Friday, December 22, 2006

Carl Sagan blog-a-thon

Joel Schlosberg has launched a Carl Sagan blog-a-thon to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Sagan's passing on December 20.

I've been trying to write something about Carl Sagan ever since Trev and I received the 25th anniversary Cosmos DVD set. I got obsessed with it, watching the disks literally every night for several months. This was during the height of W. madness, the fascist cult of personality and war delirium that is only beginning to abate. (The war itself, of course, looks to be escalating.) I remember thinking how much we need Carl Sagan, now more than ever. Various folks are playing some of his roles, with decent success--Brian Greene on astronomy, Al Gore on global warming--but I can't think of anyone who has celebrated human reason with such passion. The first five minutes of Cosmos make it clear that understanding science, harnessing humanity's powers to explore our universe, engenders far more reverence for the universe than any religious teaching. The Bible, while containing some interesting stories, is static. Seeking answers in the same stories over and over is a travesty of our human potential. Unless we continue to look up and out we are stunted. In the middle of the Cold War, heading into Reagan's free-for-all of ignorance and selfishness, Sagan was goofily optimistic, delighting in what humans have achieved and what we have yet to find out. In Leonardo Da Vinci's workshop, he sketched out a spaceship that would support life for the generations it would take to travel to the nearest stars.

I still pull out a Cosmos disk at random every month or so. I think for me it's a kind of prayer.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Sweet and Low (down)

The holidays are upon us, and I feel like bashing Woody Allen again. Every time I watch a movie of his that I used to like, I'm struck by the misogyny that forms the warp and woof of his stories. It may even go back to Sleeper; it definitely is more pronounced in the later films. The disillusioning film of the moment, courtesy once again of the San Carlos Library, is Sweet and Lowdown. I remember recommending this film wholeheartedly to my parents, then rushing out to buy Django Reinhardt CDs. I suppose the latter is something I can still be grateful for. But despite all Sean Penn's hard (you might even say sweaty) work, the film still has Woody's peevish little fingerprints all over it. First, and most prominently: the fantasy of the mute woman with a voracious sexual appetite who shrugs off verbal abuse because she knows "he doesn't mean it." God. But along with misogyny is the general resentment of all who don't recognize the great artist's talents. This occurred to me in a dream as I dozed off on the couch before the ending. Emmett Ray is the second best jazz guitarist in the world, the best being the European Django Reinhardt. In the past Allen carried on about how he wanted to make movies like Ingmar Bergman. I'm not sure whom he blames for his failure to come close to Bergman or even to Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze--maybe it's Mia's fault. In Sweet and Lowdown, the two women in Emmett's life tell him he'd be a better musician if he'd let his feelings out...but this can't be Woody's problem. What he'd let out would be a torrent of bitterness toward everyone, especially women, who fails to worship him (see Deconstructing Harry).

I used to think liking Woody Allen represented a certain level of sophistication, but now it seems like pseudo-sophistication--the very people he makes fun of in his movies are the only ones who would think the movies are profound.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Reading the river

There's no substitute for setting a draft aside and letting it cool. What not to do: get feedback, revise, and send out immediately after revising. The temptation is exceedingly powerful, but I've realized that I now can feel it physically when something isn't right. I'm learning to override my tendency to say "oh well, that spot's not important." Every spot is important. After I've rested the piece, I can read through and sense where there's trouble, sort of like an eddy or a hidden rock in the river. (I take this metaphor from whitewater kayaking; my cousins who do this like to walk alongside the part of the river they're going to run and "read" it beforehand.) I have to go to that spot and work through it. Often it's a fundamental flaw in the concept of the story, which is probably why my instinct is to avoid it. On the other hand, I usually can figure out a solution, and it's often a leap forward that strengthens the whole story. In other words, that eddy is an opportunity.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Two days before vacation

and all is stressful. Every time I think I'm on top of the task list, something goes haywire. Usually it's something small and stupid, and that makes the stress worse, because I get upset about being upset. I am trying to teach myself to see the big picture. When I look back on my life, will I remember this day? Will I remember petty misunderstandings, or worse, how I overreacted to them?

I remember a few years back somebody, some cultural thinker, said "we" don't dream about computers. Somehow they hadn't yet become iconic or symbolic in the subconscious. But I dream about email all the time. And I answer it; I work hard composing real answers to absurd questions, and then I wake up and all the work was for nothing. This has to stop. A friend of mine swore off email about a year ago, sending out, in her last electronic communication, her snail mail and phone number. I haven't called or written since then.

I need to get out of the office.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Antlia Pneumatica

A few months ago at a used bookstore, I picked up Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, written in 1963 by one Richard Hinckley Allen. Turning to a random page, I find:

Antlia Pneumatica, The Air Pump,

is La Caille's Machine Pneumatique, at first Latinized as Machina Pneumatica (which occurs in Burritt, and is the Italian name); but astronomers know it as simple Antlia. In Germany it is the Luft Pumpe.
The constellation lies just sount of Crater and Hydra, bordering on the Vela of Argo along the branches of the Milky Way, and culminates on the 6th of April; Gould assigning it eighty-five naked-eye stars.
He thinks that [alpha], the red lucida, may be a variable, as his observers had variously noted as of from the 4th to the 5th magnitude, and Argelander entered both of these.
La Caille's [beta] lies within the present limits of Hydra.
Although inconspicuous, and without any named star, Antlia is of special interest to astronomers from containing the noted variable S, discovered in 1888 by Paul of Washington, and confirmed by Sawyer. Chandler gives its maximum as 6.7 and its minimum as 7.3, the period being 7 hours, 46 minutes, 48 seconds,--the shortest known until it was supplanted by U Pegasi with a period of 5 1/2 hours.

So many questions...like, who is Paul of Washington? Extrapolating from the index, which refers me back to this page (43), I gather he was an astronomer, Henry Martin Paul. Not an American apostle.

I googled Antlia for more information and came across the very same quotation posted on this blog about archeoastronomy.

And this site tells us that the Air Pump was named in 1752 after the invention by Robert Boyle.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

West Wing

Watching West Wing (season 4) on DVD...I'm finding the experience really uncomfortable. That's because the show portrays an intelligent, engaged, genuinely caring president and his all-of-the-above staff. I find it shocking to confront how little I believe in any of that anymore. I picture the Bush White House, to the extent that I picture it at all, as a sort of dark circus. Bush making fart jokes and banging rocks together during meetings. Really, the notions of competence and public service don't enter into it. At one time I probably did believe in our government, which is why West Wing makes me so sad. I wonder how many people watched it during the Bush years and felt the same dissonance. How could you not feel it?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Procrastination or healthy re-reading?

I've spent the last few sessions on my novel re-reading and tweaking. I have been given to understand, over the years, that this is procrastination. I should be forging boldly and messily forward, not caring whether what I write makes sense later. I've never been good at that. But I also feel like I need to understand what's happening so far, and tease out some of the implications so that I can expand on them. I worry about swerving irretrievably off course.

I must say that as of today I like my novel, better than I thought I would. However, the original main character has thus far been completely excised from the story. I have lots of material about him that I may not get to use...or will I? If I don't, it probably means leaving the story in a fictionalized version of Bakersfield, which I had previously intended the other and current main character to leave. Sadly, I know very little about Bakersfield, so this means a research trip. Also, maybe, I'll go to Trona.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Ruining "The Cherry Orchard"

I went to a very interesting talk a few weeks ago by James Loehlin of U.T. Austin. The talk was called "Stanislavsky Has Ruined My Play," which is what Chekhov said about the Moscow Art Theater's extremely realistic and lugubrious presentation of The Cherry Orchard. But Chekhov meant it to be a comedy. The ensuing performance history of this play is a battle between humorous (usually more absurdist) and tragic (realistic) stagings. Because Stanislavsky's version was so widely seen, it's had the strongest influence on all subsequent performances--which is why, if you've seen the play or the film (I'm thinking of the recent one by Michael Cacoyannis) you've most likely seen an elegeic and depressingly boring story. But if you play up the humor, as Stanford's Drama Department's version did, and take up the invitation to absurdity, the play is fascinating. It still has very sad moments, and you feel these more because they are not mired in constant weeping and staring out of windows.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Truth and fictional characters

In an article called "Truth and Fictional Characters" from 1980, John Hospers proposes the notion of "behaving in character" as the key test of verisimilitude--that is, the reader's belief that a person like this, in this set of circumstances, "would, (probably or necessarily)...have done (or said, or thought, or felt) what the author portrays him as doing (or saying, or thinking, or feeling)." It is not necessary to recognize a character as being like someone you know in real life. In fact (says Hospers), it may be that literary characters are distinctly unlike people we know; their function is to combine traits and experiences in ways that are new to us. The key to seeming real is this aesthetic unity, which is tested in some kind of action. If this is true, and if it's true that in literary fiction plot is subordinate to character, then plot--what happens--is the test of a character's integrity. Not in the moral sense, but in the aesthetic.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Best death scene

The award for best death scene in literature goes to Edward P. Jones, in The Known World:

Henry had not had to change the night-clothes he had put on at six. About nine he fell asleep and woke not long after. His wife and Fern were discussing a Thomas Gray poem. He thought he knew the one they were talking about but as he formed some words to join the conversation, death stepped into the room and came to him: Henry walked up the stepsand into the tiniest of houses, knowing with each step that he did not own it, that he was only renting. He was ever so disappointed; he heard footsteps behind him and death told him it was Caldonia, coming to register her own disappointment. Whoever was renting the house to him had promised a thousand rooms, but as he traveled through the house he found less than four rooms, and all the rooms were identical and his head touched their ceilings. "This will not do," Henry kept saying to himself, and he turned to share that thought with his wife, to say, "Wife, wife, look what they done done," and God told him right then, "Not a wife, Henry, but a widow."

