Thursday, December 20, 2007

War is a force...

For some holiday uplift, I am reading War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges. It is truly frightening because the book was published in 2002, just as BushCo was beginning to beat the lie drums for the Iraq war. Referring mostly to the first gulf war and the Balkan Wars, Hedges predicts exactly how things have gone since the book was published. All wars, even "good" ones, tend to evoke the same powerful ambivalences in those who fight them. There's less ambivalence for the armchair cheerleaders, who avidly consume the myth of war, but never see the reality. The title of the book sort of says it all, but:

In mythic war we imbue events with meanings they do not have. We see defeats as signposts on the road to ultimate victory. We demonize the enemy so that our opponent is no longer human. We view ourselves, our people, as the embodiment of absolute goodness. Our enemies invert our view of the world to justify their own cruelty. In most mythic wars this is the case. Each side reduces the other to objects--eventually in the form of corpses. [....]

The potency of the myth is that it allows us to make sense of mayhem and violent death. It gives a justification to what is often nothing more than gross human cruelty and stupidity. It allows us to believe we have achieved our place in human society because of a long chain of heroic endeavors, rather than accept the sad reality that we stumble along a dimly lit corridor of disasters. It disguises our powerlessness. It hides from view our own impotence and the ordinariness of our own leaders. By turning history into myth we transform random events into a chain of events directed by a will greater than our own, one that is determined and preordained. We are elevated above the multitude. We march toward nobility. And no society is immune (23-24).

Isn't it interesting that the religious right, who claim to have so much meaning in their lives in the form of God and Jesus and the unwavering certainty of their own goodness--that these are the people who scream loudest for war, whenever the possibility even faintly appears? I thought we atheists were the ones who pathetically had no meaning in our lives, who were dangerous because of it. (We don't think God is watching us, so we naturally are immoral; even as adults, Christians apparently do the right thing only because they fear punishment.) Yet it would seem the fanatics are the meaning-starved ones. Their religion proves inadequate; they must have blood and sacrifice (of others), and still they aren't satisfied. Will someone please, please give these peoples' lives some real meaning? And is that what W, that empty shell of a human, is really craving?

Oh, and in case you were wondering, war correspondents and the press generally don't see their role as uncovering the realities of war. Hedges, who was a war correspondent for years, points out that the press is "eager to be of service" to the myth. The fact that we're now seeing more negative reports about Iraq is a reflection of American public opinion turning against the war. The press follows the trajectory of the myth, bolstering it till they can no longer credibly do so.

I'm grateful to the many bloggers out there who have kept the press more honest in this war than perhaps in any other. Though a lot of crap has slid through the cracks, war-myth making might be harder in years to come.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Giuliani and Bozo

Al Sharpton has said of Rudolph Giuliani (paraphrasing from this week's New Yorker): "He didn't bring us together after 9-11. Our pain brought us together. We would have come together if Bozo had been the mayor." I think that's true, but I have another take. Bozo was in fact the President on 9-11, and his failure is what made Giuliani look so good. On 9-11 Trev and I were at the Alisal resort, on our honeymoon. We watched TV most of that day and waited in vain for Bush to appear and say something. Cheney did (and I remember him saying Saddam had nothing to do with it because he was "bottled up"--does anyone else remember this?). Bush, as we all know, was darting around the country on Air Force One, landing here and there like a fly on a meatloaf. Very late that night, I think around 11, he came on and gave a short deer-in-the-headlights speech that even he didn't seem impressed with (how often has that happened?). The next day he gave a lurching press conference, looking like someone had physically shoved him in front of the camera. The highly touted Bullhorn Moment at Ground Zero came quite late, and, like Giuliani, only looked good in comparison to what had come before. Meanwhile Giuliani was on camera, speaking relatively clearly and eloquently (again: relative to nothing). He literally filled a void that should not have been there. For that the country canonized him, as it soon did with Bush, just for finally showing up.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

When you feel global doubt

Richard Bausch, from Off the Page: Writers Talk about Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between (ed. Carole Burns):

I don't teach writing. I teach patience. Toughness. Stubbornness. The willingness to fail. I teach the life. The odd thing is most of the things that stop an inexperienced writer are so far from the truth as to be nearly beside the point. When you feel global doubt about your talent, that is your talent. People who have no talent don't have any doubt. And it's figuring that out and learning how to put all that stuff behind you and just do the work. Just go in and shake the black cue ball and see what surfaces.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

One Punk Under God

One Punk Under God was a miniseries on the Sundance Channel about Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye. He's a preacher himself and founder of the Revolution church, which is in many ways the anti-PTL. Where PTL (his parents' infamous ministry) was enormous, cheesy, Disneyfied, televised, and ghastly, Revolution is low-tech and--I guess you could say--punk. In Atlanta the church met in a bar. Judging from the show, Jay Bakker's preaching seems mainly to consist of him working out his "dad" issues in front of a supportive crowd. Maybe that's what preaching is these days, or it's always that way and I just never realized it. Anyway he goes around putting stickers on lampposts that say "as Christians, we apologize for being self-righteous bastards." He decides during the course of the show to make Revolution a gay-affirming church. He's a dead ringer for David Cross, and his wife is extremely colorful--an odd inverse of Tammy Faye. He'll never bag me as a convert, but things could be worse. They mostly are.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Rosebud story

The issue of Rosebud with my story, "The Temp," is out.

Monday, December 03, 2007


I finally saw this film, which sent A.O. Scott of the Times, among others, into paroxysms of praise. Never before has an animated film, etc. It's the story of a rat who dreams of being a great chef, and succeeds with the help of the goofy young garbage boy (who does the actual cooking since the rat can't, or shouldn't, use kitchen tools). Apparently the tale was sincerely uplifting to many sophisticated critics. The animation is state of the art, though marveling at how realistic something looks seems less and less like a meaningful aesthetic experience. And overall I found the movie incredibly dismaying. Pardon my Berkeleyism, but:

--There is one female in the entire film, not counting possibly a few shadowy diners who never speak. The female is an ambitious underling who expresses rage about the male-dominated world of restaurants by slinging her knives around. (Male viewers laugh nervously and knowingly.) She is supposed to be great at her work, but her role in the film is to step aside while the rat-and-boy team climb to the top in a matter of weeks. There are no female rats in the entire large "clan." Maybe the filmmakers thought this was a compliment of sorts, but note this: both the garbage-boy, Linguini, and the rat-chef Remy are motherless. Linguini's mother is dead; I don't remember what happened to Remy's mother, if it's even explained. Yes, that's the usual Disney Bambi terror/fantasy, but the overall impression is that the filmmakers like this boy's world just as it is.

--The villain in the film is a dark-skinned North African type. There is one other dark-skinned cook in the kitchen who plays a minor role, and all the other humans are white. Yes, I hope we've moved beyond the tentative Deep-Space-Nine Star-Trek-Enterprise universes, where the writers are so afraid of offending that the black characters are not only moral paragons, they have no personality whatsoever. But in an animated film, skin color is a very specific technical choice. They are not working with a specific actor's appearance, but assigning the exact appearance they want to the character. Villain = dark person with heavy accent.

--It goes without saying that the "good" people have American accents, and the "bad" people have either English or French accents. The film is set in Paris and all the characters are supposed to be French. (The female love interest does sound vaguely French, but we've already dealt with the fact that she's female and therefore second-class. She can afford to have an accent.)

--Finally (as Trev pointed out) several characters insist over and over again on the most important moral principle in the world: Do Not Steal. Not even if you're starving can you steal a chunk of bread. It is OK to kidnap and tie up the dark-skinned man and the health inspector and throw them in a closet. But Do Not Steal, especially from companies; it is Wrong. So don't even think of illegally downloading or copying any Disney products, kids.

