Dogs, Rivers, Tunnels

A dog reminds you that your existence is not discrete, but extrudes, panting, into the world. Life becomes less the places you stay, and more the walks you take. Rounds, routines, and sequences of scents. Since we got our cocker spaniel, I have been leaving the apartment more. Having a dog means you go for walks.

Reading people, I’ve noticed, becomes easier with a dog. Reactions it would be impolite to display towards you can be directed at your pet. Observing dog-directed glances, you can tell if someone is casually kind, or if they walk around in a habitual cloud of temper or contempt. Strangers are more likely to start conversations, as if you, the leash, and the quadruped at the end of it form together some kind of recognized punctuation: a sign like a colon in a play-script from which dialogue can follow. My French is still terrible, but I’m building up a strong set of canine-related vocabulary, able to convey his breed, age, and disposition. Il n’est pas méchant. Il est gentil. He isn’t mean. He is nice.

Dogs are smelly, disgusting, incorrigible, adorable. Untrammeled id, and walking with one is like having your own animality exposed, an uncensored stranger-sniffing, street peeing nature normally kept concealed. They make you more vulnerable to random people’s reprimands, and to their friendly openness. It is (although to a lesser extent) how I imagine having children must feel, those more literal extensions of ourselves.

vineThere was this guy that started talking to me, a Friday afternoon by the Valmy metro station, while the dog and I were waiting for my wife to shop for groceries. He talked to the dog first, of course, scratching him under his floppy ears.  “Dogs can sense about a person,” he said in an approximation of English, after the preliminaries of me explaining mon français n’est pas bon were gotten past. “I may look like a crazy, but the dog, he knows I am good.” He was drinking a Heinekin, and asked if he could sit down. Public drinking is allowed in France, and common, although public intoxication is rare (more so than certain college towns in the US, in my experience, where there are laws against it). This guy, however, may have been an exception.

Short hair and large, intense eyes. Face like a roma. He said that he, too, could tell about people. It was his gift. He looked at someone and imagined what it was like to be them.

“I try to do that, too,” I say. “I’m a writer.” Looking at him more closely. Ten years younger than me, but with a bright, deep, and sloppy wisdom. I recognize a teacher when I see one. He knows how to exist.

I tell him that there is an expression in English, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I touch my shoes to illustrate. They are running shoes recently acquired, to jog with my dog along the river. I can see that he doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say.

“Van Gogh did paintings of shoes,” I say stupidly. “He thought it was like painting the person who wore them…” Which made me even more conscious of my neon orange shoelaces, and what they might indicate.

“Yes,” the guy said, smiling. “He liked shoes.”

He did most of the talking. Offers me beer, but I decline. I mention that drinking in public is illegal in the United States, and he says that this is France (gesturing expansively at the people in the square) and no one cares. The discussion moves to politics, and he says, with conviction that France is not a democracy. “We have a president, how do you say? A joker? Buffoon?”

He tells me that he tries to live in every moment, completely, such as this conversation, although we will never meet again. I say that this is very Zen. His eyes get brighter. “Yes. Zen.”

His friends come back, and he leaves.


There are art installations along the bank, beside the trail for hiking, biking, and weekend promenades. Some of the pieces are especially subtle. For instance boulders that, because of a hidden mechanical system, you can cause to rotate. I’d passed them a dozen times before I noticed. Now, if there are others walking by who may not know, especially children, I always lean into the stones/sculptures and start them in their ponderous torque, in gravitational defiance. Magic.

I’d passed by different section of the quai probably a hundred times before I noticed another piece by the same artist: hidden solar panel-powered lights, which at night are meant to resemble fireflies, the “fragile insects threatened by pollution” as the plaque describes them. The artist’s name is Erik Samkh. I like his work, because (as the description reads) it blends the natural and technological. Like nature, you have to pass by it numerous times before the appreciation of it starts to bloom.

