My night with Colbert, my week with Montaigne

It was fitting that one man I met on Monday night believes that reality has “the structure of a dream.” He was an eccentric  mid-40 something traveling across the country: from Spokane, Washington, down through Texas, and up and over, by way of New York City, to Cape Cod. Along the way, he was being hosted by strangers and acquaintances. His notion of a conversation seemed to consist of frequent blinking, not looking up to speak unless a question sauntered his way, a keen excitement about raising his own chicken come springtime, and eating vegetarian paella at a Cuban restaurant in the West Village despite not being a vegetarian or regularly eating carbs. Another dinner acquaintance seated in front of me, a man who lived with his boyfriend in Chelsea, one who was also a stranger before that night, spoke about the virtues of raw milk from Pennsylvania and monologued for long stretches about Twin Oaks Coop, a communal living arrangement in Virginia that sounded about as bland as the tofu it made and as tedious as the hammocks that were in the process of being fazed out. To me, it seemed a society of Eloi.

On Wednesday night, I sat in the second row of the filming of The Colbert Report. Romney had just beaten Gingrich to take Florida. Of the 50 people seated in the audience, approximately 4 were pregnant, 3 seated next to each other. All were women. We had waited for about an hour in a warm antechamber and then were schooled repeatedly in the art of being a good audience. It wasn’t important that we thought the jokes funny; laugh first and on cue regardless. Dane Cook, the show’s appointed comedian fluffer, talked about the pregnant women (“my mind is blown”) and suggested that I looked like a South American futboler. Goal?

(At the Peruvian restaurant my friend and I ate at later, the server pronounced my accent Argentinian. For the life of me, I couldn’t think of the name of the season that comes after winter but before summer. Spring, I know. Which was the word I was trying to call to mind in order to describe el sentido of the complimentary dessert.)

When the Italian guy waves the white funnel and counts down to 3, stand up and cheer and generally go crazy. The real Steven took questions from the audience before the show began. Suitable questions were suggested, ones about Lord of the Rings and musical interests, and witty answers were provided on cue. Everything, in fact, was scripted and on cue, except the moments when Colbert conferred between cuts with his coaches and, grippingly, when an interviewee, a young black woman who grew up on the south side of Chicago, sat in a chair, alone with her hands.

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If there was absurdity this week, there was also fecundity, sincerity, the splendor of life naively felt and often tweeted. The nights were marvels:

Biking in NYC around 10pm: such quietness, such equipoise. No more noise. Only: yellow lines, yellow lights, & the moon fair over the water.

As were the mornings:

The morning sky’s palette: graying-bluing-white.

And the Park:

Central Park: 50s, sunny, springy. Woman: blonde, striding, leash in hand. Spaniel: lagging, wagging, breathless, squinty. All golden all.

Central Park is a gymnasium for gleeful birdsong: an early annunciation of renewal. Tweet away, friends. I’ll listen.

And, above all, the pigeons:

The birch tree like dendrites, the pigeon haunching feline.

The pigeons all flutter to the tree, all come from different directions, as if they’d all heard: ‘It’s time for dinner!’

When I look up, the pigeons hurl themselves off the branch and into sideways flight and the branch they’ve left springs erratically.

My days were like virtuous spirals.

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This week, I received a chapbook on cows with a note saying that the cows reminded the sender of my posts on pigeons. No, I had not met (in her words) “the charming beasts,” but yes we are now becoming better acquainted. Moo back. I read more about them–the cows, not the pigeons–while standing in line somewhere between Hell’s Kitchen and the Upper West Side, a no man’s land of luxury car showcases and concrete and bling where The Colbert Report is filmed. Cows stand still. Also they move together and apart.

Also this week, I got a black rock painted like henna flora that I’ve placed about 4 inches from a goose-colored beeswax candle scooped out like an egg cup after a single burning. Around the middle of the week, I learned how to pronounce a Hindi name while gazing with climbing fingers at the dancerly script.

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This week, I re-read Montaigne’s final essay, “On Experience.” I read, “Nor is there anything more striking about Socrates than his finding the time when he was old to learn how to dance and to play instruments, maintaining that it was time well spent…. Nor did he refuse to play five-stones with the boys nor to run about with them astride a hobby-horse. And he did it with good grace: for Philosophy says that all activities are equally becoming in a wise man….” I read, “As for me, then, I love life and cultivate it as it has pleased God to vouchsafe it to us.” I read, “It is an accomplishment, absolute and as it were God-like, to know how to enjoy our being as we ought.” Before death, Montaigne managed to embrace the whole of himself.

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(Do you know that one of the most popular things I’ve written to date is a blog on The Snowy Day? Maybe you did because you see it, like a Patricia Cornwell novel, always under Top Posts. Friends, a short tutorial: if you don’t want something to remain the most popular thing you’ve written to date, or possibly ever, it would be wise not to keep mentioning the name on the website where it appears. That’s just SEO common sense 2.0 101. Philosophy says that all activities are equally becoming…)

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On the back of an envelope signed by JBH, along the diagonal line running from top left to bottom right, I wrote, “I have written notes this week about nearly everything under the sun. I am reviewing Gopkin’s book on winter even though it is balmy spring already. I have posted meditations on education (in favor), choice (not so keen), and yea-saying (yup). I am smiling as I call to mind Seneca’s story about Julius Canus’s final lines to his companion in the face of death. (Funny. More anon.)

“I screw [no, the hard-to-read word is seem–AT] by the turns of the day: the sunlight at dawn, the first apartment lights turned on in apartments at the first sign of dusk. 5 p.m. The traffic is noiseless speechless then.”

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Conversations I had this week covered vast savannas: a winter trip to the Arctic Circle in search of respite and calm (canceled); another about “being stuck” and first memories of rainy windows and the color green; another about love and respect; another about third options; one via email about public bios (notes in the margin); one about reticence and neighborliness; a Google Doc invite reply about awkwardness sometimes being a good thing, a chance to reset; a conversational aside about Calvin turning on the light and finding friends about the room; a loving exchange about music and children. During the past week, I’ve been told on separate occasions and by very different people that a gift economy is “very nutty.” Huh.

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Two parallel experiences opened and closed this week like a spiraling circle. On Monday afternoon at New York Public Library, I saw a Spanish-speaking woman struggling to print off a document. She spoke English well, but I wasn’t sure how well. It was self-evident that she was stuck. Would you like some help? The only difficult question was how much and in what way to help her. Lead her? Show her? Let her do it but follow along? I went with the guided tour approach.  First we puzzled out how to get the pdf file to print (not so easy, it turns out, given the security restrictions), then walk over to the machine where you can purchase the print card and put money on it, and then walk over to the print station where you can, you know.

“I just moved here. New Yorkers are so friendly,” she says.

On Friday afternoon, while I was walking out of NYPL, I noticed a young mother trying, unsuccessfully, to finagle her baby stroller up the stairs without waking the sleeping baby. The baby is wrapped in a papoose and sleeping. Her other child, at the top of the stairs, is giddy. I pause and turn to the mother. Would you like some help? Yes. I put down my shoulder bag in which I’ve put a bag of carrots next to Edith Pearlman’s book of short stories. I look confused, as if I might break something or some little creature. How can I help? She gestures to the front end (the stroller is facing backward and docked at the first step), and we coordinate our lifting so that the baby is raised up the flight of steps with good grace. The baby is still asleep as the mother and older child watch the yellow lights of the elevator come down.

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