Sunday, December 4, 2022

Cryptoconchoidsiphonostomata: Shell Poetics

Scaly-foot snail shell. (Stefan Bengston)

The Scaly-foot snail makes its habitat in the most treacherous region in the world---it lives along the hydrothermal vent fields deep down on the sea floor in the Indian Ocean. These subaquatic vents spew forth hydrogen sulfides, a highly-toxic poisonous gas which the Scaly-foot snail not only withstands but, using a self-produced bacteria, turns into sustenance. 

Withstanding the pressure of nearly 2 miles of ocean water weighing down, defending itself from predators, and thriving in a zone of boiling hot poison gas spewing everywhere, the Scaly-foot snail constructs a shell made out of iron. It is the only known organism to create iron sulfide biominerals for use in its exoskeleton and shell. The iron shell and scales protect a creature with the largest heart, relative to body volume, in the entire animal kingdom (4% of its body volume). Scaly-foot snails are simultaneous hermaphrodites possessing both sexual organs and, despite their high fecundity which creates many eggs, the species is now considered endangered thanks to deep-sea dredging in the Indian Ocean floor.

*   *   *

"the handwriting on his facewall, the cryptoconchoidsiphonostomata in his exprussians"
                 (Finnegans Wake 136.16)

[Cryptoconchoidsyphonostomata was the name of a stage play performed at Royal Theater in Dublin in James Joyce's day. The word literally means something like "hidden shell-like tube-mouths."]

"Putting Allspace in a Notshall." FW 455.29
"the quivers of scaly silver and their clutches of chromes"  FW 477.26


*    *   *

Faced with "the horrible dangers of war," Bernard Palissy contemplated a design for a "fortress city." He had lost all hope of finding an existing plan "in the cities built today." Vitruvius himself could be of no help in the century of the cannon. So he journeyed through "forests, mountains and valleys to see if he could find some industrious animal that had built some industrious houses." After inquiring everywhere, Palissy began to muse about "a young slug that was building its house and fortress with its own saliva." Indeed, he passed several months dreaming of a construction from within, and most of his leisure time was spent walking beside the sea, where he saw "such a variety of houses and fortresses which certain little fishes had made from their own liquor and saliva that, from now on, I began to think that he was something that might be applied to my own project." "The battles and acts of brigandry" that take place in the sea, being on a larger scale than those that take place on land, God "had conferred upon each one the diligence and skill needed to build a house that had been surveyed and constructed by means of such geometry and architecture, that Solomon, in all his wisdom could never have made anything like it."
    With regard to spiralled shells, he wrote that this shape was not at all "for mere beauty, there's much more to it than that. You must understand that there are several fish with such sharply pointed beaks that they would devour most of the above-mentioned fish if the latter's abodes were in a straight line: but when they are attacked by their enemies on the threshold, just as they are about to withdraw inside, they twist and turn in a spiral line and, in this way, the foe can do them no harm."
         - Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. 146-147

*   *   *

There is a spell, for instance
in every sea-shell:

continuous, the sea thrust
is powerless against coral,

bone, stone, marble
hewn from within by that craftsman,

the shell-fish:
oyster, clam, mollusc

is master-mason planning
the stone marvel:

yet that flabby, amorphous hermit
within, like the planet

senses the finite,
it limits its orbit

of being, its house,
temple, fane, shrine:

it unlocks the portals
at stated intervals:

prompted by hunger,
it opens to the tide-flow:

but infinity? no,
of nothing-too-much:

I sense my own limit,
my shell-jaws snap shut

at invasion of the limitless,
ocean-weight; infinite water

can not crack me, egg in egg-shell;
closed in, complete, immortal

full-circle, I know the pull
of the tide, the lull

as well as the moon;
the octupus-darkness

is powerless against
her cold immortality;

so I in my own way know
that the whale

can not digest me:
be firm in your own small, static, limited

orbit and the shark-jaws
of outer circumstance

will spit you forth:
be indigestible, hard, ungiving,

so that, living within,
you beget, self-out-of-self,

that pearl-of-great-price.


