Saturday, December 27, 2008

Little conundrummer boy

This year I banned Christmas music from the household. However, I have ventured outside these past few weeks and into stores, where the only song that ever seemed to be playing was "Little Drummer Boy." It was never the same version twice--at least I don't think so--and I see on Wikipedia that there are over 200 recorded versions of this exceedingly virulent earworm.

So here's what I've been wondering:

Does the playing of "Little Drummer Boy" in stores over and over and over subtly undermine the capitalist enterprise? The song, as you will recall, is about a "poor boy" who visits the baby Jesus, but has "no gifts to bring"--at least none "fit to give a king." In desperation (?) he plays a little number on his drum and the baby Jesus smiles at him. So this could suggest that material gifts are not necessary, and never were necessary, at Christmas. The wise men weren't so wise to haul that gold and frankincense and myrrh across the sands after all. The boy gives of himself by sharing his special (and perhaps only) talent, which is all Jesus really asks.

On the other hand, perhaps the drummer boy only gets a pass because, as he explains to the linguistically adept newborn, he is a "poor boy too." If he weren't poor, he would have been expected to cough up something nice in a gold or a myrrh. Each according to his means, in other words, which could be a nod to either communism or pre-easy-credit capitalism. But if he hadn't pleaded poverty, would Jesus have been pissed at getting a drum solo when he expected something he could melt down and sell later on?

So what's the message of this song, and how is the message affected by hearing it on a Muzak program amid the glare of fluorescent lights and the whir of hysterical consumption? As we shop along to its insidious thrum, do we think, wow, I'm glad I'm not so poor as to be reduced to playing a drum. I can offer the finest gifts--or I ought to, anyway. Maybe I haven't spent enough on Aunt Martha. OR--what the hell am I doing here? All this junk I'm buying just reifies, and further complicates, the family psychodrama that blows into town like a storm system every year. By god, we need to simplify our lives! I'm putting this chafing dish back! Aunt Martha will understand, if I just explain it in exactly the right words...

Certainly if the song is meant to be subversive, it isn't working. Merchants see it as no threat. Or perhaps the constant repetition is what robs it of its power.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Barack is down

OK, I took the Obama widget off the site. I suppose he has all the money he needs anyway. I'm still glad he's going to be president, and I'm even more glad we didn't get the alternative. Can you imagine McCain, let alone SP, "handling" the auto bailout, the economy in general, global warming...can you even imagine them handling the transition? The bizarre cabinet appointees popping up like a George Romero version of Whack-a-mole? I suspect it would have been an even more unsettling holiday season than it has been.

But. The Rick Warren invocation is unforgivable. Not only for all the reasons that thousands of bloggers have already mentioned. But because it fucks up the inauguration for us. This was supposed to be our--progressives'--moment to celebrate so many victories against considerable odds. Now the whole thing feels icky. I am not even sure I want to watch, whereas at one point I was seriously considering trying to go to DC for the event. Warren is Pat Robertson in a fat-and-younger suit. It is sickening that 1) there is assumed to be such a position as "America's preacher," which must be filled now that Billy he dead? I forget... and, anyway, 2) Rick Warren is, by fiat, that preacher. If we must have a cartoon balloon hovering over the country to represent our values, how about Underdog from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade?

Monday, December 15, 2008

When in doubt, cook

I can't remember a holiday season that I've felt more bleak about. Clearly it's the economy (and one is now more compelled than ever to add: Stupid!). We assembled the tree yesterday, and I flat-out refused to have Christmas music playing during the ritual. And honestly I only agreed to the tree for the sake of the cats, who like to sleep under it, and in past years have put aside their mutual hostility to actually snuggle under its fire-retardant boughs...

On the other hand, we had a lovely dinner with friends last weekend, for which I made the vegan moussaka from Veganomicon. That one's a definite keeper, and the pine-nut cream sauce more than makes up for the absence of cheese. And this weekend I made bread from scratch! I don't believe I have ever done that before--meaning real bread, with the damp towel and the kneading and the waiting around. The recipe was from this month's Vegetarian Times, which offers several good-looking recipes, most of which seem veganizable. I made the rye, which turned out great. I've been looking for bread recipes after the repeated failure of the extra-fast, no-knead recipe from the NYT. Could have been me, no doubt, but this thing was a brick, twice.

Actually I feel a little less bleak just having written the above. When in doubt, cook, or write about it, I guess.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

What is money?

This is a question I've had for a number of years, and it's even more baffling now. I am beginning to gather that one reason for the current financial crisis is that no one really knows. Perhaps everyone is beginning to realize that money is a species of mass delusion like religion--only worse, because questioning it brings about real and immediate consequences.

I remember being taught, as a little kid, that every coin or dollar bill I had represented an amount of gold in Fort Knox. If I wanted to, I could show up at the Fort and demand my bit of gold in exchange for my currency. The system was designed to save our backs; otherwise we'd all have to drag around sacks of gold and the most wealthy would end up horribly crippled--who wanted that? It all made good sense, and I happily did my part as a consumer for many years, a little gold nimbus hovering in the back of my mind every time I performed the ritual of exchange. Apparently, though, none of this has been true for quite some time, and the only people who want it to be true are right-wing, tin-foil-hatted survivalists.

The gold standard is problematic for a couple of reasons I can think of. One--mining gold is terrible for the earth and for the people who do it. Two--what's really so great about gold? It's pretty, it's malleable, it's hard to get (see One, above)--but so what? There are other pretty objects, as different civilizations have shown by trading in beads, shells, etc. So is the issue beauty combined with rarity? But if rarity, or difficulty in attaining (which may be, in fact, the same thing), means *doing damage* in order to attain, what's the value there? In one way or another, we have to pay for that damage.

OK, so back to what money is now. If it represents the combined value of all goods and services produced in this country (and in the world, too, I guess), that seems to be a tautology: money is worth what we buy with it. There are goods we don't buy, services we don't use. In any case, we're back to mass delusion. Now, we're all deciding that Hummers, for instance, aren't valuable after all. What happens if the concept of value starts getting radically separated from the material world? Can we monetize time, for instance, in a way that would support our current economic system? Or is that just another form of barter--if I give you five hundred hours of my time for a Prius, does that just mean I'm doing something I'd rather not be doing during that time, like working? And how do I prove I've worked, if you weren't there to watch me--by giving you the money? Is there no escaping the material world? Does value always entail some form of money?

Some economist on Marketplace last week finally raised this question, and said something to the effect that money is now nothing but numbers on screens. Because of all these complicated financial instruments (like derivatives), no one knows what the numbers really represent. The problem is, in a nutshell, that everyone has started wondering. And the powers that be want us to just shut up and stop asking questions--don't even think the questions, or you are sinning and there will be consequences. The system will crash and you will be poor.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Oh, my goodness, gracious

What you can buy off the Internet!

The poetry of Donald Rumsfeld, set to music!

Speaking of air travel

In general I am not a happy flyer--as my Pindeldyboz story attests. (The story is otherwise completely fictional! I assure you! Except for the witch thing; that actually happened, though not quite in the same way.) Flying back from Ohio last Sunday was, however, rather interesting. We usually fly direct, but this time that particular flight was $1000 apiece (for coach!). So we went through Houston. On the first leg, Cleveland to Houston, I was the picture of misery. Stuck in the middle seat on a relentlessly bumpy flight--and nothing but whiteness outside. But the flight from Houston to SFO was almost lovely. We flew over New Mexico, where there was a bluish haze over the mountains, and that kind of gold New Mexico light. Then we flew up the California coast as the sun was setting. We saw everything from the Central Valley, which was under a fog blanket that looked just like snow, to the ocean, which was glassy. The sunset was brilliantly striped, like a Gap sweater. Best of all we were in bulkhead seats, with plenty of legroom, and the ride up there--I had forgotten this--is much smoother. It was like being in first class, without the assholes.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Thought for the holiday season

Put your own mask on first before assisting other passengers.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Christmas Tree Reef

I just read in William Ashworth's book Great Lakes Journey about a wonderful idea they had in Collingwood, Ontario, Canada. They (i.e. smart Canadians) collected discarded Christmas trees, stuck the trunks in cement, then sank the whole thing into Lake Ontario. Voila--a new reef for fish. The next year fish populations rose something like 1000%.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

