Friday, July 31, 2009

Peace Like an Ocean : Eyes Like the Sea

Scribner & Sons

I have never really been a beach kind of girl. Given the choice between seaside and poolside, I inevitably went for the concrete confines of domesticated aquamarine over the untamed cresting of rogue waves. Of late, however, that great wide azure expanse has meant something more appealing: peace. Peace in the beauty she graciously emits via sunshine, clouds or fog; peace in her deceptive stillness when gulped in from afar; peace in the scent of her sea spray exhalation and the gentle sweetness of her breezes; peace in the smallness she inspires in her beholders and their everyday trivialities. There is also a connection to the sea’s essence that I suspect is buried deep in the waterlogged genetic makeup of all human beings.

Though embarrassingly late to the altar of awe, I hope the frequency of my appointments to breathe in the ocean at the end of a long day convey the appropriate reverence.

Perhaps auspiciously, I happened upon an aging copy of “The Old Man and the Sea” on a recent visit to my parents’ home. I’d forgotten the force of Hemingway’s spare style and the timelessness of the old man’s plight – the magnitude of his struggle for survival rising like the crescendo of a wave on the very sea that could redeem or destroy him. His respect for the sea and its creatures is simple and finite – the reverence of his optimism culled from years of seamanship fundamental to his life's account.

The novella documents the old man’s showdown with an epic fish. Hemingway could easily have titled it “The Old Man and the Fish” or “The Old Man and the Water Beast”. But he did not. The sea was symbolic of so much more in this old man’s life – it was the only place he came alive despite his struggle to skirt his own fatality; the place he indulged in “that which he was born for.” The wholeness imparted by the paradoxical sea exists at varying levels in our lives, to be sure. But the essentialness of the paradox is never more beautiful – more poignant – that in Hemingway’s first few simply drawn graphs.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unluck, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.

It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled it looked like the flag of permanent defeat. The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. 

The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.

Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.
- The Old Man and the Sea, (1951) 

Friday, July 17, 2009

Words 'Round the Web

Wise words for a weekend via Le Love

Happy Friday! A collection of this week's loveliest from the world of words:

From Paine's Common Sense to Orwell's Why I Write, I'll be needing each title in the Penguin Great Ideas Series

One Story's pledge to save the short story comes in the form of a new writer's work delivered to my door every three weeks

I could look at new fonts for hours

Wishing I could skip the tough wedding decisions and just focus on Bird and Banner's swoon-worthy invites

No words necessary:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Words : Worth

Image via Jennifer Zwick

ses-qui-ped-al-ian |ˌseskwəpəˈdālyən|
adjective formal
(of a word) polysyllabic; long : sesquipedalian surnames.
• characterized by long words; long-winded : the sesquipedalian prose of scientific journals.

ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from Latin sesquipedalis ‘a foot and a half long,’ from sesqui- (see SESQUI- ) + pes, ped- ‘foot.’

Every now and then, you come across a word that's certain deliciousness makes you pause with amazement at the depth and perfection of the English language. There is nearly always the ideal word for anything you need to express - it is simply a matter of finding the word and absorbing it into your lexicon. I've started carrying small scraps of paper around in my bag for just such jot-worthy finds.

This act of jotting and scrap-collecting could, I suppose, be construed as nerdy behavior. Sometimes I'll read a word and begin gushing only to be stopped mid-sentence when I look at my fiance's increasingly raised brows. It can be a lonely and misunderstood pleasure. At least it was until I met Anne Fadiman via her funny, poignant, vocab-obsessed essays in Ex-Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. Suddenly, I was introduced to a whole host of jot-worthy words; it was as if the curtain had been peeled back to reveal a secret society of literature-loving, book-collecting members who couldn't consume new words and their meanings fast enough. Whenever I'm feeling particularly solitary in my idiom-centered intrigue, I revisit Ms. Fadiman's humorous tribute to her literary loves and the terms that make them so.