If this movie is our current inspirational message to the young, I'd say we have gotten exactly nowhere since the 50s. The progress in animation technique may even serve to disguise the retrograde message--and it is a message, believe me.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Compulsive revising

How do novelists stop themselves from endlessly revising the beginning pages of their novels? I gather this is a fairly common problem. By nature beginnings get more work since they're around the longest, and you see novels that seem better crafted in the beginning and more scattered as they go on. However if you aren't all the way through a first draft, as I am not, revising makes little sense. It's likely I will end up throwing out the beginning, or cutting off the diving board, as someone said at the Tin House workshop a few years ago. But how can I stop? Do I really need to open a new file every day, as I've tried in the past, so I can't look back at what I've written? Should I take what I have so far off the computer and store it on disk in the Nevada desert? Here's the thing: I still feel I need to understand what happens in the beginning before I can write what happens next. The rewriting is part of figuring out the characters' motivations. But maybe I can figure those out as I move forward, and revise the beginning later. Perhaps I don't trust that I will remember how things have changed, so I feel I have to go back right away. But then things change again, and the beginning gets messier and messier and covered with claw marks. So I am actually not even making the beginning better, let alone progressing.

I'm afraid of finishing. That's it! I'm afraid of finishing and finding out I have a disaster on my hands.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Poetry of the Universe

I bought this book by Robert Osserman years ago at a used book store and finally started reading it on the plane to Cleveland last week. It is wonderful. For the first time, I feel I am starting to "get" spherical geometry. Not that I could do any calculations or anything, but Osserman explains it by starting with the basic problem of map-making: there's no way to make a two-dimensional map that is not distorted; the issue is how best to manage the distortion for the purposes of the particular map. He then translates this problem into mapping four-dimensional space using three dimensions. Apparently Dante's "map" of the earthly vs. heavenly spheres uses pretty much the same idea as the mathematical "hypersphere." If Osserman can even begin to get this across to a spatial illiterate like me, he must be onto something.

I wonder what would happen if math teachers taught this book or a similar one, along with the usual calculations and story problems. The students could read a chapter and they could discuss it for a half hour once a week or something. I understand there's no time in the high school classroom for this sort of thing, but it would be great. I never cared about figuring out when two trains would pass each other--but learning that I could use math to understand how the universe works would have hooked me a lot more.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Chancellor May

Congrats are in order once again to Brian May, who's now a university chancellor.
h/t to Amy

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Props to the NYT

For vegetarian Thanksgiving recipes. I'm going to try this one for sure, the Pumpkin, White Bean, and Kale Ragout. I know from my experiments combining Vegan with a Vengeance and Tassajara Cookbook recipes that white beans and kale are great together, and you can't go wrong adding butternut squash or pumpkin. The ingredient list is in the middle range, not quite the 40,000 typical of NYT recipes (and Tassajara).

Here's another one from the same article, Curried Lentils with Sweet Potatoes and Swiss Chard. I've come a long way from the days I swore I could never be a vegetarian because all they ate was lentils, which reminded me of guinea pig food. The fact that I have a very strong sense of what guinea pig food tastes like might give you pause. But this recipe sounds good too.

I'm not so sure about the Corn Bread and Broccoli Rabe Strata, especially because of the "resting."

Anyway, good on the NYT.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Meteor shower

Trev and I went to Sea Ranch last weekend and scored the best room in the house--top floor, corner, with a 180 degree view of the ocean. We watched the Leonid meteor shower from the comfort of our window seats (Trev woke me up at 5 a.m., after it stopped raining, but I was surprisingly polite). We also watched the stars fade into daytime. It was somehow comforting to be reminded that they're always there.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Writers' strike

Joss Whedon has a great post up about the writers' strike and why it matters. And the guy really can write.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Last Thursday Trev and I were sitting in our favorite "family restaurant" (it calls itself a "creperie" but has nachos and the occasional screaming kid), waiting for our clothes to dry at the laundromat next door. I reading Anthony Grafton's article on the library of the future in the New Yorker, when my eye was drawn to the television over the bar. A shirtless, heavily tattooed man was dancing under a spotlight. I thought it was some kind of dance-contest show, but then the man trotted down a ramp into a large octagonal ring surrounded by a chain-link cage. Another man appeared from the opposite direction, and the two of them started punching and then kicking each other in the head. I put Grafton down.

I studied karate for four years before destroying my ankle. These guys seemed to have some technique. Apparently they were engaged in a practice called Strikeforce, which I learn from Wikipedia is "an American professional kickboxing and mixed martial arts promotion based in San Jose, California." (At the time I thought that might just be the name of the company that made the mat.) The bout ended quickly, though I don't quite remember how, and then another bout started with two new heavily tattooed guys. These guys immediately went to the floor, wrapped their arms and legs around each other, and sort of scootched around the mat. Eventually the ref separated them, then they did the same thing again. They looked like a couple of brothers fighting, or a couple of drunks, as Trev said. It was impossible to tell whether they knew how to fight. The effect was hilarious and boring at the same time, suggesting that if no holds are barred, skill becomes irrelevant, and/or aesthetics goes out the window. Or perhaps they were really fighting. My karate teacher told us about a real fight that broke out during a sparring competition. The guys immediately dropped all their fancy training and started windmilling and slapping each other.

What does this mean for the library of the future?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Is Star Trek a religion?

Trev thinks so. Consider:
--It has dieties (it is probably polytheistic).
--It has rituals (conventions, role-playing games).
--It has relics and iconography.
--It has sacred texts (the original series, maybe Next Generation).
--Many Trekkers have formed groups that engage in social activism.
--All are welcome, misfits fit in.
--It has a utopian vision for humankind's future.

I would argue that Star Wars, while more blatantly religious, is not a religion, though it borrows from another one. The Force is just warmed-over California Buddhism. And I don't think Star Wars inspires in the same way.

When pondering this question you may wish to view the film Trekkies. (I notice Blogger underlines Trekkies as a misspelling, but not Trekkers. Interesting.) We first saw Trekkies at the Tanforan Theater in South SF, years ago. I don't know if it still exists; back then it was in post-apocalyptic decline, with upturned buckets of popcorn in the bathroom and drifts of it in the aisles. Not only did your shoes stick to the floor, they came off when you tried to lift your feet. The projectionist started screening the wrong movie, then the aspect ratio was off so everyone looked like an ET; finally they got the film going but never centered it on the screen and all the informative text (like who was speaking) was cut off. It was perhaps the greatest movie-going experience of my life.

Robot patient

If Sherry Turkle is right, that we attach to what we nurture, how do the nursing students feel about this? Also in the works: the first robot birth.

h/t Natalie.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

You can never get away from yourself

From Constantin Stanislavsky, An Actor Prepares:
Do you expect an actor to invent all sorts of new sensations, or even a new soul, for every part he plays? How many souls would he be obligated to house? On the other hand, can he tear out his own soul, and replace it by one he has rented, as being more suitable to a certain part? Where can he get one? You can borrow clothing, a watch, things of all sorts, but you cannot take feelings away from another person. My feelings are inalienably mine, and yours belong to you in the same way. You can understand a part, sympathize with the person portrayed, and put yourself in his place, so that you will act as he would. That will arouse feelings in the actor that are analogous to those required for the part. But those feelings will belong, not to the person created by the author of the play, but to the actor himself.

Never lose yourself on the stage. Always act in your own person, as an artist. You can never get away from yourself. The moment you lose yourself on the stage marks the departure from truly living your part and the beginning of exaggerated false acting. Therefore no matter how much you act, how many parts you take, you should never allow yourself any exception to the rule of using your own feelings. To break that rule is the equivalent of killing the person you are portraying, because you deprive him of a papitating, living, human soul, which is the real source of life for a part. (Trans. Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. Italics in original.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Cleveland Indians

So I see that the Indians blew a 3-1 lead in the playoffs amid news that one of their pitchers is turning into a cow. My father would have been beside himself.

Someday I will have to write about growing up as an Indians fan. I remember going to a game on my birthday, watching the Indians pitching staff walk fourteen Detroit Tigers to the sarcastic applause of the 3000 or so fans. (The old Municipal Stadium held 80,000.) When the pitcher finally threw a strike, the crowd booed, but the catcher leaped up and pumped his fist--see, you can do it, he was saying. But that wasn't true.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The short story -- dead or sleeping?

A thoughtful response to Stephen King's recent laments on the short story, by Jean Thompson.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Their book deals ruined their lives

I don't know if I should be happy or sad about this.

