Archive for May, 2014
[Breaking this into three parts because there is a lot of good stuff to read. And I need a vacation.
Recently a friend told me he’s been to more funerals than he has weddings. He told me that life is a gift; it’s no guarantee. I think that’s true, and while I have a tendency to feel guilty about the fact that I exist while the environment goes to shit and small children die of preventible diseases, I choose to feel grateful rather than guilty. Besides, what’s a better response to a gift?
Celebration. Thank you to everyone who participated in celebrating this blog’s 100th post. Reading your responses made me feel really
guilty grateful to have you in my life. Thank you. Today honestly feels like a second birthday. And now, THE READERS!
Benjamin ‘gopher padfoot’ Wegner]
Being with my family and having them tell me about their lives is the happiest time for me.
[How do you use your time? What’s a ‘typical’ day?]
My typical day is rising by 6:00 a.m. After coffee I read the paper, check email and say my morning prayers. I pray The Lord takes care of our family, gives grandpa a good day.
Right now my healing after surgery is changing my activities. When I am healed I will again take the dog for a long walk, go to Yoga class and volunteer with Cosmo at the local hospital and library. I belong to the grief ministry at my Church which has taught me a lot. Also in the Church choir.
[What is most important to you?]
Most important to me is my family. I enjoy to see how all have grown and matured. Being with them and having them tell me about their lives is the happiest time for me. My religion is very important, I need and get strength from my faith.
[Thank you so much, Grandma. For those of you who didn’t catch that, my grandma visits sick children and seniors with her dog, Cosmo. I’m very proud to have such a wise and compassionate grandma- who reads my blog every Monday morning!]
My name is Whitney Peterson, Wide Faced Wendy, or something along those lines…
Memory is a strange beast. Our ability to forge meaning from chaos and contradiction is truly astounding.
[a story (in your own words) about a time you had with me]
I don’t know what I was doing before or after this particular event. I was somewhat successfully (depending on how you define success) balancing on the handlebars of Padfoot’s bike. Or perhaps it was my own kleines Fahrrad. The chilly mist in the air reflected the glow from the streetlights illuminating the cobblestone streets. As we picked up speed, I pictured Padfoot losing momentum and my body smashing to the ground, as it had done twice already in the previous months. A drunken joy and excitement soon clouded my initial panic. It was one of those spontaneous moments when you think to yourself, “I am going to remember this.” I suppose we made it to our destination, but that small window of time is what stands out most. I’d be interested to know if Padfoot remembers this at all.
[I remember. It was night- and as you say- frosty. We were past that tunnel, the one under the train tracks where during the daytime people sold flowers and cheap pastries. We were headed somewhere far enough that walking seemed dissatisfying. I suggested you ride on my handlebars and was baffled by your ready assent. The hardest part was what you described, but what I remember most vividly was riding along the limestone path at a steady clip past two Germans who were looking at us with unconcealed admiration. Boy was I drunk. Haha!]
[your favorite blog post]
I liked time is not wasted if it’s deliberate because I have also been on at least two dates with myself at the Chicago Cultural Center [you have!?]. Even though it is geographically located in an ideal location for tourists/self-daters, the place seemed somehow forgotten [right!?]. I believe it used to be the old central library [it was]. Part of me wishes it were still filled with books [me too]. I also enjoyed reading The Man Who Couldn’t Cry. I was compelled by the way you wrote with awareness of your inner conflict which later manifests in regret. Perhaps regret is most significant when we know we will regret our actions at that very moment of indecision [omg yes]. You also wrote a post about your experience tripping on acid, I believe, for multiple weeks through finals?? Solid work. Perhaps I shouldn’t be impressed [a couple of my professors weren’t either]. All in all, you have a strong honest voice that emerges through your writing. Keep it up.
