A Possible Owl

possible owlFor as long as I have lived across the street from Fort Tryon Park (now going on two years), I have hoped to spot an owl there. There must be owls, but they are probably difficult to find. They probably nest out of sight, way off in the hidden trees.

But yesterday, as I started walking up the hill, I saw a bird that looked tantalizingly  owl-like from a distance. I took the picture to the left. It seems too round and large to be another sort of bird (such as a falcon); also, it was almost twilight, a possible time for an owl to be out.

The best part was looking and looking and trying to figure out the form. I thought that if I got to the other side, where I could see the bird from the front, I would know more. But that never happened; once I got there, the bird had flown away. So I have no choice but to “accept the mystery” (to quote from A Serious Man) and keep watching for more owls. Now I will watch more sharply, knowing that I might have seen an owl before and might see one again.

I was left afterward thinking about how much of our lives we spend discerning forms. Is that person in the distance who I think it is, or not? (I am rather bad at face recognition, so I sometimes end up staring at strangers.) Is the peach at the supermarket ripe enough to be eaten today? One can squeeze and smell  it–but one must also know the particular kind of peach.

Or consider language. Is the Hebrew word for “silver” or “money” pronounced “kesef” or “kasef”? You can’t tell from the spelling, unless there are vowel markings; the pronunciation will depend on the word’s syntactic location. If it occurs at the end of the verse or at the etnachta (semicolon-like division), it will be “kasef,” the pausal form; otherwise it will be “kesef.” So, to know the sounds, one must look past the word itself.

Then music: When listening to a piece with which I am familiar  (but which I do not know by heart), I find myself anticipating and questioning the structures: Is the second theme coming after this diminuendo? Does the oboe’s solo extend beyond the underlying phrase? It isn’t that I pose these questions in words—usually they’re without words—but I’m making sense of the structure all the same.

Animals do this kind of thing too. There was a loud, many-birded chirping outside just now, and Minnaloushe raised her head, apparently noticing something interesting in the sound. Other street sounds don’t call her attention at all. But then, for whatever reason, she decided to return to her nap. If instead she had heard a can being opened, she would have rushed to the kitchen.

So a great deal of the mind’s work consists of figuring out what things are, which involves distinguishing them from other and similar things. This is more than a matter of sorting into categories; it requires perceiving things right up to their edges, right up to the point where they stop being that thing and turn into something else.

That is what some poetry does; it goes up to the edges of things. That is what I hear in Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” (unquotable except in full because  of the way each stanza, with just one exception, falls into the next).

A perception, or a change in perception, affects the perceptions that follow; it changes not only what one sees, but what one looks or listens for. Yesterday’s bird has altered my walks in the park.

Who Ever Said Listening Was Passive?


One of my favorite scenes in A Serious Man is the one pictured above, about 25 minutes into the film, where Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff) is practicing his Torah portion with the help of a recording by Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. He listens, imitates, listens again, imitates. That’s not how you’re supposed to learn your portion–you’re supposed to work with the text and trope–but this fits his character and allows us to hear the great cantor. But what gets me is how well he imitates. It’s transcendent. He picks up not only the melody, but the subtle textures, the ornamentation, the timing. (I have not found a video of this particular scene–but the bar mitzvah scene gives you an idea.) I was so intrigued by the excellence of this scene that I looked up the actor and learned that he is a cellist. In addition, this was his actual Torah portion when he became a bar mitzvah.

Here is a recording of him at age 15 playing Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody. There’s a funny interview afterward, too. The point is not, “Wow, how amazing that he could play that at age 15,” but rather: This is serious musicianship. The little scene in A Serious Man is no fluke; there’s some exceptional listening in it.

Listening is the beleaguered art or skill; again and again I hear it described as “passive.” Egad! Listening is not passive. It’s some of the most active activity in action. It requires intense concentration and attention to subtlety. You must be alert to the structure, tones, rhythms, transitions, and those qualities that aren’t as easily specified, in the collection of sounds you take in. It takes practice, too; if you have never listened to a symphony from start to finish, you might not know what to  make of it, or  you might get restless; but if  you are used to it, you enter a welcoming country (unless the performance or piece is horrible).

In education discussion people often oppose “active learning” to “passive listening.” Such an opposition is not only false but destructive. Yes, students need opportunities to discuss their ideas in the classroom–but if they do not also learn to listen to a sustained piece or presentation, they will miss out on a great deal. It is in a lecture, for instance, that one can lay out an argument and draw attention to its less obvious details. Putting it together, and forming questions in the mind, a student becomes involved with the subject in a particular way. There’s a dialogue in listening; you make sense of what you hear, and you find your responses.

Now, some may say that music and lectures–and the kinds of listening that accompany them–are so different that they shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same discussion. I recognize their differences but also see a lot in common. In both cases, something is conveyed through sound, over an interval of time; its various parts come together in a whole. When you listen, you basically travel through it in time, exercising your memory and anticipation all along the way. Your reactions may be analytical, emotional, or both, but they will not be complete until you have listened to the whole piece, and even then they may be in formation. You carry away not only the content, but the sound, which can play in your mind for a long time afterward.

Yesterday I put this to the test. On Tuesday I revised the fourth chapter of my book, the chapter on listening–so yesterday I treated myself to a day of listening. In the morning I went to an open rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic; in the evening I attended a lecture by Christine Hayes, “Forging  Jewish Identity: Models and Middles in Jewish Sources.” In both of these, in different ways, I was absorbed in the details and the whole. After both, I walked away with sounds and thoughts.

The New York Philharmonic played Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (with pianist Stephen Hough). Both of these I remembered from many listenings in the past; in addition, I remembered playing the Brahms in symphony in college. I had that distinct sense of it from the inside; not only that, but I remembered some of the places where we played it (we toured England and Wales in the spring). With both the Brahms and the Beethoven, I was alert to the interpretation–the many tiny differences from what I remembered, the dynamics, the dialogues between instruments.

