Piling up

I’m not being productive unless I’m feeling overwhelmed. Usually I don’t do much. Then I’ll have a burst of activity. Then the energy will run out, and I’ll find myself overcommitted. & then I retract from my commitments, rest, then feel ashamed of how little I do, and start the cycle over. I’ve never learned how to surf, but an analogy suggests itself:

In between active periods, I’m just afloat. A wave will cross me, I’ll swing with its motion, and return to my original starting point. Likewise a new interest will come up under me, and carry me with it for a limited period of time, and then it passes and I am back where I started. This is the normal state of things: rest, ride, retreat, repeat.

Then a wave of energy approaches (I can feel it coming across the calendar), and I start to gather myself up: I sign up for more activities, I plan to start new habits, I acquire responsibilities. The wave comes, I’m on top of it; the best part of the feeling is the power I have. I can do anything, and I can take anything. The feeling of infinite adjustment: I have room in my time for whatever new might come along, and any jar that comes along I can translate into a pleasing bump in my schedule; accidental becomes intentional.

The wave comes down eventually – it runs out of room underneath, and brings me down with it, or in it. The bouyant forward motion that sustained me before begins to push at me from all sides, with no coherent progress that I can perceive. I’m suspended in chaos by contrary motions. (And I get sand and salt in my mouth and eyes.)

When the wave is done with me, I’m deposited, exhausted, on dry land. Little waves of energy come and go but don’t move me. (They sort of tickle.)

Later, what remains with me, both in what I’ve produced and what I remember, tends to be the period of falling and unwilling abandonment to too much from too many sides. The fear and loss of control make it exhilarating, in a different, less pleasant way from the feeling of gathering power that comes on the crest of the wave, but more true, in a way I fail to express adequately.


I haven’t been blogging, because I haven’t been writing posts, partly because I’ve been feeling low, and strung out. That shouldn’t keep up for too long.

By weight, blogs are 75% and upwards apology, like zines and communications with thesis advisors and editors.

Here’s something I wrote six months ago, and I wonder at myself:

Avoidance of responsibility can also be a sign of confidence. Either in yourself: you are sure that the responsibility is not onerous, you will get to it at some later date, or that this failure will not affect you (your essential you); or in events, that they will smile on you, and your debts will be erased.

I think I had told myself I had to write one of those a day. So there are a lot of iffy ones. I’m not sure the thought on that one was all bad, but it’s poorly expressed. More exactly: I’m not sure what I’m saying or whether I mean it. And I’m pretty sure I’ve got the intellect to power it through regardless. So it’s strutting; checking its fly with one hand and combing its hair with the other. This one has more zip:

The foundation is measured quickly, but what if you become old, waiting for the concrete to set, before you can begin building.


The three-week period I’m allowed to keep an interlibrary loan book out is usually just long enough that I can get interested again in whatever it was that induced me to order the book in the first place, three weeks before the book arrived; and then it’s time to check it back in, almost entirely unread. I’ve got a collection of papers in Russian on throat-singing [Melodii Khoomeya, edited by Zoya Kyrgys], a translation of the Central Asian chapters from a Soviet encyclopedia of ethnomusicology [Central Asian Music, by Viktor Beliaev], and some kind of anthology of short descriptions of archaeological discoveries of the remains of depcitions of ancient musical instruments and in some cases the instruments themselves [didn’t write down the title before I returned it]. They’re all due tomorrow [have now been returned], and I already spent money getting them here: I can’t keep them out for the next three weeks. This post is all the use I’m going to get out of them.

I think I had been browsing this article online just before I went ordering ILLs. I’d noticed (it only took me a year of listening) how common it was to hear the jew’s harp played along with Tuvan/Mongolian throat-singing.

An article in Melodii Khoomeya [by Kh. S. Ikhtisamov] speculates on the connection. He argues that overtone-singing (one sustained bass note with a melody produced in overtones) is part of a palette of similar-types of music-making; on the igil (an anorexic two-string cello), the melody is usually produced on the upper string, the lower string producing a steady drone (on this, a funny story by Valentina Süzükei from her book with Ted Levin: trying to tune a Soviet “people’s orchestra” [modeled on the famous Moscow “Balalaika Orchestra”, these ensembles would perform classical or Soviet orchestral hits on traditional instruments – they were formed all over the Soviet Union, traditional instrumentalists being conscripted to them in packs], unable to communicate to the igil player that she needed to tune the strings separately, he unable to understand how the instrument could be played one string at a time). Likewise, the Jew’s harp: the vibrating tongue produces a steady, single tone, and the melody is produced by changing the shape and size of the resonating chamber, the mouth, to produce different overtones. Tuvan throat-singing is just another variant on this musical-cultural theme: the breaking of a “single” musical note into its constituent ground and overtones, separating out tone colors the way a prism breaks white light into colors (this analogy, or something like it, from Süzükei’s paper in Melodii Khoomeya) , and the unifying of “separate” tones into a single tone-cluster.