Here, is how I was first introduced to the tasty "sesquipedalian" and why I remember it so fondly.
"In Wally the Wordworm, a chronicle of some of our hero's lexicographic adventures that my father wrote when I was eleven, Wally savored such high-calorie morsels as syzygy, ptarmigan - which tasted terrible at first, until he threw away the p - and sesquipedalian, which looks as if it means "long word" and, in fact, does. Inspired by Wally, my brother and I spend years vying to see who could find the best sesquipedalian. He won with paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde, a smelly chemical that we use to sing to the tune of "The Irish Washerwoman." One of my greatest disappointments about growing up is that it has become harder and harder to achieve a Wally-like degree of sesquipedalian repletion."
- The Joy of Sesquipedalians from Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

P.S. : On Searching for Blue Post Boxes

Image via Flickr

Not long ago, I read an article (I regret not recollecting where) about how those beacons of sentiments carried and errands deposited - the standard USPS blue post boxes - were disappearing en masse from the sidewalks of Los Angeles. The article regarded this exodus as tantamount to the disappearance of the honeybee - a signal of the death of correspondence and true cause for alarm. He disclosed the rationale behind the vanishing writing repositories: each must pass a serviceability test (should a box contain fewer than x articles of mail at the end of a day, away it goes) and failure of this test was surely hard evidence of our utter dereliction of cultural and linguistic duty. I remember raising my eyebrows at the author's apocalyptic pronouncements (I may have even sniffed).

And yet, when I walked the half block to my designated beacon of blue (on busy La Cienega Boulevard) and found only discolored sidewalk and discarded bolts where it once nobly stood, I couldn't have been more flustered. In the vein of the author's fervency, this was commensurate with the death of something familiar and I grieved quickly and accordingly. "But I mailed that card here a week ago!" I sputtered (denial). "This is just wrong!" (anger). "If only they'd bring it back, I'd single-handedly meet their quota each day!" (bargaining). "Wherever will I do my mailing now?" (despair) and finally "Well... there is always that post box over on Rosewood and Westbourne" (acceptance).

Except that upon further examination, that mail vessel too had been uprooted and dispatched elsewhere. Thus began my daily search for the blue post box and the subsequent commitment to sustained patronage of said keepers of the mail. Granted, more often than not, a crimson DVD-filled envelope or post-marked-at-the-last-possible-minute parking ticket is my offering, but eschewing e-transcription in any form has to help the old school delivery effort, however small. With correspondence couturiers closing up shop everywhere, one cannot be too careful when it comes to matters of the mail.

Which got me to thinking about letters. My favorite letters - namely the ones Jane Austen's heroes and heroines relied upon. In Pride and Prejudice for example, I'd argue the letter is a star character, as essential to the plot line as Mr. Darcy or Lizzy Bennet. For all my new-fangled sniffing at the handwringing over the lost art of the letter, that old Jane Austen-loving mailbox hunter within prevailed and this is why. Had disappearing postal methods descended upon Jane Austen's characters,we'd have seen the casualty of untold beloved romances. Where would modern literature be without Darcy's methodical explanation of Wickham's character, without Lydia's selfish requests for approval and cash, or Jane's eager expression of her budding love affair with Bingley? So central are these letters to the development of love and loss, worry and relief, so often are the mentions of the anxious wait for a letter upon which the state of the characters' lives depend. Further, where would we be without Ms. Austen's personal letters, erudite banter bandied about between friends and fellow authors, clarifying her works and her perception thereof? ("The greatest blunder in printing is in p. 220, v. 3, where two sentences are made into one" she said of a publishing error in the first edition.)

Somehow, the brevity of email and text communiques doesn't quite compete with the sight of loopy script on a tangible page. Somehow, the lightning fast exchanges with those you love "xoxo", "vry xcited to c u tonite" don't compare with the purity of sentiment in Mr. Darcy's entreatment for Elizabeth's understanding:
"I write without any intention of paining you, or humbling myself, by dwelling on wishes which, for the happiness of both, cannot be too soon forgotten: and the effort which the formation and the perusal of this letter must occasion, should have been spared had not my character required it to be written and read. You must therefore pardon the freedom with which I demand your attention; your feelings, I know will bestow it unwillingly, but I demand it of your justice."
- Pride & Prejudice (1813)
There are certainly all of the perks of living in a digital age (being able to "publish" a blog is clearly one of them). It seems, however, that the power of the post still oughtn't be underestimated. Maybe it should even be preserved.