Wednesday, June 10, 2020

In Lieu of Tablets


They say the Eye of the Needle was a gate in Jerusalem,
so narrow that you had to unload your camel to lead it through.
Then again, they say that if God makes a door as wide 
as the eye of a needle, the way becomes so wide
that all can pass through: camels, tents, wagons, all.

They'll say anything, you know. Listen at your peril.
What Jesus meant is plain enough to me.

I can't bring myself to pay some poor schmo 
to do my grocery shopping for me. I mask up once a week,
take my life in my hands, wash well. I think of the people
who crouched in cellars four years long 
in Sarajevo. This is doable.

There is a thunderous knocking on the door, on all the doors.
Not yet morning and the sky full of fearful stars. Prayer
that doesn't begin or end with listening 
is only a complaint, or a harangue.


The long slow sift of anxious scholarship, that's one.
The measures, pencil-marked and checked, 
and checked again on fine-grained wood; that's two. 
Dishes carefully washed and set to dry; that's three.
Three things that are pleasing to God.

Go tell the crowd that the golden calf
was a mistake. But the burning here 
means so much more than that. And I
am commanded to wait. If anything is handed to me
you'll be the first to know.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The California of the Jealous Gods

I rise through pools of silver to a glimpse of sky, a fading sky, a dislocation of blue.

Was there ever a young man who so narrowly missed so many targets, as Heinrich von Kleist? Poor soul. But I haven't read his plays yet. 

I keep my mind on a short leash these days. Speak sternly to it when it pauses to sniff. The right way to live, maybe, but not the right way to create things. 

I could eat ten packages of girl scout cookies without drawing a breath, right now, and reach for an eleventh.

A breeze stirs the maple tree branches, and their leaves tap the sky.

I have done the state some service, and they know't.
No more of that.

(I, on the other hand, have done the state no service at all, but here I am, withering out its revenue.)


     "I'll go in search of Athos by myself," he said. "Take care of yourself, dear friend!"
     "You're a man of steel," said Aramis.
     "No; I'm lucky, nothing more. But how will you kill the time, waiting for me? I suppose you're done with the thesis, and with theological explications of fingers and blessings?"
     Aramis smiled. "I'll compose verses."
     "Ah, verses bearing the scent of the billet-doux of Lady Whoever-She-Is. Why don't you teach versification to Bazin? It will console him."

Bizarre as von Kleist is, he can't hold a candle to Dumas, who opens wider vistas of the ungodded landscape. Dumas is astonishing in his amorality. The side of the musketeers is the right side because it is the side of our friends: no other moral superiority is claimed or wanted. Pretty girls, fast horses, jeweled swords: this is the pinnacle of life, and all the rest is stuff: feeble consolations for those who have lost the real game. 

Dumas does not make it into Harold Bloom's register of the immortals. Not highbrow enough, I suppose. Nevertheless, people will be reading Dumas when half of Bloom's classics are forgotten footnotes. 

More surprising than Dumas' popularity, I think, is the nostalgia he inspires. Were this merely cape-and-sword porn, I don't think it would leave so deep a trace. People come back to the Musketeers again and again. The gusto of youth and the bleakness of age are perfectly counterpoised: this is the eternal Spring, the California of the Jealous Gods.

Their hearts have not grown old. 
Passion or conquest, wander where they will 
Attend upon them still.

Monday, May 25, 2020

How I use Flashcards

I'm convinced that the key to learning a new language is simple: it's the ingestion of compelling comprehensible input in large quantities. Reading and listening to stuff you can more or less understand. Your brain will take care of the grammar and the vocabulary, behind the scenes, quite efficiently. All you have to do find stuff simple enough to understand, that you're really motivated to understand, and consume lots of it. Everything else will happen on its own.

So it might surprise you that I still use flashcards, in my enterprise of learning literary Spanish. I do it for a good reason and a bad reason. The bad reason is that without doing some sort of drill I don't really feel like I'm studying the language. The good reason is that I think -- though I'm still not entirely sure -- that with the right tools and the right approach I can develop my vocabulary a little more efficiently than I could by spending the same time reading or listening.

There are two keys to my method. One is spaced repetition, and the other is context.

