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13 JUNE, 2013

The Beat Night Life of New York: Jack Kerouac’s Gotham

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“Might as well enjoy it. . . . Greatest city the world has ever seen.”

New York City is arguably one of modern history’s greatest literary muses — Frank O’Hara extolled its dirty streets, Gay Talese marveled at the social order of its cats, and countless essayists channeled Central Park’s glory. Among Gotham’s many admirers was Jack Kerouac — passionate teenage diarist, admonisher against popular opinion, sage of literature and life.

Somewhere between young Gay Talese’s New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey and E.B. White’s classic Here Is New York comes a chapter titled “New York Scenes” from Kerouac’s 1960 gem Lonesome Traveler (public library) — a kind of narrative emotional cartography of Manhattan, woven of fascinating sketches of Gotham’s vibrant life and cast of characters as recorded in Kerouac’s travel journals, written in his signature style of spontaneous prose, complete with his famous disdain for apostrophes.

He opens the chapter with a loving appreciation of his mother, a testament to parents’ power of cultivating genius and encouraging “horizontal identity”:

[M]y mother was living alone in a little apartment in Jamaica Long Island, working in the shoe factory, waiting for me to come home so I could keep her company and escort her to Radio City once a month. She had a tiny bedroom waiting for me, clean linen in the dresser, clean sheets in the bed. It was a relief after all the sleepingbags and bunks and railroad earth. It was another of the many opportunities she’d given me all her life to just stay home and write.

I always give her all my leftover pay. I settled down to long sweet sleeps, day-long meditations in the house, writing, and long walks around beloved old Manhattan a half hour subway ride away. I roamed the streets, the bridges, Times Square, cafeterias, the waterfront, I looked up all my poet beatnik friends and roamed with them, I had love affairs with girls in the Village, I did everything with that great mad joy you get when you return to New York City.

Kerouac proceeds to invite us into the inner circle of the beatniks and their experience of the city:

My friends and I in New York city have our own special way of having fun without having to spend much money and most important of all without having to be importuned by formalistic bores, such as, say, a swell evening at the mayor’s ball. — We dont have to shake hands and we don’t have to make appointments and we feel all right. — we sorta wander around like children. — We walk into parties and tell everybody what we’ve been doing and people think we’re showing off. — They say: “Oh look at the beatniks!”

He then offers a guided tour of a beatnik’s New York, full of Kerouac-isms (“Men do love bars and good bars should be loved”) and irreverent romance (“…some romantic heroes just in from Oklahoma with ambitions to end up yearning in the arms of some unpredictable sexy young blonde in a penthouse on the Empire State Building.”) One by one he sketches out some of Manhattan’s most iconic places and faces, then takes us to the crown jewel of tourist attraction and ogles it with equal parts cynicism and awe:

What’s Times Square doing there anyway? Might as well enjoy it. — Greatest city the world has ever seen. — Have they got a Times Square on Mars? What would the Blob do on Times Square? Or St. Francis?

Next, he turns to the corner of 42nd Street and 8th Avenue, “near the great Whelan’s drug store,” to echo the eternal New Yorker’s lament over the city’s ever-changing landscape:

Across the street you can see the ruins of New York already started — the Globe Hotel being torn down there, an empty tooth hole right on 44th Street — and the green McGraw-Hill building gaping up in the sky, higher than you believe — lonely all by itself down towards the Hudson River where freighters wait in the rain for their Montevideo limestone. —

Gliding downtown for some night life, Kerouac takes us to the East Village to visit with some jazz legends and recounts a charming anecdote about his beatnik brother-in-arms, Allen Ginsberg, who once famously mistook Patti Smith for “a very pretty boy.”

The Five Spot on 5th Street and Bowery sometimes features Thelonious Monk on the piano and you go on there. If you know the proprietor you sit down at the table free with beer, but if you dont know him you can sneak in and stand by the ventilator and listen. Always crowded weekends. Monk cogitates with deadly abstraction, clonk, and makes a statement, huge foot beating delicately on the floor, head turned to one side, listening, entering the piano.

Lester Young played there just before he died and used to sit in the back kitchen between sets. My buddy poet Allen Ginsberg went back and got on his knees and asked him what he would do if an atom bomb fell on New York. Lester said he would break the window in Tiffany’s and get some jewels anyway. He also said, “what you doin’ on your knees?” not realizing he is a great hero of the beat generation and now enshrined. The Five Spot is darkly lit, has weird waiters, good music always, sometimes John “Train” Coltrane showers his rough notes for his big tenor horn all over the place. On weekends parties of well-dressed uptowners jam-pack the place talking continuously — nobody minds.

He then turns to the party scene of the underground artists, socialites, and literary types. One of them, Leroi Jones, who self-published Yugen Magazine “on a little cranky machine and everybody’s poems are in it,” Kerouac describes as a “historic publisher, secret hipster of the trade” — an early use of “hipster” at the dawn of its popular coinage. But then, true to the rebellious beat spirit, he urges:

Let’s get out of here, it’s too literary. — Let’s go get drunk on the Bowery or eat those long noodles and tea in glasses at Hong Fat’s in Chinatown. — What are we always eating for? Let’s walk over the Brooklyn Bridge and build up another appetite. — How about some Okra on Sands Street?