Monday, November 13, 2006

Maybe King is a real writer

So now the NYT Book Review weighs in on Lisey's Story, and pronounces it real literature.

Boo’ya Moon is “this world turned inside-out like a pocket,” and it’s as real as J. M. Barrie’s Never-Never Land, L. Frank Baum’s Oz or the Grimms’ forest. Like those places, Boo’ya Moon arises from childhood longings for the things not provided by one’s parents or guardians, and it’s as forbidding as it is wonderful. You come away from “Lisey’s Story” convinced of the existence of King’s fantastic realm and of something else rarer still in fiction, a long, happy marriage.

Other reviewers like Janet Maslin downplay the horror and fantasy elements in the book to concentrate on the love story, but this reviewer, Jim Windolf, finds both aspects equally worthy of interest. In Windolf's view, the fantastic aspects don't detract from the detailed portrait of the married couple. The two worlds blend in King's fiction, strenghtening it.

Windolf shows how writers like Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers, nostalgic for the schlock (including King) they grew up on, have become the new literary gatekeepers right under Harold Bloom's nose. And they have let King come on in.

It struck me also, in reading the NYT Book Review yesterday, that many children's books blend fantasy and realism in similar ways. I kept reading the reviews, thinking "that sounds interesting," then finding out it was "for ages 12 and up." Are children's books more daring that adult fiction now?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Naturalistic unreality

Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human:

It is difficult to describe Shakespeare's mdoes of representation without resorting to oxymorons, since most of these modes are founded upon seeming contradictions. A "naturalistic unreality" suggests itself, to meet Wittgenstein's annoyed comment that life is not like Shakespeare. Owen Barfield replied to Wittgenstein in advance (1928):
...there is a very real sense, humiliating as it may seem, in which what we generally venture to call our feelings are really Shakespeare's "meaning."

Life itself has become a naturalistic unreality, partly, because of Shakespeare's prevalence. To have invented our feelings is to have gone beyond psychologizing us: Shakespeare made us theatrical, even if we never attend a performance or read a play. After Hamlet literally has stopped the play--to joke about the War of the Theaters, to command the Player King to enact the absurd scene in which Aeneas recounts Priam's slaughter, to admonish the players to a little discipline--we more than ever regard Hamlet as one of us, somehow dropped into a role in a play, and the wrong play at that. The prince alone is real; the others, and all the action, constitute theater.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Is it true?

I wish I could celebrate the huge Democratic victory yesterday. Just about everything, including state propositions like 85, came out the way I wanted... I can't remember the last time this happened. Maybe that's why I don't know how to feel. Also we've lived under this cloud of Republican gloom for so long it's hard to shift gears. Mostly I just don't believe that the Dems could overcome all the bullshit, voter intimidation, media distortions, gerrymandering, and their own frequent cowardice to make this happen. So I'm still waiting for another shoe to drop. But so far all the shoes have been good ones.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Erich Auerbach appreciated

I am rereading Mimesis, the ur-text of comparative literature, and one of the first works of lit crit I read as a grad student. (It should be noted that I read very little lit crit as an undergrad, a sign of the very traditional honors English program at Michigan back in the day... and also the reason I decided to pursue a PhD in literature. I thought I'd be studying literature. Who knew?) But anyway, I loved Auerbach and particularly "Odysseus's Scar," the first chapter, about externalization and presentness. A key early argument is that Homer doesn't attempt to create suspense by using flashbacks, which requires the current action to stay at least somewhat in the reader's mind while the author goes into the past. For suspense to occur, the reader has to remember what's going on in the present and want to get back to it.

On the second page of the library book I took out, a reader has underlined "But Homer--and to this we shall have to return later--knows no background. What he narrates is for the time being the only present, and fills both the stage and the reader's mind completely." And then that reader has noted in very small letters in the margin: "I agree. Dankeschoen E.A." Another reader writes below that, "thank *you,* benny. E.A. (never had no one appreciate me)"

That's just a little appreciation to the anonymous annotators of this copy of Mimesis. I don't normally approve of writing in library books, but you have to love this.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Hilmar Cheese Factory

If you had told me on Friday that on Saturday I would find myself at the Hilmar Cheese Factory just outside Turlock, CA, watching an industrial video on how wonderful gigantic dairies are for animals and the environment and our health, I would have been amused by you. However, it happened. Through the miracle of CGI, the real live cows in the video stopped eating hay, raised their heads (as much as they could between the bars) and smiled to say they were happy. Indeed, the host of the video, a fully animated cow, asked them several times if they were happy and they assured us they were. Also we learned how clean and environmentally friendly the whole process is. They use waste water from the cheesemaking process to hose down the factory floor. We then went upstairs to view a corner of the actual factory. On the wall next to the window there were two sets of hard hats that children--I guess--could wear while viewing: the white one said "I work in the cheese factory" and the green one said "I work in maintenance." We only saw white hats on the floor. The process did seem very clean and efficient, with gigantic blocks of cheese dropping out of "towers" and the white-hatted workers skimming the excess off with a shovel.

However, up near the ceiling where we were standing, we saw something that looked like bird crap.

I could be a vegan.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

MLA conference program

Just received the MLA convention program for this winter's meeting in Philadelphia. The address label says "POSTMASTER: DESTROY IF UNDELIVERABLE." What is so dangerous about the PMLA and the conference program, if it should fall into the wrong hands? Perhaps that people will realize that things are, in fact, as bad as they seem in literary studies today.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Don't worry, Stephen King is still not a real writer

It appears Stephen King has written a "Joycean" novel, according to Janet Maslin in today's NYT. She hastens, twice in the first two paragraphs, to assure us that this does not mean King is a real writer:

This is no occasion to make great literary claims for Mr. King, or even to exalt his linguistic experimentation. His use of language in “Lisey’s Story” is so larded with baby talk that it borders on the pathological. Here is a writer who has a thousand ways of naming a toilet, and whose work can thus be an acquired taste. But “Lisey’s Story” transcends the toidy-talk to plumb thoughts of love, mortality and madness — and to deliver them with gale-force emotion. When Mr. King writes in a coda to this blunt but stunning book that “much here is heartfelt, very little is clever,” he is telling the truth.

I have not yet read the novel in question, but is this a case of one's reputation preceding one? Has Joyce not written his own encomiums to workings related to the toilet? How about other "real" novelists (Pynchon, DeLillo)? Is it even possible to judge King's latest work in light of everything he's done before? And could we have asked this question about some of his previous offerings?

What is the big risk of suggesting that King has "crossed the line" into literature? There must be one, for Maslin, anyway.

Friday, October 20, 2006

As seen from everywhere

...the house itself is not the house seen from nowhere, but the house seen from everywhere. The completed object is translucent, being shot through from all sides by an infinite number of present scrutinies which intersect in its depths leaving nothing hidden...

--Merleau-Ponty

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Ghost World

We watched Ghost World last night, thanks again to the always surprising San Carlos Library DVD collection. It's been five years since we saw it in the theater, which is depressing. (I just noticed that I say we "watched" GW on DVD but "saw" it in the theater. Is one verb more active than the other? Does "watched" imply the smaller screen? "Saw" perhaps implies more of a spectacle, a shrinking before the awesome sight...or more of a chance happening.) Anyway. I liked it even better this time. I hate to say this, given the way I'm trying to get past this very statement in my research on character, but: the characters were so real. Scarlett Johansson's character was a little flatter this time around, more minor--but Thora Birch's character, Enid, was spectacular. And so was Steve Buscemi as Seymour. They didn't seem to be acting at all, but inhabiting...being. Perhaps it's easy even for successful actors to portray clinical depression. Or maybe it's because the characters are already acting, clearly putting on a front--at least Enid does--so any artificiality in the portrayal works for the character. There are one or two outsize characters, like Doug, the guy with the nunchucks in the convenience store.

Actually it's a textbook case for Alex Woloch's theories on major and minor characters, which I'm reading about now. And maybe for Stanislavsky. Maybe I should teach it...

