Margo Timmins, Pushkin and the Wisdom of the Knicks

I want to return now and then to the original format of this column: several loosely linked items. Beginning this week with …

1 A Withdrawn Marriage Proposal. Faithful readers might recall that a couple of years ago I wrote an appreciation–well, it was a little more intense than that–of Roseanne Cash as a singer and songwriter, in the form of a marriage proposal. Complete with my “Top 10 Reasons Why You Should Marry Me” (sample reason–”No. 3: I really, really understand the secret subtext to your most sad and beautiful song–’Sleeping in Paris’–which everyone else gets wrong”).

Faithful readers might also recall Ms. Cash’s charming reply in a letter to The Observer : that although she was happily married, she planned to hang my column on a wall and any time she felt her husband took her for granted she would point to it and tell him she had “other options.”

It was a lovely thing to say, and although doubtless meant tongue-in-cheek on her part, I took it extremely seriously and have forsaken all others to wait at home for her call. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) But now I think my strategy has backfired and that good-for-nothin’ husband–having seen the writing on the wall, so to speak–has adjusted his attitude enough to save his marriage.

Well, I’m not content to wait around anymore, to be used as a pawn in her little game . To be just an “other option.” And so I am here by withdrawing my marriage proposal to Roseanne Cash. And instead I am shifting the entire weight of my devotion and my hopes for earthly happiness to someone more worthy. I am hereby proposing to Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies.

This is not something brand-new. It’s been on my mind, on my “Things to Do” list (pay cable bill, propose to Margo Timmins) for some time now. I’m not sure when it started. Was it when I first heard her mesmerizing, husky and tender cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane”? Or maybe it was the time, in a strange loft which she shared with a Jungian analyst who advocated high colonics, that my friend Elizabeth Wurtzel played me her special tape of the all-time saddest wrist-slitting tragic love songs, and it featured no fewer than three Margo Timmins numbers, including the utterly devastating “‘Cause Cheap Is How I Feel.” (The author of Prozac Nation may be controversial to some, but she does have an unerring instinct for deeply depressing songs.)

It is my belief that the saddest songs are sung by those who have known the moments of greatest joy; the fall is more precipitate, the loss more profound. And I think Margo Timmins understands this. There are some lines from Pushkin I came across recently that tell the story behind the beautiful sadness in Margo Timmins’ voice. Pushkin asks:

Why I see everything with desolation,

And don’t enjoy the pleasant dream of life …

Who once has loved can never love again;

Who once knew happiness has used his ration.

A moment’s bliss is all our bliss can be …

We’re left at last with nothing but ennui … (translated by Alexander Volokh)

That’s it, that ennui. That’s what Margo Timmins brings to the realm of sad song sorcery, what makes her the true Queen of Sorrow. Not a puny, effete ennui, but a profound ennui: the ennui of the post-ecstatic aftermath, of the pale loiterer in Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” An ennui beyond mere boredom and sorrow. It’s there in “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning.” It’s there in “Where Are You Tonight?” and in “If You Were the Woman.” It’s there in spades in “Lost My Drivin’ Wheel.” It’s the hopelessness that goes beyond any one loss to Total Loss, the loss even of a sense of loss, the loss that leaves only the embers of ennui behind.

I feel I really understand this. I feel I could give this gift of true understanding to Margo Timmins. I know I don’t have much of a realistic hope. I’ve deliberately tried to avoid knowing anything about her personal life, my devotion is purer than that. But I have noticed that there is an individual named “Michael Timmins” listed on all the albums as songwriter and sometimes singer. And I guess any rational person would abandon hope with the assumption that this is the husband. But, hey, maybe he’s just her brother . And, anyway, even if he’s the husband, they’ve been on the road touring for 10 years. That’s a long time. I’m banking on ennui.

2 Life Lessons From the Knicks. As someone who–as the preceding item might suggest–suffers from a severe lifelong deficit of practicality, I’ve always been drawn to the hidden practical wisdom, the esoteric life lessons to be found within sports and coaching clichés, the inspirational insight of halftime harangues and sideline sermons.

My favorite example is something I picked up in the smudgy background of a Daily News photo of the Giants’ locker room, back in the Bill Parcells Super Bowl era. The sign read, simply and starkly:

1. EXPECT NOTHING

2. BLAME NOBODY

3. DO SOMETHING

I don’t know where it came from originally. But it seemed to me to be a brilliant minimalist guide to one of the trickiest practical problems in life: how to react to adversity and injustice.