[what you are doing with your life]
What am I doing with my life? Yikes. I am currently doing some kind of balancing act trying to make everyone happy and not tip the boat. At some point in the very near future, I hope to be in the open water swimming in whatever direction pleases me [bravo!]. Since I left Chicago, I have been working at Manzanar National Historic Site, a place where Japanese Americans were confined during World War II, two-thirds of them citizens. Perhaps the most rewarding part of my job has been conducting oral histories with people who were confined at Manzanar. It is amazingly difficult and enlightening to speak with people who have experienced the world for over 80 years, especially when they are verbalizing memories that they have never talked about. Memory is a strange beast. Our ability to forge meaning from chaos and contradiction is truly astounding. Since January, I’ve been working at a library, which has proved more challenging than expected. I thought access to free books would make people happy. Apparently this library is a place where people feel entitled to do as they wish by treating people and the poor, helpless books with blatant disrespect. It’s all a fantastic learning experience though, right? When I am not working, I’m usually navigating the rugged, isolated wilderness of the Eastern Sierra and Death Valley. It could take ten lifetimes to really get to know this place. The end.
[You have a strong honest voice that emerges through your writing. Thanks Whitney, look forward to seeing you again.]
It gets much, much better!!! Be patient. It really does!
[How do you know Ben?]
We came from the same uterus
[Do you have a ‘ritual’ for reading the blog?]
Yes. I normally read it on my phone either right before going to bed, or early Monday morning, depending on when I go to work.
[Are you a writer?]
[What do you write about?]
[Anything you want to get out there, to an audience verging on the 20s!?]
Hmm… I would say to myself in my 20s just what I would say to myself in high school, “It gets much, much better!!! Be patient. It really does!”
[Pets- do you have pets?]
[oh no, have you seen where I work?]
[Do you have a question for me?]
What advice would you give to a teenage you? A ten-year old you? A five-year old you? Are any of those sage words still applicable?
[Great Question! Teenage Ben- If you learn moderation you might be able to keep enjoying these things you’re enjoying so much. Ten-year old Ben- don’t completely abandon spontaneous play for organized sports. Five-year old Ben- Get a job! No really, listen: America is actually really weird; stop drinking corn syrup.]
[What is one thing you’d like to see covered on Underspecialized?]
I want to see videos and/or music that you collect along your daily journeys!
[OK, it’s in the works!]
[Thanks so much Kristy. Long ago you brought me out of the cave and into the light, and things have never quite looked the same. Love, Your Little Brother]
Kathy “Catheter” Wegner, aka no longer Mommy, but Mom, Mum, Ma, and “What do you know?”
[Wow. See where I get my sense of humor from?]
The reader learned the author has a rich sense of humor and loves to play games with people, systems and institutions.
[Your favorite blog post or reading ritual?]
My favorite blog was the “Five Paragraph Essay” from August 2012. It was easy to understand. Everyone can empathize with it. There were hidden meanings in this blog. You can see that the “Five Paragraph Essay was the best blog.
First, the “Five Paragraph Essay blog is easy to understand. The reader didn’t have to comprehend difficult concepts such as philosophy or linguistics, characteristic in many other blogs.
Secondly, everyone can empathize with “The Five Paragraph Essay.” At some point in our education, we all probably had to write a five paragraph essay.
Finally, there were hidden meanings in “The Five Paragraph Essay.” The reader learned the author has a rich sense of humor and loves to play games with people, systems and institutions. His reluctance to follow the prescribed formula demonstrates his delight in being unconventional.
In conclusion, “The Five Paragraph Essay” is my favorite. The three reasons it is the best are it is easy to understand, everyone can empathize with it, and it has hidden meanings. Now you can see that “The Five Paragraph Essay” is the best blog.
My place in this universe is simple, to communicate. I want to communicate through laughter and song.
I like this piece because I feel completely in lock with Ben. Always honest, I feel like I am with Ben on the date, seeing the same things, hearing the same sounds. In addition to its clarity, I always walk away from Ben’s pieces with something new I have learned. Ben seamlessly works history and contemplative ideas into his work. I feel calm. I leave with a greater meaning in my head. Build your own ship.
The smell of a hundred women’s body odor. Like death, you either fight it or accept it learning to enjoy it. The sound of roller skates hitting and rolling across the wooden floor. Pump-up music as teams run through their drills. Your heart beating as you remember playing hockey as a youth. The anxiety of the unavoidable collision. Scoring a goal for your team. Exhilaration.