Shades of Hart Crane!

But the full vibrancy of Manhattan and its multitude of eccentric characters, the full range of the beatnik existence in the city that never sleeps, comes aglow under Kerouac’s gaze in the Village:

Ah, let’s go back to the Village and stand on the corner of Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue and watch the intellectuals go by. — AP reporters luring home to their basement apartments on Washington Square, lady editorialists with huge German police dogs breaking their chains, lonely dikes melting by, unknown experts on Sherlock Holmes with blue fingernails going up to their rooms to take scopolamine, a muscle-bound young man in a chap gray German suit explaining something weird to his fat girl friend, great editors leaning politely at the newsstand buying the early edition of the Times, great fat furniture movers out of 1910 Charlie Chaplin films coming home with great bags full of chop suey (feeding everybody), Picasso’s melancholy harlequin now owner of a print and frame shop musing on his wife and newborn child lifting up his finger for a taxi, rolypoly recording engineers rush in fur hats, girl artists down from Columbia with D.H. Lawrence problems picking up 50-year-old men, old men in the Kettle of Fish, and the melancholy spectre of New York Women’s prison that looms high and is folded in silence as the night itself — at sunset their windows look like oranges — poet e.e. cummings buying a package of cough drops in the shade of that monstrosity. — If it’s raining you can stand under the awning in front of Howard Johnson’s and watch the street from the other side.

Beatnik Angel Peter Orlovsky in the supermarket five doors away buying Uneeda Biscuits (late Friday night), ice cream, caviar, bacon, pretzels, sodapop, TV Guide, Vaseline, three toothbrushes, chocolate milk (dreaming of roast suckling pig), buying whole Idaho potatoes, raisin bread, wormy cabbage by mistake, and fresh-felt tomatoes and collecting purple stamps. — Then he goes home broke and dumps it all on the table, takes out a big book of Mayakovsky poems, turns on the 1949 television set to the horror movie, and goes to sleep.

And this is the beat night life of New York.

Lonesome Traveler, Kerouac’s first authentically autobiographical work, is an endless delight in its entirety. Complement it with Anaïs Nin on the poetic of New York and Sylvia Plath’s notorious New York summer.

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13 JUNE, 2013

How Our Vision Works

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The science of why we see the world as a continuous panorama rather than a series of disconnected snapshots.

The news that scientists have discovered a new part of the human eye only demonstrates that no matter how painstakingly mapped and thoroughly understood we might think the human body may be today, there’s much yet to know. Vision is particularly intriguing for, as Virginia Woolf put it in her meditation on moving images, “the eye licks it all up instantaneously” and thus our experience of the world emerges.

But how does the human eye work, exactly? In The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It (public library) — the remarkable story of an eight-year-old boy nearly blind from a rare hereditary disorder and the groundbreaking medical procedure that made him fully sighted within a few days — geneticist and journalist Ricky Lewis takes us on “a trip through an eyeball, from the pupil, where light enters, to the back of the eye,” bringing to life the familiar metaphor of the eye as a camera to illustrate how our vision works:

[T]he retina is the layer of the eye’s wall that includes the photoreceptor cells — the rods and cones — that capture light energy and change it into the electrical language of the nervous system. The rod cells provide black-and-white vision and detect motion, and the cone cells send signals for color. The retina also has cell layers that transmit the light signals to the optic nerve, which sends the information to the part of the brain that interprets the input as a visual image. The comparison of the human eye to an old-fashioned camera is apt — the back of the retina is like a sheet of photographic film. … Each eye has 100 million of these long, skinny cells, and each has about two thousand translucent discs that fold inward from the surrounding cell membrane, making the rod look a little like an electric toothbrush. The aligned discs resemble toothbrush bristles at one end, and a neural connection at the other end of the cell that goes to the brain corresponds to the part of the toothbrush that plugs into a power outlet.

Embedded in the rod’s folded discs are many molecules of a pigment called rhodopsin, which actually provides vision. Each rhodopsin molecule is built of a protein part called opsin and another, smaller part made from vitamin A, called retinal. A flash of light lasting mere trillionths of a second changes the shape of the retinal, which in turn changes the shape of the opsin. The change in opsin triggers chemical reactions that signal the nearby optic nerve, which stimulates the visual cortex in the brain. In this way, each of the 100 million rods and 3 million cones of a human eye contributes a tiny glimpse of a scene, which the brain then integrates into an image.

