From the Hatchery

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Happy as a Clam

Why are clams happy?  I read that it’s because they look like they’re smiling.

But I also read that the phrase “happy as a clam” is short for “happy as a clam at high tide” – because high tide is the time when clams are safest from predators.

In addition to reading about the etymology of clam phrases, I’ve also been reading Molly Peacock’s excellent book The Private I: Privacy in a Public World.  The first essay, by Janna Malamud Smith, discusses Alan Westin’s four states of privacy: solitude, anonymity, reserve and intimacy.

Solitude is being completely by yourself, where you cannot be seen or heard.  This gives you the most freedom to act or be just as you wish.  Anonymity is to be “unidentified, unnamed, unnoted” – being alone in a crowd, for instance.  This is “a tentative and unsteady state of privacy” because it ends as soon as you are recognized.  Reserve is more of an internal privacy – “we are together with other people … [but our] state is private simply because we do not choose to reveal the full extent of what we feel, observe, think, or experience.”  And with intimacy, you are private with another person – relaxing our “public front either physically or emotionally or, occasionally, both … The heart of intimacy, its essence, is that in it one comes as close as one is capable of, or as close as one feels permitted, to revealing oneself to another person.”

I’ve been away at an artist’s colony for nearly a month, spending most of my time in solitude, and the rest of it reserved.  When I came home I both relished and chafed against intimacy with my spouse (who joked that after so much time away I needed to be socialized – we’d start with basic conversations – the kind you might hear on a foreign language teaching tape – and short walks around the neighborhood; I laughed – but I think there’s more truth to this that we first realized.)

I found myself seeking solitude – in the bathroom, in the shower, on a walk or in a book.  When I was with others I clammed up – listening, nodding, even smiling, but not talking.  I remembered joking with a friend that in most social situations I become a clam, my top shell drawn down with only my eyes looking out, taking everything in but not opening up in return.  She laughed as I held my hands up to my eyes, not like binoculars but like a horizontal slit, the slit of my shell, and darted my eyes back and forth in a roguish, clam-like way.

“Clammy” has come to mean something other than a shelled state – it refers more to the inside of a clam – cold and damp, like a nervous handshake or a fever victim.  But I like being clammy in this other way – open, but just a little, ready to snap shut whenever needed.  Especially as I return from my long solitude, shed my shell and travel back through anonymity, through reserve, and towards intimacy.

In this molting state I’m looking for a higher tide.  I’m happy as a clam.

Objectified

This morning, at breakfast, a week late, I read the Sunday Times article “Melvin the Mummy’s New Clothes” and was immediately struck – as I’m sure I was supposed to be – by the title.  Melvin the Mummy?  Who names a mummy Melvin?  As I kept reading I learned that Melvin had recently gone through an “extreme makeover,” that he was originally dressed in “two little boat-neck tunics with cap sleeves,” and now he is once “again snug in his traveling clothes for the afterlife.” 

This sounds like something out of the Styles section – until you hit the part about the afterlife.  That’s when you remember that this isn’t just a fashion show or a museum exhibit – it is evidence of a practice, a ritual, a belief system about one of the most profound experiences of mankind: death and what we think comes after.

Makeovers and death.  A cap-sleeved, boat-neck tunic and death.  Traveling clothes and death.  It’s hard to keep both in your mind at once, and perhaps that’s why death drops out.  Death as well as the person – not the thing – that succumbed to it.

This mummy was given the nickname “Melvin” by Brooklyn Museum staff in the 1950s.  Nicknames make a person – or a thing – friendlier.  Usually the person or thing has no choice in their nickname: they are most often bestowed by others.  Such is the case with Marvin, who, again, I must remember, is not a person but a body, a mummy, and an artifact. 

Dictionaries state that an artifact is an object – or the remains of one – made by human beings and characteristic of an earlier time or cultural stage.  This man was “made by human beings” and now is a set of “remains,” and both his life and the treatment of his dead body are “characteristic of an earlier time or cultural stage” – but does that make him an object?

“When these mummies were altered and covered, they became artifacts,” Mr. Bleiberg [the Brooklyn Museum’s curator of Egyptian, classical and ancient Middle Eastern art] said, adding that the museum would never show them uncovered. “We display the mummies, and we respect them.”