    - H.D.
    p. 8-9, Trilogy (1944)

Saturday, October 29, 2022

A Post-Mortem for the 2022 New York Mets

Jacob deGrom looking off into an uncertain future.

With baseball engaged in its final series before the 2022 season ends, I feel compelled to collect my thoughts on the Mets season now with this being the third consecutive full MLB season in which the NL pennant went to a Mets rival from the NL East. In other words, since 2019 every NL East team has won the pennant except the Mets and the Marlins. 

Incredibly, by most measures the Mets in 2022 had their second-best season ever. Yet those results represented the lower end of this team's range of outcomes. These Mets won 101 games, eclipsed by only the legendary 1986 Mets (one of the best teams ever) who won 108 games. Buck Showalter's Mets squad finished 40 games over .500 in his first year as manager. Buck seemed to help shift the franchise toward a more respectable vibe than recent vintage. This was a polished all-around ballclub led by a deep lineup full of hitters with different styles from the power of Pete Alonso to patient bats like Brandon Nimmo and Mark Canha to the throwback contact skills of 2022 NL batting champion Jeff McNeil. Francisco Lindor had the best season of any Mets shortstop ever, Starling Marte added a jolt to the lineup with his power-speed combo. The starting rotation consistently shoved, the bullpen had fewer meltdowns than any Mets team I can remember thanks mostly to a Cy Young-level historically dominant year from Edwin Diaz closing games. 

The 2022 Mets held onto first place for the vast majority of the season, they always seemed to fight back after a loss, and they kept pace with the scorching hot Braves as summer turned to fall. Yet by the end the story of these Mets soured with the Braves barely edging them out in the final week much like they did in 2021 when the Mets led the division for almost five months until collapsing. This year the Mets' collapse was milder, more gradual, more complicated. Hardly a collapse, more of an increasingly uninspired, perhaps exhausted tread that tripped and tumbled til the Mets were fighting for their lives in a do-or-die game against the Padres and complaining about Joe Musgrove's shiny ears (reminiscent of the '86 Mets flipping out over Mike Scott scuffing the ball when he dominated in the 1986 NLCS). Thus an otherwise great Mets season ends up fitting into a narrative pattern alongside their last few years of agonizing almosts and embarrassing ineptitude.

In 2021 the Mets were in first place with six weeks left in the season and then imploded so badly they ended up in 3rd place, 11.5 games behind the division-winning Braves. Even in the 2020 Covid-shortened season the Mets just barely missed out on the postseason despite a larger than normal playoff pool. The 2019 Mets season was memorable for several superstars putting up big numbers and lots of dramatic wins only to fall just barely short of the playoffs due to several egregious meltdowns from the bullpen. 

The 2022 Mets were paradoxical in that they hardly suffered any meltdowns. They were a winning team every month, they played well both at home and on the road. Their "collapse" happened in September when they had a .577 winning percentage. Problem was they were being chased by a red-hot Atlanta team and needed to be perfect in the final weeks playing against the weakest schedule in baseball. They had so many opportunities to clinch a division title and first round bye in the postseason but couldn't seal the deal. Even after missing that chance, they still had repeated opportunities to end on a high note, instead they went 1-5 across six season-defining games to end their season (3 vs the Braves in Atlanta, 3 vs the Padres in NY) with all their top guys healthy. 

Now that the Phillies have snatched the 2022 NL pennant, what's weird in retrospect is that the Mets won 14 of 19 against the Phils this year. They no-hit the Phillies, dominated them, had an epic 7-run comeback in the 9th inning in a game in Philly. And that dominance of the NL pennant winner does not matter. Why? Because the Mets only won 9 of their 19 games against the Braves and that divisional matchup is essentially what determined the final outcome of their whole season. The Mets vs the Braves meant everything in 2022. This was because MLB for the first time in modern history did not have the game 163 tiebreaker to decide division winners, so the head-to-head results meant everything. To have the NL East come down to a tie atop the division in the first season with no game 163 was horrible optics for MLB. Fans were robbed of that opportunity. And yet the Braves' winning the NL east by the smallest of margins was a Pyrrhic victory anyway, since they immediately got knocked out in the first round by the Phillies. 