It also says blogging is the literary equivalent of living in a trailer.

h/t Sara.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Bad Buddhist

I have not meditated in weeks, at least not on the zafu. I think it's because I've been doing yoga nearly every day instead (with my revered Rodney Yee DVD). Yoga is more fun. It also has the additional benefit of being exercise, which means one is multitasking, therefore not really meditating but doing the opposite. But because, in yoga, one has to fully concentrate on, say, not falling on one's head while doing a backbend, the mind clears wonderfully. Whereas if one is "just" sitting, one has to listen to the unending stream of annoying mental chatter that one has yet to let go of or thin out in any significant way. Of course having this goal of getting rid of the chatter is non-Zen.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Noble failure

From an article by John Aravosis, excerpted on Americablog and available on Salon. Why can't liberals win? This is why:
Conservatives understand that cultural change is a long, gradual process of small but cumulatively deadly victories. Liberals want it all now. And that's why, in the culture wars, conservatives often win and we often lose. While conservatives spend years, if not decades, trying to convince Americans that certain judges are "activists," that gays "recruit" children, and that Democrats never saw an abortion they didn't like, we often come up with last-minute ideas and expect everyone to vote for them simply because we're right. Conservatives are happy with piecemeal victory, liberals with noble failure. We rarely make the necessary investment in convincing people that we're right because we consider it offensive to have to explain an obvious truth.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Helpful finds

I'm just starting work on a personal statement for low-residency MFA applications, and probably also for the Stegner fellowship. I haven't written anything like this for twenty years. It's the most excruciating genre ever invented. Fortunately, Tom Kealey has posted his successful statement on his MFA blog. Many, many thanks to him... My first draft was way too elliptical and ponderous. One needs a light touch to balance out the self-mythologizing.

Also here's a list of journals, ranked by tiers--very useful for deciding where to submit. This is from Armand Inezian, winner of Glimmer Train's Summer Fiction Open.

Monday, October 01, 2007


My story "The Temp" has been accepted by Rosebud. It will come out in either winter or spring.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Master of Monterey

I am reading a novel called The Master of Monterey by Lawrence Coates, whom I know from grad school. It's a great magical/realist/historical story about the seizure of Monterey by a U.S. Navy ship in 1842. Jones mistakenly thought the U.S. was at war with Mexico, and the conquest lasted three days. There's a plaque in Monterey commemorating this event, so I'll have to look for it. It's a comic episode in history and even funnier in the novel, which also manages to be a powerful attack on colonialism, manifest destiny, etc. Now's as good a time as any to make fun of American delusions.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Milton Hatoum

A nice piece about Brazilian novelist Milton Hatoum in the NYT today. I met him almost four years ago (!!) when he was the DLCL's first Writer in Residence. He's a great writer and an incredibly warm, big-hearted human being. Trev and I took him on a tour of the coast, where Trev explained the social networking of Argentine ants using diagrams in the sand, and a whale graciously showed up. I think / hope Milton is coming to Stanford again in spring as the Tinker Professor in the Center for Latin American Studies. He was supposed to come last year but didn't make it. Lúcia Sá, a former DLCL professor and also a lovely person, is quoted in the article also.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


I joined PETA this week after seeing veal calves and their huts while driving through Petaluma. It was surreal--the grass so green, the huts so white, the black-and-white calves so luminous. Of course. They do not get dirty because they don't move.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

On bailing out and sneaking back in

Bitch Ph.D. has a really interesting discussion going on why people choose to leave academia. It sure brings back memories. I can't pinpoint when I first started thinking about leaving, but even before finishing my dissertation--from the beginning of grad school, really--I was doing a lot of non-academic things in my spare time and wondering why everyone else was going to conferences or reading lit-crit for fun. I had zero instinct for networking; I figured doing good work would be enough to get me noticed, and I didn't do more than was required. I thought I was a visual artist, joined an artists' critique group, and tried to figure out how to work that into my career. I decided to quit for sure after my third failed foray through the MLA job market. After making calls and finding out I was not invited for on-campus interviews (for two third-tier job prospects), I decided to end it. I hung up the phone, cried, then danced around the apartment, happier than I'd ever felt in my life.

I still envy people in tenure-track jobs, in that they have tangible accomplishments to show for all their hard work. But I don't envy the work itself, or the pressure to perform, which doesn't go away once you have tenure. I can't stand 99% of academic writing, and I don't want to do any more of it myself. I do love teaching, and am grateful that I can teach here at Stanford, where the students are uniformly wonderful.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Jay Fliegelman

A fond and baffled farewell to a brilliant Americanist, about whom there will still be stories.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Vacation blogging

I am slowly coming back from vacation. What to write about?

I have only seen bears in the wild twice, both times crossing the highway in front of our car. The first time was about four years ago on our way back from Lava Beds. A ginger-colored cub ran along the highway ahead of our car for several seconds. I lunged forward to grab the camera (I was the passenger) and the seatbelt of my old Corolla stopped me. And held me. I sat there with splayed fingers, camera just out of reach, till the cub veered off into the woods. The second time was last week, as we were driving out of Sequoia National Park. An adult black bear, as big as our Honda Fit, waddled across the road and down an embankment. Again, I reached for the camera, which I got hold of, but did not manage to get out of the case in time. Lessons learned: bears are on the road, not in meadows; they show up on your way out of places.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

James Tiptree Jr.

I just finished James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips. I highly recommend it. Sheldon was a woman who used not only the pen-name of Tiptree but created a separate male identity through which she befriended a great number of fellow writers, notably Ursula Le Guin. Her (his) fiction won Hugo and Nebula awards, and Harlan Ellison, William Gibson, and many others raved about her (his) work. Once the secret was discovered--that Tiptree was a sixtyish female--the community generally accepted and welcomed her. But her self-hatred as an "old woman" seemed to interfere with her writing from then on. Sheldon was a feminist who was born too early, and she was depressed as well as defiant her whole life. She ended up shooting her husband and herself to death when she was 71.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Terry Eagleton on student lit crit

On students' readings of poetry these days:
They give accounts of works of literature which describe what is going on in them, perhaps with a few evaluative comments thrown in. To adapt a technical distinction from linguistics, they treat the poem as language but not as discourse. "Discourse"... means attending to language in all of its material density, whereas most approaches to poetic language tend to disembody it....It would be hard to figure out, just be reading most of these content analyses, that they were supposed to be about poems or novels rather than about some real-life happening. What gets left out is the literariness of the work... [T]hey treat the poem as though its author chose for some eccentric reason to write out his or her views on warfare or sexuality in lines which do not reach to the end of the page. Maybe the computer got stuck. (From How to Read a Poem, quoted by Marjorie Perloff in "It Must Stop," the 2006 MLA Presidential Address.)

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Culture wars and real ones

It's hard to believe that 14 years ago (14 in academy years=1 human year), a sentence like this could appear in a journal article: "No longer in the postwar period the sole intellectual and economic center of the world, Europe continues to be seen by the American Right as the primary source of culture and cultural legitimation." I almost fell out of my chair, but read on to realize that the author, Katie Trumpener, was talking about the culture wars of the 80s and 90s. The "Right" comprised the defenders of the Eurocentric Great Books curriculum that was under attack by multiculturalists. In 1993, apparently, the American Right's feminization of Europe had not taken hold--or at least went unnoticed among humanities faculties. I'm wondering how much of the "Europe is faggy" meme is a direct result of the run-up to war in Iraq.

Imagine any right-winger now espousing the greatness of European thought, past or present. Europe is our enemy, femmy and godless besides. Even the Enlightenment has to go under the bus because it promotes rational thought. Can't have that. Darwin? A satanist. What I wouldn't give for the wingers to go back to reading T.S. Eliot, if they ever did. But "The Wasteland" is full of Hinduism. (See Trumpener, "The Shape of the Moment and the Struggle for the Text" in Modern Philology 100:3 [February 1993].)

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Good Company

Queen's "Good Company" has been stuck in my head for the past three weeks, after I heard it on the radio in my physical therapist's office. I don't think I've ever heard "Good Company" on the radio before. It was not a hit. It is the pleasant but mercifully brief song before "Bohemian Rhapsody" on A Night at the Opera, to which one nodded and smiled, both to acknowledge that Brian May was playing the ukulele and in anticipation of what was coming next.

