea, after a nearby mountain, seems suspicious to me: I see "an" in the word, a negative, that means "without," such as anencephalitic ("without a brain"). Ephialtes’ treachery seems to have caused the Spartan’s Phocian allies, assigned the defense of the mountain trails, to withdraw from their sentinel duty. But Herodotus does not describe the Spartans as ambushed or attacked from the rear. Indeed, from Herodotus’ account it is hard to ascertain the effect of the Persian flanking maneuver on the Spartan defenders. The motif of Greek against Greek conflict is vital to Herodotus’ History – in his view, the triumph of the Hellenes over the Persians is all the more miraculous because of the severe political fragmentation and disunity of the Greek city states. It is important to Herodotus to show that a Greek acting against other Greeks was instrumental in the defeat of Leonidas and his Spartans, although exactly how Ephialtes’ treachery figured in the final destruction of the 300 is obscure.

Herodotus tells us that the outflanked Spartans for their last stand sallied-forth and were driven back by overwhelming numbers to small hill where they fought the Persians with swords, knives, fists, and teeth until all of them were killed. There are many reasons to doubt this account. First, Herodotus is obviously influenced by Homer and pauses in his narrative to describe a fierce struggle over the corpse of the Spartan commander, Leonidas. This part of his story is clearly a nod to similar duels over the bodies of dead heroes in the Iliad. Further, Herodotus’ narration seems fanciful when compared with what we know of actual "last stands".

In American history, three "last stands" come readily to mind: two of them incidents in the wars with the Plains’ Indians and, of course, the battle at the Alamo. Both the Fetterman fight and Custer’s last stand involved groups of soldiers defending hilltops against large enemy forces and these battles are nothing like the struggle described by Herodotus. Colonel Fetterman with 80 men was wiped-out by Lakota and Cheyenne forces on December 21, 1861. Fetterman was lured from Fort Laramie by a decoy force of 50 Indians, caught in the open by a massive counter-attack and tried to withdraw to a defensive position on a knoll, now bearing the sinister name "Massacre Hill." Almost none of the Indians were armed with firearms and they fought this battle with arrows, spears, and war-clubs. Red Cloud and other Indian commanders recalled that less that 12 warriors perished in the affair. The troops were surrounded and shot down by hails of arrows. When the soldiers were mostly wounded or disabled by panic, the Indian cavalry swept down on their defensive position from the side and rear and killed everyone in a matter of minutes. Indian witnesses estimate that the entire fight lasted less than forty minutes.

George Armstrong Custer with about 260 soldiers was rubbed-out at the Little Big Horn in June 1876. In this battle, Custer’s adversaries, Arapahoe, Northern Cheyenne, and Lakota warriors, were well-armed with 1860 Henry rifles as well as Winchester 66 rifles – long guns that could fire between 13 and 15 rounds (.52 caliber) before being reloaded. Custer advanced on a massive Indian village, met resistance at a ford on the river, and, then, withdrew under heavy fire to a ridge of hills, gathering his troops at the summit of "Last Stand Hill." The Indians destroyed Custer’s force with accurate, long-range rifle fire and, then, overran the position with a flanking cavalry charge. The battle resulted in very few Indian casualties and was over, according to Lakota informants, in about the time "it takes a hungry man to eat a meal." There was no battle over Custer’s corpse, no heroic defense, and no organized resistance to the Indian onslaught. The Indians said the white soldiers’ bodies were scattered across the battlefield like a handful of corn thrown up into the wind.

The 1836 battle at the Alamo seems more similar to Herodotus’ account of the fight at Thermopylae. But at the Alamo, Texan forces occupied a heavily fortified position and had no avenue of retreat. The Texans did have artillery and were able to fire canister into the ranks of the advancing Mexican troops. The Mexican army was poorly trained, advanced in tight formations, and, apparently, troops in the rear of the attacking army fired volley after volley into the backs of the soldiers ahead of them. Ultimately, of course, the Mexicans prevailed, although at a heavy cost. Presumably, the heroic tenor of this siege was primarily an outcome of the Mexican general’s bad strategy and tactics – instead of mounting a frontal attack, he would have been better advised to besiege the Alamo and use long-range bombardment to reduce its defenses. By contrast, Leonidas advanced from within a fortified position for reasons that are now inscrutable to me – it seems likely that his fate, and that of the 300 Spartans, would have been similar to the outcomes of the battles involving Fetterman and Custer. (Probably, the Texans defended the Alamo with vigor because many of them, presumably, had some classical education and had read their Herodotus.)

The final factor that persuades me that Herodotus’ account of the fighting at Thermopylae is primarily a romantic legend is the names that he provides with respect to the combatants. As previously noted, the traitor’s name is "Nightmare" – although there is some question about whether that name originates in the events of the battle or arises as a result of that fight. "Aristodemus," the sole Spartan survivor, means "best of the people." An earlier Aristodemus was instrumental in the conquest of the Peloponnesus; this warrior is also associated with a battle conducted in a narrow strait – an oracle told the Greeks to attack by sea through a narrow channel. Aristodemus followed the advice of the oracle but died when struck by a lightning bolt during the sea-assault. The commander of the Spartans, Leonidas, has a suitably leonine name. Earlier in Herodotus’ History, we are told that the Persian army was much harassed by lion attacks as it moved through the mountainous terrain of Greece. Both Aristodemus and Leonidas boast a distinguished pedigree – according to Herodotus, they are Heraclids, that is, men who trace their descent from the demi-god, Heracles. The location of battle at the "hot gates" also seems significant. The toponym signifies that the battle was fought on terrain thought to be adjacent to Hades itself – the "hot gates" were an opening to the Underworld.

