Friday, September 7, 2012


"[A]nd especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."

"Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage … yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment."

When we first moved to San Francisco we lived in a furnished rental house which initially seemed charming to me and then within a short time seemed to me to be a monument to the wide variety of things that exist, and to the insanity of trying to possess them.  The owners cleaned out the house for months before we moved in but even so it was filled with so many things that required my attention, and because we had just moved across the country and I was pretty unhappy about it, the form of attention I gave those things was to hate them.

Near the end of our year there, I wrote:

If you were to write a book about the house we’re living in, you wouldn’t write it about us. We’re the interlopers. We’re the symbols of a new age, an age without poetry and imagination. We didn’t rescue the house, this very yellow house, from the wrecking ball and nurse it back to health. We haven’t wrapped ourselves in furs and done business in the icy wastes of northern China and eastern Siberia. We haven’t searched the markets of Iranian towns for little treasures that we later misplace somewhere in the kitchen cabinets. We haven’t entertained members of famous orchestras on a piano that is short three keys. We haven’t made or lost great fortunes, and no injustice, that I can recall, has been visited on us. We want to be able to get our cars in and out of their spots without having to negotiate about it, and we’d like our security deposit back. No, if you were going to write a book about this house, you’d write it about our landlords, and the lives they have led, the great deeds that they have done, and all the things that have run through their fingers, and, even in escaping them, left their mark.

There were Chinese urns by the fireplaces, and white silk couches, and on the floor next to one of the white silk couches a jagged piece of glass as big as your head.  Commissioned tapestries hung upstairs and down, living and dining room were ringed with high shelves holding a significant collection of artistic glass dishes, chandeliers twinkled in every room, and there was nowhere to go to escape the paintings, a number of which had been painted, although (pardon me for noticing this) not always to completion, by the owners themselves.  Users of the ground-floor powder room shared it with a couple of brass fish which I rather liked, actually, as well as a fake tree, ceramic wall tiles that depicted some kind of scene, and a magazine stand filled with auction catalogs from the late 1980s.  Thumbing through those catalogs revealed that certain items had been circled and, occasionally, annotated admiringly, acquisitively, “Good price for this.”  Had those things been bought, and were they somewhere in the house with us?  There were so many things in the house that you could  miss things, you could almost, for example, not notice an Austrian ceramic oven the size of my older son standing decorously in the corner of the kitchen.  If you did notice it, and looked inside, you would find a small brochure about hand-made Austrian ceramic ovens, unfortunately in German.

So we moved to an unfurnished house and had our things delivered.  When we did that we discovered that the house was a little small for all of our things, particularly our books, which we had to keep in boxes in the little room off the garage where David has also set up an exercise bike, and where we may try to cram in John’s drum kit, when we buy it next week.  We had been here a year when I went down there looking for Moby Dick, and it took me a half hour of slicing through packing tape with a key to find it.

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