Monday, October 16, 2006

Franzen redux

Jonathan Franzen is really taking a beating for his new memoir-ish thing, The Discomfort Zone. First Michiko Kakutani (not surprising) and now Daniel Mendelsohn in the Times Book Review. Mind you I haven't read the new book, except for the piece on birdwatching in the New Yorker, which I thought was pretty good, if not *so* interesting about his personal life. But these critics are just piling on about his self-centeredness and overall "loathesomeness." And it is clear that the essays have led them to believe that Franzen himself is loathesome, not the author persona he's created. Moreover, Kakutani and Mendelsohn both say that pretty much all the characters in The Corrections are loathesome. But here's the thing I really don't get. Mendelsohn says:

This project is, however, fatally marred in Franzen’s nonfiction by a flaw that readers of Franzen’s fiction are already likely to be familiar with, which is the author’s total lack of humor — a quality without which, as every stand-up comedian knows, obsessive self-exposure is tedious rather than entertaining or edifying. It’s hard, indeed, not to be struck by the almost willful refusal to consider the humorous — and, indeed, the amusing, the pleasurable, the beautiful — in Franzen’s work: a body of writing in which every landscape is a landfill (all three of Franzen’s novels are, in fact, filled with surreally detailed descriptions of blighted cityscapes), every season is rainy. “There was something dreadful about springtime itself,” the author recalls here, somewhat astonishingly, of a season in his childhood. But then, what else do you expect from the son of a man (now clearly revealed as the model for Al Lambert, the dyspeptic paterfamilias of “The Corrections”) whose reaction to the sight of his child enjoying himself — reading a book or playing with a friend — was the disdainful exclamation, “One continuous round of pleasure!” If anything, Franzen’s new book, whose title refers to the heavily symbolic setting on a thermostat that the author’s parents continually argued over, sheds light on the extent to which the author seems to have internalized rather than rejected his father’s awful severity and lifelong resistance to pleasure, and to have responded to this psychic squashing by embracing a clever, superior, smarty-pants persona.
OK, I get the smarty-pants, and maybe the ultimate resistance to pleasure; I'll have to think about that. But humorless? The Corrections is hilarious--not all the way through, but there are plenty of scenes that are so funny I can't quite believe it. Does Mendelsohn mean something different by humor here? He seems to be eliding a sense of humor with senses of pleasure and beauty, which I don't think are the same thing. Isn't our world full of dyspeptic humorists, and aren't they funnier than, say, the Dalai Lama?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Bartleby film

The film of Bartleby, starring Crispin Glover, is pretty great. You have to admire someone for actually trying to film Bartleby, and the story's been updated in a pretty smart manner--to a terrifying office building overlooking the freeway. The design is really interesting, sort of Jetsons / 70s. The one part I thought didn't work was when the boss (David Paymer) notices aloud that everyone in the office has started using the word "prefer," as Bartleby does. I thought that was too obvious. But Melville has his boss point the same thing out, in the same language.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0230025/

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Representation / simulation / model

Pointed out by Allen Liu, in a workshop on digital technologies and humanities research: What are differences among a representation, a simulation, and a model? In literature we're used to working with the concept of "representation," while computer scientists look to simulations and models. Simulations, as Liu put it, have a "truth status" and a "predictor status" that representations don't--at least in the way we're used to thinking about them.

Seems like an important question for thinking about literary character in the digital age...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Stanislavsky

I'm reading Stanislavksy's Building a Character, which is the second book in his complete how-to-for-actors trilogy. Step one of building a character turns out to be tearing down the actor. Stanislavky breaks down everyday actions, such as walking, into minute detail, including the functions of various toes. I'm surprised he didn't have his students take an anatomy course, or maybe he did. They definitely did acrobatics. You also have to know grammar like a linguist, and take singing lessons to learn to control your voice--thoroughly understanding the mechanics of the tongue, of course. He writes from the point of view of one of his students (a young version of himself), and describes staggering home after the walking lesson. I haven't gotten to the part where the actors are rebuilt, better, stronger, faster.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Woody Allen

I can no longer hold my peace...What unbelievably bad crap Woody Allen is publishing in the New Yorker. Why is this happening? Does the New Yorker owe him something? Did he die and they discovered a cache of his unpublished juvenalia? It is the same exact shtick he was doing 40 years ago, dentistry and police procedurals, only the old stuff seemed to be funny. Or maybe it was funny to me twenty years ago and isn't now. It really must be true that he's artistically spent. I'm not sure I've seen this happen with any other contemporary artist, over such a long period of time. Most people, when they're spent, shut up. It's terrifying to see that it's actually possible to run out of talent.

From The Man Without Qualities

About the Man Without Qualities' father:

"As with many men who have achieved something of note...[his fundamental feelings about life] sprang from a deep love of what might be called the generally and suprapersonally useful, in other words, from a sincere veneration for what advances one's own interests--and this not for the sake of advancing them, but in harmony with that advancement and simultaneously with it, and also on general grounds. This is of great importance: even a pedigree dog seeks its place under the dining-table, undisturbed by kicks, and not out of doggish abjection, but from affection and fidelity. And indeed the most coldly calculating people do not have half the success in life that comes to those rightly blended personalities who are capable of feeling a really deep attachment to such persons and conditions as will advance their own interests." (p. 11, tr. Wilkins and Kaiser)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

How old would you be...

How old would you be if you didn't know how old you was?
--Satchel Paige, as quoted in Zen to Go.

The book also quotes OJ Simpson, saying something like "Thinking's what gets you caught from behind." Now that makes you think.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Empathy and fiction

Suzanne Keen writes in the journal Narrative: "readers' perception of a text's fictionality plays a role in subsequent emphathetic response, by releasing readers from the obligations of self-protection through skepticism and suspicion."

In other words, perhaps we can empathize more with fictional characters than with real people--a striking idea to consider--because the former type of empathy costs us less. I haven't read enough about this yet, but presume the empathy itself is real even as the characters are not. I wonder exactly what the nature of this empathy is: do we feel a fictional character's pain more sharply? Intuitively that seems impossible, but maybe what we think of as empathy is our own fear--what if that happened to me? Or--I feel bad that this happened to X (but I don't necessarily feel bad for X, I feel bad for myself because X's life affects me). But empathy is not necessarily altruistic, so maybe substituting yourself for another is legitimate within empathy's definition. And if that's the case, it would seem easier to superimpose yourself upon a fictional character, whose mind you can usually read.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Theory of Mind

I'm doing some research for my new class this spring, which is about character. (What is a character? What makes a character seem real?) I've come across lots of great stuff on narratology. I always wondered what that was, but I'd say it's the closest thing to the analysis of creative writing processes that exists on the scholarly side of things. But also there's some really interesting work going on in cognitive psychology and literature. I'm thinking of a recent article by Lisa Zunshine that talks about Theory of Mind and the ways in which we understand intention. For instance, someone trembles (she's using an example from Mrs. Dalloway) and we "know" that's because of his excited emotions--not because he has Parkinson's, for instance. But how do we know? Or why does Woolf assume that we know? What recent studies of autism tell us is that not all people automatically make this inner/outer connection. Autistics can't read internal states from external signals, raising the question: why does everyone else? And can we make this assumption when reading or writing literature? Is a character's smile enough to tell us what we need to know?

This could be the end of Show Don't Tell as we know it.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Shotgun house

In my fiction I've been working on slowing down and observing all details in every scene, in every piece of the scene. I've thought of a metaphor that helps me do this. It's the shotgun house, the signature architectural style of New Orleans. Its key feature is that there's no hallway. The rooms are all in line, one after the other; so in order to get from the front of the house to the back, you have to go through every room. There's zero privacy but it's a great community builder, or so they say. Anyway that's what fiction writing is like. You can't just trot through the hallway to get where you want to go. You have to go through every room. That means you build every room, and see everything in every room, before you can move on to the next one. There could be such a thing as overdoing the details if you actually wrote out all this description in your final draft--but you do have to write it out at some point, and take out the extraneous stuff later.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Rereading The Corrections

I'm not a rereader by nature, even though I give my students the assignment to reread a book that had a strong influence on them and write about the experience. Most people, it seems, are rereaders, so there must be something to learn from that. Anyway I have almost finished my second reading of The Corrections, and I'm surprised to notice that I'm having exactly the same response as the first time through. I was completely absorbed in the Enid/Alfred, Chip, and Gary stories, but when it came to Denise, the youngest child, I felt very much like both I and Franzen just wanted to get through it. While it's technically brilliant--shows detailed research into the world of professional cooking and a thorough thinking-through of the character's attributes--it just feels like a summary. It feels like Franzen doesn't deeply know this character or care to know her in the ways he does the others. A lot is done in semi-scenes, summaries that are vivid but not quite full scenes. It's perfunctory. I'm not sure I can finish because I need to get through Denise to get to the death of Alfred, and I don't want to see Alfred die again.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Cody's on Telegraph Avenue closes

Just after its 50th anniversary, Cody's bookstore on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley has closed. It looks so far like there will be no Kepler's-style saviors. At least their two smaller stores will stay open.

Ross computerized the business and saw it boom in the 1980s. But even as online sales of books became a major revenue source for bookstores, Ross resisted the trend.

It ran counter to Cody's founding philosophy -- books were meant to be browsed in person and knowledge discovered, he said Sunday.

"Students today, they use the Internet. They read their textbooks," Ross said. "In the '70s, they had wide-ranging intellect."


http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/07/10/BAGT1JSHH41.DTL

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Telling

The intensive writing workshop last week was wonderful. It was exhausting, but at the end it seemed like no one wanted to leave. People did the evaluations and then just sat there at the tables, expecting something.

I learned that I overwrite. I knew this, but I became conscious of how I feel when I'm in danger of overwriting--that is, anxious as opposed to excited, and pressured to "make this beautiful." At this point "show don't tell" has become oppressive to me. "Showing" is an invitation, to me, to overwrite, because I feel like every sentence has to create this luminous and unusual image. I'm going to try to tell as much as possible instead, and make do with fewer images and metaphors. I'm also going to try to write as I do when I'm doing an in-class exercise, fast and with a sense of discovery.

We'll see how this goes.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

In Persuasion Nation

The title story of George Saunder's latest collection is as close to a true horror story as I've ever read. Horrifying because it makes you participate in the cruelty that's being dished out to hapless players in commercial "vignettes," human, animal, and other. You laugh as they get their heads bashed in for stealing someone's Doritos or Cheetos, but because Saunders has created so much sympathy for them--as victims of insane acts of cruelty, including yours--you feel terrible.

Here's Saunders reading the story:
http://www.inpersuasionnation.com/downloads.html

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Fiction that breaks the mold

Starting next week I'm taking a 5-day intensive writing workshop with Eric Puchner, a former Stegner Fellow and author of the collection Music Through the Floor. The class is called "Fiction that Breaks the Mold" and meets for four hours each day in the afternoons. We are not workshopping each other's stories, thank GOD, just talking about published stories and doing exercises. I'm really looking forward to it, because I won't be able to go to Tin House this summer and I really need the summer writing-camp experience. Writing is going OK but I need an infusion.

