high weir

August 31, 2008

The Schreuderspitze Plan

Filed under: Readings — jstreed1476 @ 1:54 am

Like Sean, I would really like to drop a little weight and add a little muscle. Unlike Sean, I have nothing like the discipline required to follow the 100 Pushups Plan.

The Plan reminds me of one of my favorite short stories, “The Schreuderspitze” by Mark Helprin. It is beautiful.

Herr Wallich, a Munich photographer, retreats to the mountains after a terrible loss. There he plans, as an ordeal or test, an alpine ascent. (One of Helprin’s novels is titled Refiner’s Fire.) He has never climbed a mountain before—his life has been free of rigor, and he is afraid of heights.

He knows he is physically weak, so he undertakes a “concentrated maniacal pursuit of physical strength”:

He had started with five each, every waking hour, of pushups, pull-ups, sit-ups, toe-touches, and leg raises. The pull-ups were deadly—he did one every twelve minutes. The thumping a bumping [that got him evicted from his apartment] came from five minutes of running in place. At the end of the first day, the pain in his chest was so intense that he was certain he was not long for the world. The second day was worse. And so it went, until after ten days there was no pain at all.

After long isolation in a remote Alpine village, he is much changed:

No one would have mistaken him for what he had been. In five months he had become lean and strong. He did two hundred and fifty sequential pushups at least four times a day. For the sheer pleasure of it, he would do a hundred and fifty pushups on his fingertips. Every day he did a hundred pull-ups in a row. His midnight run, sometimes in snow which had accumulated up to his knees, was four hours long.

There are many passages of great beauty in this tale, and Herr Wallich’s ordeal is awesome in unexpected ways. There is also a very welcome vein of humor running through the story. Here’s how it begins:

In Munich are many men who look like weasels. Whether by genetic accident, meticulous crossbreeding, an early and puzzling migration, coincidence, or a reason that we do not know, they exist in great numbers. Remarkably, they accentuate this tendency by wearing mustaches, Alpine hats, and tweed. A man who resembles a rodent should never wear tweed.

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July 17, 2006

Derailed

Filed under: Readings — jstreed1476 @ 4:19 am

My reading list for July has been derailed by chance encounters, as so often happens. The day I finished Housekeeping, I ran into neighbors bearing books. One gave me Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, which I’ve started. Another put The Great Influenza by John M. Barry in my hands, and I’m a good bit into that; as the son of an epidemiologist, I couldn’t resist that one. And then I found myself at Bought Again Books with a bit of birthday money in my pocket, and I wound up leaving with A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which I’ve enjoyed the first few chapters of.

In short, I’m enjoying a bunch of books I had no intention of reading. But that’s fine. Gilead isn’t going away–it’s just another pleasure deferred while I attend to things unlooked-for but welcome.

July 3, 2006

“Why does Cordelia die?”

Filed under: Readings — jstreed1476 @ 1:06 am

This question is from A.C. Bradley’s essay on Lear, which I have in a collection of his criticism that I promised to send to Sean and found tucked away on a shelf just today. I dipped into it a bit before packing it up for a little trip :-)

Here’s a little more of that piece:

I suppose no reader ever failed to ask that question, and to ask it with something more than pain–to ask it, if only for a moment, in bewilderment or dismay, and even perhaps in tones of protest. These feelings are probably evoked more strongly here than at the death of any other notable character in Shakespeare; and it may sound a willful paradox to assert that the slightest element of reconciliation is mingled with them or succeeds them. . . .

Now this destruction of the good through the evil of others is one of the tragic facts of life, and no one can object to the use of it, within certain limits, in tragic art. And, further, those who because of it declaim against the nature of things, declaim without thinking. It is obviously the other side of the fact that the effects of good spread far and wide beyond the doer of the good; and we should ask ourselves whether we really could wish (supposing it conceivable) to see this double-sided fact abolished.

Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms is one of the really shattering stage directions. “This feather stirs, she lives!” is a terrible moment. More such follow:

Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little. Ha!

What is’t thou say’st? Her voice was ever soft,

Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.

I kill’d the slave that was a-hanging thee.

And, in the end, that strange, amazing turn where, as Bradley says, “bodily oppression ask[s] for bodily relief”:

. . . Thou’lt come no more,

Never, never, never, never, never.

Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.

Lear, the man.

July 1, 2006

Currently Reading: Housekeeping

Filed under: Readings — jstreed1476 @ 2:22 pm

For the second time in about three years, I’m reading Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. It’s an amazing book in all kinds of ways, and the best comment on it is Doris Lessing’s: “I found myself reading slowly, then more slowly–this is not a novel to be hurried through, for every sentence is a delight.” I grant that Robinson’s prose has a lyrical intensity that not every reader will enjoy–like much of Annie Dillard’s work (e.g. Holy the Firm), it doesn’t take a breather, so to speak. But to my eye, it’s beautiful.

One evening one summer she went out to the garden. The earth n the rows was light and soft as cinders, pale clay yellow, and the trees and plants were ripe, ordinary green and full of comfortable rustlings. And above the pale earth and bright trees the sky was the dark blue of ashes. As she knelt in the rows she heard the hollyhocks thump against the shed wall. She felt the hair lifted from her neck by a swift, watery wind, and she saw the trees fill with wind and heard their trunks creak like masts. She burrowed her hand under a potato plant and felt gingerly for the new potatoes in their dry net of roots, smooth as eggs. She put them in her apron and walked back to the house thinking, What have I seen, what have I seen. The earth and the sky and the garden, not as they always are. And she saw her daughters’ faces not as they always are, or as other people’s were, and she was quiet and aloof and watchful, not to startle the strangeness away. She had never taught them to be kind to her.

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