Although I am quite charmed by the tricky little rhyme of "the girl from number four" with "evermore," this really must stop now.

This is Brian May's fault.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


I am rereading Bram Stoker's Dracula, for the first time since the fourth grade, when it drove me, an atheist child of atheists, to sleep with a cross over my bed. (Where did I get the cross? It was a fairly large wooden one, though not large enough to sharpen and shove through a vampire's chest. It was probably my grandmother's.) I figured I would find it turgid and unscary this time around, like Frankenstein. Not so! Check out this detailed ethnography (I have no idea if it's accurate; if not, more props to Stoker for his vivid imagination) at the beginning of the novel. Talk about creating a sense of place:

All day long we seemed to dawdle through a country which was full of beauty of every kind. Sometimes we saw little towns or castles on the top of steep hills such as we see in old missals; sometimes we ran by rivers and streams which seemed from the wide stony margin on each side of them to be subject to great floods. It takes a lot of water, and running strong, to sweep the outside edge of a river clear.

At every station there were groups of people, sometimes crowds, and in all sorts of attire. Some of them were just like the peasants at home or those I saw coming through France and Germany, with short jackets, and round hats, and home-made trousers; but others were very picturesque.

The women looked pretty, except when you got near them, but they were very clumsy about the waist. They had all full white sleeves of some kind or other, and most of them had big belts with a lot of strips of something fluttering from them like the dresses in a ballet, but of course there were petticoats under them.

The strangest figures we saw were the Slovaks, who were more barbarian than the rest, with their big cow-boy hats, great baggy dirty-white trousers, white linen shirts, and enormous heavy leather belts, nearly a foot wide, all studded over with brass nails. They wore high boots, with their trousers tucked into them, and had long black hair and heavy black moustaches. They are very picturesque, but do not look prepossessing. On the stage they would be set down at once as some old Oriental band of brigands. They are, however, I am told, very harmless and rather wanting in natural self-assertion.

It was on the dark side of twilight when we got to Bistritz, which is a very interesting old place. Being practically on the frontier--for the Borgo Pass leads from it into Bukovina--it has had a very stormy existence, and it certainly shows marks of it. Fifty years ago a series of great fires took place, which made terrible havoc on five separate occasions. At the very beginning of the seventeenth century it underwent a siege of three weeks and lost 13,000 people, the casualties of war proper being assisted by famine and disease.

[Text snagged from Project Gutenberg.]

Friday, July 27, 2007

Dr. May continued

Order a copy of Brian May's book, Bang! A Complete History of the Universe, written with Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott. OK, a new copy is not available on Barnes and Noble at this time. But as of now, there is one used copy for $40. Hmm.

In related news, Brian will submit his PhD thesis in August. He is currently observing at the Galileo telescope on the Canary Islands.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Softball education

Trev and I went to Ohio over the weekend to visit my mom, as well as my friend Dorothy and her family. Dorothy used to play summer league softball when we were kids, and now her daughters do as well. We went to her older daughter Natalie's playoff game, which they lost in extra innings, but she hit a home run. The infields on both teams were pretty tight, with double plays and some nice stretches from the first base players (we are talking about fifth graders here). Confusion occasionally reigned in the outfield. Pitching was erratic--they are learning fast pitch, so there's a windup first, which sometimes sends the ball over the backstop or rolling along the ground like a bowling ball. There was a real umpire who shouted "baaaa..." and "stri...." incomprehensibly. Parents were well behaved overall, perhaps because these are "just girls"; at any rate the main goal seemed to be having fun and improving.

Earlier in the day I asked Dorothy and the girls to teach me how to hit a softball, which I'd never been able to do as a kid. Turns out you start out with your weight on the back leg and shift as you hit, as opposed to standing straight up with your legs locked in an isosceles triangle. It works!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Owning the sun

Yesterday's NYT points out that developments in solar power have lagged behind other "alternative" energies (clean coal! ethanol!) because there's no huge economic constituency behind solar. It's not that the technologies are inherently cumbersome or expensive, but the people who build them, or want them, don't have enough political clout. Not compared to the coal industry and big farma, who own the coal plants, the coal fields, and the corn fields, and stand to make money off any new uses for them. As of yet, no one owns the sun. Will that have to change?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Combining characters

I'm not getting much writing done these past several days, for various reasons that would never have stopped a real writer like Robert Olen Butler or Stephen King. However, thinking about the work I've done recently on my novel made me realize I have my own version of the author-narrator-character merge: ever since I began this novel, I've found myself "skimming off" what should be interesting aspects (occupations, quirks of personality or body) of the main character and creating new characters out of them. Then the main character sort of observes or experiences these interesting characters but does not do much or have these quirks herself. To some extent I've caught this problem in the past and reduced the number of characters accordingly--giving more color and energy to the main characters. But I found I'd done it again just recently, not only depriving my main character, once again, of anything substantial to do, but also throwing a wrench in the plot that didn't need to be there. This tendency might be due to vestigial confusion over first vs. third person point of view, but the larger problem is, I suspect, fear of making the main character in any way controversial. But of course this is exactly what she should be.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Novel situation

I find myself in the surprising position of not hating my novel. I returned to it a few weeks ago, after several months off, and despite some hiccups it has been rolling along. I'm especially gratified that--it *seems*--I can finally bring in this character who was once the main character but whom I had to excise from the entire first half. There are basically two parts to the novel, and the second part was the one I was struggling with for about two years, trying to wrench it out of a failed short story. Now some pieces I wrote much earlier seem to be fitting into place, with some revision, of course. (Shades of Robert Olen Butler's index card process, which didn't really work the way he said, but I get it.) Thank god for third-person omniscient (yes, all narrators are omniscient). Whenever you run out of ideas, just write from a different character's point of view, even that of a totally minor character. As Andrew Altschul said in our God Module seminar, allow the third person narrator to zoom in and out, setting up the range at the very beginning. I gave myself a really wide range with this novel, and it helps tremendously.

On the other hand I now hate most of my short stories. Most are in first person, which I'm off (probably temporarily), and some of the ones I liked previously now seem kinked in some unsolvable way. I'd like to have a few more things to send out for publication, but that well is pretty dry at the moment.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Long Now

From the website:

The Long Now Foundation hopes to provide counterpoint to today's "faster/cheaper" mind set and promote "slower/better" thinking. We hope to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.

One of their projects is the 10,000 year clock, to be built "monument scale" in the Nevada Desert. It's a truly beautiful, Jules Verne / futuristic object (their design, graphic and industrial, is beautiful). Also they're sponsoring the Rosetta Project, a public-accessible archive of all human languages.

They use a five-digit format for the year (02007) "to solve the deca-millennium bug which will come into effect in about 8,000 years."

You can visit the foundation at Fort Mason in SF, right next to Greens Restaurant. Which is excellent also.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Monday, July 02, 2007

POV switch

For the class I'm taking on point of view we had two assignments for this week and I did both of them wrong. Nevertheless I learned some things. The general idea was to switch the point of view in a story you've written previously. I tried that with my bowling story, only I didn't switch the point of view, but the perspective. I shifted it from first-person present to first-person past, because one thing I picked up last week was the notion of reflection in the first person. How much time has the narrator had to reflect on what has happened? I rather laboriously shifted the story to past and thought I had solved all my problems, because it jumps ahead three months in the end, and I always felt it was awkward to jump from present to present. But now I'm not so sure. The story seems to depend on immediacy, on the narrator not knowing what's happening, or just barely keeping up... I think I'll do what Updike does in the notorious "A & P," which is in first-present, but the author just drops a few hints that he's narrating the story from later point in time (something like, "and now here's the part of the story that my parents think is strange..."). When he jumps ahead at the end to reflect, it's not jarring.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Author-Narrator-Character Merge

From the article by Frederick Reiken (The Writer's Chronicle 37:4):
At its simplest [the author-narrator-character merge] may be thought of as a narrative structure that occurs when an author, for reasons ranging from naivete to authorial narcissism (which often go hand in hand), fails to invent and/or reinvent--i.e. in the case of autobiographical novels--the main character, both visually and in relation to some external context. What is happening, unconsciously, is that the author has not separated himself or herself imaginatively from the character being written. He has not conceived the fictional construct as an other, and hence inhabits that character from the vantage point of being stuck inside the character, usually right behind the character's eyes. What typically results is a narrative in which there is virtually no distance between the story's narrator and the story's character, on result of which may be a sense that the main character is really nothing more than a narrating device and hence not much of a character at all.

