Gambler, No. 19 [The Broken Arrow]

“Painting, Sir, can illustrate, but it cannot inform.” – Dr. Johnson

 

The wind finally chilled out, so I had no excuse. I steadied the arrow as best I could and lifted the bow, pulling back on the nock and making sure it was lodged nicely into the string. With my left index finger I held the arrowhead, and then, once steady, I pulled back as far as I could with my right arm, lowered my left index finger, thus freeing the arrowhead, aimed, and released. Ten feet in front of me was a light-brown moving box, held down by a stone, stuffed with paper grocery-bags, and decorated with a yellow-green piece of paper on which was a red-orange star: the target. I was ten feet from my target and may as well been a hundred. The star may have been a satellite. It may have been as unhittable as a falling star, as elusive as a black hole. For I not only missed the star; I not only missed the yellow-green paper; I not only missed the light-brown box. But my arrow quickly became its own version of a falling star or meteorite. Like some wooden supernova it exploded upon the stones near the box. Two shafts and several splinters flew in the air, twenty or so feet, and I thought the scene all too telling. Man stands on a precipice. A man may shoot straight in life. He may even shoot at the target. But f he misses by inches, his life, like some Shakespearean tragic-hero, may explode into several pieces.

I

Las Vegas is a work of art. That is, Las Vegas has clear and definable boundaries. It is not like Los Angeles, which sprawls and sprawls and spreads and becomes something impressionistic. It is not like Hollywood, which in a different way spreads and becomes abstract. No. Las Vegas is contained. It resides in a bowl of sorts. It cannot move out; it can only grow up. Los Angeles will never grow up; it will only move out. It will only grow wider, and thus eat more innocent, unsuspecting children. But anyone who has driven to Vegas, especially at night, knows that perhaps the best thing about Las Vegas is that it ends. But the paradox is that it ends because it continues. Las Vegas Boulevard continues pumping, like a heart, even when the body sleeps. But like a heart, its blood, which lines the streets, which is the street, can only reach so far. Like many things this is best perceived from the outside, once a man leaves the town. Once he leaves and looks at Vegas from a distance, a man understands. He sees the whole organism struggling for survival; he reenters and sees he is a lonely cell plodding along, helping it live. But he knows too that what he’s keeping alive is a work of art.

II

We took turns shooting the bow. It had been a couple of years since I’d shot one, and I was a bit rusty. But as the night progressed, I improved. We eventually broke four of the five arrows, but with just one, I was able to hit the box several times in a row, even from about fifteen feet back. I grew so accurate and powerful, that I managed to sink the entire arrow into the box, fletching’s and all, the front half of the shaft sticking out the backside. We lobbied to call it a night on such a shot. We hiked in the cool desert air after we packed up the bows and target safely in the Toyota. We were southwest of town, just at the end of Boulder Highway, off Wagon Wheel Drive. I say we were just outside Vegas, but Vegas ends abruptly. One feels it only takes a step or two to go from decadence to desert. But even in the desert the city could be heard behind us. Cars, drag-racing, dogs barking. And even in the desert the city follows you. As we walked we saw several transformers, which look like mighty metal men. Their hums could be heard easily and seemed a warming, as if they were once men who had watched too much television; men who lived like machines and who became one.

We plodded on a random trail on a ridge above town, the sky darkening above, the city brightening below. A reversal was taking place, almost as if the sun did not set in the west but fell straight down. But as we proceeded, the city was slowly obscured from view by a hill, and we continued toward the dark of a nearby hollow.

III

If one has ever seen a satellite picture of the world at night, he has some notion of what Vegas looks like from its neighboring hills – a vast group of lights against the black. Ever since the first time I saw those satellite pictures as a child, I had a fascination with the west. They call St. Louis the Gateway City, but Kansas City might be more aptly described as the gateway to the west. The interstate between St. Louis and Kansas City is not the west. It’s overpopulated, if anything. But west of Kansas City, one may feel they have stepped into the great unknown, onto a great rolling abyss that goes on and on until he meets the mountains, rides a new landscape, and drops into the everlasting sea. The mere expansiveness, mixed with the emptiness, the loneliness of the west intrigued me. At night in Kansas one may stand atop some prairie hill and imagine how far he must travel before he sees any large cities like Vegas. One feels as if he’s standing on the edge of the world, the edge of existence, looking at a great empty sea, only to come to himself and realize more fully, more truly, that he stands not at the edge but at the crossroads. He stands in the very middle. And if he’s in the middle, he’s both beginning and ending.

