Monday, April 30, 2018

On Picnics

(Written Saturday evening.)

Though it seems early in the season, the comparative warmth, the sunshine, the open water showing on the lake, and a collection of comestibles in the refrigerator whining about perishability combined to persuade me toward a picnic. So Stella the Wonder Dog, Clarence the Corkscrew and I talked about the possibilities. Clarence elected to stay in; he's a servant type who, once his work is done opening a bottle, retreats to avoid intruding into what might be private conversations. So we opened the bottle indoors and Stella the Wonder Dog and I wandered down to the beach, where earlier in the day I had positioned a picnic table for just such an occasion, not at all realizing I'd be the one taking advantage. But so it was.

We were joined for the first ten or twelve minutes by an hypothermic muskrat who sat motionless on the edge of the lake ice. At first I thought he must be dead, he sat so still, but when Stella the WD decided to go swimming, he surreptitiously slipped underwater and escaped.

The comestibles were really outstanding, and they were not joking about this being perfect for a picnic. To wit:

On the plate you will observe a bit of sharp cheddar to the left, homemade venison summer sausage center, BellaVitano cheese laced with Merlot on the right, some Kalamata-olive-imbued flatbread, and on the far end, a couple squares of Ghirardelli Sea Salt Chocolate. Not bad, and a little Alamos Malbec to wash things down.

I remembered about the time I started eating that I have music on my phone, and so our whole ensemble was joined by, among others, John Mayer, Needtobreathe and Ella Fitzgerald, and a fifteen minute (no exaggeration) live track of Jesus Culture singing about how God won't relent until he has the entirety of us.*

Plus there's a book of essays which I was recently given, and it's the best collection of such that I've read in a very long time, both disturbing and delightful as essays must be if they are to be worthwhile. In fact, while the I sat sampling cheeses and sausage and flatbreads for an indulgently long time, my attention was primarily diverted by an essay on the humor of Kafka and how difficult it is to teach it to college students. So I sat pondering quotes like,
"It's not for nothing that Kafka spoke of literature as 'a hatchet with which we chop at the frozen seas inside us.' Nor is it an accident that the technical achievement of great short stories is often called compression -- for both the pressure and the release are already inside the reader. What Kafka seems able to do better than just about anyone else is to orchestrate the pressure's increase in such a way that it becomes intolerable at the precise instant it is released."
One of the things I've learned about this particular essayist -- Wallace is his name -- is that you have to, have to read the footnotes. In great detail. Most of the relevant content, and the vast majority of the humor, is contained in the footnotes. And it's delightful.

So after finishing a somber reflection on the humor of Kafka, I moved on to an essay on lexicography. And a few steps inside said essay, there was a footnote to the term "historical context" which read as follows:
"Sorry about this phrase; I hate this phrase, too. This happens to be one of those very rare times when 'historical context' is the phrase to use and there is no equivalent phrase that isn't even worse (I actually tried 'lexico-temporal backdrop' in one of the middle drafts, which I think you'll agree is not preferable.) 
That footnote is immediately followed, in very small type at the bottom of the page, by the all-caps word
And the following further quote:
"The above ¶ is motivated by the fact that this reviewer nearly always sneers and / or winces when he sees a phrase like 'historical context' deployed in a piece of writing and thus hopes to head off any potential sneers / winces from the reader here, especially in an article about felicitous usage. One of the little personal lessons I've learned in working on this essay is that being chronically inclined to sneer / wince at other people's usage tends to make me chronically anxious about other people's sneering / wincing at my usage. It is, of course, possible that this bivalence is no news to anybody but me; it may be just a straightforward instance of Matt. 7:1's thing about 'Judge not lest ye be judged.' In any case, the anxiety seems worth acknowledging up front."
The chocolate was delightful, and the hint of sweetness in the Malbec really eliminated the pressing need for further dessert, so I'm not sure why I'm even thinking about frozen blueberries and cream. We'll see.

Picnics, as everyone knows, are a matter of extremes. They are the most romantic possible meal on God's green earth, partly because they are usually enjoyed reclining right on God's green earth with perhaps a blanket for insulation or for the illusion of cleanliness. (I know I was cheating by using a picnic table, but since the frost has only just gone out, the lake is still full of ice floes and hypothermic muskrats, and the grass is only beginning to think about turning green, I hope I might be forgiven.) Picnics are that odd combination of romance and ants, fine wine, sand in your potato salad, fresh fruits and vegetables and pan-fried chicken. So I felt like I had accomplished something to get Kafka, Stella the Wonder Dog, a good bottle of Argentinian wine, a handful of excellent musicians, and St. Matthew all into the conversation.