Jamburglar jumps from skate to skate, juking her way through four big women determined to crush her. She breaks through and skates around the track, solo. The crowd trumpets its approval. The four girls re-position themselves in Red Rover formation, Smaxl Rose is at the head barking orders. Jamburglar- less than five foot tall and wearing thick-framed glasses- circles back to the Defense, whose collective mass exceeds 700 pounds of raw female flesh- most of it covered in tattoos. Jamburglar breaks through a second time, scoring 5 more points for her team. I begin to cry. I am both sad and happy and end up crying for the whole next hour. It’s my first time at a Bout. I have no idea why I’m crying, but I am.
‘Bout’ is the name for a Roller Derby match. Like any sport, Derby has its own language, customs and signs. A ‘Jammer’ is the person who skates around the rink, attempting to score points for her team. Almost every girl has a nickname, a pun based on her actual name or position. Hence Jamburglar the Jammer and Smaxl Rose who plays defense. Even the referees have nicknames on the back of their striped jerseys, i.e., Frank Lloyd Wrong. This is the brilliance of Roller Derby: it doesn’t take itself too seriously. At the same time, it takes itself as seriously as a broken wrist.
At will-call outside the UIC Pavilion, I see two baby-boomers wearing matching red wind-breakers that have Smaxl Rose‘s name and number on it, carrying a small cooler filled with drinks. They must be her parents. I grew up with two older sisters who both played sports. I remember going with them to softball games and track events, the little-brother-hanger-on, crawling under bleachers past years’ worth of dust and fossilized gum. My parents were one of the few parents who went to almost every game. Some of the girls, their parents didn’t come at all. But the ones who did carried with them collapsible canvas chairs, well-worn thermoses, and jackets with their daughter’s name and number on it. I’ve always wondered what happened to the sports parents after their girls went on to college and they stopped having games to go to. Did they set their fan gear on a blazing raft and push it into Lake Michigan, or did they just forget it ever happened? Luckily for some, their girls come out of athletic purgatory years later, but in an unexpected form: Derby.
My girlfriend actually bought me my ticket. She was going to the game to volunteer. She works with the Chicago Women’s Health Center, an all-women’s health collective that operates on a sliding scale payment structure. Her mission for the day was to man a booth and pass out free condoms, lube and literature about the clitoris (Tip of the Iceberg, by Laura Szumowski). She also had free buttons with animated speculums on them that read “I did it myself at CWHC”. Think DIY gynecology. I put one on my shirt where it still hangs. At half-time, Julia walked down to the center of the rink and told everyone about the services CWHC provides and the lube they had today- just minutes after a bunch of kids ran a relay race bouncing across the floor on balloons. Another cool aspect of Roller Derby: it spans the gamut from family fun to queer studies, bros to bitches- they all come to watch the girls.
Let’s face it, Roller Derby isn’t as popular as other sports and it probably never will be. Nor should it, because all the sponsors are local companies like Hoosier Momma Pies and the people who go there really want to be there- they’re not the type of schmucks who score tickets to a Cubs game from their corporate overlords. Everything is DIY. Even the merchandise booth is staffed by the players themselves, sometimes just after they played, meaning the change they hand back to you is drenched in sweat. It was there at the merchandise booth where I asked for a brochure explaining the game (Derby is really confusing until you know what’s going on).
“No”, they told me, “we don’t have brochures…”
“I’ll show you”, said the woman next to me, “I’m visiting from out of town and have no one to sit next to anyhow. I’ll show you how it works”.
Her name is Allison. She’s from San Francisco and plays Derby there. She was in Chicago on business, but stayed an extra day, “because I just had to see the Windy City Rollers“. Let me tell you a little more about her, because I think as an individual she encapsulates the spirit of the game. She started playing three years ago, weeks after giving birth to her first child. On the day I cried, before getting there, she visited the top floors of all three of the tallest buildings in Chicago- just for the hell of it. That’s the Sears Tower (sic.), John Hancock, and Trump Tower. Aggressive. She sat next to me, beer in hand, patiently answering my many questions, as well as butting in to explain things I was oblivious to. Generous. She also shouted at the girls, with the girls, for the girls. After the games she ran up and congratulated them. She admired good play and scorned the slouches. Enthusiastic. In short, both Allison and Roller Derby are aggressive, generous, and enthusiastic.