I'm hoping to learn about stories with non-traditional shapes. For instance, Charles D'Ambrosio (who says this in his Powells.com interview) talks about stories that are linear as opposed to circular. You start out, say, in a dime store, but you never go back there, never tie it back into the ending as a metaphor. It's simply over and the characters go on with their lives. Or the Alice Munro story, "White Dump," which we are reading for class. I am not a huge Munro fan thus far, but this story starts out from a point of view, or two points actually, from characters who turn out to be quite minor. The major character, whose viewpoint we're firmly ensconced in by the end, is not even mentioned right away, and when she is, she's described as living far away. She does not seem like she's going to be in the picture. But it's all about her in the end. How do you meander like that while not confusing the reader? How do you make a story more like a poem instead of like a polished billiard ball?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Learning from The Corrections

In an interview on Powells.com, Jonathan Franzen says of The Corrections, "The real pleasure in writing this, for me, was discovering how little you need." His previous books had been very heavily plotted, and even some sections of The Corrections are plotted, as he says, like a short novel, "a single situation and the screws tightened maximally on the characters in question." But through writing most of the novel he learned to take all the plot directions and ramifications away and leave the "one paragraph of distress that interested me."

Friday, June 16, 2006

How great is the library?

By this I mean the San Carlos Library, or more precisely the Peninsula Library System. I don't refer to the Stanford Library, which is of course great, has everything, including the complete works of Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth and Planet Earth 2000 AD. These are housed in the Bing Wing stacks, the strange maze with the short doors and low ceilings reminiscent of the office where John Cusack gets the temp job in Being John Malkovich. The call numbers on these start with BS, which is wonderful, and I had nearly given up on finding them, weaving through the darkish warren, short on time, but there they were. And they helped me write the first chapter of my novel, which I now think I'm going to dump (the chapter, not the novel...yet).

No, I mean the San Carlos Library, because also for my novel I need to know about insurance agents. I looked in the online catalog and found a book on careers in insurance (perfect), but it wasn't at the SC library, so I poked around a little more and found a digital version which I could download to my computer! I just read the book (large print, not many pages) and it does indeed describe the jobs (perfect) and even better it has a glossary in the back! I know what an actuary is now. Well, I did and forgot again, but I can look it up.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Plot anxiety

I remember when I was in graduate school and developing inklings that all was not quite well with my career choice. I hated writing research papers. I liked doing readings, minutely close readings, and then sort of riffing off those, throwing in a few choice phrases from Foucault or whoever. But these were clearly--just--my readings, and therefore not interesting by definition. So I began thinking I should be some other sort of writer, and I remember saying to myself, well I could conceivably be a poet because I can create these sort of conceptual scenes. But I can't make things happen. I can't do plot. I decided shortly after that to try writing a novel for the precise reason that I was sure I couldn't do it. Now, this novel, as it stands, will never see the light of day, but I did find out that I can make (ridiculous) things happen. My problem is that sometimes I try to force things to happen, or I think that there's no plot unless someone gets killed, preferably by crashing into something. But now I'm trying to use Werner Herzog's filmmaking as an analogy, specifically those scenes where the camera just runs and looks at something (not someone) that's moving--grass in the wind, or rapids. Watch the movement in the scene and follow it. There's no need to have Bigfoot come stomping in--yet.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Grizzly Man

Trev and I watched Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man last night. It's a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a man who believed he had an understanding with Alaskan grizzly bears, and turned out to be wrong about that. It was not, perhaps, the best time for me to be watching such a film, since (as this blog clearly shows) I've been paranoid and surly due to work stress. In this mode, I was first struck by how much the story resembled the Blair Witch Project -- not only because "the footage was found" (in this case, audio footage) recording the protagonists' deaths, but also the constant nervous chatter, the eerieness of the wilderness landscape (which Treadwell didn't see as eerie), and the brief shot of a bundle of gore amid general restraint on that front.

The best parts of the film, though, are where Herzog comments on Treadwell's filmmaking -- specifically the moments when the film keeps running and Treadwell has left the shot. He is filming himself, usually, so he's off getting ready to run into the frame, or fixing his hair (an obsession), and in the meantime the camera is recording wind blowing through the brush, creating patterns. How often do we see extended shots of a place where there is neither a human nor an animal in the frame?

Monday, June 05, 2006

The other thing about the bomb

Oh yeah, one more thing about the atomic bomb that I never understood, and which I definitely don't remember learning in 7th grade history:

The bomb was for the Russians.

Right, the Japanese were just about defeated and trying to work out surrender talks. But we needed to show the Russians that we had the bomb, and blowing up a deserted island (say) in front of world representatives wouldn't cut it. We had to off some people, preferably non-white. I suspect the non-whiteness made it not only easier, but possible. The Japanese were already "faceless."

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Dr. Oppenheimer

I am nearly done with the Oppenheimer biography. I read it over Memorial Day weekend instead of writing, which I had time to do. I found out the following:

--The H-bomb is a "Super" version of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; they tested it and it vaporized an island. Oppenheimer planned the drop on Hiroshima, muttering "those poor people" in the days ahead, but never understood why Nagasaki...and he was against the H-bomb. The H-bomb is more or less the Doomsday device from Dr. Strangelove, and it exists.

--Truman was George W. Bush before George W. Bush was. We have elected mind-blowingly weak and stupid presidents before and made them out to be heroes. I hope history treats Bush more truthfully.

--The McCarthy era was just the same as ours. Just substitute terrorism for communism. Dissent was considered treason. Science was suspect. Power-mad, resentful bullies ruined thoughtful, intelligent people's lives.

--Oppenheimer named names; his brother didn't. His brother Frank founded the Exploratorium.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Krugmaniac

I'm one.

Paul Krugman, today in the NYT:

But can the sort of person who would act on global warming get elected? Are we — by which I mean both the public and the press — ready for political leaders who don't pander, who are willing to talk about complicated issues and call for responsible policies? That's a test of national character. I wonder whether we'll pass.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Writing again

For the first time in about a month, I've worked on my fiction. Twice in the past three days. But I am not back in the groove. It feels strange; it is so easy to get used to not writing, although I think it's been depressing me. Clearly it's impossible to write and work full-time, impossible for me anyway. I haven't had the energy, and it's become a downward spiral in which not writing makes me depressed, giving me less energy, etc.

On the plus side, I've gotten some real distance on a story that I didn't like much when I was working on it regularly. Having reread Olesha's Envy again in order to teach it, I came back to my own writing with an edgier voice. I am more willing to make my main character seem like a lunatic. I am more willing to chop out whole sections, even though they seemed integral to the plot. I think you have to give up the plot--just chop out everything you don't like, regardless of whether it's holding the story together. Then string the good parts together with a few more good parts and you're done. So how to get this distance on work on a regular basis without stopping writing for a month? I have to have several projects going at once, I guess. That doesn't seem like the usual advice, but there's no other option.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Could I read Houllebecq?

After reading John Updike's piece on Michel Houellebecq in the New Yorker (oh, how upper-middlebrow can you be?), I am wondering whether I would be able to read Houellebecq. I have been asking my students over the years whether they think it's possible to write a "good" novel with either a loathesome protagonist or a loathesome moral message. Michiko Kakutani (descending into middle-middlebrow territory) would simply say no; end of discussion. I find that tedious. Updike gives Houellebecq a little more leeway, giving him credit in his latest novel for an interesting concept and vivid if incredibly bleak ending (a man living out his scientifically lengthened lifespan as, essentially, an oyster). Yet from all I read about Houllebecq's writing, the incredible misogyny, racism, and meaningless violence...well, he would be the best test case for the problem of the good novel about bad things. But what if you can't stand reading the book? Isn't some form of pleasure essential to the literary experience? I suppose his work must be pleasurable to some people, since he keeps publishing and being reviewed, and even being invited to speak at real venues. And I don't know that we can assume all the readers who like him are depraved. Perhaps they like the extreme challenge, like people who bungee jump or something. X-Reading. I'm not sure I can do it.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Midwestern alcoholism

Watching American Movie (a documentary about a mulleted independent filmmaker from the Milwaukee suburbs), I was reminded of the phenomenon of Midwestern alcoholism. Supposedly the Midwest is the home of traditional values, but having grown up there, and left, I've realized that a large percentage of these folks are pickled most of the time. Usually it's the sixpack+ of beer after work, but there's also hard liquor, glue, coke, meth, acid, hairspray, whatever. Whatever distracts from the bleakness of forced conformity and the end of youth with thirty more years of crappy jobs and a disintegrating marriage ahead.

I am being hard on the Midwest. But this is just to counter the myth of cleanliness, happiness, and religious piety surrounding the vast center of the country. The heartland is tripping, folks.

