Not only is it Burns Night, but it's the 250th since his birth.
Years ago, my dear friend Katie Aronson, an actress and performance artist (and I wonder what she's doing now? a lovely, gentle woman with a sweet face, amazingly good at inspiring performances and getting grants written; she moved to Pittsburgh with her husband years ago), had a memorable answering machine message.
This was in the mid-1980s, when answering machines were still teetering on the border between innovation and standard, and many people had cute or coy or demanding or offhand messages that tried to encourage people to speak up. I think it was 1985 when my mother told me that she just couldn't talk to a machine... it was that kind of problem; an especially sensitive issue for someone like Katie, as actors and their ilk learned early that their jobs and careers could live or die over a message left.
Well, Katie's answering machine came right at you with a surprisingly brusque: "You know what to do so – do it." But she continued, in a gentler voice, with an increasingly rich Scottish accent as she went along: "But as this machine needs a thirty-second message, I shall fill the remaining time with the poetry of Robert Burns: Wee, sleekit, cow'rin', tim'rous beastie, / O, what a panic's in thy breastie! / Thou need na start awae sae hasty, / Wi' bickering brattle! / I wad laith to rin" [BEEEEEP]
"She decides, with misgivings, that she is finished for today. Always, there are these doubts. Should she try another hour? Is she being judicious, or slothful? Judicious, she tells herself, and almost believes it. She has her two hundred and fifty words, more or less. Let it be enough. Have faith that you will be here, recognizable to yourself, again tomorrow." – Michael Cunningham (in the voice of Virginia Woolf), The Hours
An odd week. Quiet, and some work done, not the important work though.
Did you know that, if you take thyroid medicine – for hypothyroidism, not hyper- – that if you find yourself sleeping too much, for instance twelve or fourteen hours a day, and you simply double your dosage, that you start waking up again? But then you become anxious rather than depressed (with shaking hands, even). It's a bit like caffeine, I suppose.
I've been seeing Nanette in the hospital almost every day – which is not nearly as virtuous as it sounds: she has plenty of visitors and is doing perfectly well, she's just a little bored at this point. I must admit to a secret selfishness, one that will be obvious to anyone who knows me: in the guise of taking care of a friend, I am really just avoiding work....
Well, there are worse things.
While going to the hospital to see her, I've been entangled in trying to find the right – the good; the best? – entrance to the hospital, the one that's not too far from her and yet accessible. I think all her visitors would agree, there really isn't one. But while looking I've been taking the bus a stop further than usual, and landing in front of Marks & Spencer's, or Marks & Sparks as it's known in this part of the world. The part where... where they sell the food.
Now, Marks & Sparks is known for fairly ritzy (posh) food; lots of it already prepared or semi-prepared. I don't usually buy so much prepared food, but it's right there, and some of it's very nice, and it's not unhealthy... Of course it is also expensive and rather unnecessary (slothful, in the Calvinist view). But twice now I've bought various things, brought them home and heated and combined them.
And, perhaps less justifiably (because most certainly not healthy): the sweets. Perhaps most acutely, the Battenberg cakes. Mmmm... two-color, covered in marzipan. I didn't like marzipan when I was younger – in fact, none of us did except my father (and when we received some large, elaborate box of marzipan candies at Christmas, we would unanimously hand it over to him without regrets). But somehow, now....
But time keeps going, we're ever closer to teaching classes (just ten days now); and I'm older every day, and the book is not written, and Gerhard's message asking about the anthology is still unanswered.
On the other hand... I've seen Silverlake Living, and The Hours, and am now reading the latter to boot. I thought (ridiculously) that I was taking a break by watching the German television series of Doktor Faustus; not much of a break I suppose (also depressing, and now that I think of it also about venereal topics). And so thinking about depression, and AIDS, and giving up, but from outside as it were: with a clinical interest in understanding as much as I can.
And a dream today, at midday on the couch: that while traveling somehow through a place which turned into Zürich – where, in the waking world, I will go to study Jungian analysis in just about a month – a handsome, gentle man found me a beautiful cottage where I could stay during my visit. Tiny, all vertical, all wood: but cozy and supportive and kindly, as much as architecture can be, anyway.
(There are so many threads that can be pulled out from all this – you don't know that my father had hypothyroidism, too, which caused him to go to sleep for a year when I was fourteen; or that my mother once, quite unfairly, accused him of being the reason I am gay, because his fatherly influence was absent in that crucial year, though I was already quite gay by then; or that surgery and symbolism around thyroids and throats is also floating around, related to at least two friends; or that my first novel by Woolf wasn't Mrs. Dalloway, but instead The Voyage Out, which I consider one of the great experiences of my life, from those first arresting paragraphs, where I was practically holding my breath at not only the complexity but the importance of all these words, as though I would understand so much if I could only get it all... and the details of the dream, which would merely madden you because they are details, but which are precious to me... and I didn't even tell you what a Battenberg cake is like, not in sufficient detail anyway.)
[I heard the inaugural speech in a BBC studio, where I'd been asked – just forty-five minutes before it started – to come represent the point of view of a 'regular' American to the new President's speech. As you may imagine, I liked it... it seemed tough, honest, specific, real, uncompromising, like some of FDR's and Churchill's speeches.