Farther along the river, there is another piece that expresses a contrary philosophy: a gaudy, princess-like pavilion of shiny metal and glass, colored beads, reachable by ramp above one of the docks, elevated and unmistakable. Rather than blending in, offering itself in gradual revelation, the elevated gazebo is an explosion of tinsel, dazzling at first and then annoyingly out of place. My wife said something perceptive: in a museum, it would be nice to look at, but out in nature, it just seems ugly and out of place. That is true of most art, which by definition is artificial, and can’t compare to living things.

Farther South, near the Pont Masyryk, there are metal benches the bars of which curl and twist beyond the planar surfaces meant for seating into abstract decompositions that loop through thick iron rungs once used, presumably, to anchor ships. Again, the informative display mentions that the artist is trying to mimic the organic qualities of natural plant life, but this is easier said than done: the alternately twisted and flat bars of benches look more like something from a scrap heap than an ecosystem.

More successful, I would say, is someone called Tadashi Kawamata, who works in wood rather than metal. There is a “terrace” on the bank, beautifully designed, and more to see from than to be seen. There is little that proclaims it art, because it artfully extends the existing urbanscape. He has two other pieces farther down towards the confluence that operate on the same philosophy: wooden platforms, like palettes of land-locked docks that seem haphazardly arranged, until closer examination reveals the arrangement to be purposeful, and carefully constructed. The same principle informs an unsafe-looking extension built out from and partially concealing an ugly parking garage, wooden planks of a path supported by beams that seem to be teetering, the result of shoddy or illogical design. Again, though, when your concern causes you to look more closely, you see that there is a soundness underlying the apparent imbalance, that the critical load-bearing angles are all accounted for, and the whole haphazard apparatus is winking at you, like a kung-fu master pretending to be drunk.terrace

None of the human-made installations can come close in complex beauty to the lilypads, which appeared slowly over the spring like the footprints of some water-walking spirit beast, now sending up yellow balls of flowers. Over the past few months a massive, modern bridge has been constructed, parts of it ferried down the river or brought in rumbling trucks along the streets, lifted and welded into place in astonishing concatenations of metal, concrete, and petrochemical power. The bridge, though, at most will last a few hundred years. It will rust, erode, and fall apart—it cannot repair itself. The trees, however, lining the bank, consist of genetic information and seasonal cycles that bridge time rather than space, with growth and regrowth and self-repair spanning millions of years, connecting shores of biological epochs.

masksAnother riverside exhibit by Pascale Tayou features painted masks embedded in the embankment, the same three basic types repeated in different sizes and colors. The retaining wall grows its own embellishments, in the form of mosses whose degree of greenness indicates recent precipitation and humidity, and a quick-growing, flowering vine that I uprooted shoots of and planted in a broken tea-cup (the work of our dog when left alone). Time and weather had started to add their own tone and touches to the masks, until one day, municipal workers came to do restoration work.

Another city employee, on one of my ambulations, was sand-blasting away graffiti with a loud and grating sound, I thought, far more polluting than the artwork he was trying to remove. I have a fondness, anyway, for the tags and scripts that decorate the city. Because many of them are on the metal doors that the shops shutter themselves behind at night, there is a whole gallery that opens only after dark. What bothers me is the corporate graffiti, the incessant signs and advertisements, which take no risk nor imagination, and is far more profligate and eye-abusing. Like a dog pissing on every bush and sidewalk, ads and logos are messages devoid of content or meaning, merely a mark. Spray-painted graffitti, on the other hand, due to the variable air-pressure produced from a human finger on the nozzle, appears three dimensional, some lines heavier than others, pulling the viewer in towards unsuspected significance. Unlike the flat surface of advertisements, graffiti has depth. Spray-painting a wall takes courage—putting up a billboard just takes money.



My own contribution to the art along the river is this: I stack rocks on one another. There are a couple inconspicuous, tree shaded coves where I sit and try to get a good Inuksuk three or four stones high. The dog knocks it over with his nose, and I stack them up again. I consider it my tag, my signature graffitti.

The signs describing the artists and their work along the Saône call the whole project—in what is probably a glitch in translation—the “river movie.” Cinema, coincidentally, was essentially invented here in Lyon by the Lumiere brothers in 1895.