I use Anki, a flashcard program that uses spaced repetition. There are lots of such programs out there, with various bells and whistles, but they all use some variant of this simple, sturdy algorithm: you create some flashcards. Then you go through them. If you get a card wrong, you'll be presented with it again when you drill tomorrow. If you get it right, however, it will double the time it waits to present you with it again. You'll see it in two days, instead of in one. Get it right again, you'll see it four days later. And again, you'll see it eight days after that. If you get it wrong, though, the interval for that card drops back to one and you'll start over with it again. 

There's some good science behind this: something like this algorithm is optimal for getting stuff into your memory. But there are also some problems. One is that it's easy to get overambitious and create an oppressively large deck that eats up all you study time. Drilling on vocabulary really shouldn't take up very much of the time you devote to your language. A quarter of your time is way too much. So pace yourself. Don't let it shoulder out your main task, which is guzzling down the comprehensible input.

The other main problem is that your brain is very shrewd, thrifty, well-designed learner. It learns exactly what it has to learn. If you have a flashcard that says "crow" on one side and "cuervo" on the other, it will remember that the other side of the "crow" card has "cuervo" on it. But it will only remember it when you're drilling. Meet "cuervo" in a text, and it won't necessarily remember it at all. You may have a vague feeling that you should know it, but you'll have to look it up. And that will leave you with the (legitimate) suspicion that all your drilling is just a waste of time. 

The trouble is that you're just learning an isolated factoid. Vocabulary is not a mass of isolated factoids: it's a densely interwoven network of associations. You haven't really learned the word "crow" in English until it has little tendrils of association with a bunch of other words, (bird, black, caw, ominous, fly, croak...). A word out of its web is useless, except for successfully drilling yourself with flashcards. What your brain is doing is learning what's on the other side of the flashcard. What you want it to be doing is weaving "cuervo" into the web of your Spanish vocabulary. 

So the "Spanish" side of my "crow" card will look like this, with the sentence where I met it included:


el cuervo

Han pasado cuatro años escuchando el graznido del cuervo.


I don't try to memorize the sentence. If I get "cuervo" right, I've gotten the card right. But every time I answer the card, I say the sentence (aloud or in my mind). I'm stitching the word into the web.

And if I get the word wrong, I don't just start that card over. I start it over, and I create a new card with the same word, but with a different sentence.

My new card might look like this:


el cuervo

Envió un cuervo, pero pronto volvió volando.


(And in the meantime, having refined my understanding of "cuervo," I might change the English side to "crow; raven" -- because "cuervo" refers to either.)

Now we're doing some serious stitching. And by the time you have three such cards, you're no longer having trouble with finding the Spanish word for "crow." You actually know it.

Now, this can be a little discouraging, because it turns out that to keep a reasonable-sized deck you can only add two or three words per day. If you had dreams of building a literary vocabulary in the space of one year, this will dash them. It can't be done. A decent speaking vocabulary, sure. But a real literary vocabulary takes years. It just does. 

On the other hand, note that you're not just learning the word "cuervo" here. You're now also learning "graznido," "envió," and "volando," and buttressing the words that you already knew, but maybe not so well as you imagined: "años," "cuatro," "volvió." Not to mention reinforcing the grammar and syntax. You're making the web denser and stronger. Now when you meet "cuervo" on the page it's a real word, a word that means something, a word that has tendrils of association running to other words and turns of phrase.

One of the side benefits of this -- unless it's actually the chief benefit -- is that often I discover, when I say over the example sentence, that I didn't fully understand it. (It's usually, of course, the sentence that sent me to the dictionary for that word in the first place.) There's something odd about it. The prepositions aren't the ones I would have expected: the verb forms strike me as odd. There's something I had skipped over, without really getting it. So drilling vocabulary becomes a little like memorizing poetry: it's a way of slowing myself down. I tend to gobble my language, rather than savor it, and I miss a lot that way.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Prime Motor

Every once in a while I think of the collapse of Joe McCarthy as a political power, which happened almost overnight. He went from the most feared man in America to a pathetic drunkard, whose colleagues avoided him in the Senate hallways, in a matter of days.

"Strange powers have our enemies, and strange weaknesses," as King Théoden remarked. Political life always seems overdetermined and implacable, until suddenly it's not. So "Up, Éorlingas, and fear no darkness!"