The postseason chaos on the NL side caused a lot of philosophical contemplation among baseball fans about what playoff baseball is supposed to be exactly. The system in the era of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred's unpopular rule changes seems to have rattled the coherence and meaning of baseball games and outcomes, impacting fans' ability to take the regular season results all that seriously despite baseball having the longest regular season in pro sports. So many teams engage in tanking and a handful of others so steadily stand among the elite that the playoff contenders are practically set in stone before the season begins. It's just a matter of whether they can keep their best players healthy over a six-month slog playing against many teams that have no playoff hopes. In the final weeks when the Mets had a playoff spot clinched but were playing against the Cubs, A's, Nationals, Pirates, I just kept hoping they'd make it thru those games without any major injuries. 

The Mets were fine. Besides the final two weeks, this was the least stressful season for Mets fans to follow that I can ever remember. The 2015 and 2016 Mets made the playoffs and were super exciting teams but both relied on late season surges to make up for a rough start, and both teams had weaknesses that often kept their games at nail-bitingly close margins. The 2006 Mets were a dominant team but they were mostly reliant on a powerful lineup and deep bullpen whereas the rotation was always a little bit shaky. The 2022 Mets hardly had any major weaknesses. 

They got to choose between Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom to start game 1 of the playoffs and chose Scherzer (probably should've kept with deGrom as their #1 but I won't go into that). Their world-class closer Diaz was healthy, the bullpen was actually pretty solid overall, it felt like there were far fewer late inning meltdowns than ever. The hitters were relatively healthy although all were probably dinged up like Starling Marte who played the final series with a broken finger. The Mets set the MLB record for being hit by pitches and had several close calls with guys getting hit in the face including their two biggest offensive stars Alonso and Lindor who both took heaters to the face during the season, yet both stayed in the lineup all year and into the playoffs. They didn't suffer any of their typical back-of-the-rotation erosions or Jerad Eickhoff-ian sinkholes, instead they regularly ran out a deep pitching staff. 

The one frustrating thing about the 2022 Mets is they stacked up the team in every area except the catching position which has been their biggest weakness and a source of frustration for years now. This weakness has been evident for a while, we all knew it was a problem going into the season, they failed to address it in the offseason or at the trade deadline and it arguably ended up costing them. The fate of the most recent Mets team could conceivably be rooted in their failures to sign an elite catcher back before the 2019 season. At that point, the Mets needed to sign free agent All Star catcher Yasmani Grandal but he signed with Milwaukee instead and had a huge year with them. The following winter the Mets were expected to make a big run at trying to sign All Star catcher J.T. Realmuto but they botched it and he signed with the rival Phillies instead. Losing out on Realmuto was devastating because there was a pretty steep dropoff after Grandal and Realmuto to the rest of the available catchers not only in 2019 but looking ahead. The Mets instead signed James McCann, typically a backup catcher, to a four-year deal worth $40 million.

Ironically, the 2022 Mets' best catcher Tomás Nido actually had one of the top defensive seasons of any catcher in MLB this year. He might win a Gold Glove. Only problem was his bat was so bad it hurt the team's chances---as a hitter Nido actually had the Mets' lowest Win Probability Added, a metric that reflects game situation, meaning he was at the plate in pivotal moments and failed to get the job done. And the less said about their other catcher James McCann, the better. Overall in 2022, encompassing offensive and defensive value (including pitch-framing stats), the Mets' performance from all of their catchers amounted to 1.2 wins above replacement according to Fangraphs. J.T. Realmuto playing for the Phillies had the best season of his career with 6.5 wins above replacement. The vast difference between Realmuto and the Mets' catching corps is evident in every season since the Mets lost out on signing him. Perhaps more painfully, the Mets did have a catcher of some promise named Travis d'Arnaud who helped lead them to the 2015 NL pennant, but the previous ownership regime rage cut d'Arnaud early in 2019 after he got off to a rough start returning from injury, and d'Arnaud regained his form, went on to win a World Series for the Braves and has regularly tormented his old team since. The Mets ranked 26th in MLB in OPS from the catching position in 2022, the Braves ranked 1st, the Phillies ranked 3rd.

