“I Am All Over Phlegm”–A Bad Letter-Writer’s Apology

I’m in the middle of transcribing some 4000 images I took of the Lister MSS. at the Bodleian—a collection of letters and other documents written to and collected by Martin Lister, 17th century physician and eventual member of the Royal Society.

One under-explored aspect of this particular archive (which includes luminaries writing about the circulation of plants and other Matters of Import as well as patients writing to Lister for help) is the way in which the malfunctioning body allows letter-writers to finesse  social gaffes. As someone continually apologizing to friends for falling out of touch because of migraines, I admire how Richard Bulkeley apologizes to Lister for not writing sooner:

“My long silence since the receipt of your last (for which I heartily thank you) has not proceeded from my want of affection or respect nor even from forgetfulness, but from that Languor of spirit that I now lie under, a listlessness, a lentor of mind, for indeed it is a month since I first took in hand to write to you, & have sat to it at least half a score times since. But as the Vulgar speak (& they little know how truly) I am all over phlegm, this Viscous pituita so visible to me both in Excrement urine & its other effects, does likewise so habitate my Brain that I am good for nothing.”*

*Spelling has been modernized.



Two Heaths

Last night there was a storm. A true storm. A strong storm, the kind where the lightning illuminates your kitchen along with the whipping sheets of rain.

We don’t get those much in California, and my Twitterfeed exploded with reactions. Several people said they heard applause coming from other apartments. Some got caught in the rain. Violent weather makes you grateful for the shelter that divides you from the  sublime. It also forces you to try—and fail—to imagine the direct encounter.

So you think of King Lear. And of other people—fugitives, say—who once overused their power, trusting their unearned immunity from reprisals.


I’d forgotten that Lear’s famous storm scene happened on a heath. Prior to this recent trip to England, all I imagined when I heard the word Heath was Wuthering Heights and the moors from The Secret Garden. Heaths and cliffs were the wilds of nature where passion ran rampant.

Two weeks ago, I finally saw a heath—Hampstead Heath. I saw it on a golden afternoon, away from my own country’s ravages and bizarre storms, during a week when even England was mystified by its unprecedented sunny warmth.

It was the essence of pastoral, all gentle greens and gorgeous rolling hills.

The walk to the Heath started off symbolically. Our host had suggested we walk from her place in Hornsey along a railroad track that had been turned into a wooded path until we got back into town, and then suddenly, there the heath would be.

We didn’t completely understand the instructions, but we set off anyway. We found the railroad track, where even the trees performed the harmony between nature and industry:

When the woods ended, we arrived, as promised, at another part of London. Here, too, the walk was unaccountably accommodating. Here, the streets on the way to the Heath said, take a rest. Have a seat!

The streets and houses arrayed themselves in attractive rows:

And then things got green.

Two people sat under a tree.

Two trees sat next to a lake.

Afternoon melted into evening, and all the tiny people on the heath lined up on the horizon and became silhouettes. One was a dog. One flew a kite.

It’s as hard to imagine this as the site of Lear’s confrontation with the elements as it is to imagine being out on a night when you’re in. I was conscious, on this walk to a heath that violated all my notions of heath-hood, that my image of England—which had been grey when it wasn’t wild—was now pathologically skewed toward an impossible ideal. I didn’t live there. I hadn’t met the bad parts. All I saw was that the streets of London proffered velvet chairs. And the heath spread out in a bucolic fever dream of reflective waters and bridges and idyllic benches.

It’s the lunatic perfection of Hampstead Heath that convinces me, if only in the abstract, that Lear’s heath is there too. And there, like here, where the thunder shatters the windows in a fit of strange weather, the going—for those outside the magical brackets of windows and trips—shall be used with feet.

Animating (and Reanimating) Debussy, or, The Artist (and Hugo)

Listen to and look at this lovely thing:


This animated score of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 [h/t Nathan Pensky] is the most compelling visual illustration of musical voicing I’ve seen since—well, since Fantasia. I loved Fantasia as a kid, but it had the formal disadvantage of layering on, not just a visual component to an aural experience, but an entire narrative* over a non-narrative form.