Neither Allison nor my girlfriend saw me cry. The last time I cried like that was at a modern dance performance, actually, at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I watched a woman embody the silence we adopt in the face of the constant bombardment of obligation, insult and information which is modern life. Or at least that’s how I interpreted it. Her eyes and mouth were wide open yet mute as she pulled herself across the stage like a schizophrenic contortionist. Which is exactly how I feel when I’m behind the cash register at work, while typing in a customer’s order while getting their coffee while starting a new urn of coffee while grabbing a quiche made by Hoosier Momma Pies from the microwave while, at the same time, getting rude looks and bad energy from the unending torrent of customers not realizing I’m the one who’s helping them. It sucks.
And it’s what I’m able to let go of as I watch Jamburglar squirt through the elbows and hips of her colossal foes. I see myself in her, and because she’s outside of me, I’m able to feel a level of compassion and sympathy toward her/me that I’m usually not able, either because I’m too proud or allergic to feeling sorry for myself. Watching derby, I recognize that I’m hurt. The anxiety, the rudeness, the collisions you cannot avoid. I’m crying for myself.
But then, when she breaks through- ahh! when she breaks through– it’s exhilarating. It’s freedom, sports and speculums all rolled up into one. On skates.
Fitting that our episode about sacrifice lands on Mother’s Day. I love you mom.
These are really long but each is great. Maybe printing them out would be worthwhile (I personally can’t read shit on the internet, not anything longer than 300 words). Which makes me a hypocrite.
1930s, Pacific Grove, California
John Steinbeck is most known for his Grapes of Wrath, a book that has nothing to do with angry, personified stone fruit. His contribution to American letters continued brightly until his death in 1962, including this non-fiction below.
The Depression was no financial shock to me. I didn’t have any money to lose, but in common with millions I did dislike hunger and cold. I had two assets. My father owned a tiny three-room cottage in Pacific Grove in California, and he let me live in it without rent. That was the first safety. Pacific Grove is on the sea. That was the second. People in inland cities or in the closed and shuttered industrial cemeteries had greater problems than I. Given the sea a man must be very stupid to starve. That great reservoir of food is always available. I took a large part of my protein food from the ocean. Firewood to keep warm floated on the beach daily, needing only handsaw and ax. A small garden of black soil came with the cottage. In northern California you can raise vegetables of some kind all year long. I never peeled a potato without planting the skins. Kale, lettuce, chard, turnips, carrots and onions rotated in the little garden. In the tide pools of the bay, mussels were available and crabs and abalones and that shiny kelp called sea lettuce. With a line and pole, blue cod, rock cod, perch, sea trout, sculpin could be caught.
I must drop the “I” for “we” now, for there was a fairly large group of us poor kids, all living alike. We pooled our troubles, our money when we had some, our inventiveness, and our pleasures. I remember it as a warm and friendly time. Only illness frightened us. You have to have money to be sick- or did then. And dentistry also was out of the question, with the result that my teeth went badly to pieces. Without dough you couldn’t have a tooth filled.
It seems odd now to say that we rarely had a job. There just weren’t any jobs. One girl of our group had a job in the Woman’s Exchange. She wasn’t paid, but the cakes that had passed their salable prime she got to take home and of course she shared so that we were rarely without dry but delicious cakes. Being without a job, I went on writing- books, essays, short stories. Regularly they went out and just as regularly came back. Even if they had been good, they would have come back because publishers were hardest hit of all. When people are broke, the first things they give up are books. I couldn’t even afford postage on the manuscripts. My agents, McIntosh and Otis, paid it, although they couldn’t sell my work. Needless to say, they are still my agents, and most of the work written at that time has since been published.
403 BCE, Athens.
Xenophon was a soldier and historian long before academic standards. Born in Athens, he grew to love and favor Spartan society. His Hellenica is both a history of his own life and the latter part of the Peloponnesian War.