Of course the Jew’s harp is known all over the world. Instances have been found from pre-Roman Britain to pre-modern Polynesia (there made of reeds instead of metal); from South Asia to Yakutia (want to buy a modern Yakut khomus? got $179 plus shipping?). There are cultures in which it is the only tuneful musical instrument known (says The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments). The musical archaeology book has examples from medieval Sweden, revolutionary America, and Greek Afghanistan [I think; I returned it already].

According to Beliaev in Central Asian Music (1962), the temir komuz (i.e. the iron komuz, komuz meaning a three-stringed lute, tuned to fourths or fifths) is Kyrgyz for Jew’s harp; it’s played mainly by women & children and is played while whistling. He says: “Melodies for the temir komuz are of special interest. On theis insturment the lower buzzing tone is a drone and a narrow ranging melody, consiting of overtones, is produced above.” He transcribes the melody for a traditional song called “The Grey Calf”, the bass part of which is played on the temir komuz and the melody is whistled. (I wish there was some kind of plugin or something so I could show you the transcriptions of overtone-singing from Melodii Khoomeya.) He writes: “It is impossible to overlook the production through whistling of two-voiced vocal music by one person on this simple idiophone*. This technique, called khoomei among the Tuvins and uzliau among the Bashkirs, belongs to one of the oldest and most original ways of producing harmonics with simultaneous sonding of an extended fundamental pitch. (The translator notes: “Beliav’s remark is in accordance with the general tendency among Soviet ethnomusicologists to ignore the flute repertories of Asian peoples.” I think this note refers to the following fact: the Kyrgyz choor, Mongol/Tuvan tsuur/zuur, is an “end-blown” flute which is placed against the lip or sometimes the teeth on one side of the mouth: the player blows the melody through the flute and simultaneously creates a steady drone accompaniement to the melody with his mouth.) Beliaev remarks about the Kazakh shan kobiz that it too is a domestic, primarily children’s instrument (and notes that this is generally the case throughout Central Asia).

One reason why the Jew’s harp is so widely used among nomadic peoples (and is generally a children’s instrument there) may be that it requires a full set of [front] teeth to play – nomadic peoples, living on meat and dairy, have healthier, stronger teeth than sedentary people, living on grains; adults are less likely to have a full set of teeth then children and adolescents. At least, that seemed clear and obvious to me this afternoon, when I was in the middle of something else and hadn’t had a chance to phrase it out. That’s enough.

* An idiophone is an instrument that itself vibrates, like a bell or a washboard; as opposed to an instrument which contains a vibrating part, like stringed instruments, or that causes a column of air to vibrate, like a flute. It’s the percussions section, minus the membranophones (the drums).

** I couldn’t work this in anywhere else above, but I would have to tie it in somehow like this: the melodies produced by overtone singers (or bells, or any other instrument which produces strong partial tones) sometimes sound a little “off” or a little sour to people used to the intervals in equal temperament, since the overtones produced are from pure, untempered intervals. I was reading yesterday about organs – as equal temperament became more popular, organs were altered by placing small valves in the pipes to alter the pitches produced, until finally organ pipes were standardly manufactured to produce equal-tempered pitches. The author of the book I was reading (it may have been The Story of the Organ; the title was something like that) told how once, when on a visit to New Zealand, he was playing a hymn in D-flat for a church choir, and it sounded terrible, and the choir was thrown off. The local organ-tuner was sent for, and on hearing the problem, refused to do anything to solve it. It turned out that this man, the only tuner in that part of New Zealand and a firm believer in just temperament, himself physically altered the pipes of any organ imported from England before installation so that they would play in just temperament.

Dialogue beginning, draft

Another project I’ve had sitting around is a philosophical dialogue. It bogged down because I couldn’t see what my point was. But I like as far as it got. Maybe it’ll go further. (Here’s to hoping.) You’ll see I wrote myself into a corner. Or at least I’m not sure where to go from there.

Scene: outdoors, summer. Public park.

Philo. – Hello, friend! What are you reading? Whatever it is, it has you quite by the tail: you didn’t even hear me approach. What has you so enthralled; is it another of your ancient books?

Iskander. – Oh no, it is quite new, published only twenty years ago, and not translated until ten years after that. I have become quite contemporary, you see.

Phi. – Well, what is it about? What is the gist?