*I had written “silent film” where now it says “narrative” until it dawned on me that “silent film” might be an unforgivable misnomer. The Artist popped into my head as a fresh reminder of how stylized the sounds of “silent” film really are. I just saw it, thanks to  Virgin Atlantic’s movie smorgasboard. I chose it groggily on the plane because it was “silent” and would spare me the strain of trying to hear dialogue over the airplane’s ambient noise without blasting my eardrums. And if it put me to sleep—well, there are worse things that can happen on a ten-hour flight.

If you’ve seen it, you know that The Artist‘s “silence” is loud. Loud with what we perceive on the one hand as the absence of eliminated voices, loud on the other with constant, attentive, anchoring music that substitutes melody and harmony for the hyperreal sonic landscape we’re used to in movies. It does this so effectively that by the end you forget you ever missed the talky minutiae of inessential dialogue.

When I was in elementary schools, a group of sound engineers came to talk to us about how they used jello to make the sounds of ET’s footsteps. It took them an eternity to figure out how to make the crunchy sound of biting into a potato chip. I can’t remember how they finally did it, but I left the assembly wanting pretty desperately to be a sound engineer, making a living on the weird fact that random things sound more like everyday sounds than the sounds themselves.

The Artist makes a point of highlighting, in a scene when the main character suddenly hears a door slam in the way we do, the extent to which “silent film” strips out the disruptive footsteps and door-slams of the physical world. But it manages to make the protagonist’s inability to speak a critical plot point that collapses seamlessly back into the conventions of silent film. In this sense, The Artist does what Hugo failed to do: it captures the nostalgia of another time, not by bludgeoning the viewer with bleeding-edge technology, but by inhabiting the technological limits of that past and creating, within those limits, an experience powerful enough to engage an audience so supersaturated with sensory stimuli that it fidgets and bores in the absence of screamy shiny things.

Again, take Hugo. People were amazed by Melies’ films; this is a key point the film wishes you to understand. It instructs you, not by amazing you with the films on their own merits, or the stories they told, but by insisting (pedantically, one feels) on the wonders of film production. It shows you clips, but they function less as objets d’art in their own right than as the finished casseroles television cooks pull out of their ovens after showing you how to combine the ingredients. There’s both too much and not enough of the process that turns a set into a film.

There being several ways to skin a cat, an easier way of putting this is to say that Hugo gets obsessed with the director’s story while The Artist focuses on the obsessions of its actors and audience.

While Hugo goes nuclear with technology Melies didn’t have, The Artist commits absolutely to the technical limitations of the period it explores, rendering those limitations not only engaging and productive in their own right, but central to the film’s aesthetic and narrative concerns. The Artist shows us the crowds adoring silent film and souring on it, but those crowds don’t model the appropriate reactions the way they do in Hugo. Instead, the film positions us as the anachronisms, enjoying a genre the audiences within the film have outgrown. This is how it pulls us into Valentin’s tragedy.

Not that Hugo is a one-trick pony. (It’s more of a billion-trick pony.) Having amused you with the steampunk charm of Melies’ film production, the film communicates his legendary popularity by showing—not the films—but the delighted faces of a rapt audience. Those delighted faces are in 3-D so as to amaze and move you, the contemporary viewer. The project here is not quite to elicit that reaction from you afresh, but rather to encourage you into it by offering models of old amazement in a flashy new format. Hugo doesn’t inhabit Melies’ form; it leaves it flat and drums up nostalgia from the outside by adding bells, whistles, laugh tracks and applause signs—all beautifully shot.

And it is all incorrigibly retrospective, even as it clumsily points to the future of film. The hint at the end that the whole film was the girl’s journal manages to both acknowledge Brian Selznick and perform a kind of technological tokenism: remember, Melies‘ techniques weren’t enough to hold your interest without 3-D. What should we conclude about the sudden fifth-act appearance of a relic like a book? Especially since it’s implied that the film is the natural endpoint of that book: it sees the book as an early (and less sophisticated) progenitor.

It all strikes this reader as peculiarly condescending. And it creates a telos where none need exist: just as Melies’ charming but archaic moviemaking techniques paved the way for Scorsese’s 3-D extravaganza, the technology of the printed book gets a nod as a point of origin, a distant and even more archaic product that made Melies’ movies possible. It’s as if Scorsese slipped into that 19th century mindset that mistakes evolution for progress and genetic change for the moral improvement of the race. “Fitness” and goodness, despite their frequent overlap, are different categories.