As the enemy were coming forward, Thrasybulus told his men to ground their shields. Then, putting down his own shield, but otherwise fully armed, he spoke to them as follows, standing in the center of the line: ‘Fellow citizens, I want to remind some of you and to inform others that those on the right wing of the enemy’s advance are the men whom four days ago you defeated and put to flight. Now for the extreme left. Yes, that is where the Thirty are, the men who robbed us of our city though we have done nothing wrong, the men who drove us out of our homes and who, by their proscriptions, have victimized our dearest friends. And now they find themselves just where they never expected to be and just where we used to pray that they would be. For we are face to face with them and we have arms in our hands. In the past we were seized and arrested when we were asleep, or eating our meals or going about our business in the market; we were exiled when we have not only done nothing wrong but were not even in the city. And because of this the gods are quite evidently on our side now. In the middle of fair weather they send us a snowstorm to help us, and when we attack, few against many, it is we who are granted the right to set up the trophies. So now they have brought us to a position where these enemies of ours, because they are advancing uphill, cannot throw their spears and javelins over the heads of the front ranks, while we, with spears javelins and stones all thrown downhill, cannot miss our mark and are certain to inflict casualties. One might have thought that at least with their front rank we should have to fight on even terms. But in fact we have only got to do the right thing and let our weapons fly with full force, and not one of us will miss his man, since the whole road is packed with them. They will be cowering under their shields trying to keep out of the way, so that you will be able to thrust at them wherever you like, as though they were blind men, and then leap in on them and cut them down.
‘And now, my friends, I want each one of you to act so that afterwards he will know that he was the man who won the victory. For this, please God, will be a victory that will give us back our country, our homes, our freedom, our honor and, for those who have them, our wives and children. Happy indeed will those of us be who, after the victory, will see the light of the gladdest day of our lives. Fortunate, too, will be the man who dies; for no one, however rich, could acquire for himself so splendid a memorial.
‘Now at the right moment I shall strike up the paean, and when we call on the War God, then let us all be of one mind, and let us make these men suffer for the insolent wrong that they have done to us.’
After saying this he turned about to face the enemy. As yet he made no move, because the prophet had told them not to attack until one of their own number was either killed or wounded. ‘When that has happened, however,’ he had said, ‘we shall lead you on. You will follow and victory will be yours. But for me, so far as I can see, it will be death.’
His prophecy came true. When they had taken up their shields, he, inspired, it seems, by some kind of fate, sprang forward in front of them, fell upon the enemy and was killed. He lies buried at the ford of the Cephisus.
Jeanette Winterson was born in England in 1959. Her novels make me think of a dream written by an automated hand bent on beauty and precision. This excerpt comes from The Passion, which is set in Napoleonic Europe. Dedicated to Sasha.
The astute gambler always keeps something back, something to play with another time; a pocket watch, a hunting dog. But the Devil’s gambler keeps back something previous, something to gamble with only once in a lifetime. Behind the secret panel he keeps it, the valuable, fabulous thing that no one suspects he has.
I knew a man like that; not a drunkard sniffing after every wager nor an addict stripping the clothes off his back rather than go home. A thoughtful man who they say had trade with gold and death. He lost heavily, as gamblers do; he won surprisingly, as gamblers do, but he never showed much emotion, never led me to suspect that much important was at stake. A hobbyist, I thought, dismissing him. You see, I like passion, I like to be among the desperate.
I was wrong to dismiss him. He was waiting for the wager that would seduce him into risking what he valued. He was a true gambler, he was prepared to risk the valuable, fabulous thing but not for a dog or a cock or the casual dice.
On a quiet evening, when the tables were half empty and the domino sets lay in their boxes, he was there, wandering, fluttering, drinking and flirting.
I was bored.
Then a man came into the room, not one of our regulars, not one any of us knew, and after a few half-hearted games of chance he spied this figure and engaged him in conversation. They talked for upwards of half an hour and so intently that we thought they must be old friends and lost our curiosity in the assumption of habit. But the rich man with his strangely bowed companion by his side asked leave to make an announcement, a most remarkable wager, and we cleared the central floor and let him speak.
It seemed that his companion, this stranger, had come from the wastes of the Levant, where exotic lizards breed and all is unusual. In his country, no man bothered with paltry fortunes at the gaming table, they played for higher stakes.
The wager was a life. The winner should take the life of the loser in whatsoever way he chose. However slowly he chose, with whatever instruments he chose. What was certain was that only one life would be spared.
Our rich friend was clearly excited. His eyes looked past the faces and tables of the gaming room into a space we could not inhabit; into the space of pain and loss. What could it matter to him that he might lose fortunes?