This year's vegetarian Thanksgiving

Last year I made these items for festive vegetarian meals around the holidays. I'd say both were better than average, though the white-bean thing gets a tad gloppy. Tomorrow, for a pre-Thanksgiving dinner with my in-laws (since we're going to Ohio for the actual day), I'll be making the Vegetarian Times' Holiday Cashew Nut Roast. It's true that when your vegetarian friend (or daughter-in-law) offers to bring the "Holiday Cashew Nut Roast," your smile grows a little stiff, and you say, "Wow! That sounds interesting!" But this one looks pretty good, and not too difficult. Unlike, say, the Tassajara Recipe Book's Cheese and Nut Loaf, which I guess was OK, but Jesus, it was a pain to make. The animal products are, I think, not a selling point, and it is about as heavy as a cinder block. Nothing against Tassajara, or Edward Brown, who seems like a wonderful person--but there's a certain assumption with these recipes that you are cooking as part of your Zen practice. Meaning you welcome, or don't notice, all the damn ingredients, or the fact that you forgot to cook the brown rice ahead of time (watch out for those recipe lists that say "1 cup brown rice, cooked"--the Cashew Roast has this, too). Anyway, making that loaf filled me certain un-Buddhist furor. But the Veg Times has yet to steer me wrong. Brewer's yeast is about $15 a pound, though.

UPDATE, 11-24:
So this thing turned out pretty good. I'd say 3.5 stars out of five. A few caveats: I think next time I will use roasted, unsalted cashews for more cashewy goodness. One could maybe add in other nuts, like walnuts, for variety. It should also be noted that sauteeing nuts is not an activity one can wander away from. They burn. I caught them just in time. I might make more layers: eggplant/stuffing/eggplant/stuffing/eggplant/tomatoes. But I'm like that with eggplant. I am not sure the brewer's yeast is all that necessary; you could probably use nutritional yeast, or just throw in some more herbs, like sage. Vegetarian / mushroom gravy and cranberry sauce* really do complement this.

*I finally made cranberry sauce from scratch--there's nothing to it. (I know you know that. But I grew up with the purplish stuff shlooping out of the can, so this is a thrill for me. Damn, it's good.)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Slack is back

I am practicing being a glass-half-full kind of person. To that end, a Monday litany of good news:
  • Barack Obama is still President-Elect. Evidence is mounting that we did not dream it.
  • Our cat Bella took her first trip to the vet (that was bad) but she is OK. The vet is two blocks away, which is also good news.
  • The Slacktivist has resumed his Left Behind Fridays with his first critique of Left Behind: The Movie. And it includes a pretty fine explanation of why bad books make better movies than good books (even though, in this case, a bad book also seems to have engendered a bad movie, which is good news for Slacktivist fans). (OK, and technically that's Friday good news, not Monday good news, but I found it on a Monday, when I needed it a lot more.) (One thing glass-half-empty people do is nitpick about details and then use them to buffer their announcement of having enjoyed something, even though they did not, because they were nitpicking in preparation for the apology they knew they would have to issue for having pleasure.)(Well, I still enjoy the Slacktivist, and will probably save the LBFs for Mondays in the future.)
  • (Meanwhile Bella plots her revenge.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Maybe not palinating

Two days later, I'm thinking--what if we just ignore her?

Growing up, I was taught that if someone bullies you, you should ignore them. Don't give them the satisfaction of reacting, and they'll go away. As anyone who's been bullied knows, this is bullshit. The solution is martial arts. Even if not applying the techniques to the bully's face and nuts, the training gives one bearing--an ever-so-subtle, don't-fuck-with-me stance. But I digress.

My point here is this: if you think of Palin as a bully, and I do, then she has to be taken down (I mean rhetorically and conceptually, not physically). The constant ridicule has been important in this regard. But what if we think of her, in addition, as a pathetic attention-sponge? Or maybe she's like those aliens in Star Trek (or the carnies in Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, which was a terrible movie, Wired's recent recommendation notwithstanding?)--what if she feeds on negative emotions, our twisted longings and resentments? We on the left have those too, you know. Since she's largely a media creature, if we ignore her, she will on some level cease to exist. Joe the Plumber has already been flushed.

Maybe I'm just finally saturated. Something snapped about 8:45 this morning when I popped over to Andrew Sullivan's for his latest SP tidbit, and, honestly, I just didn't care. (Also one of his readers begged him to give it a rest, and Josh Marshall has said the same thing--It's Over, Sarah.) If only.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Via Daily Kos, I see Sarah Palin is now both a noun and a verb. It does seem unfair to Michael Palin, who's done plenty to attach better meanings to the name.

Trev thinks I should let go of the whole SP thing, now that the election is over. I will, once I'm certain that she's been utterly and irretrievably destroyed as a political force. This Urban Dictionary entry should help.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

I'm happy but...monotheism is bad

I think I'm more stunned than anything about Obama's landslide. (Is it a landslide? What's the cutoff?) I'm shocked that there weren't more dirty tricks from the Repubs. I'm amazed that after everything BushCo did, we still have a functioning democracy. Our slide into a new Dark Age has ground to a halt.


1. What Aravosis said. I'm still mad as hell at the right in this country. I do not want to offer them a seat at the table. We did that before. Each one of their asses took up at least two seats. They made us say grace to their mean, nasty little god. They threw food and knives. They spilled blood, human and animal, on our tablecloth and claimed it was their own. They hollered with their mouths full and cranked up Rush Limbaugh while we were trying to talk. Then they left us their mess to clean up.

2. And they will scorch the earth in retreat. See: passage of Prop 8, in California. This is shameful. But already the good guys are fighting back (again from Aravosis).

So here's why monotheism is bad. When there's just one god, it's too easy to confuse yourself with him. (Isn't it amazing how God always wants what I want? What a great God!) Whereas, if there are many, you have to wonder--well, Dionysis seems to want x, but Appollo wants y. What are ya gonna do? Either you throw up your hands, or you have to choose a side and let them battle it out on Olympos. Sort of like representative democracy.

Friday, October 31, 2008

A Halloween mystery!

I just noticed something amazing about one of my Red Rock photos. A human figure in the upper left corner:
See it? An archer. Jesus with a bow and arrow?

On gloom

I was getting ready to blog this morning about the end of Daylight Savings (I know it's "Saving," but I find that gross to say) Time--about how it seems to me like the end of the world--but then the power went out due to a storm. So here I am at a little after 5 p.m., the sky a pale green, darkness about to clang down all around us (not to mention sugar-crazed children and their minders out terrorizing the streets; thank god for our second-floor condo and security building). As a lifelong Californian, Trev does not understand my problem. It's true that here we have plenty of sun in winter, and much-needed rain, which causes spring to happen round about December, just when life is really starting to suck for the folks back in my place of origin. That would be Ohio. It's clear that my seasonal gloom is hard-wired into me from growing up there. Daylight Standard Time means Time to shrink. I feel my muscles contracting even now. Going anywhere is a project: you stuff your feet into boots which never, ever keep your feet warm, and wrap your neck in an itchy scarf which does not quite address the fact that your coat leaves a mysterious gap in coverage in the center of your chest, which the wind then finds and slugs with fists of ice. Don't get me started on hat hair. The fact that I don't have to deal with severe cold and snow anymore only engenders guilt and alienation, which causes me to focus more and more on the darkness, which none of us escapes. Dark at 5:00. That is madness.

However I would trade six months of a full-on Cleveland winter* for:
--Obama win
--Defeat of Proposition 8
*I offer this only if there are no alternatives; i.e. if these things weren't going to happen unless I personally volunteered to experience a full-on Cleveland winter for six months. In that case I'd do it for a year if I had to. But only if.**
**For an Obama landslide, I'm prepared to offer three months, with same conditions as above applying.***
***Lots of liberals, including me, think they are magic. That is, they think they personally can doom the election through any expression of optimism. Maybe we're narcissists, infants, just like everybody says; or maybe the fact that any human being could be so deluded as to vote for McCain/Palin or so cruel as to vote for Prop 8 is inexplicable by any form of rational thought, so we turn to magic.****
****We are not magic. But we have power.
Barack Obama for President.
No on 8.

