Jeff Nunokawa on Mothers

In Note Book, Princeton Professor Jeff Nunokawa writes frequently (and beautifully) about his mother, from her approach to moles to her aversion to fiction. It’s a perfect day for these choice excerpts from Note Book. Happy Mother’s Day!

1340. The Afterlife of Moles

My mother just hated them—moles, I mean—and if you were a child of hers, your earliest premonition of Ahab had to be the sight of her, out in the backyard, smoking, frowning, and plotting to destroy her own version of the White Whale. It was trench warfare: the moles would dig up the yard, pissing my mother off, big time, and my mother would stick garden hoses into the underground passages through which they, the moles, would go about their business, and whose upward and visible signs were the mounds of dirt that would drive her, my mother, to a state of more than domestic Fury. And then, having set out the means of flushing out her enemy, she would sit back, shovel in hand, watching and waiting, waiting and watching. She got one once. My brother, four or five at the time, overheard her describe her gruesome triumph to a neighbor.

“Mommy, do Moles go to Heaven?”

“I hope not!” she replied with confusing candor. “Why did you say that to him?” I asked.

“I had to tell the truth!” she answered.

And she does. Always—have to tell what she regards as the truth, no matter what.
Note: What’s there to add to the Truth?


1388. “The Unteachable Monkey,” “The Fables of
Panchatantra,” “Indian Humor”

The Wisdom of China and India, ed. Lin Yutang (1942)

Inspecting my mother’s primary bookshelf, one last time, before my second sleep and flight home, I realize with a mild start that I perform this ritual whenever I am about to leave her. And that’s right: these books, a small community library, are the bibliographic correlative and component of her moral competence. Of course I open these books almost never. Most are very old and unpleasant in appearance, and by the looks of them, to my impatient eye at least, not at all “my bag”—Pearl Buck novels; heroic accounts of Andrew Jackson, depicting “Old Hickory” as a paradigm populist; atavistic exposés of power elites, et cetera. In a rare impulse, I take one of these books down from the place where it has rested unnoticed for decades—Professor Lin Yutang’s tome, cited above. A smooth and surprising volume, filled with all manner of familiar and unfamiliar satire and solemnity.

Reading along, I come across the story whose title forms the title of this note. The story is amusing and enlightening enough—all about a monkey whose resistance to helpful instruction becomes sufficiently violent to murder the emissary of enlightenment. I am struck more, though, by the wilderness of teachable monkeys the title of this anecdote obliquely surveys.

I hope I am one of the teachable ones. My mother, I suppose, thinks that I am, but mothers often give their children the benefit of the doubt.

Note: In fairness to her, she is hardly uncritical on the subject of Andrew Jackson.


3027. “What the hell can you learn from Las Vegas?”

The Author’s Mother: A Play in Eleven Lines
The Author’s Mother: What do you want for your birthday? Jeff: I’m glad you asked. Two books by
Bob Venturi, preferably early editions …
The Author’s Mother: You’ll get whatever edition is cheapest. …
Jeff: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.
The Author’s Mother: Hold on, I have to write this down … “Complexity and what?”
Jeff: Contradiction!
The Author’s Mother: Complexity and Continuation in Architecture would have been a better title.
Jeff: Yes, but that would have been a different book, now wouldn’t it?
The Author’s Mother: Yeah. A better book! Jeff: Also, Learning from Las Vegas.
The Author’s Mother: What the hell can you learn from Las Vegas?!

Note: You see my problem.


3302. Tradition and the Individual Eavesdropper

Kafka eavesdropped on tradition. … The main reason why this eavesdropping demands such effort is that only the most indistinct sounds reach the listener.

(W. Benjamin to G. Scholem, June 12, 1938)

—which doesn’t mean that you can’t transmit a little, the Tradition you only half hear, pass it on in bits and pieces—the defense of the truth, and of those who would extend it, even by evading it; the opposition to war and the devotion to peace; the styles of elegance and expertise in art and science; the beauty of the plain and simple (and the cryptic and the complicated); the methods for coping with the unbearable, and caring for that which makes it less so; the ways of loving what is, and laboring to bring about what should be.