As for the lecture, I immediately understood the three-part structure (Dr. Hayes discussed Jewish identity in terms of memory, covenant, and Qedushah, and went on from there to explore different historical responses to crisis.) Understanding the shape and motion of the lecture, I was able to enjoy and think about the details. When she read texts aloud in English, I would follow along in Hebrew, not only for the additional challenge, but for the sake of the Hebrew text itself. This allowed me to encounter, for the first time,  the wonderful line from Mishnah Sotah 7:8: “Fear not, Agrippas, you are our brother, you are our brother, you are our brother!”

אל תתיירא אגריפס אחינו אתה אחינו אתה אחינו אתה

I walked away not only with the lecture’s  ideas (and my slowly forming questions), but with these words.

In short, listening is not passive, simple, or easy. But just a little bit can add serious riches to a life, and the lack of it can lead to grief. (That’s a different subject for another time.) I end with one of my old poems, “Jackrabbit.”


This land has never been painted properly.
Mix clumps of juniper with moonbeam blue,
Throw in a bit of tooth, a bit of song,
to fill the silhouette with bite and tongue.

This is a real dirt road with imagined rocks,
senses, insensate dangers, destinations.
Headlights sweeping the long floor of the mind
pan a jackrabbit back and forth in time.

Caught in the blank emergency of beams,
he dodges his dilemma with a brisk
“what if, what if” that dances him to death.
He could not find a way out of the way.

Earlier that day I was on the phone,
missing all your relevant advice.
A wire had got caught up in my throat,
an answer-dodger. It distracted me.

It trembled so fast that it numbed my tongue.
It did this while you were trying to talk.
I couldn’t listen well because the dance
had blurred all trace of consonant and sense.

I think now that this may have been a crash
of my old givens against your offerings:
new junipers, or ways of seeing them,
new countries, or ways of getting there.

When I hung up, there was no wire or word.
The moon was gone, the road a long fur coat
on some unwitting wearer, blissed and hushed.
I forgot all about it until years later.

You had said: “You can go left or right.”
Take me straight! I shouted. Straight to the remedy.
Gallop like the nineteenth century
down to the police station or cemetery.

Striding answerless, a station incarnate,
a cop ticketed me for not listening.
Now I can bear the rabbits and the wires.
I inch through forks and roadkill, listening.

Note: I made a few little corrections to this piece after posting it.

The Terror of Subscription

columbia-record-co-a-serious-manIn the Coen brothers’ movie A Serious Man, the physics professor Larry Gopnik enters his office to find three messages and an anxious student waiting. One message is from the Columbia Record Club; unbeknownst to Larry himself, he has subscribed and fallen behind on his payments. (See that magnifying glass in the still; I didn’t even notice it when watching the movie. Maybe it suggests that Larry is looking so closely at certain things that he completely misses others.) I see this “surprise subscription” as one kind of deep nightmare.

What is so scary about subscriptions? Some of it is innocuous and even good; people proudly maintain their subscriptions to newspapers and journals, for instance. But in other cases, the subscription technology (crude or advanced) tricks you; you agree to a “trial” or some such thing and then find out that you’ve signed up for a whole year. Or else you sign up for a year and then forget  to cancel at the end. Subscriptions sneak up on you and claim a debt. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you owe someone money.

But that’s only one side of it. To “subscribe” to something is also to become it. Sometimes, when I get a surprise renewal notice, I ask not only “Can I afford this?” but “What do I have to do with this? Is it really part of my life?” Once upon a time I subscribed to the Franklin Library. The books were beautifully bound, and some titles I was delighted to have–but after a while, they started looking and feeling like a fake collection. I couldn’t keep up with the reading, and when my shelves started filling with books I had barely opened, I knew something was wrong. The subscription had go. I would buy books when I actually wanted to read and reread them. (So I did, and my shelves still overflow.)

So that leads to yet another of subscriptions’ scullduggeries. They can con you into overgetting. You end up amassing “stuff” that  you don’t really want, merely because you continue to pay for it. Somewhere in there, presumably, is something you want, so you accept the full pile, knowing full well that you will use only a handful of it. (I am not referring here to journal subscriptions. There, in my experience, the situation is different; if it’s a good journal, there will be all kinds of surprises in it, things I wouldn’t otherwise have known to read.)

And then, when you do want to quit, you won’t be let off easily. You’ll get reminders, phone calls, letters… won’t you please, please rejoin us? Even if your answer is an emphatic “no,” you are continually reminded that you once did sign on for a whole year.

Today the problem has heightened, since there are so many more things than before that require subscription: antivirus software, word processing and photo finishing software, genealogical research databases, even your own domain name. To do your basic daily work on the computer, you probably need to subscribe to at least three services. And then there are all the subscriptions to “ad-free” versions of blogs and other things; if you don’t want to have ads dancing before you all day long, you must subscribe to peace and quiet.

All of these things combine into the terror of subscription. It’s a mild anxiety; for the most part, I barely think about it. But I often catch myself wishing that I could just have something or not, instead of signing on to this costly, nagging, partial purchase, the effect of a hesitant click one dubious day.

All of this reminded me of Bill Knott’s sonnet “The Unsubscriber” (which isn’t “about” subscriptions in this sense but plays with the topic in an interesting way.) You can see it quoted in full in an article by Edward Hirsch (though the formatting is bad; I recommend the book of the same title). It ends,

No one loves that vain solipsistic sect
You’d never join, whose dues you’ve always paid.

To understand and misunderstand what this means, one needs to read and reread the full poem, to subscribe and unsubscribe, many times.

Image: A still from the first  “Clive scene” in A Serious Man.