This cheered me up. Especially this part:

The I Forget How to Turn a Doorknob Effect This is expected to keep roughly one percent of Republican voters from leaving the house.

Monday, October 27, 2008

On blooming late

I was ecstatic last week to find, in the New Yorker, a justification for my existence. At last! Malcolm Gladwell writes in the Oct. 20 issue about late-blooming creative types, like Ben Fountain and Cezanne. OK, the problem with laties is that they do look, for much of their lives, very much like another group whose designation starts with "l" (followed by "o," "s," "e"--you get the picture). So they require a good deal of forebearance and faith from those around them--those who may even have to financially support them, while telling them over and over that they don't suck, even when, at the time in question, they do. The early work of the late bloomer is indistinguishable from that of the loser. But Gladwell's point is that late-blooming is not simply a matter of figuring out, late in life, what you are good at. There are, in fact, two different kinds of creativity. One is the "young genius" kind that we are most familiar with, in which beauty springs fully formed from the often equally beautiful young creator. The other is the "experimental" kind, which requires years of gathering and testing and reviewing and rehearsing. Yes, years! Decades, even! Did I mention Cezanne? How about Mark Twain--it took him 10 years to write Huckleberry Finn. I've only been at my novel for four...and a half...

That's my new story, and I'm sticking to it. Thanks, Malcolm!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Red Rock Canyon

Mind still blown from Mojave trip. Here are photos of Red Rock Canyon, while we wait for my words to come back:

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Off to Kernville tomorrow to visit my cousin and poke around Bakersfield and the Mojave Desert--both settings for my novel, about which I know rather little. (The way things look now my next novel will be set in Cleveland. Why can't I think of stories about Maui?)

One thing we will not be doing in Kernville is kayaking on the Kern River. My cousin took us out for a spin, literally, about four years ago. We beginners got to use inflatable kayaks, which, OK, don't tip as much, but they do get blown along on the current like giant leaves, causing smaller persons borne thereon to outstrip all the people in the other kayaks who know what they are doing and can shout instructions as you dive over the rapids. Not that instructions might have helped at that point. Oh, the other thing these inflatables do is they spin around backward, which is how I went over the dreaded Ewing's rapid the first time out. The second time, I actually came out of the boat (this all really did happen in slow motion) and hovered above it for a few moments; but I was somehow able to polevault myself back in, using my paddle.

So a little car trip through Oildale doesn't seem so bad now.

Monday, October 13, 2008

George Saunders

Have I mentioned lately that George Saunders is this atheist's God? We saw him last week at City Arts and Lectures with our friend Amy. (He's also coming to Stanford in February.) He was of course funny and passionate, and he gave the following advice to someone in an MFA program: write what only you can write. It sounds like a variation on "write what you know," but it isn't. He went on to relate his experience, which I share, of discovering to one's dismay that one's best writing is funny. Which leads one to worry that one is "just" a comic writer or a humor writer or a satirist, as if humor were not also deeply serious. I love Saunders' work because it is so relevant, whereas more earnest-seeming pieces often aren't. It may often be the case that the kind of writer you most fear being is the one you are.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Where are the pastors?

Via Talking Points Memo, this is a start, as a former supporter calls McCain out:

John McCain: If your campaign does not stop equating Sen. Barack Obama with terrorism, questioning his patriotism and portraying Mr. Obama as "not one of us," I accuse you of deliberately feeding the most unhinged elements of our society the red meat of hate, and therefore of potentially instigating violence.

However, where are the nation's great Christian leaders at this moment? Where is Rick Warren, for example, the oh-so-reasonable one? Does Christianity have nothing to say about "instigating violence"? The silence from the pulpits is astounding.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The mush-mouthed among us

I used to think that George H. W. Bush stumbled over his words when he was lying. Somewhere not terribly deep inside him (because he was not terribly deep), he felt that what he was saying was wrong--and indecent. The structures of grammar and common morality, somehow intertwined, were fighting him at those moments. This was before I had plumbed the true evil of the Bush family, so I may rethink that theory. However, as many have already noted, Sarah Palin and W. also share the gift of garble. And they speak most clearly and forcefully when they are lying ("thanks but no thanks," etc.). So what's happening? Is it sheer stupidity, a lack of contact with sentence structure in general which one gets by, say, reading?

A few years ago someone (I can't remember who, unfortunately) observed that W. stumbled most commonly when speaking about caring for others ("Is our children learning?" "I know how hard it is to put food on your family"). These notions either brought up some kind of weird emotional blockage, or else were so foreign to him that he could not even use the language. As for Palin, I don't know for sure. But I think the issue is foreignness. Anything not directly related to Sarah and her quest for power is simply baffling. Other people? Other countries, opinions? Newspapers, you say, with, what did you call them? writers...? Does...not...compute....

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Not yet a vegetarian

So we were watching "Mythbusters" on DVD, another desperation selection from the San Carlos library. I gather it's meant to get kids and juvenile adults excited about science, but the methods seem dicey to me and in any case the real point is to blow things up. So anyway they did an episode on Diet Coke and Mentos, the phenomenon that's "sweeping the Internet!" (the episodes we watched were obviously a few years old). They wanted to find out why a liter of Diet Coke will erupt when a Mentos (Mento?) candy is introduced into it. First question: why does the guy have to wear GLOVES and a RESPIRATOR when working with the ingredients in Diet Coke? That aside, I learned that an ingredient in Mentos is gelatin. Of course! To make it smooth! Turns out that shit is in everything, including the multivitamins I've been taking for years. Ah, how ignorant I was, popping that giant "horse pill"--literally--thinking I was just being extra cautious in case I was missing something in my virtuous, cruelty-free diet. Fucking Safeway. But so-called vegan multivitamins invariably seem to be megadose, as if individuals of this persuasion can also be counted on to be *psychos.* How about just a nice, normal, 100% RDA multivitamin, not made of horse, that won't make me magnetic or cause me to roll up like a potato bug in five years? Too much to ask?


I gather there's a world financial crisis or something going on, too.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Congratulations, I guess

Congrats to Bristol and Levi, who now have the world's biggest shotgun pointed at their heads: John McCain's ego.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Question of this day

Who is running the country right now?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Question of the day

Doesn't Hamid Karzai have better things to do than be a prop in the Fascist Barbie UN Play Set?

In the grip of Sarahcosis

If it takes me another two years to finish my novel, I should probably blame Sarah Palin. For the past 3+ weeks I have been unable to stop checking blogs for more than 15 minutes at a stretch. It's all I can do even to go to bed. I've played whack-a-mole with my RSS reader--staring at it till the yellow flash told me there was a brand-new post on some blog, clicking before the color had even faded. Now even that is too slow for me. I simply start with Americablog and click through the blogroll, occasionally playing a sort of "blog golf" along the way (can I get to TalkLeft from Andrew Sullivan in 2 clicks?). All of this takes time and emotional energy and contributes absolutely nothing to the cause. But I will give more money to Barack Obama today.

I couldn't sleep last night because of the Lifetime poll that said the M-P and O-B tickets were about even on "women's issues." The upshot, apparently, was that women now think McCain understands them because he has one standing beside him, hollering quasi-fascist inanities and lies. Today TalkLeft and others provide some perspective. But there is a parallel universe, separated from ours by an infinitessimal membrane, in which McCain and Palin are considered legitimate presidential candidates. And the membrane is porous.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Monday, September 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace was one of those writers I didn't even bother envying--his talent and his energy were simply on a different plane, one I could only reach by Star Trek transporter. I never read Infinite Jest, but Brief Interviews with Hideous Men has been on my bedside table for over a year. I look to it whenever I feel trapped by the conventional short-story form. I've broken too many stories by trying to force them into Freitag's triangle. Whereas Wallace would be, like, what triangle? What the hell are you talking about? He simply blows form away, turns it inside out. His stories are all voice, and for him voice is far more than enough.