Monday, June 25, 2007

RIP Corolla

My Corolla's engine gave out yesterday in Half Moon Bay. We decided not to pay $2000 for a new (used) engine and do what we've been talking about for several years now--donate it and get a new car. I'm finding the whole thing really heartbreaking. My dad and I bought this car together, drove out to CA in it ... I've had it 20 years, almost to the day. Of course old cars never die, they just become something else. In this case I expect it will become a teenager's rally car, since it has rear wheel drive. I've had several offers and expressions of interest from mechanics, hotel valets, and others; they'd want to put a new engine in it anyway. It was nice of it to die where we could get it off the road fairly easily. It could have been a lot worse. The Grey Ghost was always was good to me.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Imagination and background

From Peter Strawson, "Imagination and Perception":
But we must remember that what is obvious and familiar, and what is not, is, at least to a large extent, a matter of training and experience and cultural background. So it may be, in this sense, imaginative of Eliot to see the river as a strong, brown god, but less so of the members of a tribe who believe in river-gods. It may, in this sense, call for imagination on my part to see or hear something as a variation on a particular theme, but not on the part of a historian of architecture or a trained musician. What is fairly called exercise of imagination for one person or age group or generation or society may be merest routine for another.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The God Module

Next week I'll begin taking "The God Module," a course on point of view with Andrew Altschul. From the course description:
All the elements of fiction writing are affected by the author’s choice of point of view. What information can be told and what must be shown indirectly, or hidden? What is the reader’s relationship to the main character(s)? Is the given narrative a reliable account or is it guided by a hidden agenda?

Point of view has been a nightmare for me in my novel. I started over 4-5 times, all from different points of view. I finally settled on "omniscient," which I now know, from reading Jonathan Culler, is a non-category. (See his article "Omniscience" in Narrative 12:1.) Especially if you confuse the author with the narrator, which it's very difficult not to do, you have to ask: don't all authors know everything about all their characters? Is it more a matter of what they choose to reveal? Do we ourselves posit a narrator where there is one, because we have such a strong need for a human presence of some kind? That's been the hardest part of all: do I always need to be in a particular character's head, and if not, do I need to have a narrator with a distinct personality (a la Fielding or even Henry James)? How do I jump from head to head without confusing people and without constantly relying on "he thought," "she thought" tags?

I've been studying The Corrections again to see how Franzen does it. I'm still not sure. He does spend a lot of time in close third person, with the different main characters, but he'll slip in little sparks of other characters' povs in the midst. Also he goes places where the current pov character is not physically present (the kitchen with Mom and Denise, while Chip, the pov character, is in another room). Also I think the very first section is a kind of double point of view, mingling the father and the mother; sometimes they come un-twined but then they merge again.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A public service announcement

...from the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at Stanford, just in time for commencement. I did the voiceover.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The CB2 child robot

This strangely large toddler robot is less cute and more creepy than Paro.
h/t Amy H.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Last day of class

Yesterday was the last day of my Imitation of Life class. The students gave me a card and a stuffed harp seal to represent Paro (company site here, Sherry Turkle's analysis here), whom we talked about as a particularly successful--or creepily unsuccessful--imitation. It was sweet. I was stressed about this class at the beginning, because I only had six students, and my first-day attempt to anaylze the Macaca video fell flat. But they were six truly fantastic students, and the quarter, as I've said before, flew by. I wonder if the next time I teach this it will go as well.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Birthday fun

Trev and I went to Monterey over the weekend to celebrate my birthday. We discovered a great bike path that runs from Pacific Grove all the way up to Marina (maybe beyond?) along the sand dunes. It's a terrific ride, though I was gasping for breath on the way back to P.G. I haven't biked in about a year, I think. But I've always wondered about those dunes while driving past them on Hwy 1--how to get over there, and what the beach looks like on the other side. Now I know.

Today at work they gave me a surprise party, which truly was a surprise. A colleague came into my office seeming slightly frantic and asked if I could help her move a table. I was worried I wouldn't be able to lift it, wondered about my knee, if I should change my shoes, etc.--then I got singing and the works. It was really nice! They made me tell my age, though, which seemed to shock at least some people. I guess the shock is good, but it's also scary. I remember telling a colleague my age, back when I was 35, and she was *horrified.*

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Soylent Green

Finally saw this, thirty-five years (?) after it came out. I remember hearing about it as a kid, and realizing, without exactly being told, that I was not allowed to see it. Two astonishing things right off:
* They talk about the "greenhouse effect," and talk about it like it's old news.
* It's a pretty good movie.
The downsides of the movie are the usual treatment of women as belongings ("furniture"), meant to show "how shockingly badly women are treated in the dystopian future" but really meant as a slap to contemporary feminism and a fantasy for neanderthal 70s men; also the always enigmatic presence of Charlton Heston, representing a protestor against the ghastly future his real-life politics would bring about. In these old films I watch him speak in sentences, and move more or less as a person moves, and wonder how and when his mind snapped like a brittle twig. Is he just acting like a normal human who is an actor?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Dr. May

Brian May is finishing his Ph.D. in astronomy!


This is clearly the fastest spring quarter in history. It feels like I've skipped a whole chunk of time. I remember things from the middle of the quarter, teaching Jane Austen for instance, but I don't feel like I was there. Teaching was great (only three more classes!), so maybe it was the time-flying-because-having-fun thing. But I've also been oppressed by spring and the approach of summer. Since my father got sick last June and died last August, I feel like summer is when bad things happen, and spring is the ramp-up to disaster--when one stupidly looks forward to vacation and long, warm days, only to get slugged in the stomach and dragged over hot coals and then thrown off a cliff. In short, I'm having mixed feelings. Because the thrill of summer is still there. When I was a kid I used to cross off the days left till school was out--I'd start with 181 on my dry-erase board and X them out, until, as I approached 1 day, the numbers got bigger and bigger and exclamation marks started appearing.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Point Reyes on Sunday evening possibly the best place on earth. Pale green-blue light, fog rolling in...and visitors rolling out. Just a few cars in the parking lot when we headed into the woods. This must be something like how the locals (and the animals?) feel when all the suburban riff raff file out at the end of the weekend. Like you really do own the place. Unfortunately we, being suburban riff raff, had to turn around, too. Visits like that make me really wonder how anyone can live in a city, or a suburb, where there's constant noise (even the low-level hum of lights, computers, not to mention distant and nearby cars). Of course someone has to do it--most of us, in fact--or there would be no Point Reyes.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Learning about life from literature

At the O. Henry prize reading at Kepler's last night, an audience member mentioned that Lorrie Moore recently said she'd learned more about life from reading literature than from life itself. Or something like that. Anyway the writers (Andrew Altschul, Jan Ellison, and Susan Straight) generally expressed surprise at that comment. Good writing comes from living life, they said; although they also suggested that reading teaches you how to give shape and power to your stories. It's an easy notion to dismiss (especially out of context)--here's another bookworm who's never gone out and embraced real life. But I wonder if the emphasis should be on the nature of learning. Without literature we might not have the tools to reflect well on our experiences. Why is it that Freud turned to Oedipus, not to mention the Sandman, to explain key psychoanalytic concepts?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Virginia Woolf and Buddhism

I have read and loved Woolf for 20+ years, but I never understood the influence of eastern religion on her writing. Now that I know something about Buddhism I see that To the Lighthouse is all about impermanence, trying to stay present, trying to be the island in the raging sea (which is both time, and our thoughts). I did some web research and found this article on Woolf and eastern "mystical" religions. Though she resisted acknowledging these influences, they clearly came to her through the strong interest within her circle (T.S. Eliot, for instance), through William James, and through Buddhist books she had in her library. According to the same article, she had mystical experiences during periods of nervous exhaustion, when she was able to view herself from outside.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

On succeeding

It's amazing how our culture equates aging with failure. But the only alternative is dying young. If you're old, you've succeeded.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

It is not difficult to disguise yourself

Stanislavsky, from Building a Character:

Externally it is not difficult to disguise yourself. I once had something of the sort happen to me; I had an acquaintance I knew very well. He talked with a deep bass voice, wore his hair long, had a heavy beard and bushy mustache. Suddenly he had his hair cut and shaved off his whiskers. From underneath there emerged rather small features, a receding chin, and ears that stuck out. I met him in this new guise at a family dinner, at the house of some friends. We sat across the table from one another and carried on a conversation. Whom does he remind me of? I kept saying to myself, never suspecting that he was reminding me of himself. In order to disguise his bass voice my friend used only high tones in speaking. This went on for half the meal and I talked with him as though he were a stranger.