The more I studied it, the more wisdom it seemed to yield. For instance, Expect Nothing doesn’t mean proceed with no expectations , or low expectations. What it really means is abandon a sense of entitlement , the expectation that you’re owed something by life, by the past, by others, by Fate. That you deserve something and will get it because you deserve it, as if the world was ever in the business of handing out just deserts. Expect Nothing, not just as a way of avoiding disappointment, but as a way of mobilizing the desire to go out and get something.

Then, consider Blame Nobody. Which doesn’t mean nobody’s to blame. There are plenty of people to blame, including oneself. This isn’t some hippy-dippy Buddhist no-guilt thing. What it really means, I think, is don’t waste time on the blaming process. It’s utterly draining and only exacerbates the injury rather than speeds the recovery from it (or the revenge for it).

Finally, Do Something seems on the surface obvious, but I don’t think it means do anything . It means put the energy you save from expecting and blaming, that wounded sense of entitlement many (not me, of course) react to adversity with–and put the energy saved into choosing what something to do.

By the way, I’m not saying I’ve learned to follow this advice, but at least I know to respect its wisdom. But in any case, I’ve been thinking about some of the key clichés to emerge from the recent Knicks coverage, which I’ve been following with Talmudic attentiveness. (I thought William Berlind’s recent piece in these pages on the sportswriters’ feud over Jeff Van Gundy’s petulant refusal to play Marcus Camby was really valuable.) And I feel there are Life Lessons to be learned in some of the most salient current clichés about the Knicks.

Consider “Creating Off the Dribble.” This is not as obscene as it sounds in isolation. It generally refers to a talent Latrell Sprewell has brought to the Knicks: By cutting and driving to the hoop with a hard dribble he may not get there himself, but he creates –creates opportunities for other teammates when the defense collapses on him, leaving him a chance to dish to the outside now-open man. And opportunities for himself when the panic generated by his attack on the hoop causes confusion, opens up seams in the defense for him to exploit. It’s another way of saying Do Something as opposed to standing around Expecting Something when Patrick posts up–which is what the Knicks used to do.

Now consider Knicks Cliché No. 2: “Scoring Off Transition.” Another quality the new Knicks now have to supplement their once sclerotic half-court game. Scoring off transition: Think about it. It’s about taking advantage of change. Turning chaos into opportunity, welcoming the open-endedness, the unexpectedness of life, the often scary but sometimes liberating momentary opportunity and turning it into an asset rather than a threat.

Then there’s “Presence on the Floor.” This is something Marcus Camby has given the Knicks. He is the real Phantom Menace, because he frightens opponents even when he’s not in their face. Because they’ve seen his ability to virtually materialize at will anywhere on the floor (and 10 feet above it) with the serpentine fluidity of his shot-blocking, follow-on-jamming, mind-scrambling wingspan. He’s there even when he’s not there, because they fear he’s there. It’s very Zen.

Then there’s that old coaches’ favorite, “Movement Without the Ball.” In basketball terms (in Life Lessons terms as well), it means, don’t just stand around when the spotlight’s not on you, when you’re not the center of attention. Get busy, create presence on the floor that distracts the defense from trapping or doubling the guy with the ball. Be less selfish about your role. It’s not always about you.

And finally there is the phrase you hear Jeff Van Gundy yelling from the sidelines when the Knicks go on defense and are not matching up with the people they are supposed to defend. “Put a Body on Someone!” I’m sure there’s a deeper meaning for this, but even the initial, superficial level is pretty profound.

3 The Queen of Spades . I went to the “Pushkin 200″ bicentenary celebration at Carnegie Hall because Svetlana, an expatriate Russian opera singer, wanted to go. There would be Russian opera stars doing arias from Pushkin-based operas, Svetlana said, and famous Russian TV personalities reading Pushkin in Russian, with Ralph Fiennes (who plays Pushkin’s Byronic Eugene Onegin in a forthcoming film) reading the poems in English. Svetlana loves Pushkin and sang the role of Princess Polina in The Queen of Spades on the Moscow opera stage, before immigrating to Brighton Beach.

It’s a haunting story, “The Queen of Spades,” one I’ve had a thing for ever since I’d first painstakingly and clumsily translated it in high school in the final year of my doomed effort to master Russian. An effort initially begun because I believed a Soviet conquest of America was imminent (I didn’t favor it, just–in my gloomy way–expected it).