In the DVD commentary it sounded like both the main characters in the film had gone straight, so good for them. Maybe seeing themselves on film did the trick. They seemed like intelligent and interesting people, even though the filmmakers made fun of them. Who knows what they could have done in a different place.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The bad novel

"The bad novel aims to please by flattering, whereas the good one is an exigence and an act of faith." (Sartre)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Nafisi strikes out again

Well, it's two for two. This year's students disliked Reading Lolita in Tehran as much as last year's did. Is it something I said? I tried pretty hard not to give away my lukewarmness, though I did suggest the book might somehow let Western readers off the hook. (Isn't Iran bad? Yes, it is. But it is bad, you see, so why should reading that piss us off?) The first discussion was a little sluggish, but I didn't detect universal distate. Today they piled on with glee. They hated her pastries and ice cream. Why is she always talking about her problems over pastries or coffee ice cream? Last year it was the strawberry-covered coffee mug that set people off. Should she have suffered more, we asked? Do we dislike her for not having it "so bad"? For being rich and educated? Or does she just not write very well? No one seemed able to empathize with her (although at least it wasn't like last year, when I suspected that was because she was "middle aged"). The students seemed to conclude that her prose didn't move us; she told us instead of showing that she suffered; we didn't feel anything out of the ordinary. That was the most interesting point for me. It wasn't that she was depicting a fairly ordinary (if privileged) life amid the horrors, but that she didn't make us feel other than ordinary feelings about it. And besides if the road to hell is paved with adverbs, as Stephen King says, then she is knocking on Satan's door.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Dr. Baltar

I have been reading Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin's biography of Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus. I somehow love reading books about atom-bomb physicists; I read James Gleick's biography of Richard Feynman at least twice, and I am not a re-reader. Maybe I'm drawn by the fact that I don't understand much about the science, so there's less at stake for me than, say, reading about a famous author. I can still admire the scientist's passion and dedication without feeling inferior. I seem to be able to suspend judgment on what it meant for these guys, often like Oppenheimer politically and socially liberal, to work on the bomb. There's something thrilling about the name Los Alamos (and we've visited this lovely, oddly sterile community), even though what came out of it is appalling.

Trev says Oppenheimer reminds him of Dr. Baltar on Battlestar Galactica--a brilliant, chattery, occasionally crazed, basically good guy who ends up bringing great evil into the world.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Kubrick's Lolita film

I'm teaching Kubrick's film of Lolita (1962) and I must say I'm liking it a great deal. Nabokov didn't like it very much (although he praised the acting) and it's obvious that the filmmakers tamed the story. Sue Lyon does look much older even than her 14 (or 15?) years, and as one of my students pointed out, they really glamorized her. The novel's Lolita is something of a tomboy. Yet Sue Lyon is very childish in her mannerisms and speech, so she presents a sort of puzzle. In some ways she represents the "problem" of Lolita by being a different sort of problem. In the novel Lolita is sexually experienced (as she is in the film) and clearly lusts after Humbert, without realizing quite what she's getting into. The film's Lolita looks like a woman but is actually not much older than the novel's Lolita--so even if viewers thought she was older, she really was something of a kid herself (though there seems to be some sort of dividing line between OK and not at age 14...go figure). James Mason was about 10 years older than the novel's Humbert. Quilty's omnipresence in the film is a sort of visual catch-all for the many literal and existential threats that Humbert faces. I find Humbert more sympathetic in the movie, but many of my students have felt the opposite so far. They think he's too mean to Charlotte (Shelley Winters)--but I thought she was meant to seem unbearable, almost blamed for driving Humbert into Lolita's arms.

Friday, April 28, 2006

How Oprah will save us

I am coming to the conclusion that Oprah Winfrey is the future of literature in the United States. And that's a good thing. We talked in my class yesterday with Josh Landy, our guest speaker who's written about ethical criticism (he's against it). Yet he led us to conclude that it's imperative that people read good literature. We defined "good" as having moral complexity, bringing about surprise and the promise of happiness. Reading literature makes us open to becoming happy in unexpected ways, and this (we decided) is what makes "us" better people over time. As compelling as populist arguments for the equality of genre fiction may be--and when we come to power we wouldn't ban people from reading it--genre fiction does not really create surprise. Yes, on the level of plot it can, but not on the level of surprise about people or life or language.

But how to get people reading the good stuff? Academics can't do it, by definition. As soon as we assign it, it becomes a task, a pill, a leafy green vegetable (at best). It has to be done on TV and be administered by a powerful yet non-threatening and fun person. OK, Oprah was threatening to James Frey, and this is a symptom of her current obsession with memoir, which needs to stop. No surprise in memoir, not the kind we're talking about--only the surprise of being lied to. But as Cecilia Konchar Farr says in Reading Oprah, a very interesting book (and very poorly produced, as if on a Xerox machine, by SUNY Press) , Oprah's self-improvement approach to literature is the key. Oprah tells readers, This is difficult, but you can do it. She alternates--or used to alternate--easy books with more difficult ones, building up readers' stamina and confidence. And she did get tons of people to read Faulkner, though they didn't buy his work in as many truckloads as the others. But it doesn't have to be Faulkner; an emotionally difficult text is good enough. She's developing this capacity for literature, which means a capacity for calm and complex reflection. (I'm grabbing the term from Empson, who uses it in a slightly different way in 7 Types of Ambiguity.) I don't think this is the same thing as the "critical thinking" argument, which means literature teaches you how to seize a pen and start marking as soon as a politician or product pitcher opens his mouth. The capacity, as I see it, is for a kind of stillness. Wonder, maybe.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Sue Lyon

I just did a little research about Sue Lyon, who played Lolita in the 1962 Kubrick film. The most detailed, and also most sleazy, account is on E! online: http://www.eonline.com/Features/Specials/Lyon/
[See update, below.] The E! story is yet another small act in the series of exploitations that began before the movie and exploded after it. Lyon was the youngest of five children in a poor family (her father died when she was a baby), and she was sent out to model as a pre-teen in order to bring in some cash. She won the role of Lolita when she was 13 or 14--the actual age of Lolita--but was, I gather, fifteen when the film was shot. So she was only a tiny bit older than the character, but was cast because she looked more adult than others her age. She had large breasts, unlike Nabokov's Lolita. So much effort went into confounding the audience's prurient/moral expectations about filming this story. How do you film it without doing damage?

Lyon went on to have a fairly terrible life. Divorced several times, she married a man in prison for murder at one point; before that she had married an African-American man and fled with him to Spain due to the uproar. She is now married to someone else and doesn't grant interviews. She's been diagnosed as bipolar but apparently found treatment later in life.

Incarnating Lolita appears to have done her no good. She received much of the lurid attention that the fictional Lolita did, and it should be remembered that the tendency then and even now was to portray Lolita as the seductress of a relatively helpless "middle aged man." E! Online says as much. The entwined artistic and commercial imperatives to film Lolita, combined with Lyon's poverty, the lure of celebrity, and finally the ageless pleasure of condemning girls for arousing sexual desire in others: the same cultural constellation trapped Lyons and Nabokov's Lolita, another fatherless child.

UPDATE 10-1-12: Sorry, folks, looks like E! has taken the story down. If anyone has other links they'd like to share, please do so in the comments.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Harvey Pekar and Josh Kornbluth

Trev and I went with our friend Amy to see Harvey Pekar interviewed by Josh Kornbluth at City Arts and Lectures last night. Last time we went we saw Josh Kornbluth interviewed, and I was wondering if he'd be able to stop talking long enough to let the interviewee speak. In many ways that would have been better. Josh was charming and funny where Harvey was irascible but not charmingly so. The problem is that Harvey *does* have the David Letterman problem; that is, people expect him to perform himself as Harvey, Irascible Cleveland Working Stiff. Which he both is and is not. But one wants to see how he will behave rather than hear what he has to say about comics, literature, etc. And maybe he doesn't want to talk about comics either--he'd rather talk about himself and his still painful memories about his parents, which is what his comics are about, after all. He's had a strange life, a professionally obscure celebrity, celebrated (by Letterman especially) for being obscure. He was very straightforward about how much approval, good reviews, and acclaim mean to him. He answered nearly every question with a reference to money--how much the artists who draw for him get paid, how many books he's selling, how many he needs to sell (which was why he was with us last night). It was not really funny or pathetic or anything, just a flat statement that he wants money. Maybe his shtick is getting old, or he's stuck in the middle of a shtick, no longer an obscure working stiff but a real celebrity now, worried about letting go of the act that got him here.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Giddy

I am strangely giddy today, to the point of being disruptive. I was a jack-in-the-box at a colloquium when I really ought to have kept my mouth shut; it was not for me, but for students, and not my students either. I woke up as I have all week with my stomach in a knot, realizing how far behind I am on editing this divisional newsletter that's coming out in just a couple of months. (It's much, much worse than it sounds--editing text from over 50 faculty members, and that doesn't include *collecting* said text.) Every day I think, "I will set aside the whole afternoon and work on the newsletter," and then I do precisely zero on it because I'm either putting out fires, or...putting out fires. Or blogging. Also I wrote a story for two hours this morning instead of "working," and I did that deliberately. I thought it would calm me down, like meditation, and it did--so I think that's probably the source of the giddiness. The defiant calm in the face of calamity. The insistence on still doing *my thing* despite the strong pressure to just give up writing until summer when everything's over. Or I could just be freaking out.

I talked to a campus newspaper reporter today about the blog I'm doing with my students. I'm obsessed with that blog; it's all I can do to keep from looking at it every fifteen minutes. The reporter seemed to share my enthusiasm, but maybe she was just trying to placate me while looking for an opportunity to edge away.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Synanon

Despite the electromagnetic fascination that cults of the 1970s have always held for me, I somehow missed, entirely, Synanon. But yesterday Trev and I visited the grounds of its former headquarters, now the Marconi Conference Center in Marshall, north of Pt. Reyes. The grounds are actually state parkland with public trails and a spectacular view of Tomales Bay. In 1912 the land was purchased by the Marconi Telegraph Company as a wireless telegraph station, later acquired by RCA and then sold several more times before coming into Synanon's hands.

