Air-Conditioned Nightmare (with thanks to Henry Miller)

Posted September 21, 2017 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

The men came early this morning. Two of them, before 9 o’clock. They introduced themselves as Danny and Joey. They were Hispanic.

They work for a company in the next town. The company is called Bill’s Home Care Professionals. Danny and Joey were here to take out my two Friedrich window air- conditioners and store them in my large closet in the vestibule.

I have arranged for this transfer every year for the past eight years. In June, two men come from Bill’s and install my two air-conditioners. In September, two men — not always the same men — come and remove the air conditioners.

It costs me $150 to have the air-conditioners installed each year and $100 to have them removed. The machines are way too heavy for me to handle. Besides, Bill’s professionals not only put the air-conditioners in the windows; they tuck them in nicely and securely with screws and a locking latch and surround them with Weatherseal.

For four months. Then they take them out again.

In again, out again. It’s one of my rhythmic cycles.

Last summer, I turned on the air-conditioners 28 times. The summer before that, 27 times. This summer, only 10 times. Global warming was focused on the Caribbean, instead of my street.

Usually, I only turn on my air-conditioning when the temperature inside my first-floor apartment reaches 80. Until then, I keep the air moving and cool with six 15-inch fans placed strategically around my five-room apartment.

I am good at controlling my inside weather. In the summer, I keep my windows closed during the day, trapping the cooler air inside from the night before and the early-morning. I never understand why people open their windows in mid-day hot weather. They’re just inviting the hot air to come inside. What’s the point of that?

Plus, I find that people today are such babies. They switch on the AC as soon as they feel a little warm. “On, my god, it’s 74. I can stand it. I can’t breathe!”

Americans are soft and spoiled. In the old days, all we had were fans. And look: we survived! But then we started loading up the atmosphere with ozone and high electricity use from air-conditioning and all our other electrical “necessities,” and voila! We have an energy crisis and global warming and pollution and all the rest that comes from our self-indulgence.

Our electrical grid is over-loaded and over-exposed.

So let’s blame the Chinese !! And the poor people in Kentucky’s coal country and the starving people in India. Let’s point our fingers from our over-cooled offices and our air-conditioned cars. God-damned poor people are always to blame for something ! That’s why they’re there: to be blamed.

We, on the other hand, are soft and fat and growing more stupid by the hour. This is how great civilizations fall. It happened to the Greeks and the Romans, and it’s happening to us. We think we’ll be saved by virtual reality. But that reality isn’t really real. It doesn’t stop us from dying or from starving or from turning our three-dimensional world into a garbage dump.

All these electronic toys are just distractions from our inner reality that we’re lying to and our outer reality that’s falling apart.

Robots and self-driving cars and $1,000 iPhones will not save us from ourselves.

If we can’t handle a few warm rooms without rushing to the air conditioner, then we can’t handle serious stuff.

What we are good at is using language to deflect and entertainment to distract.

Donald Trump is not an aberration. He is what we’ve become as a nation. We hate him because it’s easier than hating what we are.

Air-conditioning is a symptom, not a cause, of our weakness and our self-indulgence. If we can handle a little warmer inside weather without panicking, maybe we can stop bull-shitting ourselves about the need for sacrifice.

The image of a person bringing his or her tote bags to the supermarket to avoid putting groceries into plastic bags, and then taking those groceries home to an over-cooled house is almost too pathetic to be funny.


The Return of the Tiger

Posted September 16, 2017 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

Is it really him? Or is it someone else that sort of looks like him?

Many people in Java, according to the New York Times, think it’s really him: a Javan tiger that was declared extinct more than 40 years ago. Such tigers were legendary in that small island country, the size of Pennsylvania.

More than 140 million people now live on that tiny island.

If the animal, seen by Indonesian park rangers, really is a Javan tiger, as they think, then the people would have their folklore legend come back to life. The legend would once again breathe the air of mystery and continuity, only this time with a new plausibility.

A Javan tiger has long been celebrated in the country in books and legends. When the animal was declared extinct four decades ago, it was a blow to the country’s sense of itself and of its biological and mythic past.

But if the Javan tiger is still alive — if it is back from extinction — the death from which there is no escape — then Death itself will have suffered a kind of defeat.

Perhaps Death, like extinction, is a transitory concept, a three-dimensional curtain masking a multi-dimensional reality. Perhaps we overrate the impermeability of this fatal concept. Perhaps the curtain can be lifted, if only for an instant, and what was once dead can slip through and walk once more upon the Earth and reanimate old stories.

Legends rise above what we call realty. They are unpersuaded by biology, unintimidated by cause and effect. They remain indifferent to time.