Vegas has a similar effect. I looked up at this hill obscuring our view of the city and decided it must be climbed. The view was worth it. The city looks rather more like a town from such a view. The whole of it captured in a glance. By now the stars were coming out and the ground around the city lights was dark. The lights were up against the darkness as if it was a wall; one got the sense that some hand from heaven drew the lines, that an artist had created his work through men and certain lines were not to be crossed or the picture would be blurred. To the northeast, the division was most notable. There it truly looked as if Vegas set on some cliff, as if the lights ended because they had to, as if one more step would be the step of death into some deep cavern. Yet for half a second, I thought not about Vegas but about those satellite pictures from my youth and the stars above. Some stars are actually planets. Some are satellites. Some are close and large. Some distant and faint. We’ve lit up this world now and don’t see as many as we used to. But I can’t help but think that man has, in his infinite and worldly wisdom, reached his hand out to heaven and pulled a few down to make his towns light up at night. I can’t help but think of Vegas as perhaps some larger fallen star. Or maybe, she is merely the shards of a blazing shaft, from the broken arrow of Sagittarius.

Broom Snow
Lied Library,
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
May 24–25, 2016

Painting: "Archer in a Mythical Landscape"
Italian School,
Oil on canvas, c. 1780

Trifler No. 12 [On the Additional Joys of Cycling with a Word on Coffee Brewing*]

“Buy a bicycle in Maidstone to visit an aunt in Dover, and you will see Canterbury Cathedral as it was built to be seen.” –G.K. Chesterton

The joys of the cycle are akin to the joys of the seasons. With each turn, each revolution, one finds them the same and, somehow, different; always old hat and yet always surprising; growing even as they remain the same; predictable but begging to be conjectured upon and discussed; a routine that grows more novel as it grows more engrained.

***********

I begin each morning in the kitchen, measuring forty-seven grams of coffee beans, pouring boiling water through a dry filter, swirling and dumping the water into the sink, filling the kettle with another twenty-five and a half ounces and flipping it on. While this heats, I turn the grinder crank and listen to the beans break down and smell their newly-released oils. The parody between water and beans is such that, if I have measured correctly, my grinding and the kettle’s boiling end in unison. Of course, one does not pour boiling water over coffee. The boiled water must sit for about ten seconds to cool to brewing temp. I allow it to do this and then begin the slow process of turning one liquid into another.

My labour does not end here, for the manner in which one pours—placement, speed—has much to do with the result. One should allow the coffee to foam and bloom but not to erupt onto the sides of the filter. One should also remove the grounds before all the water has left them to keep out bitterness. When the filter is removed, I swirl the coffee one last time to even out the flavour. The whole process takes twenty minutes, and I am left with about twenty ounces of coffee—enough for my wife (who will not be up for another hour) and I and no more.

I began this more intensive process by necessity. Cambridge is not bursting with drip-makers, and its hard water—we have heard—will cake and freeze up any such machine within a year. At first the pour-over was a chore, inefficient, inexact, and inconsistent, for I was the brewing machine, and I am inefficient, inexact, and inconsistent. The coffee I produced varied widely and wildly. A slight delay or hesitation could minimise extraction, and a hurried step could burn or wash out the grounds. I had to learn—and I have learned—to brew in rhythm, to hone my measurements, to look to the quality of my water and my beans. Unlike dead machines, I have acquired skill, improved my function, and, in doing so, have improved my morning cup. But, more importantly, I have, through daily attention to the work, learned to rest in the task, and, even more, to make the task part of my rest. Were I to skip a step, or, being in a hurry, whip up a cup of instant, my day would lose a portion of its rest by losing a portion of its ritual. It has taken months of minor perseverance, but the work has become the pleasure—deep pleasure inaccessible by any other route. A quick cup of coffee has its own joys, but they are not the joys of the cup I brew.

Cheese makers tell me the same holds true of their product; there is no shortcut in ageing a stilton or a mozzarella, no substitute for time that equals time. And I have come to believe that something similar occurs on a bike. Just as cheese cannot be aged any faster than the clock can tick, a cup of rich coffee cannot be made in one step, and eight hours’ sleep cannot be crammed into six, the pleasures of cycling cannot be accessed on a vehicle any faster, any louder, or any more confined than a bicycle. This is especially true, incidentally, of the moped, which is the orc of the two wheeled machine—the twisted ancestor of a perfect form that whines and screams and zooms and drowns out and asks nothing of its rider save that he put his life in serious jeopardy for the minimal benefit of going twenty-miles-per-hour more than he could on a cycle. And it is the moped’s driver’s just punishment that he must confine himself to the sludge-stream car lane, which, in the city of Cambridge, usually means resigning himself to a later arrival time than the man on the cycle.