Synanon started as a rehabilitation program for drug and alchohol addicts, an alternative to Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous which emphasized self-reliance as opposed to reliance on a higher power. The Synanon prayer includes lines like "Let me understand rather than be understood," which I rather like. But Synanon itself then became a church; there was the usual partner-swapping and brutally honest encounter groups (known as Games), and then, as always in these stories, the time arrived to amass weapons. They never killed anyone but they did leave a rattlesnake in the mailbox of a lawyer who'd sued them. The Point Reyes Light reporters who exposed the operations received Pulitzers.

You can still see the dormant antennas from the Marconi days, and one imagines the Games and halluncinatory "Dissipations" and the paranoia growing on the silent, occult hum of radio waves.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Things take us hard, no question

Things take us hard, no question.
--Adrienne Rich, "Demon Lover"

I will now take this line completely out of context to reflect on a weirdness of mine, which I've discovered could also serve as a principle of sustainable living. I've always thought of things as having feelings. Stuffed animals, it goes without saying, but also computers, cups, plastic bags blowing across the highway, clothes...just about everything. I suppose I attribute feelings to them mostly when they're being treated badly, i.e. thrown away or tossed unthinkingly aside. This has led to some problematic hoarding behavior on my part, and a tendency to apologize to whatever I do throw away. (OK, I don't always apologize to the coffee grounds.) The tendency is also stronger when the thing was a gift, but I don't think my sense of a soul in a thing has only to do with the person who gave it, or the (unknown) person or people who made it. Anyway I read somewhere awhile back that having a sort of animistic belief system like this can lead to conservation--a resistance to disposing of items at the first sign of trouble with them. But at the same time one needs to be less attached to things, less willing to drag home crap because you feel sorry for it.

I'm reading Rich's line to mean that we're hard on things and they feel it. But I don't think that's what she meant. I wonder if cruelty to things extends to misinterpreting words.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Pinnacles: who are these people?

We made our annual pilgrimage to Pinnacles National Monument last Sunday. We only go once a year, usually in March, when the flowers are out and the bat caves are open. I could actually pass on the bat caves, especially when they are filled with several feet of rushing water. Oh, and bats. Not a lot, but at least one clinging to the wall like a sort of husk, where you could put your hand on it. Anyway I notice particularly at Pinnacles that a large number of people show up there who look like they've never been to a national park before. They come in leather jackets and flip flops, carrying cigarettes but no water. And off they go, up the steep hills in the heat, into the caves with several feet of rushing water. And back they come, happy, relaxed, not sweating, not in pain. They don't fall in the caves. They don't get stones in their flip-flops. Whereas I, with my extra-strength hiking books and sunscreen and protective hat and layered clothes--I'm sweating. My feet are hurting. I still manage it all without too much complaining (except in the caves where I refuse to examine the bat at close range because I am balancing on a tiny rock about to topple into darkness). But who are these people with the tattooed legs who aren't having any trouble at all?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

It's like you've never written a word

I took a week (maybe more, I forget) off from writing my novel to work on a new short story. Of course I wanted to get away from my novel. But the other perfectly reasonable excuse is that I thought I was going to have to quit writing, pretty much, for three months because I was going to be teaching two courses in addition to working--so the thought was I would do little sporadic projects like short stories, instead of trying to maintain daily contact with the novel. BUT. My Continuing Studies course at Stanford got canceled, which pained me quite a bit more than I expected it would. I was really looking forward to a different kind of teaching and I'd been planning the course for nearly a year. On the other hand it would have been a ton of work and now I'm seeing the upside of not doing it. Mainly, I can keep writing.

I now face the prospect of returning to the novel after, let's say, 10 days. Robert Olen Butler, henceforth to be referred to as R.O.B. (aka G.O.D.) says that if you miss more than two days in a row it's as if you never wrote a word. And the novel does feel quite unfamiliar at the moment. For a few days there the distance was really nice; I was no longer mired in it, so I could float above and see the whole thing. I remembered what I wanted the novel to feel like and took some notes about tone that I thought were important at the time. But that was last week. Now I'm afraid I'll go back and see that the whole thing is a disaster, and slink off to short-story safety again. Must resist.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Bike ride

What is it about the smell of new bike tires that brings back childhood faster than anything? I just went to REI to get a new helmet and had a flashback. There was nothing more magical than picking out a new bike, though I must have had no more than three new bikes in my life. This isn't counting the second-hand bike I got for college which met with a strange fate that still pains me, and of course my newest bike that I got six years ago to go riding with Trev. But we hadn't gone in two years because of my ankle surgery, and then because we never had a decent bike rack. But all that's behind us now and we took our cobwebbed bikes over to Half Moon Bay and rode like the wind! Like a slow wind! But it was such a blast. Bikes must represent freedom to kids, but there was also something about the big wheels and bright colors all lined up in the store, and that new-tire smell. The clean blue sky, the yellow flowers on the dunes, the yellow-green spot that was Trev receding before me, the whitecaps and the clouds...

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Conversations, cigarettes, and booze

I picked up Raymond Carver's collection Where I'm Calling From last weekend. I've read a few of his stories before but decided it was time to really study him, since he's still the gold standard for short story writing. I must say that a little of Carver goes a long way. I'd like to read one of these every six months or so instead of all at once. He definitely proves the adage that dialog is something characters do to each other. Most of the stories consist largely of dialog, but it's not conversation. The dialog dredges up events from the past that build to some kind of violence, in a different form, in the present. Cigarettes and especially alcohol give the dialog its pace--people stop talking to smoke or drink--and often its subject matter. Occasionally these "beats" get absurd, with step-by-step descriptions of, say, a man picking up a glass, putting it to his lips, taking a swallow, and setting the glass back on the table. It's all very hard-boiled, with paranoid men and long-suffering women and few words over two syllables. It's true that you can write fairly long and tension-filled stories by stretching out an ordinary moment till you see what's hidden in its cracks.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Shoveling shit

Today was one of those days with my novel. However, my doctor, who says she's a combination of Albert Schweitzer and Mary Baker Eddy, says she only thinks positive thoughts. What would that be like? Anyway my point is to say something positive about shoveling shit, and I think it's this: you must shovel until you discover what the problem is. In the past when I sensed something was wrong with a story I stopped writing. This time I kept going, sinking further and further into the slime until the size and shape of the problem suddenly became clear. You push toward it till it rises up like the swamp thing, whereas if you stay back from it you may never see it. Sadly the swamp thing means some major overhauling in my case, and I'm trying to figure out if I need to go back now and start over, or just move forward and fix later. What I also learned was that I had the right idea in a very early draft and got talked out of it, because I didn't know why I'd put it there. So the larger lesson is never, ever show the first draft to anyone. Second or third draft at the earliest.

Monday, March 06, 2006

That is no country for old men

[....]
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress....

Exactly. That is what I am trying to get at in my novel. That and Picnic at Hanging Rock.

When I read Yeats in college I did not get "unless / Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress." I thought I got it. Dionysus, deep, dark laughter, yeah, yeah. But you can't get certain poems until you're older. I mean, I'm not that old, but you have to have the retrospective view of your life, and you don't have it when you're twenty. You have regrets, repressions, but you simply aren't old enough. I can tell by the notes I made on this poem ("Sailing to Byzantium") in my Norton that I had no idea what it was about. "Between two worlds," I wrote. (He's in transit, sailing, see?) I was writing down the professor's explication; I did not feel it. Four Quartets was another one. In college it was, I thought, the hardest poem I'd ever read. But now I can see it's about getting old, just like lots and lots of poetry.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Call Me Joe again

I think "Call Me Joe" by Poul Anderson might be my new Misery. By that I mean it's the piece of so-called genre fiction that explains the entire world, or at least the literary world. To recap: a scientist named Ed Anglesey remotely controls, via telepathy, an artificial life form named Joe on the surface of Titan. Joe is a sort of macho lizard who drinks methane and battles monsters; Anglesey is paralyzed. At the end, Anglesey's consciousness gets sucked down into Joe, from the emasculated white-collar worker to the blue (literally) collar laborer, fighter, and pioneer. Anglesey's paraplegic body then dies. It all strikes me as a paradigm for character creation, both by writers and readers. Readers and writers do this in similar ways, I think--we give the characters our emotions and thoughts, our consciousness, which the characters use to function in their own worlds. If the character is successful we lose ourselves in them and see their world through their eyes. Their emotions become ours as opposed to the other way around. It's like method acting. When we come back out of the character, we don't come all the way back. Part of us stays on Titan (or wherever the story's world is), and part of Joe (or whomever) comes back with us. And of course there's fantasy involved, of either more or less power than we really have.

Characters like Joe are especially revealing doubles for writers, whose work forces us to be sedentary at least at the time we're doing it. Come to think of it, Stephen King's Annie is another version of Joe, a superhuman monster who kills on behalf of the paralyzed writer Paul Sheldon. She kills the cop who comes looking for Paul, for instance. Paul is Annie's prisoner, and he watches in horror as Annie kills the cop in the kind of comic-opera gorefest that is King's special gift. But as an author Paul knows he's also created Annie. She's his "constant reader" who loves all his books, and she's his character, his Joe. So killing the cop is Paul's literary fantasy too.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

On watching Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings followed by Boz Skaggs in concert

To save money Trev and I get most of our DVDs these days from the library. The collection is a tad random, which makes for some surprises, often positive or at least noteworthy. Strangest double-feature so far: Ralph Bakshi's 1978 attempt to animate The Lord of the Rings (he didn't finish, nor did we), followed by a DVD of Boz Skaggs in concert in 2004. Unlike Boz Skaggs in concert, the Bakshi film combines hand-drawn animation and rotoscoped live action, creating some pretty interesting effects. In some ways the ring-wraiths and orcs are scarier in rotoscope than in Peter Jackson's film, which relies perhaps too much on slow motion and pounding music. The Skaggs concert looked like one of those PBS pledge-drive specials with the Bee Gees or Peter Paul and Mary. The audience was clearly tote-bag inclined. The music was toe-tapping rather than pounding, and there were no orcs. In fact I can't think of a single point of comparison between these two DVDs.