Isk. – Just now, the author has begun a new topic, which I do not yet fully understand.

Phi. – Do not tell me what he has just begun just now. You never will tell a story properly, with all its parts attached: beginning, middle, end. I ask you what your interests are, and you tell me about a new fad that has only held your attention two days and in three more will be entirely forgotten. I ask you what you are planning to do, and you tell me about the most idle fancy that has occurred to you, the one you are least likely to put inhas written about that you have already comprehended, so I can judge clearly whether there is anything in this book to make it worth my while, rather than once again getting caught up in one of your windy enthusiasms.

Isk. – Let me rather continue as I have begun, and perhaps you can help me understand this difficulty.

Phi. – What difficulty is that?

Isk. – He begins by speaking of boredom, and he divides it into three kinds.

Phi. – I do not wonder that you are so focused! What could be more captivating?

Isk. – You may reconsider after you have heard me speak. In any case, if you have come only to give another exhibition of your sarcasm, I have more interesting conversation partners I can speak with, who will appreciate the work I have put in beforehand, and will treat it with the respect it deserves. Listening is as much part of the art of conversation as speaking, and it is the duty curiosity owes to thought.

Phi. – When did you become such a sloganeer? Very impressive. Yes, I will be silent and hear you out. But I will not promise not to mock you once I have heard you.

Isk. – He divides boredom into three kinds. First, there is the kind of boredom where you are attending on some one particular thing with intensity, unable to hurry its completion or to do anything but await it.

Phi. – I could comment that this is the situation you have placed me in. But I do not. Instead I possess my soul in patience, and await the sequel.

Isk. – I admire your restraint.

Phi. – Then reward it: what follows from this?

Isk. – The author draws conclusions from this regarding the nature of time.

Admonitory premonitory

There’s a guy I see around town from time to time, and I never like seeing him. Oh, he’s harmless, pretty nice guy, we’ve talked a few times. He always says hello when he sees me. But there’s always a sense I get, whenever we meet, that there’s something shameful between us, and we both know it.

I met him in late 2004, at one of the first jobs I worked at in Portland: temping in the swing shift at the check batch processing department of a bank. My job was to pull register tapes from batches of checks, scan the tapes, and bundle the checks with a rubber band. When I’d done enough to fill a tray, I would walk the tray over to the side of the floor with the optical scanners. It was an okay job, so long as I kept myself in books on tape; minimal attention required to do the work.

He had the same job: a shortish, reddish man with a white moustache and short white hair. He stood out, most of the people on our side of the floor were South Slavic college students, stood out even among the temps (temps are always odd lot). Serious demeanor, slurred the s sound in his speech in a deliberate way, was always reading on his breaks or at off-peak times. One day I noticed he was reading a book with that tell-tale inter-library loan sheath around the cover. So I asked him about it, and he told me he was assisting a friend’s research – something about some Indian philosophy, I don’t recollect if it was ancient or contemporary, but I have a feeling that it was something that had been fashionable or attractive thirty years ago and was largely forgotten now. That was more or less the end of that conversation. I thought about trying to get him to talk more about it, explain a little more what he was researching, why, whether I would be interested. But he seemed so ashamed during our first conversation that I left him alone.

At any rate, we didn’t talk any more about it, and I soon quit that job – taking three days off unscheduled at four hours’ notice counts as quitting, it turns out – and then I started running into him all over. Especially on the bus, at the central library, and the Portland State University Library. Invariably he would be reading, I would be reading, we would both ignore each other until it was impossible to keep it up, then nod, and say hello, and do our best to ignore each other. I don’t know why I made him uncomfortable, but I think I know why he made me uncomfortable.

I had been reading New Grub Street by George Gissing at the time I met him, and it had rubbed off on my whole self-perception and my perception of my environment at that time. If you don’t know the book: it’s about the life of different writers and the different ways they make ends meet in late 1890s London. It’s stands out for me especially in its detailed description of the day to day economics of living a writer’s life, and the effect that kind of life has on the domestic lives of the characters. Detailed isn’t the word, maybe concrete is: the description is hard to ignore, large and cold and finely delineated, all the bumps and irregularities that make a thing real, that’s what I want in the word.

I was just coming to realize at that time (as I do, from time to time – every year or two I have a giant skull-opening, mind-blinding realization of the same damn thing each time, over and over again) what it means to have to earn your bread and self-respect by the sweat of your brow, or I mean sale of your time, and that depressed me. My time, the only thing I had that I could make into something that might not pass away irretrievable like everything I said and saw and felt, the only space I had to work in.