That aside, I have learned to rest on my bike, even while I am straining. I have come to forget the pump of my legs even while I am warmed and energized by their motion and effort. There is a sense in which I can rest more fully while rolling down Mill Lane or up Castle Hill than I can while sitting in some deep chair or lying in bed. The ritual work of moving the bike down well known streets, sidewalks, alleys, and lanes feels familiar, generative, and comfortable. 

Out our window I often see white-headed seasoned citizens on bikes seventy years younger than they, working their way up Carlyle Road at my walking pace. They can no longer rage around as I tend to do, but they continue to cut their old lines down the streets, and, I imagine they find a slow, thick pleasure and even rest in their riding that I will not know for years and years—and perhaps never know, if I re-enter the world of the personal automobile and renew my negotiations with fire and inhuman speed.

Now, the bike has its inconveniences, but, I have found, most of them, with time and a dash of perspective, become new, bracing pleasures. A thorough soaking between Christ’s College and Corner House means a sudden, deep appreciation for the cup of tea, dry clothes, and spot by the living room radiator that await me. Shopping bags that hang from arms and back and handlebars brought safely home make a trip to the store a kind of challenge of balance and agility. The inability to shoot down to London or up to Manchester or over to that other university city means an increased knowledge and love of Cambridge and its appendage-towns.

*********

In my Manhattan days, when I exercised regularly at the Kansas State rec, my workouts were improved exponentially by the presence of other gym regulars. I never learned their names, but I gave them names—“Lady Mary,” “Sweat-Pants” among others—and grew so I enjoyed their company and imagined they enjoyed mine. I would report to my wife if Shoulders was gone, or if Lady Mary stopped texting enough to pump out even one set on the quad machine. We were a kind of headphoned, silent community, forced together by circumstance.**

Something similar now seems to be occurring as I live and cycle my accustomed routes in Cambridge. The same circles of teenagers dot Jesus Green; the same street minstrels play and sing. The same characters pass me without a hello day after day. And yet I know them and some of their movements and attitudes, and furthermore I like them, generally.

The other day I was pedalling up Jesus Green toward the river, a grocery bag in one hand and a handlebar in the other. I was in no hurry and looked around me as I went. There, to my right was the group of frisbee players that often haunts that part of the park. To my left was my old friend, the river, and up ahead was the man my wife and I have begun to call “The Walker.” Almost any day you choose, you will find him holding a paperback and striding with long, lanky steps around a Cambridge garden or green, reading furiously. He follows no apparent pattern, and, like some errant mower, cuts no straight row. This day, he was pacing Jesus Green and snaked across the path in front of me twice before I overtook him. And as I glided by, I felt, perhaps for the first time since our move, that sense of silent community I had built in the rec. I knew that my rickety blue bike and I were members of that community of unacknowledged friends. I thought back to all those years driving around Kansas in my car when I was a community of one, packed and sealed away from those that drove the same highways and streets: warm, comfortable, dry, mobile, but unseen and unseeing.

The Christ’s College Gym is a windowless dungeon into which few descend, and very few regularly descend. So I suppose I have lost the quiet community of my gym, but, on my bike, I have gained the quiet community of my city.

R. Eric Tippin
In my academic gown
Christ’s College, Cambridge
25 May 2016
Transcribed at Corner House, Cambridge on the same date

Image:
"Leamington"
Oil on Canvas - 1940
Stephen Bone

*This essay is a response to Broom Snow’s Gambler No. 18 [On the Extended Joys of Cycling] and is part of an ongoing conversation between the Trifler and the Gambler on the subject of cycling. 

** Bryn Homuth tracks a similar phenomenon—though in far more eloquent terms—in his Hobbler No. 6 [On Hunting]

Trifler No. 11 [On Grilling]

“We grapple with grease-flecked / patties and spice-rubbed spit, breathe / a new human flame, struck to life / in the chest’s catacombs” –Bryn Homuth

When a man finds himself living in a matchbox-sized apartment with no yard, across the street from a park guarded day and night against open fires of any kind by razor-toothed city ordinances, searching out a place to grill beef burgers on a Sunday afternoon has for him the savour of a desperate quest. The street is an attractive alternative, but the peril of immanent death and/or bodily injury outweighs the natural practicalities and public spirit of the thing. The sidewalk, though far more safe and practical on the surface, has a certain distasteful middleness to it that will not do—like sitting in the lobby for a chamber music performance. As I pondered the trouble I could see only two other options: grill inside our apartment or throw myself on the mercy of our neighbours and grill on the bricked and bare parking slabs next to our building. The Corner House attorney general,* vetoed the first option before floor debate even began, so I stepped out our front door to test the charity of our neighbours.