I might add that I was sick on Saturday night (Robitussin: Don't let anyone tell you it doesn't work), otherwise we would have been "out clubbing" at the latest "hot" night spots, where we are immediately ushered to the VIP table, past the riff raff clamoring outside the door, because we know the owner.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Jury duty blues

I had to go in for jury duty yesterday, and like everyone I yelled and cursed when I found out. I made sure I dressed like the aggressive intellectual hipster that I am, and even considered ostentatiously reading Lolita if I had to sit in the courtroom. That would have been effective because it turned out the case was about child molestation. However we all got dismissed about an hour after we got there because the judge had a family emergency. Yay, a family emergency! And there's the horror of the jury duty experience. Thinking about reading Lolita to get out of a child molestation case. Being glad that someone in the judge's family might be hurt or sick or worse. And most of all thinking that not getting further behind at work is more important than helping make sure someone accused of a crime gets justice. Whenever I get dismissed I feel a little sad for all these reasons. I think, wait a minute, I really do want to serve. Someday, but not today.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Reminded in Ohio

We went to Ohio last week for my mother's birthday, and I remembered two things about living there.

1. Snowflakes. Not snow, which I've seen a fair amount of in California, but snowflakes. The ones that fall in loose clusters of about dozen or so and you can see the individual crystals. No two are alike, they say; well, there's no way to prove that. Falling snow also silences everything. It happens whether you're indoors or out. I'm not sure why. The one sound you do hear, which of course you're imagining but can't help imagining, is the sound of the snowflakes themselves. They make a little ssth as they land on a pile of their fellows.

2. In Ohio you can still smoke in restaurants. People toss their heads and shoot jets of smoke from their mouths and noses like horses.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Reading with trauma

I taught Reading Lolita in Tehran last year for the first time, and it bombed. Unexpectedly. I thought the students would love it as I did the first time through...but the second time I found myself really irritated by the style, the labored efforts to create a feeling of coziness, and the way it let western or non-Muslim readers completely off the hook. Look how great your culture is, your classics. You're absolutely right to find Iran backward and scary. Well, of course it is, these days more than ever. But still I expect literature and literary memoirs to challenge my assumptions in some way. In RLIT Azar Nafisi tells us to curl up with our steaming mug of coffee and our girlfriends and our book and pat ourselves on the back. She invites us to take her and her students' brave act of rebellion--meeting in secret to discuss books not sanctioned by the state--as our own. The coziness in her world is a pocket of safety in a system that's actively seeking to destroy women. Our coziness could just be laziness. Or not. Even one year later I feel much less safe as a woman in the U.S. But I don't think it's yet time for us to retreat and form our own country of imagination. Not only that, anyway.

Which brings me to Lolita itself. Is there a less cozy book in the world? Nafisi and her students, from inside their cocoon, read the book as an allegory for totalitarianism and a literal chronicle of child abuse. I suspect this is how Oprah would read it (especially the second way), and therefore one--and by one I mean myself sometimes but not always--is inclined to discount it. But why? Can we really tell readers from a traumatized place that their take is less sophisticated? That they need to get well or get safe before they can properly understand literature? That literature only works when you're comfortable? Cripes, I hope not. That would be totalitarian.

Think of all the people who adopted James Frey's memoir and clutched it to their hearts even as Frey was revealed as a psychopath (exploited by the publishing industry). These were traumatized people, recovering addicts who sought and found help in the story. But sophisticated types mock them, first for liking Frey's lousy prose (maybe a sign of his authenticity, his real suffering) and then for standing by him when he was found inauthentic. For caring about authenticity on one hand, and for not caring about it when it no longer served their needs. But judging whether people's readings are proper comes close to judging whether their emotions are. And you'd have to know an awful lot about each person to be able to tell.

In Lot's Daughters Rob Polhemus says Lolita ushered in the whole confessional genre that started in the 60s and culminates in the types of books Oprah chooses for her readers. In other words you can trace a direct line from Lolita to Oprah. But that's as long as you identify with Lolita, as Nafisi and her students do, and not with Humbert. Maybe you can risk identifying with Humbert if the rest of your life isn't in much danger.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Writing as faith

I am not religious, but writing a novel has to be the first time I have seriously attempted to have faith. I don't mean faith in a god--unless that god is so vaguely defined as to be unusable as a concept anyway. And I don't want to say "faith in myself" because that phrase has become revolting. I want to rescue the word "faith" from the mental image it now gives me of a pale and pudgy person looking heavenward (or navelward) with dewy eyes. It's almost too late. But faith, I have heard some serious religious people say, is rigorous. It means moving forward even when you have no idea where your next step will land. Maybe in a hole, a pile of shit, grass which is lovely but you're allergic to it, the beach, etc. You get up and keep going. You promise yourself you will fix the mistakes, you can go back and fix them, not now goddamn it because you have to keep moving instead of obsessively tweaking something that isn't going to matter by the end anyway--you will fix them, and besides the further ahead you go, the more the past mistakes will sort themselves out. My whole personality is based on obsession with mistakes. I can't be that way and write novels.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Mars rovers

This month's meeting of the San Mateo County Astronomical Society featured Dr. Nathalie Cabrol, a planetary geologist and SETI researcher at NASA Ames. NASA Ames is full of people with unbelievably interesting jobs. Why isn't the government doing something about this? Do they know? Anyway Cabrol is part of the team that designed and now controls the Spirit rover on Mars. There's a little rivalry between the Spirit and Opportunity teams. Opportunity is known as "Miss Perfect" because she (they are female, though I always thought of them as boys) hit her landing site exactly after bouncing off a rock that turned out to be an important geological find. Spirit landed hard and nearly disastrously, gets dirty and had to drive backward a good part of the time because of a gimpy wheel. It turns out the rovers were designed to provide a human-eye view of Mars: the cameras are set the same distance apart as human eyes to provide stereoscopic vision like ours, and they're set at an average human's height. Maybe that's one reason the researchers are so attached to them. Cabrol said she doesn't go to work every day; she goes to Mars. They must have a strong sense of really being there, not only because of the eye-level photos but because the rovers' tools (like the RAT, or Rock Abrasion Tool) function similarly to human hands.

Poul Anderson's story "Call Me Joe" (from 1957) describes a remote exploration of Titan in which a human operates a lizard-like artifical life form on the surface through mind-to-mind transmissions. The operator is a quadraplegic; Joe is a fighter who swigs liquid methane. Eventually the operator's consciousness gets sucked down into Joe, swapping white-collar emasculation for macho, scaly freedom. Spirit and Opportunity are female and (perhaps not coincidentally) they're servants, cute and plucky. But their operators and observers on earth clearly endow them with life. In exchange for being our eyes, hands, and feet on Mars, the rovers get to borrow human consciousness--even if they're not aware of it.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

First person

I have switched my novel from third to first person and have been writing torrents ever since. I know why I've resisted first person for so long--it seemed like cheating because it's always felt so much easier. I still find it awkward to write about myself in autobiographical mode (maybe a reason for starting this blog), but I have little trouble inserting myself into a character and yammering on. I wonder if that's true for other writers, or if it's especially true for me because of my academic background. Third person offers a distant and therefore analytical stance, meaning I feel compelled to come up with astonishing metaphors and grandiose claims because I'm the voice of god. And the language turns to kudzu. In first person I write the way I think the person would talk, and that makes the language more linear. The character's not trying to impress the readers, or if she is, it's a joke that I can play with. Less is at stake for me in playing a character. So while first person is more limiting in scope, it's freeing in language and perception.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Seven Types of Ambiguity

It's a lovely book with a lovely cover--a giant number 7 in the edition I have from the library.

When I was an undergraduate I never heard about the New Critics, mainly because nearly every professor (like my high school teachers before them) practiced New Criticism. Like some forms of Protestantism or Midwesternness, it was not even seen as a practice, certainly not one among many. It was just what you did. Then when I got to grad school "New Critic" was a term of derision, meaning bourgeois liberal, meaning Republican, meaning fascist. (I would currently agree with the equation of numbers two and three in that series, but let's leave the bourgeois liberals out of it, please.) It was only very recently that I decided to figure out just who these New Critics were, and of course they were a pretty diverse lot (methodologically) spanning a good chunk of the twentieth century.

I'm just dipping into Empson so far, but here's a line I love from the last chapter, which I'm reading first. Speaking of the experience of apprehending a poem, Empson says "one cannot give or state the feeling directly any more than the feeling of being able to ride a bicycle; it is the result of a capacity..." Empson was a poet himself so his critical method was poetic. Imagine that.

Americans are not afraid

A few days ago Maureen Dowd wondered in her NYT column when the Democrats were going to pull together an effective message to combat the Republicans' endless fear-mongering. How about this: Americans are not afraid. Think about it--if we stop being scared the Republicans lose. They have nothing else.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The really personal computer

Sitting in an office or tethered to one electronically, it's easy to think of the personal computer as a weightless, quietly hissing millstone. Worse, it's the window into our minds that Big Brother has been waiting for, and it can be thrown wide open with a wink or a handshake. But that wasn't what at least some of its pioneers meant it to be. In What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer, John Markoff shows the computer's roots in radical individualism. From Vannevar Bush's theoretical Memex machine onward, sixties visionaries saw the computer as a tool to manage and explore our own minds. Nothing need be forgotten, and the burden of memory need not weigh so heavily on us. Like LSD (in some ways) and maybe like fiction (in others) the computer functioned as a mirror and amplifier, a tool of self-discovery. Is there any technology that frees its user by design, or can all tools be turned to oppression?