The Mets developed the top catching prospect in MLB this year, the 20-year-old Francisco Álvarez, but kept holding back from calling him up to the big league team until a moment of desperation before their final series in Atlanta. Álvarez looked overmatched in that series. After that he only got a few at-bats playing in front of the home crowd, but he impressed in limited time, blasting a home run and a double. It shouldn't be overlooked that the Mets had such a potent bat sitting in the minors while the big league club had a gaping offensive hole at the catching and DH positions. Had the Mets given some of Nido, Darin Ruf, or James McCann's September at-bats to Francisco Álvarez instead, maybe this season would've had a different result. 

And so the Mets add another gut-wrenching disappointment to their deep history of such collapses, especially in the 21st century. Observe the results since then:

2000: won NL pennant, lost winnable WS game 1 and lost Subway Series 4-1
2001-2005: missed playoffs for five straight years
2006: won NL East title, season ends with gut-wrenching loss in NLCS game 7
2007-08: two historically bad end-of-season collapses to miss playoffs
2009-2014: missed playoffs for six straight years
2015: magical run to win NL pennant, lost winnable WS game 1 and lost Series 4-1
2016: won Wild Card spot, lost winnable wild card 1-game playoff at home
2017-2021: missed playoffs for five straight years
2022: won 101 games, made playoffs, Wild Card loss in first round at home

Although it did feel like the Mets could've done better in the first round against the Padres had they been more willing to take their starters out of the game at the first sign of trouble (a clearly gassed Scherzer was left in the game too long in game 1, same with Chris Bassitt in game 3), by then the offense had gone into a slump and their fate was sealed. They had succumbed to the usual Mets shit.

Now that fans have had time to process the disappointing end to an incredible season, I think what we are all hoping for now is that the Mets don't follow up their successes with another extended drought. They've had a pattern. After their 2000 NL pennant, they sucked for a good while. Their 2006 division title seemed the first of many, but was followed by eight seasons of ineptitude and embarrassment. The aftermath of the 2015-16 contending teams was similar. The core of the 2022 Mets has so much promise, but will inevitably look different next year.

Adding to the disappointment of their late season failure is that much of the team will now disperse because so many guys will become free agents this offseason. It's completely up in the air whether the Mets will re-sign franchise stalwarts like Jacob deGrom, Edwin Diaz, or Brandon Nimmo, let alone solid contributors like Taijuan Walker, Seth Lugo, Trevor May, Chris Bassitt, or Carlos Carrasco. The Mets might look very different next year. They'll have to completely rebuild their relief pitching since almost all of those guys will be on their way out, which will be tough to do after a season when, for once, they had a very good bullpen. It will be an interesting offseason to watch what mega-billionaire owner Steve Cohen decides to do. Not only are lots of key players becoming free agents, but crappy players like McCann and Ruf have guaranteed contracts next year that the Mets really need to figure out how to buy their way out of. Having watched an NL East rival go all the way to the World Series yet again, it's possible Steve Cohen gets mad and just dumps piles of money into the team for a turbo-boost. Regardless, the 2022 season has taught us that regular season success offers no guarantees for the short series playoffs. This was the best Mets team I've ever watched in my life and their season ended in a snap. 

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Several Short Videos of the Sea from my iPhone

Back in the landlocked capital of Texas in Austin at the height of summer, I'm missing the ocean. Scanning through several videos of the sea taken recently from my phone. 

New York Harbor from the Staten Island Ferry with accompanying coastguard gunboat.

A Staten Island Beach in the wintertime.

In Dublin, Ireland looking out at the Irish Sea from atop the Martello Tower Joyce museum in Sandycove.

The Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, western coast of Ireland.

The Burren in County Clare, western coast of Ireland.

View from Vico and Sorrento, Dalkey, county Dublin, Ireland.

The Giant's Causeway and the rough Atlantic Ocean in County Antrim, Northern Ireland.