But the clearest difference between Hugo and The Artist is this: both end with the resurrection of the fallen hero. But The Artist ends with the silent film protagonist and the talkies actress resisting the tyrannical narrative that provoked their split. They aren’t doing the new thing—talking—they aren’t doing the old thing—not-talking. Instead, they dance!

And this is purely at the level of plot. More interestingly (at the level of form) is the fact that the film ends with the two main characters tap-dancing “silently”. Their tap-dancing is the perfect compromise: the sound of their shoes has been subsumed into the music that constitutes silence: it’s audible, it’s a sonic expression of physical events. They are footsteps, but they are also music. Silent tap-dancing occupies the same hybrid non-space as the video animation of Debussy’s Arabesque, which was the point of this post, and to which I will shortly return.

But then, suddenly, distractingly, you hear Peppy and Valentin breathing. And voices break out, and you hear Valentin speak (!), but before you can delight in the sound of his voice, the absence of which has motivated the whole film, the noise of production takes over on set. It’s not silent and sweet and fascinating; it’s not the triumphant apex Scorsese would have made it; it’s a throwaway line swallowed by noise, refreshing and ugly and disruptive.

To belabor this a little: you don’t see Valentin finally recognized and remembered for all he’s done. He isn’t resurrected in the minds of his audience, he isn’t adored for what he was. He doesn’t get to take a bow. There are no adoring crowds. “Perfect!” the director says as Georges and Peppy try to catch their breath. And the director asks for another take, and the start walking to their marks, and the camera pans out to show actors and crew and the whole mess of humans trying, over and over, to get “perfect” right, again.

That’s a poem to movies.

But they’re both poems, in their way, and they’re certainly both trying to do similar things with similar meta-narratives about film history. It’s worth trying to understand why one manages with grace and subtlety what the other achieves with bombast. The best way to understand the difference between the two, in my opinion, is to listen to and watch these two animations of Debussy. The first is the one I started with, Arabesque No. 1:


The first time I watched it I got just a whiff of what synesthesia might be like: the blue notes on top are the longer, more languid voices, and the animation reflects this, making them constrict and expand as if each was a tiny ephemeral musical heart.

I used to spend hours and hours rehearsing the various voices of a piece by drilling them separately, then trying to bring them together. This was essential for Bach, of course, but I tended to do it for other composers to. I can’t explain why it was hard to get a grip on—I imagine that for musicians more natural than I am it must come naturally. But for me there was a missing link.

I listened to recordings of artists I admired to see how they voiced the pieces, and it helped, but something just a little more tangible. I tried watching video of various performances, and that didn’t help either, particularly.

Watching this video was exactly what I’d been wishing for all along. It takes the concept of a score and makes it fluid. The colors separate the strands, the voices become clearer—you can see the blue notes linger, languidly. You can watch the runs run.

I was about to declare this amazing technology the miraculous solution for piano teachers trying to teach students like me, when I came across this animation of Claire de Lune, by the same creator:


Same composer, same animator, but the effect is drastically different. The Arabesque animation confirms and extends the languor of the piece; the notes appear and fade, some bigger than others, depending on the intensity of that particular musical line. The movement through the notes is liquid. Chord ideas carry over into each other, notes exist as suspensions and gentle flurries.

The Claire de Lune animation is made up of colored bars or blocks. The bars light up when it’s their turn to be played. It’s very clockworky. The blocks used in the animation tick and tock and sever and chop a piece known for its mellifluous unbrokenness and seas of fermatas. The notes that should linger on and blend are represented with right angles.

No temporality of Debussy’s has anything like a right angle.

I don’t know whether this is an earlier version of the same technology used to animate the Arabesque. I imagine it probably is, but I’m wary of reproducing, in musical animation form, Scorsese’s triumphalist book–>silent film–>3-D narrative. Knowing nothing about the production of either animation, all I can observe is that while both get the job done, and animate a score, one is so right, and lovely, and miraculous, while the other makes a production of showing all its work.

Conditioning, Or How Traveling London Leads One To Slather Mayonnaise in One’s Hair

Fresh off the plane from England, I went to the grocery store for the express purpose of buying conditioner.

I had left my half-empty bottle in Stratford-upon-Avon because I’d filled my suitcase to bursting and had two separate nightmares about hauling it up and down the Tube’s liftless stairways. (That the Tube had no lifts was not part of the nightmare; it was just, to borrow a phrase from the Royal Society, whose correspondence I’d been reading, a “matter of fact”.)