Amanda Marcotte makes the interesting point that all of us are complicit in a creative person's suicide; we feed off that person's sadness (though he was willing, more than willing, to let us do so). I'm not sure how I feel about that idea. The late and equally lamented Joe Strummer once said non-smokers should be banned from enjoying any creative work done by smokers. After all (I'm interpolating a bit), they're the ones who scorched their lungs and risked cancer as part of their creative process. It's not fair that we get to have it risk-free.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Ocean sunfish

Here's a photo of an ocean sunfish (mola mola), from our boat trip to the Farallon Islands:

According to Wikipedia, this mola mola is probably basking, which it needs to do frequently in order to warm up and not freeze to death. As the article says, the fish resembles a head with a tail stuck on it. We saw three of these on our trip, all doing the same thing, and have seen the much larger one at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Bottom line: there is no Intelligent Designer. I mean, what could the Smart One have been thinking? Floating like a dying goldfish, or tottering through the chilly water that threatens to kill it, this slapped-together model is, at best, a transition. Is this the pelagic Sarah Palin? Oops, we didn't have time to do the QA on this one, but the boss likes it so--it's a FISH, dammit, the best fish ever.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The language of choice

At MyDD, Natasha Chart writes an eloquent post addressing the Repub's newfound feminism. (She also makes some nice comparisons between Repub positions and the many things Jesus had to say about compassion.)

Chart points to several examples of progressive language in the R's lines about Palin. I suspect she is partly kidding when she says this: "as irritating as the zealotry of the newly converted always is, I'm glad to see that they're starting to come around."

I want to take a closer look at one statement, because I think it's not just a matter of "coming around" (no matter how hypocritically). It's also a problem of linguistic alternatives:

"We're proud of Bristol's decision to have her baby ..."

As many have noted, the language of choice is on full display here. Feminists have fought for decades so women can freely choose parenthood *if and when we want it.* But how would this sentence work if the Palins' true ideology lay beneath it?

--"We're proud that Bristol was forced to stay pregnant and give birth at age 17."
--"We're proud that we have taught Bristol that there is never a choice when it comes to pregnancy."
--"We're proud that Bristol never had a choice in this matter."

Notice how unloving the parents now sound. It's impossible to be "proud" of a girl who has no autonomy, no choice. Bristol doesn't sound like a person here, but a prisoner, a mere receptacle for sperm and her parents' tyranny. Few parents could be proud of being that cruel, that dehumanizing. In fact there's no way to make this kind of statement in anti-choice terms and come off as anything other than monsters--who, at best, kept their daughter profoundly ignorant (hence the pregnancy in the first place), or, at worst, forced her into giving birth in order to save their own reputations.

The statement shows the Palins do love their daughter--because they gave her a choice.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Olympic National Park

Just coming back from 5 days in Olympic. Words, for the moment, fail. Here are some pictures for the meantime, taken on the Klahhane Ridge Trail.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Just in time, a new hoax

Just as the sailboat of my novel had run aground on another sandbar of confusion, the Georgia Bigfoot hoaxers came to my rescue. I still find it hard to believe that this got so much attention from the NYT, National Geographic, etc. I didn't have the impression that bigfoot hoaxes were that rare or newsworthy. However, I'm glad it happened. In my novel (and in some of my recent short stories also) I've been struggling with the question of why people hoax. Generally hoaxers are considered low-lifes and con artists, out for a buck. It seems like a very hard way to make a living; how much are you likely to get for a bf carcass, seeing as there's no X prize for cryptozoology? So maybe they want something else, most likely unsavory, but what? Fame? Fame for being a bf hoaxer? Or power? I think there's something to the power angle, in being able to "put one over" on somebody--the same thrill some people get from practical jokes. I guess what will happen once the hoax is exposed doesn't concern these guys (one of the Georgia hoaxers got fired from his job as a cop as a result)--or they think, perhaps rightly, that infamy will become a more benign and lucrative sort of fame soon enough.

I'm still ruminating on all the implications, but one aspect that struck me is how seriously the bf community polices itself. Note, for example, the comments by Michael Rugg, founder of the Bigfoot Discovery Museum in Felton (which we visited a few weeks ago). Belief based on the most fleeing vision is fine, but deliberate hoaxing gives the whole enterprise of finding bf a bad name.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Going after McCain

Why is Obama still playing defense, and rather gently at that? Why isn't he taking the fight to McCain's ground? I don't want to play pundit, and I sense--or hope--that Obama's team is smarter about all this stuff than Kerry's was. Still...if this is happening, could it be because there's an embarrassment of riches? Like Bush, McCain presents so many targets that it's almost baffling; it's a peacock display of stupidity and corruption. Should Obama go after the incoherent policies (foreign, domestic?)? The constant "gaffes" (confusion)? The lobbyists running the campaign? The whole non-maverickness of the supposed maverick? The belligerence and terrible temper? The misogyny? The affair(s)?

Here's one for the family values crowd: the team currently running McCain's campaign is the same one that created the ugly, racist "whisper campaign" about his adopted daughter in South Carolina in 2000. What does it say about this man that he is now selling out his own family, his own daughter, for political gain? Why won't he stand up for his own vulnerable child? Who would do this?

(Also: why does Blogger put a red "misspelled" underline below Obama and not McCain?)

Monday, August 11, 2008

She who hesitates

...finds out that the amazingly insightful blog post she was dreaming about a few days ago has already been written, at Sadly, No!

“[E]litism” in this country isn’t defined by how much money you have, but whether you ever enjoy your life. For instance, you can make a lot of money and not be an elitist if your work is joyless and purposeless. This is why the Waltons are considered salt-of-the-Earth types, even though they’re the richest family in the world: because the only joy they get out of life is exploiting cheap labor both here and abroad to produce and sell cheap plastic crap. And since the Waltons are such miserable people, it’s hard for the average spite voter to feel much resentment toward them, since they’re basically richer versions of themselves.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Rec'd from Stanford's Contracted Services Group

...and posted without comment:

Subject: Changes to the toilet paper


We are now seeing yet another repercussion from the economic problems affecting our manufacturing businesses. The major paper companies have universally reduced the width of toilet paper by 1/4”. In most cases this does not affect the functioning of the dispenser however, in the models with folding end pieces there is a problem. Our current supplier is providing extensions to place beside the TP to keep it in the holder and the janitors are adding them now.

We are also looking into the new, smaller sustainable companies coming on the market to see if they have products which have the old dimensions and are green.

Please bear with us through this and let us know if your building is experiencing problems.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Bigfoot Discovery Project

Last Sunday Trev and I visited the Bigfoot Discovery Museum in Felton, in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It is an exceedingly interesting place and well worth a visit. I was a little overwhelmed. The most exciting thing to me was a first-edition copy of Roger Patterson's Do Abominable Snowmen of America Really Exist? That's the academic in me: I was so taken with the sight of book that I ignored the casts from the Patterson bigfoot site on the shelf just below. No bigfoot hunter I! Anyway, it's impossible to overstate the fascination that the Patterson-Gimlin film and the story of its making have had for me over the years. Robert Michael Pyle's wonderful book Where Bigfoot Walks has a good overview, and this Wikipedia article goes into more loving depth--including the tidbit that Bob Gimlin, who will be in Felton for the BDM's festival next Saturday, acknowledges that the film might have been a hoax, though he was not in on it. Anyway, read the whole article and see if you don't get obsessed.

While we're on the subject of me being a dweeb who misses the bigfoot for the book: I see on the BDM site that they have mitigated the singular / plural problem I've always wondered about. Supposedly there are many Bigfoots, or bigfeet, or whatever, but "Bigfoot" suggests that, like the Highlander, there can be only one. However the BDM uses a lower case "b," and seems to employ "bigfoot" as a collective noun that's the same as its singular form, like "deer." Problem solved; and in the process the monster is converted to a more-or-less regular forest critter. (I suspect certain style guides have already instituted this preference. When I published my article in Tin House, I noted in my bio that I was writing a novel about Bigfoot--and the editor, lc'd the "b." At the time I thought it was a mistake, but it turns out they were ahead of me.)