The pristine sparkling blue Mediterranean outside of Marseille in Côte d'Azur, France. 

Me swimming in the Mediterranean at a beach in Cannes, Côte d'Azur, France. 

Off the coast of Massachusetts, Vineyard Ferry cruising along Atlantic Ocean.

The boat ride from Dalkey Island, Ireland.

"There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves. The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor" (Melville, Moby-Dick, p. 160)

"the blending cadence of waves with thoughts"  (Moby-Dick, p. 163)

"Melville thought the names of all fine authors were fictitious because they stood for the ubiquitous and magic spirit of all Beauty. Keats asked to have HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER carved on his gravestone." 
    (Susan Howe, The Quarry, p. 192)

"The beginning of man was salt sea, and the perpetual reverberation of that great ancient fact, constantly renewed in the unfolding of life in every human individual, is the important single fact about Melville. Pelagic." 

[Pelagic (adj.): relating to or living in open sea]
    (from Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael, quoted in Susan Howe, The Quarry, p. 192) 

"Looking at the waves scudding outwards and getting lost on the horizon, [Heisenberg] could not help but recall the words of his mentor, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who had once told him that a part of eternity lies in reach of those capable of staring, unblinking, at the sea's deranging expanses." 
(Benjamin Labatut, When We Cease to Understand the World, p. 96)


Saturday, July 2, 2022

ReBuilding and Re: Recent Roamings

"The Hut"
by Fanny Howe

Up the hill is a hut made of sound
where two windows rhyme
and the tiles stay on
because they are nailed to a dream.
The dreamer wonders: Can this be mine?

The floor is solid and straight
and is amber from sap.
The walls don't leak or let out heat
from gray embers in the grate.

This is the original home
at the heart of brutalist design.
No storm can slam its shape apart.
No thief can carry it off.
It dwells in ashen buildings where the present sleeps.

*   *   *

This blog has been dormant for a while. I'm going to try to bring some life back to it. In my last post here, more than six months ago, I talked about having gone on a self-driven path of deconstructing my life and embarking out into the unknown for a while. For seven months I lived a nomadic existence, traveling around many countries and cities, staying as a guest in various friends' houses, hotels, Airbnbs, and an extended stay with family in Staten Island and Brooklyn. The trip sprung from, among other things, a yearning to plunge into the unfamiliar, test my luck, and experience the world after so many months in lockdown during the pandemic. In the aftermath of that extended nomadic period, I tallied up these numbers: in the lockdown year 2020 I slept in three different beds all year (the bed at my house and a couple places I stayed at during a roadtrip to Colorado) whereas in the last calendar year now I slept in more than 40 different beds in at least fifteen different cities in six countries.

While bouncing across so many places and living out of a suitcase for so long, I got into thinking about the feeling of and the meaning of home. Found myself thinking often about Gaston Bachelard's book, The Poetics of Space. Bachelard wrote, "A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability." (p. 38) Some houses grant illusions or proofs of stability better than others. I stayed in a few dumps and at least one badly insulated space during a couple weeks of frigid temps. I stayed in a sprawling mansion in Ireland where I didn't feel comfortable because of an unwelcoming host, I also stayed in a repurposed 19th-century military barracks in Ireland, a Martello Tower made of stone that felt extremely comfortable because of the generosity of the hosts. I stayed in a garage attic apartment in Texas where time stood still and I stayed in a barn in Texas where the metal-roof resonated from a heavy hail storm. The constant moving from one place to the next felt like a recapitulation of earlier departures from shells in my life---leaving my parents' house at age 21 to move to the other side of the country, years later leaving southern California to come to Austin where I'd never been before but have now resided for 11 years. Each time felt like a crab leaving its shell to seek out a better one (my sun sign is Cancer the crab). 

"The atmosphere is nailed together.

Limb marking threshold.

Each element struggles to 
make threat subservient
to shelter."

