Monday, April 06, 2009

Birthday Ramblings

Yes, it's my birthday ... and to spare any suspense, it would be #56 ... gawd.

I took a four-day weekend ... spent Friday touring West Marin and Sonoma counties with Roy and Jim ... got some pix here. My friend Tony put together a little dinner party on Saturday ... very pleasurable. And then today I did something I have done many times on my birthday ... wandered around town, stopping at cafes and reading, ended up in North Beach at City Lights Books and then a black-and-blue filet mignon at a sidewalk table at Calzone on Columbus.

The beef ... I try to eat beef rarely, and when I do I want it to be sublime ... was accompanied by Herodotus. That Herodotus. After another dalliance in late antiquity, I have decided that I should re-read ancient history systematically for the first time since my freshman year at Cal. My friend Ian gave me The Landmark Herodotus for Christmas, and that seems like the perfect way to get back into the ancient mindset. First off, this volume is all of what is great about the new academic history. It is well-produced, critical, and lavish in its resources, and it starts from revisiting all of the commonplaces and shibboleths that have bedeviled history for two centuries. Virtually all of history has been rewritten in the last three decades, so much so that one must very wary when reading old scholarly works.

But Herodotus in this magisterial translation is new.

I am in the early stages, and this concerns the story of Croesus and fall of Lydia. There is a story which concerns one Adrastos; his name means "no escape." He ends up, quite by accident, being a double murderer, and he kills himself on the tomb of Croesus's favored son, Atys, his second victim. The episode is useful psychological situating because Herodotus reminds us through the words of the grieving Croesus that Adrastos is not a murderer, but rather a victim of fate and merely the vehicle of the gods' whims and fancies.

Reading history always requires a certain psychological empathy with mindsets that are utterly foreign to one's own. Again, that is why reading Herodotus is such an excellent re-introduction to reading ancient history. Of course, there is also some sense in which the predilections of the past inform the present ... not in the sense of some coarse rhetoric of crass relevance, but in the sense that nothing human is alien.

So, to be coarse, I got thinking about the notion of being named "No Escape." I tried to tie it to the heartsick undergirding of current era, to whit the fear that somehow the crisis will find me too. Adrastos could not outrun his fate, and I will only know at the end if the fate I am running from will find me ... and whether that will be good or bad. Which again ties us to a moment in Herodotus ... ancient literature is like that ... in which he depicts s meetings of Solon and Croesus in which Croesus more or less demands that Solon accepts that Croesus is the happiest man. Solon's retort, so exquisite, disgruntles Croesus, and puts him in his place. It is a place where we enjoy seeing so many of the greed-riven monsters who have destroyed the world economy:

The man who has great wealth but is unhappy outdoes the fortunate man in only two ways, while the fortunate man outdoes him in many ways. The former is more capable of gratifying his passions and of sustaining himself in adversity, but the fortunate man, although he does not have the same ability to sustain himself in adversity or passion, avoids those by virtue of his good fortune ... but the man who goes through his life with the most blessings and then ends his life mot favorably, he is the man, sire, who rightly wins this title [of most fortunate]. We must look at the end of every matter to see how it will turn out. God shows many people a hint of happiness and prosperity, only to destroy them utterly later. [Strassler, pp22-23; Herodotus 1:32:6 - 9]

Herodotus sees an "end of every matter" ... in the postmodern world we admit of no endings. Instead, I like to talk of pivots. I am actually uninterested in who might be considered the most fortunate, because the most fortunate in our world so often, if not always, are so undeserving and so ungrateful ... some time I will write in a crankier mood than this one of the contorted faces of entitlement and excess that I see in the tonier parts of Menlo Park and Palo Alto when I bicycle around for lunch. And certainly in the current earth shattering crisis, there is evidently no shame, no shame. As the unfortunate burn, the privileged bemoan that they have to cut back on caviar.

Greed, loathing, comeuppance ... nobility, courage, honesty ... eternal themes.

So back to eating filet mignon on Columbus in San Francisco. Earlier I was in a cafe I occasionally frequent ... the Cafe Abir on Divisadero at Fulton ... and there ws a man whose laptop was emblazoned with a sticker that read:

blah, blah, blah ... good point, but fuck you anyway

I laughed, but that is as much a psychological outpost of the era as Herodotus' notin of fate. And as Herodotus' notion of fate made me wonder about the shape of our world to come and my place in it, so this tinpot jerk's finger to the world makes me wonder what happened to my city.

When I arrived here in 1981, and when I visited three times in the late 70s, there was a different odor to San Francisco. Yes, there was a different odor to the world. But San Francisco was still the place that people came to create new tribes, to challenge orthodoxy, to make new realities and to rub out old ones. It's not like that now ... I don't want to be too cranky ... it is now a city of the smug, it is a city of people who like to model for themselves with the city as nothing more than backdrop. "Aren't I cool ... I live in San Francisco ... doesn't my Hummer look good." Well, I am being obnoxious. That said, the city is palpably more shallow. That the electronic revolution happened here is, we assume, natural. But where for many decades the genius of the place was to be found in the irrelevance of the business cycle, San Francisco is now the temple of the business cycle.

And the odor is gone. It seems like everywhere else, only cooler. It seems like what I like to call spaceship tourism ... a real place where a spaceship has landed to suck out the organics and leave behind a mall.

I think I will leave it there. It was a good birthday ... I enjoy wandering alone and speculating more than almost anything else. Tomorrow's maelstrom in the job which I have left aside for four days is amply worth the reflection of wandering and wondering. I do still have that pit-of-the-stomach feeling that things are really bad out there. My fate, to be decided, will be whether it ends up sweet for me. I hope so, and I dedicate myself to making it so. And that is what I learned from this birthday.

[Postscript ... I have had the NCAA final between North Carolina and Michigan State in the background, but the Tarheels are creaming the boys in green; it's boring. Only investment I have is that it is the last time we see the monstrously gorgeous Tyler Hansbrough in college. Never thought I would miss the archly egomaniacal Billy Packer, but his replacement, Mr. Kellogg I think, is the worst of sports color men ... loud but uninformative, repetitive and obvious.]

Photos by Arod, all taken today ... the top is on Columbus in North Beach, San Francisco; second it the Palace of Fine Arts; bottom is from the interior of the Cafe Abir.

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