And here is another case. A very beautiful woman I knew was stung in the mouth by a bee. Her lip was swollen and her whole mouth was distorted. This not only changed her appearance so as to make her unrecognizable, it also altered her pronunciation. I met her accidentally and talked to her for several minutes before I realized she was one of my close friends (6).

Thursday, May 03, 2007

But enough about me

This blog now allows comments!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Monday, April 30, 2007

A series of slight physical adjustments

James Krasner, from PMLA 119:2 (March 2004):

A child no longer accompanied by a mother still reaches a hand toward where hers should be. A father leans over to steady a missing car seat. A woman thinks she feels the heavy collapse of her dog beside her chair and shifts slightly, to accomodate its now missing head on her feet. Our grief becomes a series of slight physical adjustments based on the fact that a body that was always here, in a certain relation to our own, is now gone.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Pay attention to the chain saw

Last night Trev and I went to the second of five classes on insight meditation taught by Gil Fronsdal. This one was on mindfulness of the body. The idea in this form of Vipassana meditation is that nothing is a distraction--neither noise nor pain. So if you feel pain while you're sitting you pay attention to the pain and try to distinguish the feeling itself from your reaction to or commentary on the feeling. Similarly, Gil said that if you're meditating and suddenly your neighbor fires up the chainsaw (he must live in our building), you pay attention to the sound, rather than fighting to ignore it. I guess this explains why there are more than a few noisy meditators at the Insight Meditation Center--they have permission. Whereas at the Green Gulch Zendo, they might not be hit with a paddle, but they would feel shame. Still I think the mindfulness way is better unless you live on a mountaintop (and even then you'd have the howling wind). This way teaches you how to handle pain and discomfort in all parts of your life, and it frees you from getting so irritated with the neighbors, though that part remains to be tested.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife

I had lots of fun with my students today reading passages from a 2004 sequel to Pride and Prejudice (one of about 40 published sequels), Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife by Linda Berdoll. The opening paragraphs:

As plush a coach as it was, recent rains tried even its heavy springs. Hence, the road to Derbyshire was betimes a bit jarring. Mr. Darcy, with all gentlemanly solicitousness, offered the new Mrs. Darcy a pillow upon which to sit to cushion the ride.

It was a plump tasseled affair, not at all discreet. His making an issue of her sore nether-end was a mortification in and of itself. But, as Elizabeth harbored the conviction that she had adopted a peculiar gait as a result of her most recent (by reason of matrimony) pursuits, her much abuised dignity forbade her to accept such a blatant admission of conjugal congress. Thus, the cushion was refused.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Six Sentences

Here's a cool blog for writers who want to try their hands at short-short-shorts.

Please help, government

So, according to Anthony Kennedy, we women need the government to protect us from our poor decision making. (When has the government ever intervened to protect men from theirs?) Heavens, if we have to be protected from the risk of "regret," how can we possibly be allowed to raise children--much less forced to do it? How will the government protect children from us, and who will raise them? Male Supreme Court justices?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Here is Paro, the robotic harp seal, about which (whom?) Sherry Turkle writes in "A Nascent Robotics Culture: New Complicities for Companionship." And here he (why always he?) is, at work as a therapy robot. And finally here he is as a patient.

Turkle, and several of my students, found Paro creepy; more precisely, they found creepy the ease with which people decided to nurture Paro and treat him as a real, living being. In some studies people seemed to prefer Paro to human interaction, and that might be a slippery slope to people becoming totally isolated.

However, I can't resist this thing, even in the pictures. I wouldn't have a chance.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Richard Avedon

I went with my class to see the Richard Avedon exhibit of photos from the American West at the Cantor Center. They really are beautiful, hard to speak in front of. Mostly they are naturalistic, in the sense that they appear unmanipulated (Avedon let the subjects pose how they wanted, in front of a white background). But a few of them are series of 2 or 3 panels, and figures are cut in half and, in at least one series, realigned across the frame. This "split" figure is made up of halves of two different photos of the person, giving the image a Francis Bacon sort of quality.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Wild Blue Yonder

By which I mean, the 2005 Werner Herzog film. It's gotten mixed reviews; someone called it a "near miss," as I remember. But a "near miss" of what? It doesn't aim to be anything other than itself, found NASA and other footage (including film from below the Antarctic ice shelf) stitched together with a narrative: aliens who came to earth and screwed up their mission. It's inspired and inspiring, and makes all other films look suspect. Why hasn't anyone else managed to make film literally into a symphony?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Crossing a line

In the class I'm teaching this quarter we'll be talking about how human beings have relationships with fictional characters. Speaking for myself, I can't remember feeling personally engaged with a character as an adult (as a kid I had a crush on the Tin Woodsman, among others). But last week I had a dream in which a character from James Hynes's The Lecturer's Tale appeared in a minor role. She was the jargon-spouting feminist scholar, and best friend of the protagonist, who turns out literally to be a monster in the end. I've dreamed about celebrities before, but never fictional characters. Why this one? Why now? It's amazing that I had such a clear mental picture of her that I could embody her in my subconscious with no perceptual glitches.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Shoes Outside the Door

I am reading Shoes Outside the Door by Michael Downing. It's a history of Zen Buddhism in America, as viewed through the establishment, near implosion, and apparent steady recovery of the San Francisco Zen Center. Nineteen eighty three is known as the year of The Apocalypse in American Zen; it was the year when Zen Center's Abbott, Richard Baker, was discovered to have been running the show like a garden-variety charismatic cult leader. Of course the whole enterprise, with Greens Restaurant, Tassajara, and all, probably wouldn't exist without him, so it's one of those cases of the brilliant / destructive leader. But Zen Center and Zen in the U.S. do survive without him, which, I hope, means the practice is greater than the people who bring it to us. Still it's all a bit creepy, the taint of grandiosity and even cruelty on a practice that's supposed to redress these very problems.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Monday, March 26, 2007

Breathe as you write...

Amos Oz told me, "Breathe as you write and write as you breathe." I myself remember writing in this very blog about fiction as a shotgun house: you must walk all the way through one room before you can enter the next. Yet I forget this advice, over and over--I take shortcuts through the rooms, dive out the window, holding my breath or taking it in shallow gulps. I reread what I've written months or weeks ago and it's rushed and empty. My favorite writer is Yuri Olesha because of his details: a boy with close-shaved blond hair whose head shines like a bowl of chicken broth. Why not learn from him, even copy his style if not his substance? Why not stop and look around? I'm so afraid of not grabbing the reader, not getting to the point in the first paragraph, the first sentence--but it's speed itself that is boring.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Prolonged containment

From Peta Tait, Performing Emotions: Gender, bodies, spaces in Chekhov's drama and Stanislavski's theatre, p. 90:

What is this inner realm and truth in acting emotions attributed to Stanislavski's work? Following in the tradition of Diderot and Talma, Stanislavski developed an understanding of how the performer could apply his or her experience of emotions to a role (Roach 1985: 197). As Catherine Schuler points out, however, Stanislavski's approach should also be framed within a well-established Russian distinction between "inspired" and "scientific" (or systematic) naturalism in a search for truth in acting, and was evident in the work of leading female performers (2000: 499). Stanislavski's systematic acting style involved "self control, concealment of emotions under a mask of outward composure, and the full exposure of hidden passions at the moment of highest dramatic tension" (Balukhaty 1952:35). The prolonged containment of emotions brings about an intensification in the build-up towards their climactic expression.
Sounds like the structure of the contemporary American short story.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Sontag on photography

The powers of photography have in effect de-Platonized our understanding of reality, making it less and less plausible to reflect upon our experience according to the distinction between images and things, between copies and originals. . . [T]he force of photographic images comes from their being material realities in their own right, richly informative deposits left in the wake of whatever emitted them, potent means of turning the tables on reality--for turning it into a shadow (Susan Sontag, On Photography).