- from "Doorway" by Elizabeth Robinson

"I dreamed of a nest in which the trees repulsed death" 
- from Bachelard, Poetics of Space (p. 123)

During the height of winter I was living back at my parents' house in Staten Island by myself (they'd gone to Florida to escape the cold). With the recent memories of so many different homes and rooms in various places, I was centered back there at the home where I grew up and had first conceived of the concept of home. Bachelard in The Poetics of Space says, "In short, the house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting." (p. 36) As much as I despise being in Staten Island, my old house still feels like home. The city is so crowded, the people are so angry, it seemed every time I went out someplace I had a hostile altercation with somebody, but the old house still feels like home and it feeds some inner craving for peace of mind when I'm there. 

Here's Bachelard again:
"The house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams. Each one of its nooks and corners was a resting-place for daydreaming. And often the resting-place particularized the daydream. Our habits of a particular daydream were acquired there." (p. 37)

I've always been a homebody and my personal growth has involved breaking out of those habits to go far out into the unknown and find my way, find how I can build a new center of peace in the unfamiliar. As a kid I must have spent lots of time in the nooks and corners of my house daydreaming, but I could never have imagined the adventures that would ensue. Roadtrips spanning the width of the North American continent, piloting boats along the waters of the Mediterranean in the South of France, expeditions along the rocky coastline of Ireland, bike rides speeding through the alleyways of Barcelona, panoramic views from the hills of Lisbon, late nights partying in the village squares of Antwerp, connecting with the sky gods while perched atop the Pyramid of the Sun looking down the Avenue of the Dead in Teotihuacán far out in the desert outside Mexico City. 

When I was a kid I loathed having to go on family trips out to New Jersey to visit my grandma because the open spaces and relatively rural vibes of Jersey made me uneasy. I needed NYC's clusterfuck of intersections and delis and pizzerias on every block. That's what made me comfortable. Now I once again live in the middle of Texas where the city center is equidistant to me as farmlands with cows, my neighbor's yard has a friendly goat, and too much time spent in the crowded and cranky NYC boroughs drives me nuts. 

Rebecca Solnit in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost writes: "Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis." (p. 80) This was the process I went through as a young adult. And again years later, after I'd established a home over several years living in Austin which no longer felt satisfying, I underwent the same process again. Burned it all down to start over from scratch. Ashes make great fertilizer. The past year has been full of big changes and very little stability, it has not been easy but it has definitely been enriching. Again quoting Solnit, "he ceased to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else." (p. 71)

Spending such extended time staying within the hospitality industry (hotels and Airbnbs etc) you start to gain a deeper appreciation for little things that make a place feel like home and how a place becomes a home over time. Living transiently also affords one a chance to cut things down to basics, carrying around only what you need. Most of my belongings including my entire library, all my art, and most of my clothes were locked up in storage the whole time. I had a consolidated wardrobe, compact but versatile enough for different climates. I mainly carried around only the books with the highest ratio of insight and lexical originality-per-page, which I had decided are these two: Finnegans Wake by James Joyce and the epic poem ARK by Ronald Johnson. Those came with me everywhere. 

During my time in Europe I also read two nonfiction books by Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization on the immediate developments that led to WW2 and also his most recent book Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act, about the secret history of US military involvement with biological and chemical warfare. Both were timely and highly informative reads, and Baker's prose style is so easily digestible. The newer book Baseless felt like a sequel to Human Smoke, though at least with Baseless Baker regularly breaks up the revelations of dark and deeply upsetting information with simple and grounding stories about his dogs and domestic life. On the other hand, the cold facts and details of mass killings of Jews by the Nazis in Human Smoke seared my brain to a degree that I am forever horrified by it. I had to hide Human Smoke when I wasn't reading it because just looking at that book put a bad feeling in my gut.

This material was fresh in my mind as I rode around on trains and planes across Europe, looking at the scenery and thinking about the purpose of life, how flimsy and fragile it seems, how long the land outlasts us, how we should soak it all in and enjoy life while we can. Ultimately I thought of how sick and fucked up so much of mankind has always been with twisted ideology and racist hate. The same struggles for power, wars against tyrants, recur in cycles over centuries. How the endurance of hope persists despite it all. How we are all just looking for a place to call home, a shell within which we can grow and feel at peace.