I don’t dispute that some kind of military action occurred at Thermopylae. Modern historians suggest that the 300 Spartans were an advance guard of a Greek army that was cut-off by Persian forces somewhere near the "hot gates" and wiped-out. The burden of my note is to suggest that Herodotus’ account of the fighting is thematically organized to support aspects of his narrative that are more mythological in character than coldly factual.

As if in revenge for my skepticism, Ephialtes – that is, "nightmare" – has visited me repeatedly in the past few days. I attribute these nightmares to sleeping in a room that is colder than I am used to. The first really cold spell has descended upon Minnesota and the sidewalks are deadly with ice and, in the gloomy dawn, powdery snow filters down from grey skies like the precipitate of some immense and uncommunicative sorrow. The first snow and the first serious cold of the season induces a kind of furious restlessness – it’s as if we sense that we are about to be confined for another four months, perhaps, five, and the soul yearns for warmth and beauty, but encounters everywhere the prison walls of this season of discontent and frigid paralysis. You pace the rooms of your house or walk the circuit of your office afraid to venture out to where the ice is lurking in inevitable ambuscade. Certainly, before this cold season ends, you will have fallen, not once but several times, and been bruised by the frozen ground or suffered worse injury. And, in my house, the radiator’s burp and fart – the water in them is stagnant and smells like sewage, an odor of rotten eggs permeating the house, although, perhaps, this is also attributable to imperfect combustion in the gas-fired furnace in the dank basement. The radiator in our bedroom has long since ceased to function. It’s hidden under a cabinet, an icy monument to disutility, and the cold wind seeps into the room around the air-conditioner notwithstanding the duct tape sealing the gap between the metal box (also icy to the touch and as useless as a cube by Donald Judd) and the window’s sill and frame. Little birds, probably sparrows, have made a nest in a nook under the air conditioner and there is nothing more cold and desolate than the sounds that they make trying to stay warm in their tiny, hidden nest. Winter is savage and it’s cruelty can not be over-estimated.

When the cold comes into your bedroom and lingers over your pillow and blankets, you are at risk for nightmares. Here is the mechanism causing these bad dreams. A leg or an arm or shoulder protrudes from the cocoon of bedclothes. The body senses a chill but, because it is paralyzed during REM sleep, can not move to remedy this problem. A vague sense of threat and menace is transmitted to the brain. The risk of hypothermia translates into sinister imagery, coloring the dream that you are experiencing and, ultimately, frightening you into consciousness. You awake and feel cold and you pull the covers that have been disarranged up under your chin and, if you are aroused around the time of the lightless dawn, you will hear the little, fragile birds twitching with their own nightmares in their nest outside the window.

Two times certainly, I suffered this dream. I may have had the dream on several other occasions but I don’t know whether I actually dreamed or merely dreamed that I was dreaming. I was walking on a high, barren ridge and saw a village on a mountain above me. The village was a Sicilian hill town clinging to the sides of a stony butte rising like a battered and sore thumb into the bright sky. The town armored the mountain slope below an escarpment where the rock rose so steeply that it was impossible to build on that surface. To my eyes, the town seemed prismatic, a cubist collage of walls and roof surfaces, a kind of flat shingling that girdled the base of the tower. The hill town was picturesque and it delighted my eyes, but, then, I noticed that the entire landscape was sagging. The town was not where I had first noticed it, but rather drooped like a slack piece of rope or chain suspended between two opposing supports. The shape of the village had assumed a caternary geometry, a slumped curve. The tile roofs of the village houses seemed to have become detached and they were gathered like a talus field in the cup made by the caternary arch. This seemed very logical to me and exact, an outcome of the geometry governing the heights above where I was hiking. When I looked again, I noticed that the orange tiles of the roofs accumulating in the lowest part of the inverted arch had turned brown and assumed a chitinous form. The slumped inverted arch now held a mass of scales like the wings of cockroaches or beetles. The spectacle was vaguely disgusting to me and I looked away. Everything was now near at hand and, although the hill-town had been far above me at first, it had come very close and I could hear it buzzing and humming with insect activity. Then, the hill town reached out to me and took my shoulder, loudly pronouncing my name. The icy touch of the village on my skin and the sound of my name reverberating across the empty landscape terrified me. I woke up and found that I was shivering with cold, having kicked aside my covers, and exposed myself to the chilly air in the bedroom. Outside, a siren howled and, somewhere, a snow plow had put its iron snout to the cement and was grinding its way through the ice to the surface of the road. It is a frightening thing to be touched when you are asleep and the place where the hill-town made from cockroach wings had seized me was like a brand on my flesh. I was transfixed with a sense of guilt and horror: what have I done? What have I done?

The winter, it seems, will be long.

The cold is a nightmare. It comes by a path through the grim and rocky mountains called Anopaea. The path is so slender and well-concealed that no one can find the way except bad dreams. The traitor descends the dark escarpment and you are flanked, attacked from the rear, and there is no hope of escape.