“Tiger, tiger, burning bright, “ wrote William Blake,
“In the forest of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

Legends live in the land of immortal hands and eyes. They frame their own fearful symmetries. They escape the ruminations of the slide rule and the Large Hadron Collider. They lurk, like hope, in the hearts of the disappointed.

But some people in Java are skeptical. They’ve seen the video.

“When the video is frozen,” said one tiger expert, “the effect is that it looks like a tiger. However, when the animal was seen moving, it more closely resembled a leopard.”

Javan leopards, the Times points out, are endangered and rarely seen. One could have been mistaken for a tiger. But at this point, it is unclear.

We invest ourselves in our legends. They are never just about someone else. They’re always, in the end, about ourselves. We create those legends, the way we create the Bible: because they tell us things we want to hear. They lift us above the banalities of cause and effect, of practical conclusions, of dreams gone bad, of the pain of not finding the happiness we hoped was ours.

It’s too late, no matter what the experts say. The Javan tiger still roams in the tiny forests of this tiny land, if not in fact, then in the new beginnings of the old legends.

The Falling Man

Posted September 10, 2017 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

It was a photograph seen by millions of people around the world. It was beautiful, in a horrendous way. You couldn’t take your eyes off it, and that was the terrible part. It was magnetic and tragic and awful to look at but still wondrously compelling.

You were looking at something so real and so unique and so terrible that you didn’t know how to react. You felt like a voyeur eavesdropping on someone else’s astonishing agony.

And yet, at the moment the photograph was taken by the Associated Press photographer, the person looked momentarily free, in a suicidal way, almost balletic in his cascading plunge. His arms were tucked neatly by his side and his right leg was bent gracefully in a kind of acrobatic plie. His head was down, pointed to the ground like a dagger.

The camera froze him in mid-fall. But you completed this awful visual narrative by knowing in your own deep sorrow how this particular drama would end.

This ‘Falling Man’ was just seconds away from splattering on the sidewalk, his body pulverized, his head split open like a pumpkin, his brains scattered on the ground like useless jelly.

Newspapers and magazines all around the world published this stunning photograph. But the reaction to it was so fierce, so perplexing, so disturbing, so hostile that the photo unofficially ‘disappeared’ after that from journalism the world over.

For all intents and purposes, that photo, seen by so many right after the collapse of the World Trade towers on September 11th, was never seen again. The photo was judged to be simply too disturbing for mass circulation. And so it was, in a sense, self-censored by editors of all forms of publications.

The emotions surrounding the whole savage terrorist attack of the two huge World Trade towers was so intense and personal and intimate and frightening and agonizing, that people couldn’t emotionally handle such a “Falling Man” image.

The photograph was both too symbolic of the overall tragedy and too intimate an image detailing the impending death of this individual man. But his not-yet-death also stood for the already-dead people who also perished that day.

I have a large copy of that photograph. It’s 8 ½ x 11 ¾ inches. It is a stand-alone photograph included in a collection of photos and articles about 9/11 published as a separate magazine by the excellent French newspaper, Le Monde.

I was scheduled to fly to Paris from New York on September 15, 2001. But that flight was obviously cancelled after the twin towers were attacked four days earlier. I had to wait until the 29th before my flight could take off. In the meantime, Le Monde put together its heart-breaking 146-page publication, which I bought as soon as I saw it on a Paris newsstand.

I have looked at that Falling Man photo many times over the years. I am stunned every time I look at it.

The superb novelist, Don DeLillo, published a novel in 2007 about the post-9/11 days in Manhattan. I am currently rereading it for the third or fourth time. It’s that good. The title is, “Falling Man.”

And last night, the AHC cable channel ran a documentary, called “The Falling Man.” The program was shaped around the efforts to identify who the falling man actually was. The consensus is — although it’s not official, but is more than likely true — that the black man who plunged so tragically and compellingly and photographically to his death that day was an employee of the restaurant at the top of the tower, Windows on the World. His name was Jonathan Briley.

But he was not the only person to leap to his death that day. Dozens of others — men and women — leaped into the air from a hundred stories high, choosing to die suddenly rather than die slowly.

I remember a report at the time of a group of school children who were in the neighborhood at the time of the Twin Towers attack. One of the young students is reported to have said to her teacher, “Look, the birds are on fire.”


Posted September 3, 2017 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

The Sound of It

by Annie Lighthart

Just a piano playing plainly, not even for long,
and yet I suddenly think of fields of timothy
and how a cow and I once studied each other over a fence
while the car ticked and cooled behind me.
When I turned around I was surprised that it had not
sprouted tall grass from its hood, I had been gone
so long. Time passes in crooked ways in some tales,
and though the cow and I were relatively young
when we started our watching, we looked
a bit younger when I left. The cow had downed a good
steady meal and was full of milk for the barn.
I drove away convinced of nothing I had been
so sure of before, with arms full of splinters
from leaning on the fence. There was no music—
I was not even humming—but just now the piano
played the exact sound of that drive.