On the other hand, it's the silly polling season. No, dear friends, Florida and Texas are not in the bag. Sheesh. Get a grip.


Engrenage énorme dont le premier moteur est le moucheron et dont la dernière roue est le zodiaque.

Enormous gearing, the prime motor of which is the gnat, and whose final wheel is the zodiac.

-- Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Reading Hugo

Reading Victor Hugo for the first time. When I was young, and first barreling through the classics, I obtained somewhere an absurd prejudice against French language and literature, and mostly skipped it. A couple decades later I had a limping reading-knowledge of French, and was waiting to read it all in the original. Now, with a clearer picture of my mortality, I've realized that if I'm going to read much French literature, I better read it now and in translation. If I get to it later in French, that will be gravy. But better get to it now.

Nearly through the second volume of Les Misérables. It's a bit trying, when he drones on about theology and monasticism. But it's illuminating even then. This is where I came from, where the American Democratic Party came from: all the glories, absurdities, and contradictions of liberalism are on display.

The belief in supermen, and the convenient now-you-see-it-now-you-don't deism, are the most striking things to me. Hugo is dazzled by Napoleon, and Jean Valjean is just Napoleon transposed to private life. The superhero motif sails on to the present day. 

God is indispensable, but malleable. You can make him be whatever you need to him to be at the moment. It's not, of course, Hugo's fault, but prosperity gospel and no-fault Christianity are already in the wings.

But this is the captiousness of hindsight. There's a great deal of sentimentality, and your shoes fill with it as you squelch your way through the novel, but Hugo does bludgeon home one of the great ideas of his time: that we are making criminals and prostitutes, that society is producing them on an industrial scale, that these conditions could have no other outcome. 

Whether Hugo ever set these insights against his own bargains with Eros, I don't know: I might look about for a biography. I suspect that the superhero shtick will have come in handy for him, there.

Sunday, April 05, 2020



I have asked how not to become morose
at a time when all lights flicker, a time

when the sky hesitates, the sun
avoids my glance, and the moon

pitches after a restless night into
the sickly western haze.

The dawn is not cool; the afternoon
has no warmth; evening brings a glare

of streetlamps, blue and unlovely,
that give false counsel to the moths

and little of use to my feet.
I have asked, and receive your silence.


Well, I will try my own answers.
To live at times of crisis is the common lot:

we are not singled out. Boccaccio 
pulled his hood over his nose and hurried away,

Chaucer put off his trip to Paris, and wondered
if his butt of wine would come this year.

Peevish princes, venal and unwise
are not a new invention of our time,

nor are mobs that drag a man
with the wrong name off to death.

These are old, old stories. 
Often told, half-listened.


And no answer. Let me try again:
all this fret and unease comes

because we think we know:
and we do not know.

There are better times and worse times, perhaps;
certainly lives happier, lives more distressed;

but we are swallowed by the fish of the future
and what we will find in its belly

we do not know. Not what we thought.
Did we really love the lineaments 

of the made world so much, that we must
fear to lose them? Let them go.


Democracy, the rights of man, 
the golden rule: they will all be found

and lost again, broken and restored.
The storytelling apes will have 

their algae-bloom, their die-off;
the rains will come and the seas will rise.

Is it our business to know, or even to attend?
Yesterday at twilight an apple tree

was heavy with white blossom,
whiter than could be believed, so that I stopped

and tried to tell how mere reflection 
could be brighter than the dimming sky.


The wind rises. Branches toss their heads,
a ruffle runs through the ferns; sparrows

jostle by the pool. There is a new front,
slate gray, implacable, moving inland:

too slow for the motion to be seen, but eating up the sky.
Still silent? Or is this your answer? Rain,

a day-long, week-long rain. The crows call
each to each. All my failures are laid out

before me, but even those
the rising wind lifts, and carries away:

it leaves only this blessing, 
this enormous blessing, of the rain. 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Daily Bread

Thank you for this food, gathered and grown
at unknown price by unknown hands;

brought from far places by those
who would rather be at home.

Thank you for these loved ones 
who step glad and unafraid

into darkness, take my hand,
and find the courage I could not.

Thank you for this breath, these ribs
splayed by greed but closing now as slow

as flowers at the half light, 
and help me daily to remember

there is a dale behind the dale;
there is a mountain behind the cloud.