This seems true, but I wonder if it's true for people younger than I am. Sontag speaks of the feeling that photography is "magic," even for highly educated sorts who know better, because it is more than a copy: it is is a trace of the actual subject photographed. She mentions Delacroix's notes in 1850 about astronomical daguerrotypes, where he points out that the light left the star in the photograph before the process for capturing it had been invented. She doesn't quite make the leap to the photograph, as a trace, being like starlight: if the photo is a physical trace of the past--of the subject in the past--then it has the uncanniness of starlight. The past projects itself into the present. But maybe no one sees photographs that way anymore.

Monday, March 12, 2007


Buddhism teaches us to let go of our attachment, that is, our clinging. I wonder what various Dharma teachers would think of my problem, which is believing that things are alive. I think I've written about this before, but I just got a new laptop, and am feeling so terrible toward my old laptop even as I delight in the relative ease (and silence!!) of my new one. I wonder if the more I handle an object, the more alive it seems. A laptop in particular is something I communicate with--"with" properly meaning "via," but actually meaning "to," phenomenologically... It seems to have life because I hold it and talk to (with) it. So how do I tell it thank you, it's been great, but your time is past? Is this clinging, some kind of residual animism in my brain, or garden-variety mental illness?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Whither literary Darwinism?

Is anything happening with literary Darwinism? Do I need to pay attention to this likely-to-remain-small movement in literary studies? The paramecium-ancestor (to speak evolutionarily) of my upcoming class, Imitation of Life, was actually Joseph Carroll's reading of Jane Austen as a record of mating behaviors. Yet the article has yet to work itself into my syllabus. I think there are two reasons why: it's still depressing to me to think about literature this way, despite the fact that I believe in evolution, believe we must promote the teaching of evolution everywhere, and think evolution itself is interesting (and not depressing). But such a reading takes the feel--the whimsy and the fancy--out of reading entirely. Some might say this is a good thing, given where critical whimsy sometimes takes us (see SocialText, etc.). Second: to do this criticism properly, you really need to be a proper scientist. It's hard enough to get one PhD, let alone two or more; but you really can't BS (that's bullshit, as well as Bachelor of Science) your way through a sophisticated scientific reading. So, collaboration might be necessary, but few humanists want to do that.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Not ready

The plum tree outside our living room window is in full bloom, white blossoms like popcorn. It was just a few months ago that all last year's leaves finally blew off. They were very tenacious, those leaves, and when they finally let go it meant it really was winter. But the white blossoms don't give me spring fever as they usually would. I'm not ready to ramp up for warm weather and sun and daylight saving time. The whole renewal business seems kind of absurd.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007


From Sigmund Freud, "The Uncanny," tr. James Strachey:

The theme of the ‘double’ has been very thoroughly treated by Otto Rank (1914). He has gone into the connections which the ‘double’ has with reflections in mirrors, with shadows, with guardian spirits, with the belief in the soul and with the fear of death; but he also lets in a flood of light on the surprising evolution of the idea. For the ‘double’ was originally an insurance against the destruction of the ego, an ‘energetic denial of the power of death’, as Rank says; and probably the ‘immortal’ soul was the first ‘double’ of the body. This invention of doubling as a preservation against extinction has its counterpart in the language of dreams, which is found of representing castration by a doubling or multiplication of a genital symbol. The same desire led the Ancient Egyptians to develop the art of making images of the dead in lasting materials. Such ideas, however, have sprung from the soil of unbounded self-love, from the primary narcissism which dominates the mind of the child and of primitive man. But when this stage has been surmounted, the ‘double’ reverses its aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death.

Monday, February 26, 2007


I went to a talk yesterday by Norman Fischer, who among other roles is the teacher for the Everyday Zen Foundation. The talk was about consciousness, which I gathered is something like the river--everyone and everything is in the river; when the water goes over the falls we see the individual drops for awhile, then they fall into the river again. Consciousness (though not individual consciousness) goes on after the individual dies.

During the Q and A session, Norman mentioned being with people when they die and simply marveling at their bravery. How do they do it? Yet they do. They are unimaginably brave at that moment. I had a similar experience when my father died. It was a terrible moment, but I was so proud of him.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

This changes everything

There are two secrets to cooking tofu so that it is not gelatinous and upsetting: use the extra firm kind (that much I knew) and *get the water out of it.* You have to slice it thinly then set it on paper towels or dishcloths for at least half an hour, pressing the water out occasionally. Then when you sautee it, you get that nice golden crust with the non-repulsive interior that I've always admired in Chinese restaurants. This changes everything. Tofu stir-fry at last, plus tofu cacciatore, tofu piccatta...

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sort of getting Jane Austen

I never got Jane Austen. People I respect rave, and dare I say fantasize, about her novels, but I have never been able to get through them without almost screaming from boredom. It seems the people who love her are in it for the social rituals--the subtle gestures, the blushing approach by the punch bowl. How restrained people were in her time! How nice it must have been to have those social forms like balls and visiting cards to adhere to--especially because dating is such a morass now. None of that ever appealed to me. Also supposedly she is a razor-sharp satirist, but I never saw that either. Only people yacking, accidentally offending each other, making up in some fashion, getting married.

But. I have to teach Pride and Prejudice for my class on imitating life. Austen is the great builder of characters; everybody says so. So I am tackling the book again, and for the first time I really do see the satire, which is startlingly acid. There is outright loathing for Mrs. Bennet and for any kind of silliness or pretension in women. I gather Austen believed women did not have to be defined by mental frippery, even in her relatively unliberated time, so that's a good thing. But is hers a feminist perspective? Men seem to get off easier, at least in the beginning. Elizabeth's ability to win Darcy's admiration, as well as her alliance with her father against her mother, are key selling points for her character early on. Perhaps the idea is to reassure women that they need not be foolish in order to win husbands--but there's no suggestion they can make it in the world without men.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Lesson in mindfulness

Yesterday I arose from meditating with a very clear plan for dealing with my bedside lamp problem. For years I have struggled with this thing, which looks like a lamp from the future, sent back to our time through some sort of cosmic garbage chute that opens onto Ikea. I decided that because the prongs of the plug don't fit in the wall socket, I would *squeeze them together with my fingers* as I shoved it in. The shock was like a wire snake racing up my arm.

I remember reading a poem years ago about a man who, deep in the throes of depression and alchoholism, gets the idea of thawing the frozen cap on his car's gas tank with a lighter. He catches himself walking toward his car, lighter aloft, thinking, "flame melts ice." Fortunately he stops himself and lives to tell about it. I pulled my stunt supposedly in the throes of mental clarity, and did not stop myself. But I was lucky. I'm still using the lamp, though, with a power strip.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Why Cosmos still rules

Cosmos is still the best work of popular astronomy I've ever come across. As I dozed off last night during the NOVA: Origins DVD, I figured out why. It's the stories. More specifically, Carl Sagan weaves history, science, literature, and religion together in a way that proves his point: we are all interconnected. We are part of the cosmos, we are in the universe--our stories, our bodies, our science. He does it without becoming mystical or religious, but he takes the time, for example, to illustrate artificial selection with a live-action recreation of the Tale of the Heiki. Japanese fishermen's reverence for the tale explains why for centuries they have thrown back crabs that look like they have a samurai's face on their carapace. The crabs survived and reproduced, evolving more and more uncannily samurai features.