Friday, August 01, 2008

Remembering anthrax

Glenn Greenwald is right, as always. Even as our "President" and the candidate to succeed him relentlessly flog 9-11 to this day, they never mention the anthrax attacks that came in the immediate aftermath. As Greenwald says, the anthrax mailings ratcheted up the fear level tremendously. The notes that went with the mailings, as well as plenty of news analysis, led us to believe Middle Eastern terrorists were everywhere in the US, just beginning to reach into their limitless bag of tricks. It now appears the attacks were carried out by a deranged researcher working for the US government--a fact that the administration was too inept, or too uninterested, to discover.

UPDATE: Greenwald, along with today's NYT, points out that there still is no solid evidence against the scientist in question. We may be in for another thrilling ride on the government / media bullshit roller coaster.

The Stone Gods

I'm now reading Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods and am consumed with jealousy. Just when I feel like I'm getting reasonably good at writing, just as I'm thinking "I can do that" when reading published novels of some repute, this comes along.

Must remember: Do not envy. STEAL.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Reading Gibson

I'm about 3/4 done with William Gibson's Pattern Recognition. I'm finding it a lot easier to follow than Neuromancer, which I read about a month ago--although much of that reading took place on bumpy flights to and from Cleveland, so my concentration was not at its best. Anyway. Pattern Recognition is a lot like DeLillo in its concerns with corporate imagery (loving and hating logos), found art, and terrorism. But Pattern Recognition stays closer to the ground; it proceeds narratively rather than lyrically, though it is almost lyrical.* Gibson makes lots of interesting connections and creates a sort of shimmer around various terms and events. I like that he underplays the plot points connected with September 11, making this book one of the more successful treatments of that subject. However, it's also clear that his main character is little more than a mouthpiece for Gibson's observations about how the world works. Overall the novel appears to be an essay in the form of a narrative. Which is not a bad thing. I'd rather read this than a book of cult crit just about any day.

*Stuart Dybek does a wonderful job explaining the difference between these terms in the latest Missouri Review.

UPDATE: Having finished the book now, I can say that in the last hundred pages or so, Gibson outshimmers and out-DeLillos DeLillo. While seeming to leave me somewhat cold, the book has stayed with me in a way that more immediately emotional stories have not--which is also true of DeLillo's work, especially Mao II. So here's Gibson:

And then she hears the sound of a helicopter, from somewhere behind her and, turning, sees the long white beam of light sweeping the dead ground as it comes, like a lighthouse gone mad from loneliness, and searching that barren ground as foolishly, as randomly, as any grieving heart ever has.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Not afraid

I've said this before, but--as Todd Gitlin reminds us--we need political leaders who say to the world, "we are not afraid." FDR did it over 60 years ago. True leaders would also tell us the same thing. Fear is out. It's your grandfather's Oldsmobile (except your grandfather was probably never as afraid as Americans are today).

Ever since the Reagan era, Republicans have been equating fear with patriotism. Not just fear of foreign enemies, although that is the target of FDR's speech, and the entirety of the Bush/McCain campaign strategy. Good Americans are also supposed to fear gays, uppity and / or single and / or child-free women, people with dark skin and unfamiliar names, people who think, people who read, artists, urbanites, non-Christians, non-hunters, non-American-Idol-watchers, people who walk to work, unusually calm people...I know I've left out over half the categories. From fear comes helplessness, and, yes, "clinging" to old habits, old ideas. As Bob Herbert said a few days ago, since when have we become such a can't do society?

There are plenty of reasons to be worried, even frightened--the biggest reason being politicians who exploit fear. It means they have no other justification for their positions, and that means all their actions are aimed at consolidating power. Fear is the tool of dictatorship, not democracy.

Monday, July 21, 2008

From the downfall of Gnosticism, through the pickle, to Dr. Horrible

In The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels explains one reason we don't have passels of Gnostics roaming the prairies anymore. In the early days, the fathers of what we now know as Christianity decided Gnosticism (which had a lot in common with early Buddhism) was too exclusive. It required years of study; it had a sort of expertise ladder which adherents had to climb. It was not a "real world" religion but a monastic one--you couldn't have a job and a family and be a true Gnostic. The "fathers" wanted a religion that anyone could participate in, and--this part's crucial--that anyone could understand. So they boiled the doctrine down to a few basic tenets, which, once swallowed, rendered one a Christian. No study, no robes, even no reading, really.

We now reap the, um, benefits of this decision's extraordinary success. Being a Christian's so easy, anyone, and I mean anyone, can do it. Which is both this guy's message, and the reason for his absolute lack of self awareness in delivering it. It's important to watch the video all the way to the end, where events turn spectacularly dark. (Could this be a hoax? Could it?)

Dr. Horrible also got dark at the end, which surprised me at first, but which, on reflection, seems appropriate. At least that ending was intentional. Maybe it's just me, but Dr. Horrible and the pickle video somehow share a core narrative.

Thanks to Zach for the tip.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Two small proposals for reconfiguring thought

Here are two words I am going to try not to use anymore:

1. Pig (or ape or shark or any other animal name) as a derogatory term. Pigs are fine animals. But even if they weren't, who are we to judge them? Better to call a poorly-behaved pig a human; except there's really no such thing as poor behavior in pigs, just behavior that is less convenient for those trying to imprison and kill them. And that is, actually, good behavior.

2. Nonbeliever or unbeliever for atheist. Even "atheist" has a negative prefix, which gives the impression of absence and nihilism. This built-in absence makes it easy for theists to claim "they have no morals, no conscience, nothing to aspire to"--when in fact we believe in a great many things, including reason, imagination, progress, beauty, wonder, brilliance, mystery, and even the sacred. The fact that there are no good alternatives for "atheist" shows the extent to which theists have controlled our language. I do not, however, find much power in the term "Bright" as proposed by Dawkins and Dennett. (It does have the advantage of being every bit as smug as "believer" or "Godly" is for others.) I'm a believer, but not in God.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sociological observations based on forced viewing of Fox News and Maury Povich simultaneously

I begin by saying I'm very grateful to the Arrillaga family for providing Stanford University with a state-of-the-art* workout facility. I take advantage of it several times a week, and I can say it has contributed markedly to my physical and mental health. However a pestilence has recently invaded this pristine territory. I don't mean the flesh-eating bacteria that supposedly thrive on the handles of elliptical trainers. I mean television. Some misguided soul has hung six viewing screens (in two rows of three) in the cardio area, and try as I might, I cannot ignore them. And the shows are helpfully closed-captioned, so I won't miss any of the stupidities uttered by the braindead megaphone.**

More often than not, I have found myself with the choice of the following emanations: ESPN, probably the least offensive of the three, and admittedly wonderful when they show tennis; Fox News; and--no, he's not dead--Maury Povich. Today I had the opportunity to ask myself: which is worse, Fox or Maury? Fox needs no introduction. Maury, for those who don't remember, hosts a talk show in which people, usually couples, usually African-American, are lured on to participate in an emotional cage-fight. Secrets are revealed (the baby isn't his! She slept with a woman! He's a peeping Tom!), leading to screaming, crying, chasing around the studio, and, rarely, a tentative reconciliation which belies the fact that these two have just ruined each others' lives. Maury appears to function as a kind of Satanic therapist. However, I was not really able to come up with an answer about which show I would choose to watch while being tortured.

I would have given the nod, very reluctantly, to Fox, except for something I observed about the commercials on both shows. I was watching at about 2:30 in the afternoon, and Fox showed a preponderance of ads for what you might call less-than-vital household products. There's a thing called a Green Bag that keeps your fruits and vegetables fresh for days, nay weeks, longer. Carrots kept naked in the crisper are bendy and brown, while Green Bagged carrots crack, like so! There's a similar, more industrial looking device for meat, thanks to which you can now buy pork chops in bulk and save money! (Vegetarian rant postponed; just go give PETA some bucks.) I also saw at least two ads for a plastic globe, available in several colors, that you fill with water and stick in your houseplants, to avoid the agony of pouring water directly into the plants.

I conclude that at this time of day, Fox assumes its audience to be middle-aged housewives with no aspirations besides tinkering around the edges of their domestic systems. Whereas during Maury, which certainly offered its share of ads for dumb stuff, I also saw several commercials for Heald Technical College and possibly another school as well. These ads featured women of all races earning degrees and getting jobs. Women who watch Maury, it seems, are home, but don't want to be there--at least not for long. Judging from what we see on Maury, they're wise to get out as soon as possible. But on Fox, we learn that everything outside is scary: rapist camp counselors! Terrorists! Black people running for president! Better to stay inside and tend to your carrots and plastic balls.