“The Sound of It” by Annie Lighthart from Iron String. © Airlie Press, 2013

(from The Writer’s Almanac, September 3, 2017)



I know how that can happen. A sound, a musical phrase, a light, a movement, a reflection having nothing to do with an earlier experience. But it triggers a response that suddenly, as if through a time-warp, transports me back in mood, in memory, in sensation to a very specific time and specific place decades ago. A lifetime ago.

For Annie Lighthart, it was the sound of a piano. For me, it often is the sight of sunlight reflecting off the rolling waves of the sea at Lighthouse Point in New Haven.

For Annie, she was instantly transported to the countryside and her silent dialogue with a cow. For me, I am instantly transported to the deck of the Yugoslav freighter, The Grobnik, in 1965, during my three-week voyage from New York to Yugoslavia.

I would stand on the deck in the middle of the Atlantic or the Mediterranean and simply watch the slanting rays of the sun reflect off the rolling waters. Nothing more than that. Just the light off the waves.

But it was hypnotic. I felt lulled into a nameless reverie. A kind of passive dreaminess. The roll of the waves easing the pitch of the ship into a kind of slow dance with the sea.

I felt in the middle of a dreamy nowhere in a kind of timeless suspension. No land in sight. No personal timetable, no useful map, no immediate plans other than eating, sleeping, and standing on the deck and staring out across the unobstructed ocean.

Just that. The reflection of the sun off the local waves in New Haven. And suddenly I am where I was 52 years ago feeling the calm, the emotional drift between land and sea, the dreamy space between my life back then and my life still to come.

The Murder of an Old Tree

Posted August 28, 2017 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

A very tall and very old tree has stood beyond the backyard fence for about a hundred years. Maybe a little longer than a hundred years. I love that tree and have a special relationship with it.

The tree is squeezed next to a three-story house in the next yard. It’s not my landlord’s tree. It “belongs” to an absentee landlord on the other side of the fence. He doesn’t live in the house. He lives at the southern end of the state around Stamford or Darien — the ‘money’ part of the Connecticut Gold Coast.

He bought the house about four months ago as an investment. He has already rented all three floors to young people. He has dug up his backyard and paved two-thirds of it with asphalt, where tenants can park their cars. He has also painted the house and cut down three trees in the backyard.

And now he has singled out this very old tree for death and removal. The tree is still alive and although its ‘inconvenient’ limbs have been cut off over the years, it still blossoms in its canopy. It is filled with green leaves on the top and is a favorite sitting place for birds and squirrels. It also brings some shade to that part of our yard.

I love to look at the tree from my window or when I go out in the backyard to fill the water bowl for the birds and squirrels and some mysterious night visitors.

And 15 months ago, I chronicled with my camera a two-day visit into a deep cave-like cavity in the middle of the tree by a family of raccoons: a mother raccoon and her two youngsters. I took between about 50 close-up photographs of their lives in and around that “cave” as the mother raccoon taught her youngsters how to climb and how not to be afraid of looking down. It is a very touching collection of photos.

But now that absentee landlord is going to have that tree bludgeoned to death and then carted away in pieces. I feel very bad about it. So bad that I wrote the following little cry-of-the-heart that I gave to my landlord and his wife late this afternoon.

This is what I wrote and placed in our mail basket for them to read:

My heart is broken . . . again.

Tomorrow, that wonderful, hundred year-old tree in the backyard will be murdered.

It has withstood dozens of decades of winter blasts and summer heat waves. It has towered over us like an arboreal monarch. It has been lashed by wind and rain, snow and ice.

And yet, it has withstood all those assaults and even grown taller, and continues to bring forth its April buds each year on its arthritic limbs.

And just 15 months ago, it provided shelter for a raccoon family, as the mother nurtured her young boys and taught them not to be afraid to climb up or climb down, as part of their growing up.

But the heartless absentee landlord next door has condemned this ancient old friend to death.

And tomorrow, this old friend will be killed and his body cut into pieces and hauled away. All that will remain will be a lifeless stump.

The tree’s only crime is that it’s old and inconvenient, despite the green leaves in its crown that still flutter in the afternoon breeze.

August 28, 2017

Sex in the Bushes

Posted August 23, 2017 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

Two years ago, an 81-year-old man living in Stratford, Connecticut, was arrested for having sex with a bush.

This was reported by the Associated Press and printed in the New Haven Register in July 2015. I have kept the clipping ever since. I could not bear — or even bare — to throw it away.