He had fortunes to lose.
What could it matter to him that he might lose mistresses?
There are women enough.
What would it matter to him that he might lose his life?
He had one life. He cherished it.
There were those that night who begged him not to go on with it, who saw a sinister aspect in this unknown old man, who were perhaps afraid of being made the same offer and of refusing.
What you risk reveals what you value.
These were the terms.
A game of three.
The first, the roulette, where only fate is queen.
The second, the cards, where skill has some part.
The third, the dominos, where skill is paramount and chance is there in disguise.
Will she wear your colours?
This is the city of disguises.
The terms were agreed and strictly supervised. The winner was two out of three or in the event of some onlooker crying Nay! A tie, chosen at random, by the manager of the Casino.
The terms seemed fair. More than fair in this cheating world, but there were still some who felt uneasy about the unknown man, unassuming and unthreatening as he seemed.
If the Devil plays dice, will he come like this?
Will he come so quietly and whisper in our ear?
If he came as an angel of light, we should be immediately on our guard.
The word was given: Play on.
We drank throughout the first game, watching the red and black spin under our hands, watching the bright streak of metal dally with one number, then another, innocent of win or lose. At first it seemed as tough our rich friend must win, but at the last moment the all sprang out of its slot and spun again with that dwindling sickening sound that marks the last possible change.
The wheel came to rest.
It was the stranger whom fortune loved.
There was a moment’s silence, we expected some sign, some worry on one part, some satisfaction on another, but with faces of wax, the two men got up and walked to the optimistic baize. The cards. No man knows what they may hold. A man must trust his hand.
Swift dealing. These were accustomed to the game.
They played for perhaps an hour and we drank. Drank to keep our lips wet, our lips that dried every time a card fell and the stranger seemed doomed to victory. There was an odd sense in the room that the stranger must not win, that for all our sakes he must lose. We willed our rich friend to weld his wits with his luck and he did.
At the cards, he won and they were even.
The two men met each other’s gaze for a moment before they seated themselves in front of the dominoes and in each face was something of the other. Our rich friend had assumed a more calculating expression, while his challenger’s face was more thoughtful, less wolfish than before.
It was clear from the start that they were evenly matched at this game too. They played deftly, judging the gaps and the numbers, making lightning calculations, baffling each other. We had stopped drinking. There was neither sound nor movement save the clicking of the dominoes on the marble table.
It was past midnight. I heard the water lapping at the stones below. I heard my saliva in my throat. I heard the dominoes clicking on the marble table.
There were no dominoes left. No gaps.
The stranger had won.
The two men stood up simultaneously, shook hands. Then the rich man placed his hands on the marble, and we saw they were shaking. Fine comfortable hands that were shaking. The stranger noticed and with a little smile suggested they complete the terms of their wager.
None of us spoke up, none of us tried to stop him. Did we want it to happen? Did we hope that one life might substitute for many?
I do not know our motives, I only know that we were silent.
This was the death: dismemberment piece by piece beginning with the hands.
The rich man nodded almost imperceptibly and, bowing to us, left in the company of the stranger. We heard nothing more, never saw either of them again, but one day, months later, when we had comforted ourselves that it was a joke, that they had parted at the corner, out of sight, given each other a fright, nothing more, we received a pair of hands, manicured and quite white, mounted on green baize in a glass case. Between the finger and thumb of the left was a roulette ball and between the finger and the thumb of the right, a domino.
The manager hung the case on the wall and there it hangs today.
Roland Barthes is so French. Just read him. He was dead the moment his pen hit the page. So am I.