Friday, January 20, 2006

The hole in the paper

My previous post suggests the hole in the page is a blindspot, like a flash-spot in the eye. The flash-spot happens when the light-sensitive rods in the eye get temporarily overwhelmed by light that's too strong (a camera flash, a reflection off a car windshield). That seems like a good way of representing madness, when the psyche is overwhelmed.

Stephen King talks about the "hole in the paper" in Misery, only for him it means the writer is in the zone. This doesn't preclude madness, and I don't believe King thinks so either. When the writer, Paul Sheldon, sees the hole in the paper he forgets he's writing. Specifically he forgets words and the technologies used to produce them (Annie Wilkes's crappy typewriter) and sees only his characters in action. That's also Paul's and King's hope for their readers, that they will not even be conscious of the physical words or the writer's deployment of them, and instead see--at a later time--exactly what the writer saw through the hole.

But because Annie makes Paul write on a bad typewriter (and also maims his hand) it's harder to see through the paper. Writing becomes more obviously a physical chore, and when the typewriter throws its "n" key, Annie fills in the "n's." In other words, she inserts herself ("n" sounds like "Ann," unfortunately for me, and unfortunately too because deconstruction is out). Instead of the madness of the writer's brain firing on all cylinders, Paul sees Annie's disgusting body when he writes. For King these are two sides of the same coin, I think.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Nedotykomka

I still haven't finished Pale Fire. I've stopped reading it because I don't want it to be over. My favorite part so far is John Shade's daughter's encounter with the poltergeist, a spot of light that she tries to speak with by reciting the alphabet and recording which letters it bounces on. The poltergeist reminds me of those blind spots you get in your eyes when a camera flash goes off. And in fact orbs appearing on digital photos are supposedly evidence of poltergeists in people's houses.

The flash-spot moves around with your vision, which drives you crazy, like the belief that your house is haunted. All you can see is that you can't see what's there. The orb of light in Pale Fire seems like a version of the Nedotykomka in Sologub's Petty Demon. The Nedotykomka is a sort of malevolent dust bunny that represents and drives the protagonist's madness. I now see that David Bethea in Russian Review (63:1) has found reflections of the Petty Demon in Nabokov, so I'm not the only one. It might be that the orb is not just a repercussion of the Nedotykomka, but an image of unacknowledged literary influence--a hole burned in the page. Influence is definitely maddening.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

A Deepness in the Sky

I want to be someone who likes reading science fiction. I love the ideas in it; I love literary fiction that's infused with the strangeness of sf worlds. I dive into sf novels with enthusiasm, refreshed by the (seemingly) straightforward language and the attention to concepts and action rather than psychology. But usually I come up again halfway through, fatigued from keeping track of terminology and hundreds of faceless characters. I don't like this inkling that I'd rather have someone else tell me about the novels than read them myself. And so I'm going to finish Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky. I left it some months ago, bogged down in what seems to be backstory about a dull but important human character, a member of the Qeng Ho, a commerce-oriented society--as opposed to the Emergents, the fascists (of whom more in a moment). Deepness was wonderful in the first half. Some reasons:
  • The Spiders, a non-human race that lives on a planet orbiting the On-Off star. When the star is "off" the Spiders hibernate for over a century (I think) and when the star comes back on (rather beautifully), they must rebuild their civilization. The Spiders who have multiple eyes and legs and full body hair are the most engaging characters by far in the book. They're idiosyncratic, inventors, with senses of humor. When the human characters are on stage I keep asking, like David Bowie did, Where are the Spiders?

  • The Focused. These are people whom the Emergents deliberately infect with a neural toxin that makes them essentially autistic. They think only about their current task, talk about nothing else, neglect their hygiene and personal lives utterly. They're the perfect high-tech employees. The fact that they usually receive the infection in grad school requires no further discussion.

  • Systems. Specifically, what does one do with the systems of a society it has conquered? How does the conquerer adapt and use the techologies of its enemy? What's the difference between adoption and cooption? How can they trust the tools?
Also a young woman keeps discovering the truth, over and over, about her mother's murder, only to have her memory erased by the emergents at the moment of discovery. It's a lovely problem.

I will finish, I will, right after Pale Fire, which seems like it's going to be the best book ever written.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

On no

It's apparently an old saw in creative writing that characters should never say "no." It's not that they are supposed to be doormats; they just shouldn't use the word "no" in dialog. That's because "no" provides no information, whereas other forms of refusal do. I heard this from Charles D'Ambrosio at the Tin House workshop last summer, so I'll use his example:

Do you want a banana?
No. [=lost opportunity to provide information]

versus

Do you want a banana?
You know I don't like bananas. [=intriguing implications about the speakers' relationship]

Since hearing this I've been going through my stories with the No Comb. And yet: "No" is fun to say. It's fun to write. It looks great on the page.

No.

See what I mean? It's even better without quotation marks. It does stop the narrative, it is empty, more like punctuation than a word. That's it's power. There must be a use for these little dead spots in fiction.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Extremophiles and philosophy

We went to a talk at the San Mateo County Astronomical Society by Lynn Rothschild, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames, last Friday evening. Yes, NASA does pay people to think about life in outer space and I can't think of a better use of taxpayer money. And for those of us looking for a Grand Unified Theory of science, religion, and humanities--which I'm not--astrobiology is a good entry point.

Rothschild studies "extremophiles," creatures that live in extreme conditions on Earth. These studies suggest life could exist on a place like Venus, with its stifling toxic clouds, or on Mars, where it gets damn cold. (Although Mars has other problems, notably "chaotic obliquity," meaning the tilt of its axis changes dramatically over relatively short time periods. It rocks. The Earth doesn't because of our Moon.) One thinks of the bacteria living in the "smokers" or thermal vents on the ocean floor, but it turns out there are lots of other examples of extremophiles, including penguins. And us. Because one of the questions Rothschild raised was how to define "extremophile"--especially if we take out the requirement to "love" the extreme and say it's OK to merely tolerate it. Some bacteria live in pools of acid only because they can't get out. They thrive in the relative comfort of the lab ("I didn't know it could be like this!"). Apparently some biologists consider it cheating to grow a layer of blubber or develop the ability to make and wear coats--so a kid ice skating couldn't be an extremophile--but that's an arguable line to draw.

What became clear for me at this talk was how deeply science is imbued with philosophy. The notion of questioning what an "extremophile" really is, and working from the understanding that the definition is questionable, opens huge investigative possibilities. Humanists are all about questioning definitions, and it's time we all starting seeing this method as productive rather than merely undermining.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Ghost net / net ghost

Ghost net: abandoned synthetic-fiber fishing net that traps and kills marine wildlife.

Net ghost: abandoned web site that clings to the mind. Example: Heaven's Gate.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Brian May's web site

It should be noted before too much more time has passed that Brian May has a web site. This is startling to someone who worshipped Queen in junior high, who was partial to Freddie but always knew Brian was seriously smart, an astronomer and a math whiz and a nice person, clearly nicer than the others, "Fat Bottom Girls" and "Tie Your Mother Down" notwithstanding. Of all the band members Brian seemed the most capable of living beyond and outside it, except now he has reconstituted Queen with Paul Rogers in the Freddie position. What to think about that...Brian posts to his "Soapbox" in a chatty, exclamation-point sprinkled style that doesn't quite seem like him, though I'm getting used to it. He responds to fan mail about guitar minutiae and the music business and also the bonsai-kitten hoax, which distressed him. The Soapbox includes quite a few photos, and there's nothing like seeing the guitar god in half-glasses hunched over the Red Special on his workbench.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Riderless horse

Last week my husband Trev and I were hiking at Point Reyes and came upon a horse with no rider. He was standing beside the trail eating grass, his stirrups twisted, bridle hanging to the ground. There were large wet patches on his neck and back and a line of foam on his cheek. We shouted for the rider, wandered up and down the trail, but no one came. So while Trev stayed with the horse I went back to the hostel at the trailhead to get help. As I walked the same thoughts occurred to me as they have on the few occasions in my life when I've realized something could be very seriously wrong--that is, this isn't happening, this is a joke, I'm going to embarrass myself by calling for help when anyone with the slightest knowledge of horseback riding knows that riders routinely leave their horses alone to graze in the mist. Also that I should be running, not walking. Also that I should stay off the grounds of the hostel until 4:30 because that was what the sign said in no uncertain terms, also that I couldn't ask this family moseying up to me if I could use their cell phone because that would ruin their day.

The guy at the hostel told me to take a deep breath and while he waited for the ranger to answer the phone asked me where I was from and if I'd been birdwatching. This seemed to be his method for dealing with city folk who came in gasping about some horror (slug, owl vomit) on the trail, and I wanted to tell him that I was not panicked, only worried that I was not worried enough. I went back outside to flag the ranger down and saw my husband walking the horse and its rider, a taciturn woman with legs as thin as my wrists. She'd been riding on the beach, but her horse was from Montana and had never seen the ocean before. The surf had panicked him and he had thrown her.

"It's always the rider's fault," she said. She was unhurt.

At Ronald Reagan's funeral a riderless horse followed the casket with boots reversed in the stirrups. A ghost was in the saddle, looking backward.