Saturday, August 29, 2020

One a day (conclusion)

One hundred days ago I set myself the task of reading The Decameron at the rate of precisely one tale a day, and this morning I finished it, right on time. For those who are only vaguely familiar with the work (as was I), Boccaccio's collection has particular relevance at the moment, as the frame-tale that supports it supposes that a group of young Florentines escape from the plague-stricken city into the safety of the countryside, where they regale each other with stories until it's time to go home.

Presumably conditions improved a bit in their absence; in the summer of 2020, sadly, the world is still very much a mess. (Where I live COVID-19 cases are, for now, down significantly, which is something, at least.)

But back to Boccaccio. Escapist as it may be, it's a delightful book. I'm not sure I regret not reading it earlier; some things (like Moby-Dick) arguably benefit from being encountered later in life. The Signet Classics translation by Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella that I used is lively and readable. Some of the tales are little more than anecdotes, and a few of those rely on snappy repartee that perhaps loses something out of its cultural context, but there's plenty of variety and entertainment here. As with any self-confident writer, Boccaccio plays both sides at will, alternately upholding virtue and openly advocating infidelity, bad-mouthing women for their fecklessness and defending them against jealous and tyrannical husbands. Piety, thankfully, is in short supply, and the clergy come in for a robust helping of abuse.

Below are a few of the tales that struck me as being particularly memorable.

Third Day, Tenth Story: basically a classic dirty joke, grounded in feminine gullibility and clerical misbehavior.

Fifth Day, Fourth Story: a pleasingly modern tale, ending happily, of young lovers caught in flagrante by the girl's parents.

Fifth Day, Eight Story: a gruesome supernatural horror story in which a woman is punished eternally for refusing her favors.

Eight Day, Seventh Story: the account of the vengeance of a spurned lover and scholar. (This one is particularly long and vindictive, perhaps suggesting a grudge on the part of the author.)

Tenth Day, Ninth Story: a nicely balanced story of the mutual generosity of an Italian nobleman and the Muslim general Saladin (who is, dubiously, depicted as being fluent in Italian).

Tenth Day, Tenth Story: a narrative of the unspeakably cruel manner in which a husband tests the virtue and submissiveness of his absurdly long-suffering wife, wrapping up, improbably, with tutti contenti.

I'll leave the last words to the author, who concludes: "The time has come to end my words and to humbly thank Him who with His assistance has brought me after so much labor to my desired goal, and may His grace and peace be with you, lovely ladies, and if, perhaps, reading some of these stories has given any of you pleasure, please do remember me."

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Last train out

Maybe it's the unearthly shade of red in the evening sky or the rumbling sensation below your feet, but something tells you that this time it's for real. You take inventory: what needs to come, what can be carried, what has to be battened down or left to fend for itself. Things for the road, in case...

Some people aren't budging. Take no notice, get it done. It's too late for those arguments now.

All the things you never got to: papers to organize, phone calls to make. The peonies that should have been divided years ago. Little regrets. Nothing for it.

You should have done it last year, you should have done it years ago. Maybe it's too late. No matter. Just get on with it.

In the end, one suitcase and a cloth bag with some food and a thermos. You think you must be forgetting something, but it seems to matter less with every moment that goes by. The cold feeling when you lock the door. Don't look back.

Along the road, clusters of travelers, some rushing, some hesitant. Familiar faces, no time for chat. Caught in a funnel. Momentum.

At the station, little formalities that now seem quaint. Less of a crowd than one thought. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe it's just a false alarm, after all.

As the train pulls out you don't look through the window, but the whirl around you leaves you suddenly weak at the knees. Jostle through the aisle and into a seat. A sip of cold water to settle you.

Later, passing through unfamiliar country, the grief drains away. Nothing but weariness now. What was it you forgot?

Wednesday, July 22, 2020


As this anxious summer wears on I've been making regular visits to a little pond not far away, one that, in spite of its diminutive size, hosts an astonishing array of wildlife, all of it unconcerned with our troubles. In addition to hundreds if not thousands of frogs of various sizes, which dash into the water with cries of alarm as I circle the shore, there are snapping and painted turtles, at least one water snake, small fish, and several species of dragonfly. As I arrive great blue herons fly up, issuing unearthly raucous cries, and rabbits, deer, and wild turkey browse the adjacent meadows.

The rabbits have apparently become accustomed to human presence and continue nibbling until I'm almost on top of them, a complacency that may be ill-advised as there are foxes, coyotes, and other predators in the vicinity. The dragonflies don't seem to care much about me either; they dart about, carefully avoiding hungry mouths lurking below the surface of the pond, and rest here and there on rocks and vegetation, only flitting away when I come within an arm's length. The green one immediately below is (I'm told) a female eastern pondhawk, which is a wonderful and appropriate name, for this is very much a hunting creature.

The frogs must be the keystone species here, their sheer numbers guaranteeing their own perpetuation as well as the survival of those who prey upon them. Over the past weeks the young ones have been slowly metamorphosizing from tadpoles. Some are still confined to the water, while others now hop about, soon to lose the remnants of their tails. They're utterly absurd creatures, and as such instantly recognizable as our kin.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

The Chaos of the Age (Leo Perutz)

(The Emperor Rudolf II addresses his lover, by means of a mutual dream.)
"In the dark hours of the day, when the chaos of the age weighs on me like a nightmare and the noise and bustle of the world is about me with all its perfidy and cunning, its lies and treachery, my thoughts fly to you, you are my comfort and consolation. With you there's clarity, when I'm with you I feel as if I could understand the way of the world and see through the lies and penetrate to the truth behind the perfidy. Sometimes I feel lost and call you, call you aloud, though in such a way as not to be overheard — but you don't come. Why don't you come? What holds you back when I call you? What prevents you?"

No answer came.

By Night Under the Stone Bridge

Friday, June 05, 2020

Dreaming Again (Zachary Richard)

From singer, musician, bilingual songwriter, and all-around good guy Zachary Richard, a beautiful, moving, and timely new song of hope. Downloads (here) benefit the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic.
When the danger at long last is gone,
And peace has returned to this land.
When we can all embrace without fear or disgrace
And all come home safely again.

I hear the thunder, and I am afraid,
Of the darkness that seems not to end.
But then I remember that you are always with me,
And I go back to dreaming again.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Quote of the day

Robert Hendrickson, Rector at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Tucson, Arizona (via Daughter Number Three):
This is an awful man, waving a book he hasn’t read, in front of a church he doesn’t attend, invoking laws he doesn’t understand, against fellow Americans he sees as enemies, wielding a military he dodged serving, to protect power he gained via accepting foreign interference, exploiting fear and anger he loves to stoke, after failing to address a pandemic he was warned about, and building it all on a bed of constant lies and childish inanity.
I can't even bear to look at the photo in question. It turns out that the last refuge of a scoundrel isn't patriotism after all. I'm not religious and I'm not sure I know what "the soul" means, but I know when someone doesn't have one.