The man’s name was Wallace Berg. Perhaps he is still alive and is still named Wallace Berg. Perhaps he is dead and not named anything anymore. In death, our names are irrelevant to us. After death, our names appear on tombstones and in town clerks’ offices and in newspaper obituaries and perhaps in lawyers’ records and in the memories of a handful of friends and relatives. But as far as we-the-dead are concerned, our names no longer matter.

And I refuse to google Wallace’s name to see if he is dead. He deserves some rest and humane anonymity from writers like me. Let Wallace be quietly Wallace or not-Wallace, wherever he is.

If you do google his name and find out more about the man, don’t tell me about it. I don’t want to know. What I already know about Wallace Berg is all I want to know.

It seems that Wallace was outside his home in July 2015, naked and deep into his bushes. A neighbor saw Wallace having sex with a bush and made a video of it. Then he confronted Wallace, who immediately stopped having sex with the bush, covered himself with a grill cover and apologized to the neighbor. Then he went inside his house.

But that wasn’t good enough for the neighbor. He promptly showed his video to the local police, who then came to Wallace’s home and arrested the poor man.

Wallace was charged with public indecency and second-degree breach of peace. He was released on a $10,000 bond. He was due to appear in Superior Court the following month.

The A.P., in its typical intrepid search for the truth, called Wallace at home to seek his comment.

Seek his comment !!??

What did they expect him to say? “I’m sorry? I didn’t mean anything bad by it? I thought I was well hidden? I couldn’t help myself. That bushes is so attractive”?

Wallace did not return the A.P.’s phone call.

A naked 81-year-old man feeling his oats, celebrating his vitality with a romp in the bushes. Is that so bad?

I think it’s the voyeuristic neighbor who has the problem. He’s obviously a busy-body with a dirty mind. He should just have sex with his own bushes, and leave Wallace alone.

Wallace was simply acting out his satyr-like impulses, in the spirit of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” That it was July instead of April — summer instead of spring — can be written off as the bad timing of an 81-year-old. Perfectly understandable. I’m 80, and my memory can miss a step or two, as well.

Besides, April can get chilly in New England. Wallace wanted conditions to be just right.

The Fading Hope of the Typewriter

Posted August 18, 2017 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

In my Headwork essay for August 13, I wrote: “In the old days, we dealt with tangible things. We used typewriters to type on real paper. We sent letters in envelopes. . . . We lived in a world of vital, tangible things. A three-dimensional world of texture and weight.”

In a film review five days later — in today’s New York Times (August 18) — the critic writes about a new film playing in New York called “California Typewriter.” In the middle of the review, she says, “More substantively, the musician John Mayer and the historian David McCullough speak eloquently of the need for tangible proof of creation versus the ephemeral nature of digital data.”

Oh, really? “Tangible proof of creation versus the ephemeral nature of digital data”?

I like my phrasing better.

I haven’t seen the film yet. But I’m glad to know that McCullough and I are on the same tangible page, when it comes to typewriters.

We all have regrets in life. One of mine is having given up my two Olivetti typewriters years ago — especially the neat, light little portable. God, I wish I had one of them now.

I’ve been looking for a good typewriter for the past five years and have ended up with three that were junk and a huge waste of money. I got rid of them and have pretty much given up looking.

But whenever I see photos of someone knocking out a piece on a typewriter, my heart melts. The film review says that writer and playwright Sam Shepard was addicted to the typewriter, and actor Tom Hanks owns 250 of them and types on a typewriter every day.

Lucky dog. All I want is one good typewriter. Hanks has 250 of them. Life is unfair.

I know that writer Paul Auster still uses a typewriter, as did Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike right until the end . . . when computers were the standard device.

In the old days, I typed all my hundreds of published film reviews and dozens of book reviews and dozens of newspaper and magazine essays and articles — all on my two or three typewriters.

A couple of people reading this essay did the same thing. For a hundred years, the typewriter was king. I still have copies of some of those typewritten rough drafts-on-paper, with pencil marks all over them.

They were real, three-dimensional, tangible things. They showed what down-to-earth work-in-progress looked like. They were not the sterile version you read on a screen, without cross-outs and erasures and arrows pointing to the margins.

It was a marriage — a gritty, hands-on, sometimes messy marriage — between writer and machine. We were in it together, the typewriter and I. Foxhole buddies.

Not like the pristine, disinfected operating-room asceticism of words-on-a-screen.

What the virtual world lacks is the very physical messiness of this hands-on work-in-progress. Too often, the virtual world transforms creative work — and its productive sloppiness and physical unkemptness — into neat little boutonnières that you can wear in your buttonhole.

We need more ink-stained wretches and typewriter ribbons to rescue us from our virtual assassinations.