The Tour [de France] possesses an ambiguous ethic: certain knightly imperatives constantly mingle with the brutal demands of the pure spirit of success. It is an ethic which cannot or will not choose between the commendation of devotion and the necessities of empiricism. A racer’s sacrifice to his team’s success, whether self-generated or imposed by an arbiter (the technical director), is always exalted, but always argued as well. Sacrifice is great, noble, testifies to a moral plenitude in the exercise of a team sport, of which it is the great justification; but it also contradicts another value necessary to the complete legend of the Tour: realism. There is no place for sentiment in the Tour, this is the law which enlivens the spectacle’s interest. Here the knightly ethic is perceived as the risk of a possible submission to fate; the Tour resolutely rejects anything which might seem to affect in advance the naked, brutal risks of combat. The die is not cast, the Tour is a confrontation of characters, it requires a morality of the individual, of solitary combat for life: the journalists’ problem and preoccupation is to contrive for the Tour an uncertain future: throughout the 1955 Tour, protests were made against the general belief that Bobet was certain to win. But the Tour is also a sport, it requires an ethic of the collectivity. It is this contradiction, in truth one never resolved, which obliges the legend constantly to discuss and to explain the sacrifice, to recall each time the generous ethic which sustains it. It is because sacrifice as a sentimental value that it must tirelessly be justified.
Here the technical director plays an essential role: he guarantees the link between end and means, conscience and pragmatism; he is the dialectical element that unites in a single laceration the reality of evil and its necessity: Marcel Bidot is a specialist in these Cornelian situations which require the sacrifice, in one and the same team, of one racer to another, sometimes even, which is even more tragic, of one brother to another (Jean to Louison Bobet). Indeed, Bidot exists only as the real image of a necessity of an intellectual order, and which, for this reason, in a universe by nature emotional, requires independent personification. Labor is carefully divided: for each group of ten racers, there must be a pure mind, whose role, moreover, is in no way privileged, for here the intelligence is functional, its only task is to represent to the public the strategic nature of the competition: Marcel Bidot is therefore reduced to the person of a meticulous analyst, his role is to mediate.
This mediation of the intelligence between the pure ethic of sacrifice and the harsh law of success translates a composite mental order, at once utopian and realistic, consisting of vestiges of a very old ethic, feudal or tragic, and of new requirements proper to the world of total competition. It is in this ambiguity that the essential signification of the Tour consists: the masterly amalgam of the two alibis, idealist and realist, permits the legend to mask perfectly, with a veil at once honorable and exciting, the economic determinisms of our great epic.
Viktor E. Frankl, father of Logotherapy and Holocaust survivor, contends that it’s our (main) task to find and create meaning in this blustery vacuum of an existence.
It had been a bad day. On parade, an announcement had been made about the many actions that would, from then on, be regarded as sabotage and therefore punishable by immediate death by hanging. Among these were crimes such as cutting small strips from our old blankets (in order to improvise ankle supports) and very minor “thefts”. A few days previously a semi-starved prisoner had broken into the potato store to steal a few pounds of potatoes. The theft had been discovered and some prisoners had recognized the “burglar”. When the camp authorities heard about it they ordered that the guilty man be given up to them or the whole camp would starve for a day. Naturally the 2,500 men preferred to fast.
On the evening of this day of fasting we lay in our earthen huts- in a very low mood. Very little was said and every word sounded irritable. Then, to make matters even worse, the light went out. Tempters reached their lowest ebb. But our senior block warden was a wise man. He improvised a little talk about all that was on our minds at that moment. He talked about the many comrades who had died in the last few days, either of sickness or suicide. But he also mentioned what may have been the real reason for their deaths: giving up hope. He maintained that there should be some way of preventing possible future victims from reaching this extreme state. And it was to me that the warden pointed to give this advice.
God knows, I was not in the mood to give psychological explanations or to preach any sermons- to offer my comrades a kind of medical care of their souls. I was cold and hungry, irritable and tired, but I had to make the effort and use this unique opportunity. Encouragement was no more necessary than ever.
So I began by mentioning the most trivial of comforts first. I said that even in this Europe in the sixth winter of the Second World War, our situation was not the most terrible we could think of. I said that each of us had to ask himself what irreplaceable losses he had suffered up to then. I speculated that for most of them these losses had really been few. Whoever was still alive had reason for hope. Healthy, family, happiness, professional abilities, fortune, position in society- all that could be achieved again or restored. After all, we still had our bones intact. Whatever we had gone through could still be an asset to us in the future. And I quoted from Nietzsche: “Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich staerker.” (That which does not kill me, makes me stronger).
