Tag Archives: lit crit

the kinetic nature of A and H

26 Apr

After months of carrying it from place to place, drawing looks and raised eyebrows and questions and guffaws, I’ve finally finished Adam Levin’s The Instructions. I’ll probably write a bit about it here, but for now, here’s an excerpt from the novel, a chunk I’ve been typing out since I read this passage, way back on page 414.


Name: Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee

Grade: 5 6 7 8

Homeroom: The Cage

Date: 11/15/2006

Complaint Against Student (from Complaint Against Student Sheet)

Fistfight with Ronrico Asparagus and on top of that assaulting Michael Bregman by spitting on the guy. Gym locker-room. 2nd Period. 11/14/06. Mr. Desormie.

Step 5 Assignment: Write a letter to yourself in which you explain 1) why you are at step 5 (in-school suspension), 2) what you could do in order to avoid step 5 (receiving in-school suspension) in the future, 3) what you have learned from being at step 5 (in-school suspension), 4) what you have learned from writing this letter to yourself. Include a Title, an Introduction, a Body, and a Conclusion. This letter will be collected at the end of in-school suspension. This letter will be stored in your permanent file.


Kinetic Principles of Your A and H


1. Attention (A) must fix itself on something. Once a thing is fixed on, that thing demands concentration.

2. If we measure A in units, and we assert that 100 units of A = the amount of A it takes to concentrate on one typical task (one fullthing), then most people in the world have exactly 100 units.

3. Some people, like me and Benji Nakamook, have more units of A than are needed to concentrate on a fullthing. People like us have 175 units of A. These people will henceforth be known as You.


Hardly anything in the world demands exactly 75 A-units for concentration, let alone 175.

Normal Places

In normal places, ones that are filled with brief actions and randomness, there are, in addition to some fullthings, thousands of things for A to fix on that are not full. Therefore, if You are in one of these normal places, it is not unlikely that Your A will fix on a set of things that, together, demand exactly 175 unites = It is likely, in a normal place, that You will be able to concentrate on whatever things You’re doing = Your A probably won’t get D’d.

Abnormal Places

In abnormally still and quiet places like classrooms, although there are many available fullthings for A to fix on—many available things that demand exactly 100 units of A—there are hardly any that demand less than 100 units. Fidgeting, for example, demands just 10-20 units, depending on the intricacy of the fidget. Another 20-30 units, depending on the quality of the sound, may be demanded by the task of listening to the background noise that gets past where Your earlids would be if You had any. But even if while concentrating on one fullthing, You fidget and listen to noise 25-45 more units remain, and all of them must fix on something.

The Remainder

What the remainder fixes on will be the nearest thing, which—as You are in a place containing few breif actions and little randomness—is almost always going to be a fullthing.

Because a fullthing demands 100 units of A for concentration, the 25-45 unit remainder is insufficient.

But even if You don’t fidget or listen to noise—even if Your 175 units of A are divided between only two fullthings—You are still 25 units shy of the A required to concentrate on both: While 200 units are being demanded by a pair of fullthings, only 175 are available, and that is why the fullthings enter into a cycle of thievery.

An Ultimately Doomed, However Momentarily Useful, Analogy

To understand the thievery cycle, it is a little bit useful to think of A-units as electrons—to think of A as being stolen back and forth between fullthings to fill their concentration-demands the way electrons get traded between bonded atoms to complete their outer-rings.

With atoms, the trading of the electrons happens at the speed of light—so fast that it is as if at any given time, each atom has a full outer ring, which is why it is only a little bit useful think of A like electrons: A does not move nearly as fast as light, and so A is never as if in more than one place at a time. When demanded A arrives at one fullthing, that fullthing holds onto it for a second or two while the other fullthing demands it back; not only that, but the A takes time to travel from one fullthing to the other.

So then, with two fullthings demanding Your A, the following four arrangements cycle over a period of seconds.:

1. Fullthing1 has 100 units and Fullthing2 has 75 units

2. Fullthing1 has 75 units, Fullthing2 has 75 units, and 25 units are traveling from Fullthing1 to Fullthing2

3. Fullthing1 has 75 units, Fullthing2 has 100 units

4. Fullthing1 has 75 units, Fullthing2 has 75 units, and 25 units are traveling from Fullthing2 to Fullthing1

In a vacuum, this cycle would repeat forever, but You are never in a vacuum. This cycle is only the beginning of a larger one.