We were given an advance copy in the studio; what Obama actually said varied in a few phrases, but this remains substantially what he said. I'm typing from hard copy – and hopefully won't make too many errors.]
REMARKS OF PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
**EMBARGOED UNTIL DELIVERY**
My fellow citizens:
I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.
Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbears, and true to our founding documents.
So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.
That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten the planet.
These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land – a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.
Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met.
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.
On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for too long have strangled our politics.
We remain a young nation, but in the words of scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.
For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.
For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.
Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hand were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.
This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting the narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act – not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.
Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions – who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.
What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.
Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control – and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart – not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideas still light up the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort – even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the world who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you can destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.
As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment – a moment that will define a generation – it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.
For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
This is the source of our confidence – the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.
This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed – why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.
So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:
"Let it be told to the future world... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it.]."
America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
Not so down: the sun appears to be out more, and even the days are longer since the equinox – it is always interesting to see how rapidly the length of the day changes at certain points of the year.
I am less depressed partly, of course, because of the impact of the world on me: more demands, and revving up to teach the second semester, which will make me far busier than I've been for an entire year. I still want some sort of analytic/psychological/cognitive explanation for my depressions and associated behaviors, so that I can get my hands on my own controls, so to speak – and no, sniggers from the back will be ignored. But if I can't get such an explanation, at least I can get a few things done.
Of course, with such demands comes anxiety – I've just awakened from my first related dream, in fact: one where new students collect in a room but no one comes to explain what they are to do, and various subsidiary academics look at each other in confusion, waiting for some sort of general introduction to start. Which it doesn't do... and then time is passing... and people are getting worried.
Ah well. At least I'm responding to e-mails, which I've largely ignored for a couple of weeks....
... and therefore what I object to most strenuously about the New Depression, about the lack of new jobs and money and general hunkering down, is that if I'd been lucky – ha! as if! – if I'd been lucky, when everyone hunkered down, I'd be in Hawaii. Or California. Or Palermo...
not here. Stuck here with no prospects.
Yes, you needn't tell me that's heartless and egotistical, I don't much care.
I wonder, when things collapsed in 1929, whether people in Fiji were relieved to be stuck there with no way off the island?... of course they didn't know there'd be War in the Pacific, as the phrase goes....
(A small, apposite joke said to Mitchell tonight in a long phone exchange: if it really is like the 1930s – in a Mosley novel, not a Hemingway one – I'll despair of everything and go off to fight in the Spanish Civil War – and that new Spanish Civil War will, somehow, be about condo prices....)
After a rather extreme version of the usual winter irresponsible incoherent dead-time day and night, I watched this 1968 film by Resnais – perhaps not the best choice for someone thinking about depression and the incoherence of his life. Or, perhaps, the best possible choice.
No, let me explain, briefly, or you'll think this is all stranger or more dramatic than it is. After reaching a certain point in Jung's autobiography (and being unwilling to read further into the relationship with Freud and its unhappy conflicts), and thinking about my own problems and concerns (winter depression, short and silent days, etc.), I'd downloaded a vast Internet collection of segments of Two and a Half Men, up to the present episode. A silly comedy, of course: which has, of course, gotten edgier over the past two years (has no one else noticed that Sheen looks markedly unhealthy in the past year, perhaps a bit too much like his alcoholic character?); which is about addiction and an incoherent life (but, unlike mine, a wealthy and pleasure-drenched version of an incoherent life, one embedded in my long-missed California). So when I found myself watching episode after episode, in order, up until the latest one which started on my computer at 9 am on a Sunday morning....
and then I went to bed, wondering about different kinds of addictive behavior and avoidance. At three in the afternoon David R. rang my doorbell, unannounced, to talk; I sent him away, unusually, and went back to bed; and then this evening saw this strange Resnais film about suicide, despair, time, fragmented time, memory, and les temps morts. It has a rather frightening premise: time travel limited to re-experiencing moments from one's own life – gone awry, where the moments are uncontrolled and out of order.
And now I shall go to bed, again, but at a more normal time, and tomorrow shall have a real and semi-normal day.
And yes, I know: what we're looking at here is simply a common experience: when passive television/film experiences can saturate a person, hypnotize a person, it can eat up their entire life – this is a familiar thing in Los Angeles, especially, but ever since the advent of videotapes it has been common everywhere. (And even before, in those strange habitués of repertory houses: early Woody Allen bears the mark of his having done this – obsessively spending too many afternoons seeing one film after another.) And now, with computers, it is even more common.
Watching too much: it is perhaps an experience that has grounded so many films of the nouvelle vague and other avant-garde forces... and their acute awareness of how bad we really are at handling time, how much it gets away from us, how by the time we have any idea what we wanted from it it's already gone. And of course, any scientist will be just as bewildered by time and experience: how can we live our lives in the face of the vast scale of things? (Even the many versions of the Hitchhiker's Guide makes this problem an endless object of fun.)
But it still seems resonant – the problem of dead time, of repeated time, of imagined time; and the fairly insoluble problem of whether time spent alone writing is any more interesting than time spent watching actors on a screen. Which of those is really temps morts? Are they both?
And what else is there for me to do, anyway?...
You will say: I would have been better off sitting and talking to David. Yes, I say: but – how long, each day, can I wait for such things to occur – by chance?...