Wednesday, November 04, 2009

`Infinite Cubbies'

Much of my childhood was spent in bowling alleys though I’ve never bowled a game. My parents were serious bowlers and belonged to leagues in an age when bowling was a national pastime. My father’s team won a city-wide championship in 1956 and I remember the day half a century ago when Yorktown Lanes opened. It’s been nearly that long since I entered a bowling alley but that changed Monday evening when I took my younger sons to Sunny Villa Lanes (which sounds like the name of a “retirement community”) for a Cub Scout-sponsored bowling party.

I suppose it’s possible to have felt more out-of-place than I did – perhaps at a PLO rally – but the boys enjoyed themselves and my six-year-old threw a strike and bowled the top score in the first game. Fortunately, some of the other adults were seasoned keglers so I sat at the counter and read one of the books I ordered last week with a birthday gift-card, Josef Pieper’s Guide to Thomas Aquinas – a brief (160 pages plus notes) account of the “Dumb Ox” by the German Catholic philosopher. I’ve already read his Leisure, the Basis of Culture, and Pieper has a sympathetic grip on my imagination.

In the Aquinas book he asks “What do people mean when they say `similar?’” Aquinas, Pieper notes, insists that words conform to usage, to “the multiplicity of actual possibilities for the employment of a word.” Thus, Aquinas states it is impossible to say a father is “similar” to his son. He writes:

“…it becomes clear that the concept of similarity contains something different from what we would be led to suspect by that apparently so exact definition, namely, an element of derivation, descent, origin.”

This sparked some thoughts about writing in general and blogging in particular. For some of us, “similarity” implies a natural series of associative linkages that can be triggered by anything and that possess no “element of derivation, descent, origin.” Rather, they are linked synaptically, in the brain, as evocative memories. For example:

Mention of Yorktown Lanes immediately reminds me of the miniature golf course I managed for three summers while in college. The course was behind the bowling alley. Thinking of the golf course reminds me of its shed-like clubhouse, where I could sit by the cash register, hand out balls and clubs, and read Proust for the first time all day long. The memory begins subdividing in many directions, spawning many similarities – the acne that appeared that summer on my chest, the smell of wet swim suits, the sounds of tennis balls from the courts on the other side of the fence, sweeping the grass I had mowed that morning off the hazards and the Zeppelin raid on Paris. Such things, of course, are only idiosyncratically similar. In short, I’m taking too long to define “the intersection of books and life.”

When I got home from school on Tuesday, after spending much of the day thinking about such things, I read a new essay by Kay Ryan, “Marin County, Sort Of,” that dovetailed pleasingly with these thoughts. Ryan’s essay begins as an anecdote about walking along a country road, looking at litter, and turns into an essay in applied epistemology. What interests her are scraps of litter, incomplete waste, and the way she tries to assemble them like the pieces of a scattered jigsaw puzzle: “…I’m interested in the life in shards, among shards, between shards, shard-to-shard.” She continues:

“The first scrap meant nothing to me, but my brain on its own seems to have believed that one thing may later connect to another thing, and this built-in autonomic faith apparently keeps all the bits animated. Which is to say, the brain anticipates significance; it doesn’t know which edge may in fifty yards knit to which other edge, so everything is held, charged with a subliminal glitter along its raw sides.”

Ryan is one of those rare poets I might actually enjoy meeting. She says more elegantly and succinctly what I was trying say by way of bowling, Aquinas and miniature golf. Obviously, Ryan is describing her idiosyncratic method for assembling a poem, just as I was trying to say how this blog manages to get written every day. Let’s give her the final word:

“I like the retroactiveness—or retro-attractiveness—of this process, and I like what it reveals about the mind: that it is cheerfully storing so much all the time, generating infinite cubbies each with its single broken or torn fragment waiting for a match. The whole thing seems so optimistic, as if the mind on its own believes that things are going to fit together.”


ken kurp said...

On the site where Yorktown Lanes was built used to stand two houses. These houses were moved in toto to new locations about a mile away.

Last Sunday while on an early morning walk I passed by them and reminisced about many years ago losing a certain anatomical fruit in one of them.
So to quote Ezekiel "Grab your balls lets go bowling".

An Anxious Anglican said...

Great post. I just had the good fortune of meeting Kay Ryan at a reading at the Library of Congress - a wonderful conversationalist and great wit. I believe that she is "going on the road" with some readings in connection with one (or more) of her LoC programs. Check the net for a location near you!