So if you are altered and covered you become an artifact.  So is anyone who has been altered by, say,  plastic surgery, and who is wearing clothes – or some kind of covering – an artifact?  No wonder paparazzi get away with so much …

Part of me understands this treatment of mummies – of any long-dead person, an anonymous one at that, with absolutely no currently living relation to object to his objectification.  But then I think of other images in the news – of people in other parts of the world dying or already dead this month, this week, today – a woman bleeding out in the street after being shot in an anti-government protest; a child’s corpse lying on bare ground, dried out by starvation and thirst; men in stained hospital beds dead of AIDS, flies clustered at the corners of their open mouths.  I can’t remember seeing a contemporary picture of an American dead or actively dying.  Until relatively recently we couldn’t even see the pictures of flag-draped coffins with Americans inside.  But we can see people from elsewhere – other places, other times – actually dying or already dead, or mummified, stripped of their “traveling clothes for the afterlife” or wrapped back up in them.

Some of his museum’s former practices give

Mr. Bleiberg pause. He said he wonders what errors he and his staff members might be making today that would be mortifying 50 years from now. “I worry a lot,” he said. “But you can’t get frozen by that.”

No indeed.  We must explore and learn and teach others.  But perhaps we might also consider ways to strike a balance between what was meant to be sacred and what has become secular, between what has been buried and what was forced to light, between an ancient assumption of privacy and the modern burn of curiosity, between what was once a person and what is now a thing.

(To read the original article, click here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/arts/design/09mummies.html.)

What herons think

Last month I was driving a long way down a curved highway and I saw a black vulture wheeling high up in the sky.  Then I noticed a blue heron flying towards it, its head cocked back like a swan’s,  its large eye clear, its wings beating unhurriedly, its impossibly long legs perfectly extended behind him – unselfconscious, steady – like a ballet dancer that’s too tall or too gawky to make the company but doesn’t know or care.

At first I wondered if the two birds would meet, the way I often wonder if two planes, pushing out jet trails at however-many-thousand feet, will collide.  But the sky conceals its depth – the planes never crash and these birds didn’t meet.

That heron’s eye made me wonder, though: what did he think when he saw the vulture?  Brother bird?  Filthy scavenger?  Or did the heron simply observe the buzzard with all the neutrality of his large fishlike eye? 

And what did the heron think of me, far below, pale face turned up as my land-bound car sped down the grey line between the green trees?

I’ve thought of that heron often in the weeks since, especially when I’ve been feeling turbulently human.  That wide, clear, impassive eye.  I can’t see behind it.  I don’t know what it thinks.  But I measure my messy human emotions against its inscrutable gaze and take a strange comfort in that.

 

Stealing from bluebirds (and poets)

“There’s a lot of shit in this world that needs figuring out.” – esteemed poet Joseph Millar.

At breakfast this morning I heard Joe Millar tell a story.  Is it true, I asked, that yesterday you beat a snake away from a bluebird’s nest?  Yes, it was true.

The snake was large and black and it was cruising up the post to a bird house.  Inside the house was a nest of pale blue eggs.  Joe beat the snake away.

“You’ve interfered with the course of nature,” an artist told him.

“What do you think of that?” he asked a poet friend.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“You interfere with everything,” his wife told him.  “Always trying to help.”

He thought about this.  Had he interfered with the course of nature?  Maybe he had.  But maybe the whole thing was futile anyway because the snake would just come back.  But then again maybe the snake would be afraid to return to that particular nest.  Maybe his snake friends would tease him about it and he’d be too embarrassed to try again. 

But maybe, maybe, the course of nature had already been interfered with.  It was a man-made bird house.  And if man was going to build a house for birds man should defend it.  

He said that he thought about this a long time.  “There’s a lot of shit in this world that needs figuring out,” he said.  And that struck me.

Forget Montaigne’s “Que sais-je?”  

“There’s a lot of shit in this world that needs figuring out” is the motto for this essayist.