My mom likes to tell the story about how once, when she and my dad were first married (this must have been sometime during the second Eisenhower administration), they were out somewhere in the woods with some other newlyweds, staying in some kind of log cabin (somewhere in eastern Washington State, I suppose—I can’t recall the details) without electricity or running water. One morning, my dad came back from the well with an empty bucket. (“Your father didn’t know anything about priming the pump!” my mother reports with gleeful and affectionate condescension.) Well, as little as he knew, I know less, and my ears glaze over whenever my mother seeks to explain with methodical clarity the practice and principle of this hydraulic feat for drawing water where all seems dry. I have never delved to consider the literal ground of what is best known as a popularizing metaphor for a central element of Keynesian economics, and certainly have no interest in disturbing the perfect record of my ignorance. But I like to think about how much my mother likes to tell me all about it.

Note: “(a sort of theology passed on by whispers dealing with matters discredited and obsolete)”
(Benjamin to Scholem).


4004. “a love stronger than any impulse that could have marred it”

She never repented that she had given up position and fortune to marry Will Ladislaw. … They were bound to each other by a love stronger than any impulse which could have marred it.

(George Eliot, Middlemarch)

My mother likes to remind me regularly of her aversion to fiction and, in particular, the kind of “fancy” fiction I have spent a good portion of my life studying and teaching. I was thus surprised this morning, in my semi-annual survey of her strange library—manuals for Hikers, Self-Helpers, and Chinese Communists; a celebratory biography of Andrew Jack- son; memoirs of Native American Warriors and dictionaries of Ancient Hawaiian Chants; histories of the Middle East and the Wild West; old (very old) field guides to flora and fauna, near and far; textbooks on Organic Chemistry and the like— to discover, nearly hidden in the thickets of this old curiosity shop, one of “my” books—a novel I am not alone in regarding as one of the greatest stories ever told. More surprising, still: the volume is, throughout, underlined and annotated by what could only be her hand.

I was less surprised to discover that amongst the passages she has marked for note are the lines that begin this report. Decades after their divorce, my parents remain bound together by an unfaded, though now hardly mentioned, belief that risking anything short of everything to marry each other (they are of different races; that was a different time) would have been a cowardice they would have both repented till the day they died. I like to think that my mother took some satisfaction when she came across a bare statement of the fact of the faith that determined the direction of her life—“a feeling that,

Note: in gaining the man she loved, she would gain something for the whole world” (E. M. Forster, A Room with a View).


4047. “Several people on the trip told me that I was an
inspiration, which made me feel good” (The Author’s
Mother)

And now you will no longer wonder that the recollection of this incident on the Acropolis should have troubled me so often since I myself have grown old and stand in need of forbearance and can travel no more.

(Freud, “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis”)

Many years ago, in the middle of the hardest defeat of my life, my mother came to visit me in New York. My apartment there is small; I, especially in my compromised state, smaller still, and my powers to accommodate her sizable stock of certitudes and self-doubts—their aggregate volume sufficient to fill any proscenium worth its salt—powers of forbearance that hardly amount to the armor of Hercules even in the best of times, reduced to the tattered thinness of a single fig leaf. She couldn’t have come at a worse time, I thought—until I realized that she couldn’t have come at a better one.

Seeing that I was in no shape to chaperone her, she struck out on her own. (She is, after all, according to her own Ancient History, of “pioneer stock.”) One morning, she left before I was awake and called me later from the viewing platform at the top of what was then the City’s tallest building, while I was still in bed. From this height, she felt called upon to tell me something about herself that she instructed me not to repeat, and I will not disobey her. What I can tell you is that what she conveyed to me when I was troubled, and in need of forbearance, was a memory of falling down and getting up again that dissipated the disturbance that left me thinking I could travel no more.