I began with our nearest neighbour on Carlyle—a woman in her nineties. I rang the doorbell. She answered. I introduced myself, and when she understood our dilemma she said, “Well, I don’t own any of those parking spots, but, you know, I do like the smell of a barbecue.” To my shame, this was the first time I had met this good lady, and after speaking with her for a few more minutes, it became clear to me that she is a local treasure—full of memory and the street’s many changes. She remembers when our building was a shop and when the plane trees lining the park were half their present height. She punted the river before brutalist monstrosities began to pepper its banks. She walked down King’s street before Christ’s College scarred the skyline with the typewriter building. She recalls a time when Alexandra Gardens was not a refuge for slow-strolling drug peddlers and hooligan night-knockers and drunks who use one’s wife’s bike basket as a trash bin. She lived here in the days of Lewis. 

I asked her if she attended the university and what her College was. “Newnham,” she answered. I offered her my late congratulations. She smiled and said, “But it wasn’t difficult to get in in those days . . . if your father had money, and I suppose mine did.” After an agreement to have tea within the week, we parted, and, somehow, I felt I had all the justification I needed for grilling on that slab. So, grabbing a folding chair, our bucket grill, charcoal, matches, and a book on poetic form, I began again the ancient ritual of kindling fire under meat.

                                                       *************

On three occasions since I arrived in Cambridge, I have watched and have listened as British academics have grilled American academics, and the process is not unlike a barbecue. Both the grillers and the grilled grow red and hot, and, by the end of it, the arguments of those grilled (inevitably burnt) have a certain charred, carbonized brittleness to them while the grillers themselves remain generally unchanged. I thought about this as I sat alone by my tiny barbecue, listening to its intermittent sizzle and waving away smoke when the breeze shifted.

Maybe it was the smell of the rub and the grease mingling or the charcoal, but my thoughts suddenly took a turn. I thought then how I missed Kansas and how this small grill was only a weak shadow of other, larger grills filled with burgers and brats and skewered vegetables, presided over by men holding cans of local beer and trading puns. I thought how the rickety back door of our Manhattan home used to slam unevenly like it might fall off the hinges or crumble every time I ran back into the house to check on the girls or retrieve a forgotten ingredient. I remembered the mosquitoes and how the grease-smoke of the grill (and Off ‘Deep Woods’) would drive them away. I remembered feeling warmth upon warmth when I opened the hood to temp the meat. I remembered the the scoldings from the women-folk if we did not melt the cheese over the patties before removing them and placing them under foil. I remembered my sense in those days that I was one griller among many; I knew that Manhattan from Bluemont Hill on a spring Friday evening looked like some civil war army camp and smelled like heaven. I remembered our prayer on those evenings: ‘Lord of the harvest and Maker of every animal—You who turned water into wine and fed five thousand by breaking one loaf and filleting one fish, thank You for the meal before us.” I remembered the laughter at table. I remembered the linger of the smell on clothes and skin.

*************

Carlyle Road is one of the great pedestrian and cyclist freeways in Cambridge, for it connects the City Centre to the northern necklace towns, and—what is more important to the cyclist—is generally avoided by roaring, fiery machines; they prefer roads with numbers for names. Our road is the small-end of a funnel that siphons walkers and bikers onto Jesus Green and, through that, into downtown. Many pass through, but few stay. This Sunday afternoon was no exception, and, as I sat there, filled with memories, trying to read my book, I noticed that most passers-by were noticing me. Some smiled. Some looked quizzical. Some laughed. One child, filled with wonder, said ‘what is he doing?’ Another child said, “I like meat.” A few looked scornful. One woman, catching a whiff, wrinkled her nose, turned to her husband, and said, just a bit too loud, ‘stinks . . .” I had never considered for a moment that charcoal under beef could smell like anything but gameday, summer evenings, and joy. But I was not in Kansas, and these were not Manhatters. Loneliness hit me. I felt like an alien. I felt like a stranger within the gates. I felt like Daniel in Babylon.

And yet, after the first shock-waves of cultural scorn, this misunderstanding, this near-hostility, this alienness began to have a different, slow-burning, wonderful effect. I looked down at my sad little grill, puffing away, doing all I asked without a complaint, and I was thankful for it and for my folding chair—we three all alone in a bare-brick, three-walled enclosure somewhere in Cambridge, providing lunch for two homesick Kansans.

It was only then that I thought, perhaps this is not a shadow of those other grills and grillings but a participation in them—a renewal now of the ritual we observed then. Perhaps.

The grill sizzled back, “yesss.”

R. Eric Tippin
Corner House, Cambridge
19 May, 2016

Image:
"Still Life"
Oil on Canvas - Date Unknown
Germain Théodore Ribot (1845-1893)

*This eminent person of which I speak also happens to head up the Corner House Ways & Means Committee, the Department of Justice, and the Food & Drug Administration.