The Larger One

Within a few passes, something, usually a fullthing, will get in the path of the traveling A-units (i.e., during arrangement 2 or 4) and the units will fix on that something so that now there are three fullthings demanding concentration = three fullthings demanding 100 units each. This not only decreases the frequency at which each fullthing within the cycle possesses 100 units, but increases the overall number of units being demanded at any given time. Worse than that, the amount of time that the A is in transit increases, which creates more opportunities for things—again, usually fullthings—to get in the path of your traveling A. The process thereby continues to degrade at an exponential rate. Nonetheless, it is not an entropic process. If it were entropic, it would eventually stabilize—single units of your A would come to free-float around the universe, fixing on and being stolen from so many random things, both fullthings and non-, that you could never concentrate again. That very sad kind of math, baruch Hashem, is entirely avoided by means of hyper (H).

A Blessing

H is a blessing. Here is how it arises:

After a certain number of things—usually between 9 and 11, depending on how many are fullthings—have entered the cycle, the paths of the traveling A criss-cross and the A begins to act like a thing, itself = the traveling A itself demands A = You get distracted by the fact of Your distraction = You find Yourself paying attention to Your attention.

And paying attention to Your attention, You find Yourself.

Before, You operated as if the A was You, as if it was You being divided and shuffled between fullthings. But now that the A has begun to demand A, You—the most basic You, the part of You that never changes, the part this is always there, that has been there, watching—You think: If I can pay attention to my attention, then I must be something other than my attention. You don’t actually think that so much as You watch it get thought, yet it’s at this point that You come to know, however briefly, that You are neither Your A, nor what Your A fixes on, but a soul. This is where You find out, for the billionth time, that You are partly God. If You were not partly God, how could something like A, something that emanates from you, demand anything of You? If there were no God in You, how could something like A, something that is completely subject to Your will, be capable of willing things on its own, much less things that go against Your will? It couldn’t. And it is here that You become hyper = here You watch, in softer focus that is normally comfortable, every insufficiently concentrated-upon thing that You A has fixed on at once, and You respond to all of it, at once. You do not necessarily respond in ways that are best for the world around You, but You respond to everything. You respond to everything in some way or another because that is the nature of the most basic You, the nature of your God. The nature of God is hyper.


Unlike God, You are not all God (although God is not all of God, all of God is God: where much of You is made of something else like blood and bones and muscle, He has nothing but Him; He is only God minus the pieces of Himself that are inside of us) so you cannot remain for all too long.

After a few minutes of H, the A units spasm like an overworked muscle. They lose their fix on the things they have fixed on, and the things they had been fixed on no longer demand them. Now only You demand them and so your A returns to You, a few units at a time. How long it all takes to amass depends on how far the units that were fixed on the farthest thing have to travel. Once it’s all gathered in You, the A quits spazzing and the cycle starts over.

For Further Consideration

The question arises as to whether or not Your A can be aggregated with the A of other Yous in such a way as to satisfy the concentration-demands of fullthings.

I.e. Suppose there are 4 Yous. With 175 A-units per You, the aggregate number of A-units is 700, which is exactly as many A-units as it takes to concentrate on 7 fullthings.

So, if A can be aggregated, then 4 Yous should be able to concentrate on 7 fullthings at once = 4 Yours should be able to perform the tasks of 7 normal people within the same amount of time and space as it would take 4 normal people to perform 4 tasks. In concentrating on 7 fullthings, then—if 4 Yous can in fact aggregate their A to do so—4 Yous would not become hyper; the kind of A-unit slippage that leads to the thievery cycle that occurs when 1 You attempts concentration on 2 fullthings would never begin, for there would be no remainder of A-units in the case of 4 Yous and 7 fullthings.

And just because 4 Yous who are concentrated on 7 fullthings would almost definitely look very H to an outsider, that does not make it so. Looking H to the eyes of outsiders may, in fact, be to the advantage of 4 Yous.

E.g. If 4 Yous were soldiers, the 4 Yous could conceivably prepare for and maybe even launch a war’s decisive battle right in front of their enemy without their enemy knowing it = The appearance of the 4 Yous’ H-ness could provide a kind of cover similar to that of David ben-Jesse’s youth or the Yiddish accent of that Palmach operative’s telephone voice when he gave fair warning to the British. For what did Goliath see from across the battlefield? He didn’t see a killer taking aim with a deadly weapon. He saw a boy inexplicably swinging a leather strap over his head. A moment later, Goliath was gone. And what did the British colonists hear when the operative phoned in the Palmach’s warning to vacate the King David Hotel? They didn’t hear the voice of a stealth guerrilla group that was about to explode British headquarters. They heard a nut with a Yiddish accent making a prank call. A couple hours later, there was one less place for the Brits to sleep, and quite a few less Brits.