*minus lockers or showers, a widely discussed and mystifying omission
**trademark George Saunders

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Not taking notes

I'm trying an experiment with my novel, which is to stop taking notes about it. In Novel Voices Ann Patchett says she doesn't take them, because she's afraid of getting too attached to them and never actually writing. I think I see what she means. Until recently I've been an obsessive note-taker, often scribbling frantically in my notebook as I ride the train to work. **KYLE IS NOT A VETERAN. **DOES HE SPEAK SPANISH??** The next morning I start revising with these notes in mind, discovering, more often than not, that it still doesn't work and what I need is to write through the problem, rather than think through it. As a mostly former academic, this is tough for me to accept. I'm afraid of forgetting. But as I think Patchett implies, if it's really important, you'll remember it, and the rest of the stuff is probably better forgotten because it's all interim thinking. It's true that I still type little two-sentence notes at the end of paragraphs sometimes, but I restrain myself from expanding on them or going back and turning the whole manuscript upside down as a result of these half-baked thoughts.

Patience with uncertainty. That's the key.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

On having a reborn robot servant

So last week we thought the Roomba died. We heard it whirring away in the other room, when we heard its musical "help me" beep. Trev went in to find it spinning in a circle. He restarted it, same thing. The female voice, which may or may not be Roomba's own, eventually said "Please inspect and clean Roomba's wheels." One wheel was pretty much stuck, but we couldn't find anything wedged in there or any other reason for the problem. On the third restart, we watched in misery as the thing spun, stopped, tried to shake its wheel loose, and kept spinning. Finally we decided we had to send it back, and Trev filled out an online form for that purpose. As he carried the disabled bot into the other room, both cats gave off a distinct "our work here is done" vibe. Their tails went up and they swanned around the living room. It was hard to tell what, exactly, they had done; but if wishing could make it so, they're responsible.

Anyway, a few days later, Trev got an email advising him to flip the Roomba over and bash the wheel repeatedly with the heel of his hand (I paraphrase). He did, and after a few tries--it worked! The Roomba shot across the carpet and cleaned steadily for longer than it ever had before. It didn't even want its brushes cleaned.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

A matter of language?

Trev and I went to the monthly all-day sitting with the Everyday Zen sangha. I'll perhaps comment later on how these sittings, instead of making me more mindful the next day, make me incredibly foggy. I suppose the word for that is "tired," but it's more like my brain is simply not engaging. Anyway, I'm better today.

Norman Fischer's dharma talk was on atheists, especially Daniel Dennett, and their quarrels with "believers." Norman said the argument seemed to him "beside the point"--that we all have religious inklings (Dennett says we are naturally selected to be religious), and the issue really is the language we use to express those feelings. So "God" for one person might be, perhaps, "wonder" for another person. However, Norman also suggested that the language, or concept, of an authoritarian guy on a throne, manipulating us from above and outside, is not a helpful one. We all have to avoid "clamping down" on our concepts, which is what makes us intolerant and judgmental and destructive.

I tended to agree. When people ask me if I believe in God, I always want to ask, "What do you mean?" Guy on a throne? No way. But do I have a sense of the sacred, of something larger? A sense of wonder and awe at the universe? A sense of responsibility toward all creation, even without a creator? Yes. I'd like to think I feel responsible because I care about my fellow beings, not because I'm afraid of punishment or because I want a reward. I think that's called being an adult, and I would like to be one some day.

I'm very glad Dennett and Dawkins and PZ Meyers and all the other atheists are kicking up a ruckus, and by the above definition I'm one of them. On the other hand, I'm not always sure what they're arguing against. If it's the guy on the throne, though, count me in. That guy, even if he exists, should be resisted unto death, and beyond.*

*Update: Here's a helpful post from Tristero, which tells me I need to read my New Atheists more thoroughly. Yes, they're fighting Throne Man, and therefore I cast my lot with them.
But the language here really *is* a problem. "Atheist" seems to me to cover too much ground. As does "God," possibly.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

This is good.

Good, good, good, good, good.
How did I not know about this until now?
The Slacktivist reads Left Behind so we don't have to. And sends LaHaye and Jenkins to writing school.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Humanities PR

Here's a pretty cool thing, wherein the humanities make a case for themselves. It was just launched by my colleagues at the Stanford Humanities Center.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cosmic realism

Via Maud Newton, a very interesting essay by Francesca Mari on the genre called "cosmic realism." Marilynne Robinson's a practitioner, credited with coining the phrase. Antecedents include Virginia Woolf, especially in the "Time Passes" section of To the Lighthouse, also Proust, Thoreau, and Emerson. In Mari's short definition, cosmic realism "encompasses a range of description-driven novels steeped in transience and obsessed with iterations of ephemerality."

Thursday, June 12, 2008

On having a robot servant

Trev and I have always avoided vacuuming because of allergies and because of the noise, which makes any concurrent activity impossible in our small condo. Also it scares the cats; it takes hours for them to recover from the trauma. But of course it's the cats who make the need to vacuum all the more urgent. With two white cats, it takes approximately two days for a clean room to become coated in what looks like an early morning frost. Yet the more hair there is, the less we want to vacuum, and the terrible spiral continues.

So we recently bought a Roomba. I hate buying anything (except Moo Shoes and food), and as I've said, I hate the very idea that a product could "change my life." But with the Roomba, resistance is futile. It really makes a difference. Now we can actually be doing other things while vacuuming--frantically doing dishes and cleaning the bathroom, for instance, in anticipation of company, or simply talking (about the Roomba). Best of all, it does not scare the cats. They watch it warily when it first starts up and back away if it charges at them (which it does once in a while, randomly of course); but then they go about their business. No recovery time necessary.

The troubling thing about [the] Roomba (it refers to itself as "Roomba" with no definite article) is its servant status. When we're done with it we take it to the spare room, put it on its charger, and close the door. It feels very Upstairs Downstairs. Maybe if the Roomba weren't so cheerful, with its blooping noises and pleasant requests for assistance ("Please remove and clean Roomba's brushes!") it would be easier. I could do with a little class resentment, a touch of sullenness. Better yet, I'd like it to speak in the voice of George W. Bush. That way I could make it work all day long and not feel the least bit guilty. As it stands I still feel, after a half hour or so, that it really deserves a break.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Hats off to Hillary

I ended up getting fed up with Clinton's campaign and wholeheartedly rooting for Obama. (I regret not being able to vote in the Dem primary--in protest over the first gulf war I registered as a Green, and have not yet switched back. Some small part of me still does not want to be a Democrat, and this part starts to hurt whenever the Democratic congress rolls over yet again, exactly like trained dogs, to yet another Bush. But Ralph Nader? Feh.) As I've said before, I think Clinton is a prisoner of the compromises she's been forced to make. In a way it's tragic, except--hey, she nearly got nominated; she's a senator; she still has a distinguished career ahead of and behind her. In fact, now that the presidential pressure's off, she may be able to extricate herself from some of those compromises (maybe even from Bill--now that, I would dance about). She could really shine.

I don't think misogyny alone doomed her campaign, but I do agree with this, on the Hillary nutcracker. Whoever bought or sold this deserves to have it used on him.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


We went here for my birthday dinner. It was pretty amazing. I am continually struck by how much I have to learn about vegetarian cooking--how much we all have to learn. What happens when you really, really take meat out of the center of the plate? When you stop trying to recreate meat dishes using vegetables? The entire structure of food, not to mention entire meals, changes.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Novel update

For those of you keeping score, I have now re-started my novel for the fifteenth time. (OK, that's actually a guess, based on all the fragments of chapters in my "novel" file dating back to 2004. Many of these are from the point of view of the former main character, who currently does not exist.) As Andrew Altschul said in the class I took with him last year, a story or novel that keeps grinding to a halt usually has a problem with point of view. For me, the solution seems to be the omniscient narrator who is conceived as a character. He or she may or may not play a minor part in the story itself, but the primary role is as a kind of liaison to the reader. It's the best of both worlds--I can create a distinctive, untrustworthy and loopy voice, which I can't seem to do without in my fiction. However, I can also, by fiat, see into the thoughts of any character at will, and make sweeping pronouncements about the world, a la George Eliot. I can even get away with bad writing! (It's not me, it's my narrator!) So far, I'm not seeing a downside.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

New word

First heard at the "Legal Frontiers in Digital Media" conference here at Stanford:


It does not mean "of or pertaining to a Three Musketeers bar"--but "of little value." I suppose we did need a single word for that concept. So the word itself probably isn't, you know, nugatory. Time will tell.

