Tonight I went to my first Spanish class at Idlewild on Nineteenth Street. 7:30 to 9 P.M.. When I signed up for this class in November, shortly after I came back from spending a few weeks in Barcelona, I was flush with the joy of recent travel, and intent on injecting some novelty, intellectual and otherwise, into my life. I had an idea that I might try to make it back to Spain at the end of this year, and if that happened, I’d like to be able to do more than buy a few peaches without tripping over my tongue, or wanting to revert to French, the only other foreign language I know. And if that never happened, I would at least be doing something to forestall dementia. But as the intervening weeks, growing colder and darker, put more and more distance between me and that trip—I dreamed that, didn’t I?—I started to wonder why I’d done such a thing. It seemed as unnecessary and out of character as signing up for ten colonics through Groupon. But when, after the fifteen of us had gathered in a circle in the back of the store, and the teacher welcomed us in Spanish, something in me quickened in response to hearing the language. Maybe it was just sound as souvenir, but some sleeping dog in me perked up. Something similar had happened back in Barcelona, while standing in the La Central bookstore, looking at all the books I wanted to read but could not, feeling a strange urgency to get the key that would unlock what lay between those covers, a strange feeling that this was a language I needed to know deeper. Read More
A graduate student came to my house to film me making a sandwich for her documentary, which, as far as I can tell, is about cartoonists eating lunch.
While on a stroll in the park, three teenagers ran up behind me, threw me to the ground, and punched me repeatedly in the head. I threw them off and ran far enough away to call the police. I spent the next several days replaying the scene in my head.
For a long time now, we’ve been thinking that our friends over at The Awl should start a culture diary of their own—and now they have! And with no less an eminence than David Orr, poetry critic of The New York Times Book Review. Hot, hot, hot!
11:45 A.M. The excerpt of Amy Chua’s parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was an exquisite embarrassment for everyone who read it. The editors at The Wall Street Journal extracted all the most inflammatory material from Chua’s odd book and successfully unleashed another one of those unedifying pseudo-controversies about upper-middle-class American mores that the press lives to generate. The children of Asian Americans took to various online forums to bewail the trauma inflicted on them by mothers like Chua, or to declare their filial gratitude toward the sacrifices made their parents on their behalf. Suddenly, the model minority and its travails had become momentarily relevant to the larger culture, through the cartoon figure that Chua inadvertently made of herself—berating her daughter and refusing her bathroom breaks until she had mastered a tricky passage on the piano. A dignified, nonhysterical account of our peculiar sufferings untethered to the American upper middle class’s Ivy League fixation and (richly justified) fear of national decline remains elusive.
12:00 P.M. The essay immediately called to mind a passage from Junichiro Tanizaki’s great novella A Portrait of Shunkin. In this passage, the narrator reminisces about the cruelty and abuse that were an unquestioned part of the pedagogic methods of a less enlightened age still within living memory.
Then there is the case of Yoshida Tamajiro of the Bunraku Theater. Once, during his apprenticeship, while he was helping his master Tamazo manipulate a puppet hero in rehearsing a climactic capture scene, he was unable to perfect a certain movement of the legs for which he was responsible. Suddenly, his angry teacher shouted “Fool!” and, snatching up a puppet sword (one with a real blade), gave him a sharp blow on the back of the head. To this day he bears the scar of it. And Tamazo himself, who struck Tamajiro, once had his head split open when his own teacher struck him with a puppet. He begged his teacher for the broken-off, splintered legs of the puppet, which were crimson with his blood, and then wrapped them in silk floss and stored them away in a plain wooden box, such as is used for the ashes of the dead. Now and then he took the legs out and paid obeisance to them, as if he were worshipping the spirit of his dead mother. “Except for that beating,” he would say with tears in his eyes, “I might have spent my whole life as a run-of-the-mill performer.”
12:30 P.M. I get a belated birthday present from a friend: Kith, Kin & Khaya: South African Photographs by David Goldblatt. Khaya, in Zulu, means “home.” Goldblatt is Jewish South African (his grandparents emigrated from Lithuania in the late nineteenth century; most South African Jews are Lithuanian, my family included). These black-and-white pictures are very still-seeming: the landscapes of Gauteng and the Transkei; bleak twin bathtubs in Benoni, a suburb of Johannesburg where my father’s mother grew up. In the section “Afrikaners,” in a place called Hartebeespoort, a white child is splayed out in the foreground, sleeping in bunched underwear, while behind him a bigger child holds a contented-looking baby. The baby holds a bottle and the older boy holds a toy gun to the baby’s eye. In the book’s second section (a series he collaborated on with Nadine Gordimer), there is a photograph of a black man’s torso: tool belt with pocketknife and pocket watch, shirt pocket full of rulers and drafting pencils, and a silver armband stamped with three stars and the title “Boss Boy.”
7:45 P.M. A day of photographic gifts: a friend gives me the Fall (“library”) issue of Bidoun. Each copy has a found photograph—mine a plump Cairene matriarch and her two pretty daughters at the beach—pasted onto the white-and-gold embossed cover. Creative director Babak Radboy(!) writes,
The issue of Bidoun you hold in your hands has a photograph affixed to its cover. The photo is unique to this copy of the magazine. It was procured for one Egyptian pound (eighteen cents U.S.) and shipped, along with thousands of other photos, directly to our printer in Las Vegas … From the perspective of the archivist, the photograph affixed to the cover does not exist. By gathering these discards and binding them to a (purportedly) legitimate publication, replete with ISBN number, that resides in the collections of a number of public and private libraries, we are, in a sense, rescuing them from their status as detritus. But then, by distributing these issues to bookstores, art fairs, and thousands of unknown individuals—not to mention the accursed share of unsold copies bound for store basements, secondhand book stores, and landfills—these photos are destined to return to the obscurity from whence they came.
11:00 P.M. At home I read Dan Chiasson’s New York Review of Books piece on The Anthology of Rap. It’s called “‘Rude Ludicrous Lucrative’ Rap,” which seems an even better title in the NYRB’s typewritery typeface. “Only in hip-hop is the age-old comedy of grown-ups trying to understand young people yoked so uncomfortably to the American tragedy of whites trying and failing to understand blacks. Age incomprehension is comic, since everyone young eventually grows old; race incomprehension is tragic, since nobody knows what it is like to change races.”