On the other hand, NOVA, and the earlier Expanding Universe DVD (featuring the ominous, sandpapery narration of John Hurt) only show you "what happened." This blew up, that blew up. They have great CGI recreations of astonomical events, but no analogies. No connections. The universe is just another movie we watch on a screen.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The real American right

Spurred by scathing reviews of Dinesh D'Souza's new book, radical rightists all over the country are showing their true colors. As Digby says, since 9-11 they've been demanding that we appease the terrorists. And now D'Souza says,

I would rather go to a baseball game or have a drink with Michael Moore than with the grand mufti of Egypt. But when it comes to core beliefs, I’d have to confess that I’m closer to the dignified fellow in the long robe and prayer beads than to the slovenly fellow with the baseball cap.

In the NY Times Michiko Kakutani says he "often sounds as if he has a lot in common with those radical Middle Eastern mullahs." As do many, many others. I say let them come out of the woodwork and declare themselves.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Where do you see people tearing about...?

David Allen, from Performing Chekhov (2000):

Chekhov was opposed to the falsehoods and exaggerations of acting he saw in most theaters of his day. In a letter, he wrote:

where -- in streets and houses -- do you see people tearing about, leaping up and down, and clutching their heads? Suffering should be expressed as it is expressed in life -- i.e. not with your arms and legs, but by a tone of voice, or a glance; not by gesticulating, but by grace. Subtle inner feelings, natural in educated people, must be subtly expressed in external form. You will say -- stage conditions. But no conditions justify lies.

How, exactly, should 'subtle inner feelings' be 'subtly expressed in an external form'? Chekhov offered this advice to Olga Knipper on how to approach playing Masha in Three Sisters: 'Don't pull a sad face in any of the acts. Angry, yes, but not sad. People who have long carried grief within themselves and have become used to it just whistle and are frequently lost in thought.'

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Beginner's mind

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."
--Shunryo Suzuki-Roshi

At my first-ever Zen retreat last Saturday (Zen-lite, really), I was praised for my "beginner's mind." That's Zen for "you're an idiot." I'll take it as a compliment, though.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Do you care that the turtle is alive?

In her lecture "A Nascent Robotics Culture: New Complicities for Companionship," Sherry Turkle of MIT writes about visiting the Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History with her daughter. Outside the exhibit area was a live Galapagos tortoise in a cage. Turkle's daughter said "they could have used a robot" instead, because the tortoise wasn't doing anything--so why bother with a live one?

I begin to talk with others at the exhibit, parents and children... The line is long, the crowd frozen in place. My question, “Do you care that the turtle is alive?” is welcome diversion[.... ] A twelve-year-old girl opines: “For what the turtles do, you didn’t have to have the live ones.” Her father looks at her, uncomprehending: “But the point is that they are real, that’s the whole point.”

I find the children’s position strangely unsettling. For them, in this context, aliveness seems to have no intrinsic value. Rather, it is useful only if needed for a specific purpose. “If you put in a robot instead of the live turtle, do you think people should be told that the turtle is not alive?” I ask. Not really, say several of the children. Data on “aliveness” can be shared on a “need to know” basis, for a purpose. But what are the purposes of living things? When do we need to know if something is alive?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Pilates and Pilate

I've just begun taking Pilates, and as I suspected, there is a connection between this form of exercise and crucifixion. According to Wikipedia, as a child in Germany Pilates suffered not only from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, but from the taunts of other children who called him "Killer of Christ." The rage and humiliation drove him to invent an exercise system called, originally, Contrology. It is from this that I now suffer twice a week. For many years I have evidently lived with two wooden boards strapped to my sides, making it impossible for me to do most of these "core" exercises. I hope this will help rather than ruin me.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

When selfishness became patriotic

Listening to Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech to the Memphis Sanitation Workers' Union, the day before he was killed, I was struck by his explication of the Good Samaritan story. The Samaritan, King said, teaches us not to ask "what will happen to me if I intervene?," but "what will happen to the sanitation workers if I don't?" Seems simple enough. Contrast this with Ronald Reagan's speech exhorting Americans to demand a tax cut. He said something like, if you want to do something for your country right now, call your representative and say you want lower taxes! I don't have the exact language, but I heard an echo of Kennedy's "ask not" line, updated for a new and greedier decade. As a people we have always let our individualism bleed into selfishness (otherwise King's speech would not have been necessary). But it seems to me that Reagan enshrined selfishness as patriotism. In the wake of Jimmy Carter's presidency, where sacrifice was mentioned too frequently for many tastes, this appears quite deliberate: greed is not only good, not only patriotic, but a form of sacrifice. How can you give? Why, you can demand money.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The essence of fanaticism

"The essence of fanaticism lies in the desire to force other people to change. The common inclination to improve your neighbor, mend your spouse, engineer your child, or straighten up your brother, rather than let them be. The fanatic is a most unselfish creature. The fanatic is a great altruist. Often the fanatic is more interested in you than in himself. He wants to save your soul, he wants to redeem you, he wants to liberate you from sin, from error, from smoking, from your faith or from your faithlessness, he wants to improve your eating habits, or to cure you of your drinking or voting habits. The fanatic cares a great deal for you; he is always either falling on your neck because he truly loves you or else he is at your throat in case you prove to be unredeemable. And, in any case, topographically speaking, falling on your neck and being at your throat are almost the same gesture. One way or another, the fanatic is more interested in you than in himself, for the very simple reason that the fanatic has very little self or no self at all."

--Amos Oz, "How to Cure a Fanatic"

Thursday, January 11, 2007


I just learned a new word, "awfulize." I'm told it comes from John Bradshaw, author of Codependent No More and other works. I don't think I'll use this word, but it's kind of stopped my train of thought for at least an hour now.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Chipped beef

When I was seven or eight, my mom and I took my grandmother to eat at a restaurant inside a department store. It must have been Christmas time, because that's when my grandmother used to visit, and the store must have been Higbee's or Halle's in the Westgate shopping mall in Fairview, Ohio--all now kaput, except Fairview, which is more or less OK. The mall in fact was razed last time I was home, but they are building a new outdoor one. Bear in mind this is Ohio we're talking about.

Anyway. Nana ordered the "chipped beef" which, if I recall correctly, is a pile of shredded beef in cream sauce on toast (so regional! so not possible to order anymore, probably not even in Ohio!). Memory and family legend perhaps distort the story, but the pile was huge. And Nana had a rule that you chewed each bite of food 32 times, or anyway far more times than anyone else ever chewed. I don't know how long it went on. As we finished our meals and the lights dimmed and all the other customers left, the employees gathered at the counter, waiting to close. Nana chewed. She was undaunted. She finished. My mom and I were mesmerised.

This episode is known in family lore as the Chipped Beef Episode, or Chipped Beef for short.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Duane Hanson

Every once in awhile I go over to the Cantor Art Center to see the sculpture by Duane Hanson called "Slab Man." This is a life-size, hyper-realistic workman, complete with real hair and exhausted mien. The first time I saw it I was with my parents. At first we all overlooked it, thinking it was a real worker in the gallery, except after awhile we noticed he wasn't moving. We then tried to sneak up on it, because we--or I, at least--decided it was performance art. It had to be a real person performing "statueness," and ready to leap at me when I got too close. It does seem to have movement; maybe it's one's own movement in standing still and staring at it. Also its posture suggests someone stopping to rest, and so breathing.

I'm excited because it turns out instructors at Stanford can arrange gallery talks on pieces of their choosing, so I'm going to have one for my spring quarter students on Slab Man, plus the Gordon Parks and Richard Avedon exhibits which will be up by spring. I keep reminding myself that my class is not just about character and characterization, but portraying life--aliveness.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Free will and fiction

There's an interesting article in today's NYT science section about free will. Basically, we don't have it, or not nearly to the extent we think we do. Thinking we have it is apparently inevitable, a result of our evolution, so knowing we don't really have it might not change our behavior. But our consciousness is, according to the article's illustration, a tiny, backward-facing monkey struggling to manage the roaring tiger of our subconscious. Usually we are doing something already before we "decide" to do it; more precisely, it seems we can "veto" at least some of these actions, but we can't really decide to initiate them.

The writer, Dennis Overbye, talks about how thinking tends to mess up certain processes, including fiction writing. He envies the "trance" that fiction writers say they go into when working, and suggests this state is the unconscious coming to the surface. The monkey is off its back, so to speak. It's a little alarming to think of it this way, but I suppose this is another way of talking about "being in the moment"--you stop pretending to have free will and let the tiger drive.