Ingénue shoes

The shoes you choose may change the way you walk, but a particular pair of mine changes the way I am.  I call them my ingénue shoes.

They’re a pair of Mary Janes in a pale fawn color.  I wear them with other fawnish colors – light grey, soft brown, white.  Hana, from Minghella’s film The English Patient, could have worn them with a print dress, playing hopscotch outside her ruined Italian villa in the early summer dusk …

When I wear them I feel like a child in the Alps in the 1930s, before everything went to hell, a child young enough not to see it coming.  There is an extra poignancy to this – to live before hell and to be young enough not to know such things are possible.

These shoes make my feet look longer than they are – the way young girls’ feet are often too long for the rest of them; they have to grow into their feet, the way puppies do. 

They make my legs look coltish and I walk more coltishly.  The bounce in my step is amplified.  I don’t walk so much as amble.  It’s almost a skipping …

And when my body becomes coltish my mind does too.  My vision widens and my thoughts frisk around.  The world looks fresh and new, and it feels like anything is possible. 

My whole being feels dilated, like a camera’s lens wide open to the world.  The images it records burn deeper, darker, in seeming contrast to being open to so much light.

I value this wide-eyed, innocent feeling as well as the shadow it leaves on me.

On one of the last pages of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the narrator claims that “children are gay and innocent and heartless.”  Heartless?  I didn’t want to believe this but after reading about Peter’s rather careless life in Neverland it was difficult to deny.  And then I remembered Eugenia Collier’s story “Marigolds,” in which she claims that “[o]ne cannot have both compassion and innocence” at the same time.  Peter is heartless because he has not yet learned compassion. 

 I have lived long enough to have lost my innocence, and I value deeply the knowledge and experience that fosters compassion in its stead.  But to put on a pair of shoes, and to be able to amble through the world, seeing its small marvels as if for the first time – that is an extraordinary gift that I would give up a lot for, even – temporarily – my heart.

Kindling

It’s taken me a decade but I feel like I’m finally joining the 21st century.  I bought a Kindle.  It came today.  I have mixed feelings about it.

I rather feel like a hypocrite.  I love paper.  I write with a fountain pen.  But I also write on a computer, and spend a fair amount of time reading words (mostly mine) from a pixilated screen.  And I like the idea of traveling with a library crammed into something the size of a single paperback.

Still, something about this makes me uneasy.  Perhaps it’s the name: Kindle.  It reminds me of kindling, starting fires, burning books, Fahrenheit 451 – the temperature at which paper burns.  And then I think of other “new” forms of communication – the telegraph (whose first transmitted line was “What hath God wrought?”), the telephone, faxes, e-mails, texts, tweets …

Where is all this going?  What is this doing to words – written or spoken?

In Greek mythology Prometheus (whose name means “forethought”) stole fire from Zeus and gave it to man.  As a punishment he was chained to a mountain where an eagle came every day to tear out and devour his liver, only to have it regenerate overnight for the next day’s torment.  He was also given Pandora for a wife – a woman famous for her costly curiosity.

Will Kindles be another Pandora’s box, something we use to satisfy our curiosity but which will ultimately unleash misfortune?  Or is it more like the fire Prometheus gave mankind, allowing us to light our way, fight off beasts, cook our food, read by night, send smoke signals, burn witches, napalm forests, detonate bombs?

Jeff Bezos and the team at E Ink chained to a rock, their livers eaten by an eagle …

To kindle is to start a fire, but it is also to ignite, to excite, to stir up, rouse, inflame, to light up or illuminate, to become aroused, to burn.  It is also to bear young, to produce offspring, to give birth, as to a litter – especially rabbits.

Rabbits procreate exponentially.  Perhaps our thoughts – after reading all these books – will do the same.

At the moment my bundle of kindling is pretty small.  I’ve only “whispernetted” free books, pre-1923 books, the books I mostly read anyway.  I wonder what these writers – Tolstoy, Austen, Wharton – would think of me clicking instead of flipping through their pages?

Prometheus could download some Peisander (or Hercules: The Twelve Labors : A Greek Myth (Graphic Universe) , if he were feeling particularly gutted that day) and read about his rescuer one-handed while he waited for him to arrive …