Svetlana believes that Pushkin truly expresses the Russian soul; one of the speakers at the Pushkin 200 night said that Pushkin is to Russian literature what Shakespeare is to English. And setting aside the wonderful epic-scale Onegin no single story of Pushkin seems to express his elusive essence so much as “The Queen of Spades.” While Onegin contains multitudes and multiple moods, “The Queen of Spades” is all elegant radical simplicity, or so it seems at first.

You probably know the story of “The Queen of Spades.” A German soldier named Hermann serving the Czar watches his friends gamble with a mesmerized intensity but never risks a ruble. Not until he hears a story from his more romantic fellow officer Tomsky. A story about Tomsky’s grandmother, an aging countess who has a gaming secret: a secret three-card sequence that she was given by the Count Saint-Germain, that misterioso Mephistophelean figure in European court circles of the time who, as Tomsky puts it, “held himself out to be the Wandering Jew and the inventor of the elixir of life, the philosopher’s stone and the like.”

To help her escape from a huge, potentially compromising gambling debt, Saint-Germain gave the Countess the secret three-card sequence which allowed her to win a fortune and save her reputation. When Hermann, the previously cautious anti-gambler, hears the story, he becomes obsessed with obtaining the countess’ secret. He counterfeits a mad romantic passion for the countess’ lady-in-waiting, Lisaveta, who, in her loneliness, falls for it. Hermann gets her to give him access to the countess’ chamber. When the countess refuses to divulge the three-card sequence, Hermann draws a gun on her, causing the frail lady to drop dead of fright. But at the funeral, when Hermann gazes at her casket, he thinks he sees the dead countess wink at him. And that night, he receives a visitation from a woman in white who whispers to him the three-card sequence: three, seven, ace. Then Hermann worms his way into the richest game in town, stakes a fortune on the three card and wins. Returns to double his stakes the next night on a seven. Wins. Returns the third night to stake all he has on the appearance of an ace. Instead, what turns up is the Queen of Spades. Who gives the now-ruined and devastated Hermann a sly wink.

This is how Pushkin’s epilogue concludes: “Hermann went mad. He is now installed in Room 17 at the Obukhov Hospital; he answers no questions; but merely mutters with unusual rapidity: ‘Three, seven, ace! Three, seven, queen!’ Tomsky has been promoted to the rank of captain and is going to marry Princess Polina.” End of story.

In the past I’d been transfixed by the sudden chilling specificity of that detail: Room 17. I think I’ve glimpsed Room 17 now and then. Never opened the door, but I’ve known it was there. The final resting place for people who propose marriage to Margo Timmins. It was only this time, however, while reading “The Queen of Spades” in preparation for going to the Pushkin 200 evening with Svetlana, who sang the role of Princess Polina, that I began to get an inkling, a glimmer of something I hadn’t seen before–in that final sentence about Tomsky and Princess Polina.

Why does Pushkin make such a point of Tomsky’s promotion and his marriage to Princess Polina? Is this supposed to be a happy ending, a reward for virtue? Or is it, I now wondered, the triumph of a scheming Machiavelli, even a Mephistopheles?

Tomsky is portrayed as a rather dashing romantic; he engages in a lively battle of flirtation with Princess Polina and contrasts himself with the stolid and calculating German, Hermann. It is Tomsky who wickedly inflames Lisaveta’s susceptible romanticism with his misrepresentation of Hermann as the ultimate embodiment of Romanticism: “He has the profile of a Napoleon and the soul of a Mephistopheles.”

So it’s a ploy, but what if Tomsky is not just trying to help a friend? What if it is Tomsky who has the “soul of a Mephistopheles,” setting up Hermann to be his Faust (with a temptation direct from Mephistopheles manqué Count Saint-Germain). A temptation to trade his soul for supernatural favors: Faust’s temptation.

“The Queen of Spades” seems at first to be a critique of the false romanticism Hermann counterfeits for Lisaveta, all rhetoric and no soul, and thus, implicitly, an affirmation of true romanticism. But Pushkin might be playing a different game, dealing from a different deck of cards. A deeper, more divided game reflecting the division in his soul over Romanticism itself. Slyly suggesting a Mephistophelean impulse at the core of all Romanticism. It’s definitely one of the first things I hope to discuss with Margo Timmins once she’s accepted my marriage proposal.