At the conference I realized that I've never been in a room with 150 lawyers before. I'm rarely in a room with more than one lawyer; in the rooms I'm in, there are almost always zero. I'm pretty sure my colleague and I were the only ones cracking up and passing notes about "nugatory."

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Cat, by robot

Here is a picture of Bella, taken by Trev's new SRV-1 Blackfin Robot, the Open Source Wireless Mobile Robot with Video for Telepresence, Autonomous and Swarm Operation.

As you can see, Bella is somewhere in the middle on the "impressed with robot" scale.

That's me in the background, not working on my novel.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Alaska Quarterly Review

Good news! I've had a story accepted by the Alaska Quarterly Review. It will be out sometime in the next year.

Monday, May 12, 2008

On Speed Racer

As a child, I did not grasp the concept of camp. I remember being extremely annoyed at the styrofoam rocks of the original Star Trek, to the point where it ruined any interest I might have had in the storyline.

The same went for Speed Racer. The crappy, repetitive animation and the un-synched soundtrack caused me to wave my little fist in the air and shout epithets. But more than any of these aesthetic failures, I hated Spritle. I hated his concentric-circle cap, especially the fact that it matched the chimp's, which I found inexplicable and somehow gruesome. I hated his stupidity (half the plots, as I recall, revolved around Spritle and the chimp getting into some kind of trouble from which Speed had to rescue them--like he had nothing better to do!). And--above everything--I hated Spritle's voice. God, how it grated. To this day I curl up like a potato bug when I even think of that voice.

Interestingly, I watched a lot of Speed Racer. It never occurred to me to Turn It Off if I didn't like it. It must have been between two shows that I did like, or something. But I'm afraid this says something about me, and possibly about the well-trained young TV viewer.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


Cynthia Gregory, winner of Glimmer Train's most recent Very Short Fiction contest, advises writers to keep a journal.

Your journal isn't about you. No offense, and as important as you are, your journal is not an extension of you. Rather, it is like a Polaroid camera that you aim at everything around you and with which you snap a photo. This café. That conversation. That wide, beautiful coastline with clouds hovering over the water like cotton candy and the smell of the surf pushing spring toward the dessert on a mission from God.

For the life of me I have never been able to grasp this concept of a journal. Exhibit A: this blog, which is about me, me, me. If I make a written snapshot of "this cafe," it's "this cafe" with the back of my head in the foreground. You can see me looking.

I suppose this has something to do with my resistance to "show, don't tell"--the dictum to do every part of the story in scene and not summary. In telling, I, the author, can be more present, as in "look at me telling you this." Whereas in scene, one has to efface oneself, become a window through which the reader looks. Bleh.

The best example of the Polaroid style of journal that I can think of is Yuri Olesha's No Day Without A Line. It really is a book of snapshots, written with surreal visual clarity.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The only film I have watched during which I was genuinely worried about having a seizure:

William Gibson: No Map For These Territories.

The film is an extended author interview, and Gibson has interesting things to say. As IMDB puts it, however, "you see Gibson talking in the backseat of a car, often with a cigarette in his hand, while the world goes by. Interviews are spliced with quickly edited footage of modern day life and the effect, for the most part, works." Works, if by "working" you mean inducing seizures, an endeavor which I suppose could be valuable in some military or scientific context. Plus, dissonant background music by The Edge makes it impossible simply to shut one's eyes and listen.

This movie literally is out to get you.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The responsibility of the first-person narrator

Thrashing on in my struggle with point of view in my fiction, I'm reminded by my friend Kate that the first-person narrator's responsibility is, first and foremost, to the reader. In my first-person stories my narrators spend a lot of time in self-reflection and commentary. That's because I gravitate toward hyper-self-conscious narrators, and also because I'm flummoxed by "narrative occasion"--why is the narrator telling the story now?--which leads to questions of what he or she knows, and when, which leads to more reflection. Not unexpectedly, the actual story tends to suffer under these conditions. As important as it is for *me* to understand what the narrator knew and when she knew it, it's more important to hold the reader's attention. So that's the narrator's real job: tell the story as well as it can be told. Displaying my awareness of narrative occasion and its pitfalls is for me, not the reader.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Two ways of looking at Yosemite

That's my photo from Inspiration Point. Pretty and all, but most notable for our purposes today is the depopulation. I stood on a stone wall to get over the heads of the people and cars in front of me, so as to produce an image such as John Muir, and the many who came before him, could have seen.

Now Trev's:

He says this is the "National Geographic" style of photo, showing what the place is really like--people interacting with the landscape. (Mind you this was taken in spring, which explains both the waterfall and the relatively sparse crowd--which was still too big for me.)

I tend to think that when people (non-native at least) and cars show up in nature photographs, they somehow invalidate the whole picture. But why would I think that? Are these people not part of this place? Are they not using (by driving through, photographing, walking on) the land? Especially in Yosemite, how are tourists anything but a central feature of the landscape?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

On blocking

No, not writer's block, but writer's blocking. I learned this from Eric Puchner last fall and it's helping me in my never-ending quest to slow down and unpack. (Ann Patchett says that a teacher once compared her work to "concentrated orange juice" which needed water. I have the same problem; it's nice to have something in common with Ann Patchett!) Anyway, blocking is basically what they do in the theater. Where are the characters? Who's standing where and in what relationship? How far is the floor lamp from the vampire's coffin? I'm now beginning to see why some writers physically sketch out scenes, even storyboard them. Of course one doesn't want to go overboard: "She stood in the middle of the front lawn ten feet away from him (with her on the lower left end of a diagonal line and him on the upper right). Her gaze was aimed perpendicularly to his, so that in order to speak to him, as she will as soon as I'm done explaining the blocking, she had to turn her head approximately 45 degrees. Because she was angry at him she chose not to face him directly, and she turned her head without moving her feet, which was awkward but she had a stiff shoulder from sleeping on it the wrong way the previous evening (also due to anger), and besides the grass was slippery from the dew (it was morning) and she was afraid of losing her footing." Yet the writer does have to have such a clear physical picture of every scene, and how the characters move through it, in her own mind.

Lately I've been looking at houses on distant hills (because I'm writing about someone who spies on people in such a house through a telescope) and trying to figure out how far away they actually are and how high up. The question adds certain dimensions, as it were, to the story--I begin to wonder how long it would take the spy-ee (once he's discovered the spy-er) to drive down the hill in a rage and bang on the spy-er's door. All this does help add texture and create a sense of being there in the story. So I hope, anyway. I've always tended to leave my characters suspended in the air, not being especially interested in setting on the technical level. But now I'm beginning to see how setting, and specifically blocking, have their own ways of driving the story.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Amy Hornstein's Six Sentences have been posted.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Poem in your pocket day - April 17

In celebration of National Poetry Month, April 17 is Poem in Your Pocket Day. Carry a poem in your pocket; produce and read it unbidden for friends and strangers!

h/t Natalie.

Update: Speaking of Natalie, here's her column on the subject. She's got it covered.

Mining your territory

People own the territory that they are born into. That's the richest ore writers can mine.... Get in touch with where you're from. No matter where you're from, even if it's a subdivision in Kenner, Louisiana, that is your literary heritage. If you look at it closely enough, you'll see that it is as exotic and unique as some Central or South American culture in the mountains.

I can't understand these people who say that anybody can write about anything and any time if they do enough research because they cut themselves off from the speech of those they grew up with.