My friend and host Will walked in just as I was zipping up the last piece of luggage to ask whether the bottle he’d found in the bathroom was mine. I made a virtue of oblivion and said why yes, it was, but I’d decided, very sensibly, to leave it. “They have conditioner in the States,” I said, in that obnoxious way people do when they’re new to England and pretend that “the States” is how they regularly refer to home.

This was the bottle in question:

My fellow-traveller Irene had abandoned me the day before, just as I was now abandoning the bottle of conditioner. Of the two of us, the conditioner was better equipped to navigate the streets and undergrounds and overgrounds of London. As long as Irene had been with me, I would nod emphatically as she pointed out a route to me on the London A to Z. I hadn’t the heart to tell her that the series of looping pink and yellow lines punctuated by Underground logos was experientially identical to staring at a Jackson Pollock painting. If she really wanted me to understand, I would have to spend at least 45 minutes staring at the map trying to figure out how the damn thing worked. Some people learn to read maps as children and find that the skill transfers to other maps. For me, there’s no crossover between a world map and a road map. Every map is an completely alien syntax that I have to learn from scratch.

Having pulled up the tfl map, I refused Will’s kind invitation to go to the Shakespeare Institute’s library in order to stare for two hours at my computer screen, which showed me this:

What I see when I look at this is a bewildering intersection of colored lines with alternating grey and white patches whose thicknesses vary according to no discernible principle. Those areas marked with numbers–5,4,3–had something to do, I knew, with these “Zones” Irene kept talking about, but I had no grasp of what those zones referred to, or why they existed, or how many I needed to cross. They were the stuff of science fiction—a weird series of concentric amoeba or Russian dolls that we were somehow supposed to instinctively understand.

If the London A to Z was a Jackson Pollock Choose Your Adventure, the Tube Map reminded me of those movies where Harrison Ford has to stop a bomb from detonating, except that if someone said “cut the blue one” to him, there were at least four different wires they could mean. “Cerulean or sky-blue?” he’d snap. “Navy-teal,” Anne Heche would reply, sexually.

By the time Will got back, my screen was badly smudged from my efforts to follow the Piccadilly and Northern lines with my fingers.

But I managed, and determined that there were two different ways to get to the airport the following day. By “determined,” I mean that—unconvinced I’d gotten anything right—I ended up consulting Will and Google Maps for directions.

There seemed to be two routes that would work, once I managed to get myself out of Stratford-upon-Avon and to London. (This is as far as you get when you’re built like me—there seem to be two routes, true, but ultimately it’s a leap of faith.) One was taking the Tube, the other was taking the train.

Knowing I would forget them the minute I needed them, I wrote them down on some old train tickets.

I labeled the first leg of my journey A. Here is what the front of the ticket containing route A looked like, just so you can get a feel for the thing:

Then I labeled the two possible routes to the airport B:



People with an innate understanding of public transit and/or the vaguest sense of direction will fail to understand the anxiety that motivates a lost soul to write distances in minutes. (My directions to A were written in feet: “walk on Long Lane for 127 ft., then turn right.”) Tube natives don’t need to note that a line is (NW) or (SW) because they carry maps in their head and—this is the most important part—they’ve learned not to take cardinal directions so literally. They aren’t flummoxed by that fatal crossroads where the Tube splits, perversely identifying a line that is clearly traveling in a southwesterly direction as either Southbound or Westbound.  (Or, worse, when the same southbound line splits into TWO southbound lines, colored identically, but with different destinations—those are the moments that really confirmed me as a map-atheist.)

Anyway, I left my conditioner at Will’s and made it to the London Marylebone station, where I decided to scrap route B and just buy a train ticket to Heathrow because I couldn’t take the combined strain of another set of tube stairs and another set of tube transfers.

In the last three weeks, Irene and I had brought train tickets from the machines on no fewer than five separate occasions. I took one look at the machines and went straight to the information window, where I sweatily consulted one of the station attendants.

“You’re from San Francisco,” he said.

“How did you know that?” I asked, genuinely amazed. Was it my accent? My hair? My free-spirited West Coast je ne sais quoi?

“You said you wanted to take the BART to Heathrow,” he said, handing me my train ticket.