To fully appreciate the astounding machinery of the eye, we need only consider the magnificent mechanics through which it transmutes the fragmented glimpses of the world into our fluid visual experience of it:

To see the world as a continuous panorama, rather than a series of disconnected snapshots, rhodopsin must quickly reform after it changes in response to light. In dim light this happens slowly, and the rhodopsin is recycled inside the eye. But in very bright light, rhodopsin contorts too fast to fully recover. This is why we are temporarily blinded when walking out of a dark theater, to which our rhodopsin has adapted, into bright sunshine. It is also why we tell children to eat their carrots, because vitamin A deficiency causes night blindness. Cones work in a similar way, but instead of rhodopsin, they use three other visual pigments that are sensitive to different wavelengths of light, and interpret the hues of red, green, and blue that color our world. Mammals other than humans and our primate cousins have only two types of cones, which restricts the color palette available to them.

Rare vision defects, like that of Corey, the book’s protagonist who was diagnosed with a form of Leber congenial amaurosis, expose just how intricate, how perfectly wired yet delicate, our vision is. Take, for instance, the retinal pigment epithelium, or RPE:

The RPE is a caretaker of sorts for the rods and cones, removing wastes while absorbing stray light rays that might otherwise bounce around the eyeball, creating meaningless flashes. In a layer of cells next to [the rods and cones] called the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) is a caretaker of sorts for the rods and cones, removing wastes while absorbing stray light rays that might otherwise bounce around the eyeball, creating meaningless flashes. The RPE’s most important job is to store vitamin A. It uses a protein, called RPE65, to activate the vitamin, forming the retinal essential for black-and-white vision.

The Forever Fix goes on to tell the fascinating story of how gene therapy helped Corey, whose eyes were unable to make the protein variant RPE65 and who was thus genetically doomed to have his rods and cones shrivel to nothing and result in eventual blindness, had his sight restored and life changed, alongside a handful of complementary cases that explore the allure and promise of genetic science.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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13 JUNE, 2013

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Poems for Young People

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Warm hearts, brown thoughts, and the magic of city trees.

Among creative culture’s most delightful fringes are the generally lesser-known children’s books by famous “adult” authors — Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain (illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky), Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou (illustrated by Basquiat), The Cats of Copenhagen by James Joyce, The Bed Book by Sylvia Plath (illustrated by Quentin Blake), The Wishing Tree by William Faulkner, To Do by Gertrude Stein, Eggs of Things by Anne Sexton, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot (illustrated by Edward Gorey), and other gems by Aldous Huxley, James Thurber, Carl Sandburg, Salman Rushdie, Ian Fleming, and Langston Hughes.

Though Edna St. Vincent Millay — beloved poet, eloquent lover of music, delinquent schoolgirl, writer of passionate love letters and playfully lewd self-portraits — never explicitly wrote for children, the verses in the wonderful 1951 collection Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Poems Selected for Young People (public library) make a fine addition to this treasure chest of literary gems for budding readers.

Featuring tender and enchanted drawings by J. Paget-Fredericks, who illustrated a great deal of Millay’s work over the course of more than twenty years, the poems embrace the Sendakian view that children should be filled with whimsy, but shouldn’t be shielded from the dark. With Millay’s signature blend of sensitivity, irreverence, and poignant exuberance, they open to young readers the full psychoemotional spectrum of the world and, as Rilke memorably put it, let everything happen … beauty and terror.”

GROWN-UP

Was it for this I uttered prayers,
And sobbed and cursed and kicked the stairs,
That now, domestic as a plate,
I should retire at half-past eight?

THE UNEXPLORER

There was a road ran past house
Too lovely to explore.
I asked my mother once — she said
That if you followed where it led
It brought you to the milk-man’s door
(That’s why I have not traveled more.)

TRAVEL

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

SORROW

Sorrow like a ceaseless rain
Beats upon my heart.
People twist and scream in pain, —
Dawn will find them still again;
This has neither wax nor wane,
Neither stop nor start.

People dress and go to town;
I sit in my chair.
All my thoughts are slow and brown:
Standing up or sitting down
Little matters, or what gown
Or what shoes I wear.

SOUVENIR

Just a rainy day or two
In a windy tower,
That was all I had of you—
Saving half an hour.

Marred by greeting passing groups
In a cinder walk,
Near some naked blackberry hoops
Dim with purple chalk.
I remember three or four
Things you said in spite,
And an ugly coat you wore,
Plaided black and white.

Just a rainy day or two
And a bitter word.
Why do I remember you
As a singing bird?

EPITAPH

Heap not on this mound
Roses that she loved so well;
Why bewilder her with roses,
That she cannot see or smell?
She is happy where she lies
With the dust upon her eyes.

CITY TREES

The trees along this city street,
Save for the traffic and the trains,
Would make a sound as thin and sweet
As trees in country lanes.

And people standing in their shade
Out of a shower, undoubtedly
Would hear such music as is made
Upon a country tree.

Oh, little leaves that are so dumb
Against the shrieking city air,
I watch you when the wind has come, —
I know what sound is there.

All sixty poems in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Poems Selected for Young People are an absolute treat. They were taken from Millay’s A Few Figs From Thistles, Second April, Renascence, and The Harp Weaver.

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