There is a french film worth watching (the full, sub-titled version should be embedded below) called La Belle Verte, written and directed by Coline Serreau and released in 1996. In it, an advanced, alien species that lives in complete harmony with nature sends ambassadors to various worlds. No one, however, wants to go to Earth, since they remember the planet as being polluted, backwards, and unduly attached to outmoded concepts like money and property. One of them, Mila, agrees to go, because her father made the journey a long time ago, and Milas’ mother, it turns out, was from Earth. The alien humanoids are telepathic, but they need water for their telepathy to function. When Mila first comes to Paris (gagging from the quality of the air) she makes her way to the Seine.

An interesting twist, I thought, would be if the power of the telepathy was dependent on water quality—pollution or chlorination resulting in diminished range, or degraded mental messages. Our river, the Saône, is downstream, I am told, from chemical plants, with signs warning residents not to eat the fish. We worry that it might not be safe for our dog to drink from, but he loves wading in up to his neck, not actually swimming but sitting down so most of his body is submerged, looking back at us over his shoulder.

As if trying to communicate…telepathy

There is an openness to the Lyonaise that I like, a willingness to nap publicly in the sun. Along the river, they make their own art. I’ve seen people playing music, juggling, dancing, kissing, reading, doing yoga, tai chi, or just sitting, staring at the sunlight on the waves.

All of which are forms of telepathy.


I’ve read two books in English since my last post (and a third while writing this one): Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon and The Religion by Tim Willocks. Against the Day was an astoundingly erudite saga of historiographic metafiction spanning the last decades of the 19th century and the first of the 20th, concerning industrialism, spiritualism, anarchism, revenge, adventure and revolt, with a bewildering variety of characters, settings, sub-plots, and irrelevant digressions. Pynchon writes as if possessed, which seems like the only possible reason that he could have absorbed so much information, so thoroughly. If my only purpose in trying to write novels was to write well, to display how much I know, then reading Against the Day would have made me give up. It made me keenly aware that I will never be able to hold a torch to Pynchon’s daylight. Another way to look at it, though, is that the evident genius of a novel like this one, its unapproachable depth of evocation, is exactly why I want to persist in trying to write: because it demonstrates, to my mind, how the act of composing prose makes you more knowledgeable than you would otherwise be, in a way that not even reading does. Pynchon is a writer because he is intelligent, but he is also intelligent because he writes.

I continue working on my novel, not so it will be seen, but so I can see more, and more clearly, than I do now, pushing myself to a new vantage point on top of piles of scribbled paper.

The Religion, too, is impressive in painting a florid historical setting, marshaling a host of well-researched particulars, but it remains, essentially, a two-dimensional backdrop against which a more or less conventional story is enacted. Mattias Tannhauser, a 16th century Janissary turned adventurer, falls in love with a beautiful aristocrat Carla (who he hears playing beautiful music, while waiting in a beautiful garden) and travels with her to Malta, which is being besieged by the Turks, in order to find her long-lost son, whose father is an inquisitor. Willock’s novel is entertaining and well-written, but you can’t help but feel that he had a list of atmospherically appropriate elements that he checked off one by one, and another list of formulaic character types (the brave but war-weary captain, the loyal friend, the evil priest, the love interest, the endangered child) to be slotted into the historically available roles.

Pynchon’s characters and situations, on the other hand, emerge from the setting itself, unable to exist in any other time or place. Which is ironic, because two of the main themes of the novel are time travel and bilocation, or existing in two places at once. There are also ghosts, vast subterranean worlds, and a talking dog. Pynchon’s style seems to be radical inclusivity, following up on every idea and impulse he has, saying yes and, mining to the end every absurdity and profundity. It results in a novel both exhaustive and exhausting, and my only complaint would be that at times he doesn’t seem to take his own narrative seriously. Everything is just another post-modern jape, a novel aware of itself as such, a writer who is always winking—but still, out of that one eye he sees so much. Here is a short passage:

“It was said that great tunnels like the Simplon or St. Gotthard were haunted, that when the train entered and the light of the world, day or night, had to be abandoned for the time of passage however brief, and the mineral roar made conversation impossible, then certain spirits who once had chosen to surrender into the fierce intestinal darkness of the mountain would reappear among the paying passengers, take empty seats, drink negligibly from the engraved glassware in the dining cars, assume themselves into the rising shapes of tobacco smoke, whisper a propaganda of memory and redemption to salesmen, tourists, the resolutely idle, the uncleansably rich, and other practitioners of forgetfulness, who could not sense the visitors with anything like the clarity of fugitives, exiles, mourners, and spiers—all those, that is, who had reached agreement, even occasions of intimacy, with Time” (741)

Reef Traverse, whose father was murdered by the capitalist robber-baron Scarsdale Vibe, is visited by one such train-tunnel-ghost who exhorts him to revenge.I was thinking of that part of the book just after we had picked up our dog from his previous owners, walking through the Croix-Rousse tunnel in Lyon. There are actually two tunnels, side by side, one for automobile traffic and one for pedestrians and public buses. The latter is filled with its own kind of ghostly apparitions: eerie ambient music, and spectral video cast onto the walls from high-powered projectors mounted in the ceiling, showing abstract shapes, or shadowed silhouettes of runners, dancers, and acrobats, but in one section displaying one of the first moving pictures ever made: Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory in Lyon (1895).

The tunnel, like the haunted one in the novel, is a collapse of time. Different technologies are overlapped, the original film, the projection, and then the kids taking pictures of the movie on the walls with their cell-phones. It was impressive the first time we walked through it, but after multiple visits you realize that the audio-visual display is (like with visits from ghosts) stuck in an unchanging loop. The banks of the river, over the months, have exploded in white and purple flowers, sent up shoots of grass, then vines twisting themselves up the shoots (impermenance wrapped on impermenance), thrown raging parties for butter and dragonflies, and provided innumerable light-dappled spots for sun-bathing lizards. The tunnel, in the end, is just a glorified screen-saver.

After Against the Day, the next Pynchon novel I read, Bleeding Edge, was disappointing. Pynchon’s gifts of obsessive detail and pervasive paranoia, so effective when applied to the pre-war American past, seem superfluous when devoted to New York around September, 2001, a time and place already obsessively studied and pervaded with paranoia. Despite patches of interesting description, episode, and character, it reads like a standard detective novel, without the satisfaction of an unequivocal solution. Bleeding Edge is the first Pynchon novel I have read that feels like it could have been written by someone other than Thomas Pynchon.



A few nights ago, taking the dog out for his final pre-bed pee-time, I heard, then saw a small group of college-age kids, two of whom were playing music, with the others listening. Guitar and a muted trumpet. Walking past them on my way back, they broke into a rendition of “Space Oddity” and I had to stop to listen, singing along on the chorus. They offered me a beer, which I accepted, and then walked back up to the apartment to grab my mandolin.

The mandolin is an ideal instrument for accompaniment; you can play along with musicians better than you, and songs that you don’t know, without interfering too much, just adding accents here and there. It can be used to hear the music of others, rather than to be heard. To build modest structures of wood, or stacks of unsteady rocks, rather than shiny metal. We played some Johnny Cash, and some Grateful Dead. They looked up lyrics on their cell-phones. I practiced my French, and they their English. Living in a foreign country, you get used to sounding like an idiot. It doesn’t matter—the thing is just to speak. To gradually improve. As I listened to them play, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be them. They said they were students, engineers. After a while I put my mandolin away and just sat, listening, before I finished my beer and left.

This kind of thing happens more often than you would think by the river. Brief, telepathic encounters with strangers you will never see again. Kind of like the internet. Posting about books, I suppose, is like walking with a dog: an excuse to start conversations.

One of the funny things about my dog is that he doesn’t understand how to play the game of fetch. He runs after a stick, finds it, and then tries to keep it. To get him to drop it you have it fool him with another stick. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I don’t want to get stuck in the mode of mere acquisition, finding knowledge, possessions, music, writing, whatever, and locking my teeth around it. Not seeing that there is a larger game to be played.

The world has thrown so much to me, so many lovely sticks. I want to bring them back. To strangers, but more importantly to the people that I love. Music, writing, theories, books. I want to find those things and drop them at your feet.


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