Then I spoke about the future. I said that o the impartial the future must seem hopeless. I agreed that each of us could guess for himself how small were his chances of survival. I told them that although there was still no typhus epidemic in the camp, I estimated my own chances at about one in twenty. But I also told them that, in spite of this, I had no intention of losing hope and giving up. For no man knew what the future would bring, much less the next hour. Even if we could not expect any sensational military events in the next few days, who knew better than we, with our experience of camps, how great chances sometimes opened up, quite suddenly, at least for the individual. For instance, one might be attached unexpectedly to a special group with exceptionally good working conditions- for this was the kind of thing which constituted the “luck” of the prisoner.
But I did not only talk of the future and the veil which was drawn over it. I also mentioned the past; all its joys, and how its light shone even in the present darkness. Again I quoted a poet- to avoid soundling like a preacher myself- who had written, “Was Du erlebst, kann keine Macht der Welt Dir rauben.” (What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.) Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.
Then I spoke of the many opportunities of giving life a meaning. I told my comrades (who lay motionless, although occasionally a sigh could be heard) that human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death. I asked the poor creatures who listened to me attentively in the darkness of the hut to face up to the seriousness of our position. They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning. I said that someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours- a riend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or a God- and he would not expect us to disappoint him. He would hope to find us suffering proudly- not miserably- knowing how to die.
And finally I spoke of our sacrifice, which had meaning in every case. It was in the nature of this sacrifice that it should appear to be pointless in the normal world, the world of material success. But in reality our sacrifice did have a meaning. Those of us who had any religious faith, I said frankly, could understand without difficulty. I told them of a comrade who on his arrival in camp had tried to make a pact with Heaven that his suffering and death should save the human being he loved from a painful end. For this man, suffering and death were meaningful; his was a sacrifice of the deepest significance. He did not want to die for nothing. None of us wanted that.
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The first time I read Lapham’s Quarterly, I was shitting in a wooden outhouse overlooking the woods of Southern Indiana. This was not a normal outhouse. It was made by a real carpenter and the waste collected in a reservoir below making humanure. I was at a homestead called the Lazy Bear Lodge for a three-day environmental retreat.
Each day we heard talks about topics such as forestry, strip-mining, and intensive gardening- eating home-made vegan food in between. At night we sat around the campfire drinking moonshine and bullshitting before retiring to our respective tents under the starry sky. It was amazing- about half of the environmentalists were in their sixties, the other half were in their twenties- and we all got along swimmingly.
On the last day somebody leaving accidently ran over the owner of the Lazy Bear’s dog. The black mutt was sleeping beneath their car. I heard a terrible scream and ran up to see Andy carrying his dog. Its legs were mangled, dangling like rope. Corina fed the dog half a tyenol on a dab of peanut butter while it recovered on a blanket beneath a chair on the porch. I remember feeling unable to do anything so I gave Andy a long hug. It was a sad ending to a great weekend.
Anyway, I was sitting on the wooden toilet looking for something to read. From the stack of books and magazines I grabbed a half-an-inch wide white book with a rubbery cover. I opened to a random page and started reading about the Thirty Year’s War. It was fucking horrific. Starving soldiers from several nations wandered Central Europe killing and stealing from hapless peasants. A method called Schwedentrunk, or Swedish-drink, was used to extract information from these poor formers; a wooden wedge would be placed in the victim’s mouth and then copious amounts of human excrement or boiling water would be poured down their throat. The amount of destruction in the Thirty Year’s war, both in material and human life, wouldn’t be approximated until centuries later, in WWI.
My family comes mainly from Austria and southern Germany, where most of the fighting (Catholic versus Protestant, Christian v. Christian) took place. These days, I have some uncles who own property in the Northwoods of Wisconsin where they grow their own organic food. In many ways, they’re identical to the environmentalists I spent the weekend with. However, I believe in some ways they’re driven by a paranoia that Obama or the blacks (or both) are out to get them. I write it off as the residual effects of some trauma our family suffered centuries ago at the hands of marauding soldiers during the Thirty Years war. That shit doesn’t leave you once you die.
Anyhow, the account given about Schwedentrunk was from a primary source written in 1621. That’s how Lapham’s works- each issue they cover a different topic using excerpts from documents from across time. For example, one edition was about Intoxication, and sources included everything from Herodotus to Warhol.
In order to show my appreciation of Lapham’s, I’m going to imitate them next week, curating my own collection of primary sources around a single theme (sacrifice).