 About this time, Stella the WD decided to see if the ice would support her weight. She waded out to an ice floe -- the open water did in fact re-freeze this morning, though the weather service said the temperature only reached a low of thirty-five degrees, but the laws of physics being what they are someone was wrong and I don't think it was the lake -- and clambered aboard her own very large paddle board, sans paddles -- and proceeded to wade off the far edge into about five feet of water. Stella stands about two feet tall and couldn't reach the bottom and she thought maybe this would be the end of her, as she couldn't get her back feet aboard her ice floe. I was more than a little concerned I -- the dog-sitter -- might be ethically compelled to wade in and rescue her, which then got me wondering, would the floe bear my weight, though I'm probably three times Stella's tonnage? Fascinating thought ... interrupted by Stella finally making a herculean effort to get herself up onto the ice again, shook it off like a good Labrador, and proceeded to repeat the whole process as if for the sake of scientific veracity or something.

I realized that for a Lab, this is fun, and went back to Kafka and BellaVitano.

Extremes. When the wind went down, or switched to the southeast so I was sitting in a sheltered nook, the sun beat on my polarfleece jacket like a sledgehammer and I began to doze in the warmth. Turn the wind a few degrees southwest so it was coming in off the ice in the bay, or bring that breeze up above about ten miles per hour, and suddenly I was feeling a kinship with that poor, suffering muskrat and thinking about going inside to find a blanket and a fire.

The whole ordeal of this first picnic of the year -- well, truth be told, second, as a large portion of my plate was provided by leftovers of a picnic earlier in the week consumed in the car, truth be told, and I'm not sure if that really counts but it was in fact consumed while looking out at a rather beautiful wilderness area so that's got to count for something -- was nicely summed up at the conclusion of the essay about Kafka:
"It's not that students don't 'get' Kafka's humor but that we've taught them to see humor as something you get -- the same way we've taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home. It's hard to put into words, up at the blackboard, believe me. You can tell them that maybe it's good they don't 'get' Kafka. You can ask them to imagine his stories as all about a kind of door. To envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don't know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally, the door opens ... and it opens outward -- we've been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch."** 
I hope you get to enjoy some excellent, romantic, messy, delightful picnics this season that get you thinking about the paradoxes and the extremes of life, and celebrating all of it.

* One might legitimately ask why I keep this unreasonably lengthy song on a favorite playlist. This is in fact a question I've asked myself many times. Thing is, if the song is True, and God in fact won't relent until he has every last shred of us (an oft repeated refrain in the song) then it might be important to be reminded of this. And so I have kept the song in my rotation precisely to remind myself of the truth that God wants every last bit of me, even the part that resents a fifteen minute long song.

** "Das ist komisch" is German for "that is comical."


  1. I wonder if you are footnoting correctly here? And given your length of study and my tendency to be wrong, I probably should just keep silent and acquiesce* to your obviously superior training, but something bugs me about this so I will ask anyway. Should the footnote mark come after the quotation mark? Doesn't that indicate you are footnoting the entire quotation? If the "Das ist komish" was in the middle of the quote would you still position mark outside of the quotes? It just seems that the mark should be more closely attached to that which it is commenting on.

  2. * Yes if you must know I did have to google acquiesce with speech to text in order have any idea of how to spell it. vade ad Deum my friend.

  3. This is why blogging is such good exercise for me -- nobody reads my journals (thank goodness) and holds me accountable for such things! There are a number of issues here, not least the one you mention. Running off to edit some things now. Thanks!! (And one should never, never be embarrassed about looking up words.)

  4. And thinking more about it, I'm keeping the asterisks outside the quotes as the greater evil in this case seems to me to be making it seem like the asterisks are part of the quote itself, but I've revised the text of the footnote to clarify what I'm referencing. Ironically, Wallace's article quoted in the middle of my post is a review of a manual of English usage.

  5. Stumbled across your blog and can totally relate. Read several posts and wish I could ponder as you do! Your Kafka, chocolate, & cheese (sans venison sausage) picnic sounds heavenly. Will try to replicate once it is warmer (too stinkin' cold yet for me). Father God's best to you brother! - A fellow Introvert

  6. Great to hear from you! Always fun to find a fellow picnicker and ponderer.