The capacity to aggregate A would be a very useful capacity. Whether or not such a capacity exists, and how one (or 4 or 8 or 12 or 40) might engage it if it does exist, is surely worth further consideration.

a low, embryonic woofing: on “Buzzards”

21 Feb

I thought I’d read everything worth reading in The Best American Essays 2008, but on an odd Saturday not that long ago, I took it from the shelf and browsed the Contents. At the very bottom: “Buzzards,” by Lee Zacharias. I don’t know why today it caught my eye when before it must not have. But I turned to p 260 and began reading.

She had me at “They woof.” In an empty parking lot, Zacharias is photographing a group of vultures, the proper name for what we call buzzards, and she describes the sound:

I am in the middle of a flock of black vultures, a vortex, maypole for this uneasy circle dance in which they weave and run at one another, raising their ragged wings and thrusting their gnarly gray heads. I would not call the sound they make a grunt or a hiss, nor a croaking coo, nor a snarl; it is more a low, embryonic woofing.

Their lack of voice is a major theme throughout the essay. “Lacking a syrinx…they are incapable of song. … The bird’s muteness sits upon its shoulders. It knows what death tastes like, but cannot speak of the flavor.” Which offers for consideration the other major theme: death. An inevitable road for an essay on “scavengers, consumers of carrion.”

Coragyps atratus. From the Greek korax, meaning “raven,” and gyps, meaning “vulture,” Latin atratus, “clothed in black, as in mourning.” The Grim Reaper’s hooded cloak, wing-like sleeves, and protruding skeletal feet all come to us as a personification of the black vulture. … The Latin vulturus means “tearer.” Give voice to the word and you cannot distinguish it from terror.

Her writing is full of such internal references, textual markers pointing back to previous sights or foreshadowing others, her choice of language reinforcing her themes. In the above passage, “Give voice to the word” is a direct reference to the vulture’s lack of one, discussed only lines before. In a later scene, she’s sitting at a table, having dinner, and she writes, “We picked at our food and waited for the meal to be over”—a subtle allusion to the buzzard’s eating habits.

The essay is structured around a second narrative, that of Zacharias’ father’s death. At first it seems her father is there as a peripheral character of anecdotal necessity: “To photograph birds requires a great deal of equipment. I paid for most of mine…with money I inherited from my father. He would not have approved.” But as his story is interwoven—far from flawlessly, but well enough—the essay becomes Memento-like in its structure: flashcuts to her childhood, to her father’s interests, habits, and tragic end shown in a sort of muted gray, while the main story continues in vivid Technicolor. In the middle, it begins to sag, as the liveliness of the main discussion overshadows the familial narrative, and one begins to wonder if this isn’t just a contrived construction: weaving in a family death to add some human-scale emotional poignancy to an essay otherwise strictly concerned with the avian. But by the end, she begins to take more time with her father, turning over larger and larger stones and revealing a story as gripping as its counterpart.

He filled his time by fixing things, so many things it seems now as if everything we owned must have broken. He gave to objects the kind of attention he could not deliver to people. …I have no recollection of his hands, no memory of the texture of the skin or the shape of his nails. He had beautiful handwriting, but no inclination for words.

The best part of the piece is the time Zacharias spends dismantling the imagery and associations we have with vultures, not just within contemporary American culture, but around the world. Peruvian ceremonies, Iroquois legends, Hindu beliefs—vultures are carriers of the human spirit, as well as gatekeepers of hell. Tibetans feed the vultures their dead.

… Sky burial is regarded as a final act of charity in which the deceased provides food to sustain living things, and the Tibetan name for the practice, jhator, means giving alms to the birds. Interference with jhator is a serious breach of Tibetan religion, in which the vultures, sacred messengers called dakinis, the Tibetan equivalent of angels, are believed to carry the soul up to heaven.



As I read the essay, I couldn’t help but think of Andrew Bird’s “Carrion Suite.” As if he knew all that Zacharias did—and I wouldn’t put it past him—the song seems to dwell not on the deathly associations of the bird but on this otherness, the oddities and cultural paradoxes it enjoys. Glen Kotche’s loose but hypnotic rhythms with dark crashes on China cymbals touch on both the foreignness of the bird and those cultures that invite them to eat their dead; Bird’s violin offers the dirge of voices calling them. But then, I think that if the (aptly named) Bird had known all this, he couldn’t have included “Carrion Suite” on an album titled Useless Creatures. It would’ve had to be on the other half of his simultaneous release: Noble Beast.