And seeing this one everywhere I went like my own future coming back to warn me, this specter life had clearly passed by, hanging on to charlatan intellectuals still living in generation-old fashions, taking books out from the library and bringing them back again in an endless round, desperate to talk to someone and touch another mind but ashamed to try, well, it seemed threatening to me.

I saw him today on the bus. I had two stacks of groceries, a Finnish novel from the thirties, and another book by the guy who wrote The Body Snatchers. He saw me, pretended he didn’t, sat leafing through a book, watched me, for a little and pulled out a notebook and made a few notes, then put it away and greeted me as he went towards the door at his stop. I didn’t respond quickly enough, or something in my response put him off, so he felt he had to explain where he knew me from, turning bright red as he stepped onto the curb. I wonder what he wrote about in his notebook, and do I bother him as much as he bothers me.


Composition: you suddenly, after looking out idly over a dark water, see a plastic milk jug bobbing on the surface, not far away. You row up to it, you tug on it, try to pull it into the boat. You notice motion out of the corner of your eye: another jug, floating nearby. You haul the first one in (a rope attached to the handle and trails and disappears into the water), and paddle over to the other. As you pull, two, three others off in this or that direction are agitated and tremble; in this manner you collect an entire net and all its buoys, and with it all the strange live fish and marvelous discarded objects from the bottom of the lake that you had never seen.

Different simile, different subject: Feeling drained: a sink full of water and garbage that you can’t see the bottom of, little waves across the top layer of scum, which catches light in different places. You pull the plug, and all the mystery, mobility, and opacity flow out of it and down, and all the cruddy things that were floating in it are left laying out on the surface in little trails pointing to where their covering has disappeared to.


Something I actually enjoy: well, not sure I enjoy it. I do it voluntarily. In fact, I am a volunteer. And I march proud. Head high. (And my company gets credit for every hour of it I log. More than a little humiliating. But then I don’t remember to log my hours very often.) But there’s something energizing in it. I biked ten miles to my last session, furthest I’ve biked since I was ten. And I come home full of beans (exhausted, but full of beans).

I’m tutoring a refugee in English. Two hours, every Friday evening. It’s through IRCO, they coordinate volunteer English tutors with refugees they can no longer help (refugee funding currently expires after eight months in-country). I’d hoped to be set up with a Meskhetian Turk from Uzbekistan, but I’ll take a Protestant Christian from Ukraine. And his wife. And eight kids. (Eighth one just popped out Friday before last.)

I’m relearning again how difficult it is to assess someone’s language level. (And just how much in a language there is to learn.) Each of our four meetings so far has resulted in my reassessing his level: downwards. It reminds me of how many compliments I used to get on my Russian from people who knew me only slightly, long before I had any skill to speak of. Being self-confident and doing what you can with the words you know is the key to seeming like you know a language, and ultimately to mastering it.

I’m not sure what he’s a refugee from, and I haven’t asked. Mekhetian Turks are stateless, generally not citizens of anyplace, least of all where they are born and live, and have been that way since the 19th century; other refugees are members of more recently and more actively persecuted ethnic or religious groups, or are persecuted for other reasons. I have a funny feeling he might be fleeing religious persecution, having been missionaried up sometime in the early nineties. That’s just a guess. I know of one Romanian who successfully atained refugee status for religious reasons – she was being persecuted for her Anglican beliefs. [source]

I do know he does attend church regularly and insists each time we meet on informing me that Jesus loves me and cares for me. (There are some phrases he does very well.) He has a Bible in his car, and his radio is tuned to an AM christian channel, which he does his best to decipher. (He does better when I’m riding along and explaining/interpreting; he’ll get a word or two and make an elaborate, interesting, and totally incorrect story about what they’re talking about.)

He’s a little overwhelmed in his two-bedroom two-floor house by his children. (His wife is more overwhelmed, naturally [on her feet again and herding children a couple days after finishing off the last one], but she’s not my student.) There was a particularly grim look on his face the week before last. I asked if he was tired, he said not with you, my friend. I asked how he was liking Portland, he said he didn’t really know it at all: work, home, children, sleep, and work again. Then: he asked whether I knew any good strip clubs in town, you know, where the ladies take their clothes off. I told him the ones I knew of looked a little dirty, but I would see what I could come up with. I didn’t mean to make him feel bad, but he backpedaled, and said yes, he really would like only the clean city. For me – only clean.

I know a place that has Balkan folk dancing Tuesday nights, I said. Not a substitute for what he was after, I think. Last week he described his old bike to me. At home, I have bike. In Ukraine. Bike his name – Ukraine. I make [rack], my hands. On bike – potatoes – forty kilohram! (I don’t think I will ever get used to the h/g substitution in Ukranian accents.)