The next day I woke up at 6:15 a.m. with a sense of indefatigable will. I would make it to the airport! Only two sets of stairs on the BART! I had my train ticket in hand!

I navigated the underground with ease; at both transfer points, just as I was halfway up the stairs, rather proud of my progress, two different people took pity on me and carried my suitcase the rest of the way up. This proves it: anyone who says Londoners are cold and unhelpful is just insufficiently pathetic.

The next theater of battle was Paddington Station. Everywhere you look there are signs for the Heathrow Express. HEATHROW EXPRESS! say the arrows at all the coffee places. Heathrow Express: one every minute! says the screen directing you to various platforms.

I had rather cannily (I thought) avoided paying fifteen pounds for the Heathrow Express in favor of taking the Heathrow Connect, which takes fifteen minutes longer but is seven pounds cheaper.

The trouble was, I couldn’t find a single reference to the Heathrow Connect on any of the computer screens.

Once again I consulted a station agent, who pointed to the very last platform, all the way on the other end of the station, behind some construction work. “Platform 12,” he said. “It’s on the screen.”

Platform 12 had none of the accoutrements of the other platforms: no sign displaying when the next train would come, no people waiting for the same train. Just a number, 12, next to a deserted bit of track. I gnawed nervously at an apricot Danish.

Eventually two women joined me, and we watched from our dim distant corner as eighteen Heathrow Expresses came and went. One of the women, an American, had done this before, so the German woman and I followed her like baby ducklings to where she was waiting. It was only fifteen feet away from where we’d been standing, but it seemed infinitely more official.

The train finally pulled into the station. A tidal wave of people poured out, flooding the hitherto abandoned platform. My earlier smugness came back: clearly these were the natives, the travelers who knew what’s what and refused to pay a silly extra seven pounds for the privilege of fifteen minutes.

The German woman, the American and I got on the train and settled comfortably into our near-empty carriage. I put my train ticket on my right thigh so that it would be ready to hand the ticket inspector with a minimum of fuss. I felt composed, capable. I had even had the foresight to buy a cup of tea.

When the train inspector came, I watched the others digging in their bags for their tickets. When he got to me I calmly handed him my ticket.

“What is this?” he said.

I looked up.


“This,” he said, handing it back to me.

This is what I saw:

“Oh!” I said, and started to rummage desperately through my bag. The German and the American stared. The inspector stared.

I pulled out one train ticket after another. Plans A and C were in evidence, but there was no sign of the train ticket to Heathrow.

“There is a fine for not having a ticket,” the agent said.

“I have it! I bought it yesterday!” I rummaged frantically. I was trying hard not to remember that I had managed, in the last month, to disappear both my passport and my Oyster card.

He sighed. “I’ll come back.”

I found it, and arrived home, triumphant, and went, jet-lagged but happy to the grocery store, for the express purpose of buying more conditioner so I could wash the airplane out of my hair. This was worth it, I thought—I should always leave half-used toiletries behind. It’s silly to carry something so replaceable with you. Yes, it’s wasteful, but maybe this is what responsible travelers do: acknowledge the fact that waste is intrinsic to traveling, and prepare accordingly.

I realized, in the shower, after shampooing, that I’d forgotten to bring in my new conditioner with me. I called for my partner to bring me my conditioner.

“Where is it?” he asked.

“Right there,” I said, pointing to it on the bathroom sink. “Just hand it to me.”

“That’s not conditioner,” he said.

“Oh, yes it is,” I said, condescendingly. “The white bottle. The same conditioner I always get. I left the one I had in England.”

He handed it to me, the nice new bottle I had paid a little too much for.

I stared at the words “ultra-whipped egg white” and “shampoo,” unable to reconcile them. “But it’s exactly like my bottle of conditioner!” I said. “They probably make both,” my partner observed, sagely.

My hair was an intractable tangle in need of something to help me pull a comb through it. I thought of eggs, and of that girl from the Noxzema commercial who said in an early 90s issue of YM that she used some sort of condiment in her hair. “Bring me a knife!” I said.

He did. And that’s how, despite the best-laid plans, however many bottles you abandon and train tickets you deface to better navigate an unforgiving world, you will—if fate decrees it—end up unconditioned in the shower, with liters of shampoo and a greasy butterknife, slathering mayonnaise on your head.