And now I no longer wonder that my sorrow at the thought of the day that she will pass beyond me is matched by the strength with which she has prepared me to meet it.

Note: “The two days in Athens were great but tiring. I actually made all of the excursions (one exception: a Venetian castle in Crete, but went everywhere else). Some people did not climb up the Acropolis, but I did. Why come to Greece and not go up? Was worth it. I was glad that I had both walking sticks. It really made it possible. Several people on the trip told me that I was an inspiration, which made me feel good. I will tell you all more about the trip later, and show you the pictures when I get them done” (extracted from my mother’s report on her most recent travels; her destination this time was the Mediterranean rather than Manhattan).

Jeff Nunokawa on Poetry

Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-LogoJeff Nunokawa, author of Note Book, has woken up and written a brief essay in the Notes section of his Facebook page every morning since 2007. Note Book is the compilation of 250 of these essays. A topic that Nunokawa is particularly articulate about is poetry, and as we are currently celebrating National Poetry Month, we thought it would be fun to highlight five of Nunokawa’s best poetry notes. (Quite a few of the notes listed below are prompted from poems written by W.H. Auden. If you want to read more of W.H. Auden’s poems, check out The Complete Works of W.H. Auden.) Without further ado, enjoy the following excerpts from Note Book and sample the first chapter, here.

3505. “Telephone Directory,” “Heaven”

W. H. Auden

One could conceive of Heaven having
a Telephone Directory (“Postscript …”).

We mostly don’t call each other anymore. Not like we used to, anyway. And when we do, we mostly
don’t pick up. That’s cool, though. It just makes us appreciate more the times we do get through.
Now, when we answer, it’s like the reverse charge of the bye, which always sounds like the
beginning of the big one; it’s like a hello from here, all the way to Heaven. That’s why our
hope goes way beyond the bounds of all area codes when we hear the ring at the other end of the
line—
Note: “Stardust in negative, between the rings” (Merrill, “Mirabell”).


3313. “Money is a kind of poetry”

Wallace Stevens

Yesterday, after my annual visit, I left my accountant’s office with tears in my eyes. I don’t
think I’ve ever left my accountant’s office actually weeping. Maybe I have and just forgot-
ten. I cry a lot, and I have a terrible memory.

Once a year, I see him about my taxes. My brother thinks I’m wasting my money. I think I’m
saving my soul. Also, a lot of time and peace of mind: I’m terrible with numbers.
Especially numbers that are symbols for money. Or maybe those numbers are bad with me—hell,
either way, it’s an ugly relationship, and I’ve basically given up on it. (Don’t tell them
that—the numbers, I mean: they know exactly where I live, and they’ll come after me six ways to
Sunday.)

On the other hand, like you, I hope, I’m involved in a lot of relationships—close encounters,
lifelong romances, or some- thing simpler (like a good neighbor)—that just get better every
year. With each passing year, for example, my appreciation for the kinds of words that help
people get through a dark night or a long day just grows and grows. With each passing year, the
kinds of words that help people get brave or loving, or help them know that they can become
so—their interest compounds like nobody’s business.

Appreciating words like that, and helping others do so, too: well, that’s the better part of my
business. Of course, I lack the instruments to quantify the rescuing resonances of the
kinds of words that are the stock in trade for retail outfits like mine—like I say, unlike my
accountant, I’m not a numbers man. But let me tell you something: every year, I leave his
office a little less worried than I was when I walked in, and numbers or no numbers, I have to
figure that the better part of both our businesses is pretty much the same.

Note: “All these forms, familiar to all the arts, place us at a distance from the substance of
things; they speak to us ‘as from afar’; reality is touched not with direct confidence but with
fingertips that are immediately withdrawn” (Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money).


4301. “an extraordinary mildness”

Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary mildness,

Auden, “Herman Melville” (for Lincoln Kirstein)

I’ve never met a mildness that didn’t seem extraordinary, and something toward the end: the
smoothing something of a final act of forgiveness after a long, jagged drama of anger and anguish
and being out at sea: some compassionate writing (don’t worry: it’s all right) that coaxes
something upset to right its balance long enough to make its way back to port; some signal sent
straight to a wayward heart that it’s safe to come home; some memory of wholeness that recalls the
amputated adventurer to the going grace of the last dance, just this side of the closing
curtain.

Lately, I’ve been meeting with another mildness as well, twin of the first, I think, and no less
extraordinary. It stretches toward a new start rather than the last rest—the one that comes
after the big fall, but well before the final flight.

Note: “so tender and mild” (“Silent Night”).


4304. “Mine would, sir, were I human”

Ariel: … if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

Prospero: Dost thou think so, spirit?

Ariel: Mine would, sir, were I human.

Shakespeare, The Tempest

Not being a human being himself, the spirit settles instead for making someone who is a better
one. He’s like a poem or a page or a play or a pool that prepares its pupil to navigate the sea
of tears that surrounds us. He’s like the first song you heard about someone breaking up—the one
you go back to whenever you’re breaking up, yourself, to learn again some basic lessons in
tenderness and decency under duress. He’s like the strokes you were taught in your first swim
lessons when, later, you suddenly find yourself really over your head and very far from shore.
That’s what he’s like, and all you have to do is to remember what those like him have to teach
you, and then, no matter how dark and stormy, you’ll always make it back to where you have to be.

Note: “lessons at love’s pain and heartache school” (Jackson
Browne, “Fountain of Sorrow”).

Nunokawa Blog on Poetry


4349. “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to
each”

T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

—oh, I’ve heard a lot of amazing creatures sing and say a lot of amazing things. And I still
do—every day of the week, and sometimes twice on Sundays. I want to tell you the secret of
my continuing hearing, because someday (maybe not today,
but maybe someday, ten years or fifty years from today), it may come in handy for you: I don’t
worry, like I used to worry, whether what I’m hearing is meant for my ears. Now, when I listen
to people talk about what or who or how they love, I don’t care as much as I once did, if
they’re talking about me, or even to me. I’m just glad that the waves of sound are so pitched
with devotion.

If this sounds too good to be true, all I can say is that it seems like all the truest goods
sound too good to be true—something as good as clearing (slow or swift) from deafness to delight,
or a change in the mood of a verb, or a vision, that gives a new form of life to the most
tried and tired drab directions.

“You can’t hear God speak to someone else, you can hear him only if you are being
addressed.”—That is a grammati- cal remark (Wittgenstein). But grammar can be transformed at the
speed of a dream or the shift of a continent, and before you know it, you could wind up at a
case where you can only hear what you might call God speaking to someone else; never when you are being addressed, alone.

In any case, that’s all I have to say to you. And I’ll leave you in peace now, since I
know you have plenty to talk about amongst yourselves.
Note: “poetry is overheard” (John Stuart Mill, “What Is
Poetry?”).

#NewBooks

Books released during the week of April 6, 2015

Among this week’s new releases is the highly anticipated Note Book, which arguably raises the Facebook post to the level of art form. A collection of short essays from the Notes section of Princeton English professor Jeff Nunokawa’s Facebook page, Note Book is, in the words of Publisher’s Weekly, “[A] winning look at how people connect, or attempt to connect, in person and online.” Check out this and other new releases, including The Proof in the Pudding by Jim Henle, which combines the pleasures of mathematics and cooking, and The Good Immigrants by Madeline Hsu, which offers a timely look at the shifts in immigration laws and perceptions of cultural traits that enabled Asians to remain in the United States.

New in Hardcover:

Note Book The Politics of Precaution
The Good Immigrants Human Nature & Jewish Thought
The Proof and the Pudding Life's Engines
Social Evolution and Inclusive Fitness Theory Strangers No More

New in Paperback:

A Century of Genocide The Essential Hirschman
The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals The Muqaddimah
Nations under God Telsa
War and Democratic Constraint