--Tim Gautreaux, Novel Voices, ed. Lavasseur and Rabalais
Gautreaux writes about southern Louisiana and its "priests, drunks, train conductors, unemployed workers, and card-playing grandmothers with sharp-tongued wit." All very well. But what if one's heritage is rust-belt suburbia? (OK, it does sound kind of exotic when I put it that way.)

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Thoughts on persistence

Willpower is a muscle, according to this from the NYT. You exercise it; it gets stronger.

Willpower and persistence are relatively new concepts for me. Most of my life I've assumed that if something doesn't go well the first or second time I try it, that means it's not going to happen. The idea of regrouping, coming back, regrouping, coming back, etc., still seems like a revelation. These days I'm surrounded by highly successful, highly persistent people. Some are almost like machines, moving inexorably forward--they roll into a closed door, bounce off it, and roll at it again until they push it open.

I also learned about persistence from Norman Fischer's book Taking Our Places (and thanks to Sara for this recommendation). Zen meditation is the practice of persistence, especially because, in my experience anyway, it is not immediately rewarding. One sits there and wonders why one is bothering. Enlightenment does not come; relaxation, even, does not always come. Yet one sits down and does it, at the appointed time, again and again. (I say "one" because at the moment *I* am not doing it persistently, or even very often. OK, but I did get the concept; really I did. And I am persisting in my writing, despite hitting a dismaying patch that I won't go into just now.)

A big part of persistence is recognizing the value of what you're persisting at, even--or especially--if no one else does.

Stubbornness and passive or active aggression are not persistence. It can't be done in anger or revenge, or to prove a point. It should not be destructive. This is why I'm having a hard time admiring what Hillary Clinton calls her "resilience." Yes, she's a survivor, but that seems to be all she is and all she can ever be at this point. It's not her fault, entirely--she's had to make compromises and those compromises have trapped her. But surviving is not governing, and I'm afraid it's not even a good example in this case.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Should we worry about the LHC?

I'm in high anxiety mode these days, so when I read about the lawsuit against the Large Hadron Collider, I added it, Outlook-style, to my task list of worries. Seems a couple of scientists (at least one of whom, according to the Bad Astronomer, is way out there) think the collider could create a black hole or else a kind of cascade of "strangelets." Both of these things would be bad, although the word strangelet is quite good. Anyway, the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, says not to worry. I'm glad, because I really want to like the LHC. I'm a particle-smashing groupie, have been for years. Besides, now I'm consumed with cell phones (and wireless) causing brain tumors.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Walden revisited

Just before I quit academia in 1995 (to return eight years later in the odd hybrid form I now occupy), I had a paper accepted at American Quarterly. The paper was my dissertation chapter on Walden. AQ wanted some revisions, which I never did because I had decided to sever all ties to my old life. It was an interesting time, when something that seemed supremely important one minute--publication in a major journal--meant nothing to me the next.

For a long time I couldn't bear even to look at Walden, because it was so closely woven into all my academic work. I couldn't read it outside of that tense, grinding mindset--must find more ways Thoreau is a masochistic fascist! While I think the Thoreau piece is my best work from that era, I'm glad it wasn't published. I can see in my marginal notes on the pages how aggressive I was as a reader. My goal seemed to be to prove myself superior to this great, influential, and brave (yes, I know the cabin was in Emerson's backyard) thinker. So lately I've been rereading Walden as more of an aspiring kindred spirit.

I doubt I'll do any more academic writing beyond the occasional half-baked thought on this blog. But if I did, I'd like to write on this bit from the first section of Walden, "Economy":
I took down this dwelling the same morning, drawing the nails,and removed it to the pond-side by small cartloads, spreading the boards on the grass there to bleach and warp back again in the sun. One early thrush gave me a note or two as I drove along the woodland path. I was informed treacherously by a young Patrick that neighbor Seeley, an Irishman, in the intervals of the carting, transferred the still tolerable, straight, and drivable nails, staples, and spikes to his pocket, and then stood when I came back to pass the time of day, and look freshly up, unconcerned, with spring thoughts, at the devastation; there being a dearth of work, as he said. He was there to represent spectatordom, and help make this seemingly insignificant event one with the removal of the gods of Troy.

So much going on here. Thoreau has bought and dismantled another Irishman's cabin to reuse the boards for his own. We've just seen that Irish family walking off into the unknown, all except their cat, who "took to the woods," became wild, but then died (Thoreau has heard) in a trap set for woodchucks. I'd like to say more about these vanishing scenes at some point. I'm sure this very scene has inspired similar ones in my fiction.

But what I'm most interested in here is the way Thoreau leaves the stage and lets someone else, young Patrick, and Seeley also, take over the narrative. It's like the line in To the Lighthouse, the boiling-down of Mr. Ramsay's philosophy: "think of a kitchen table when you're not there." It's a moment when the first person narrator, a stand-in for all of us, who are always the first-person narrators of our stories, sees himself as peripheral. Life goes on in our absence, our plans and our cabins quietly dismantled. Thoreau returns to claim Seeley's thefts as lending grandeur to his little project; he's joking and not joking at the same time. Still, that doesn't change the fact that he has left both his boards and his story in others' hands, "in the intervals of the carting."

Monday, March 24, 2008

Another ending, another beginning

I just turned in my grades for winter quarter and am feeling blue. The students did fine (as usual) and reading their final papers was painful only because I realized this was the end--the last official exchange we would be having. Almost everyone's gone for spring break, the campus silent except for a few echoing footsteps on the arcade. The weather is beautiful, so it feels like it should be summer, but it's not; in a week everyone will be back, and I'll be back to my old afternoon work schedule. I'll have more time to write, which is nice, which is the point, in fact... But I'm really going to miss teaching. I haven't applied to teach again next year, which will be a first in five years. During the eight years before that, when I wasn't teaching--when I had what I thought were "real jobs" in industry, which I wouldn't take now if you paid me a whole lot--I used to dream about it. Usually I was teaching a huge class in some high-ranking but chaotic community college (De Anza, I think), but sometimes I did dream about Stanford itself (where I had taught briefly in 1994). I always woke up feeling like I'd been to an exotic place, or like I'd done something wild and exhilarating, like ski-jumping. Now I've been able to do that for real at Stanford, and it's been marvelous.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Obama's speech on race

It's a fairly sad commentary that Obama had to make the speech in the first place. As one letter to the NYT said this morning, a black man shouldn't have to reassure whites that responsibility for 300 years of oppression won't be laid at our feet. That said, I have a question: can anyone picture either Hillary Clinton or John McCain making a similar speech about, say, gender, or religion, or race, for that matter? Can anyone imagine them not equivocating, pandering, playing small ball, and blaming others for the conflict--even if that blame was well founded? Would they ever attempt to address our better instincts, long dormant during the Bush years; would they even know where to find them?

Monday, March 17, 2008

How the right controls language

This is a question to which I've never received a great answer. Why does the right have such a complete lock on our national discourse? If the left is the party of writers, artists, intellectuals, shouldn't we be the best word-slingers? The New York Times Magazine attempted to address the first part of that question again this weekend, with an article by Farhad Manjoo. (Digby's comments on the article are here.) Basically the right repeats every slur relentlessly, until it becomes something everyone thinks they know. People don't even know where the slander comes from, or whether or how often it's been debunked. Because they've heard it so many times--even from the same person--it seems familiar, and familiar (according to psychological testing) = true.

I asked Hayden White a similar question a few years ago, and he said the problem is that the right has mastered "normative" language--in other words, they speak to our deep, collective desire to be "normal." The left may not even know this language, because (as artists, intellectuals, etc.) we are outsiders. We spend our lives extolling and defending the different. I suppose by making something sound familiar by repetition, one also makes it normal--something everybody who is normal knows. And how do we cut through this falsely comforting haze of familiarity? The familiar, after all, is the primal urge of conservatism.

I think one step would be to associate that need for familiarity with fear. The right manipulate fear, but we should constantly call them on it. Not just by saying they're fear-mongers, but that they are afraid themselves. They are scared little boys and girls quivering in their caves, while the rest of us want to go out and become better. The American self-improvement imperative could help here.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tips for SF and other short stories

From io9, "8 Unstoppable Rules for Writing Killer Short Stories." These are rules for SF, though the article suggests that SF writers pretend they're writing for the New Yorker. It's interesting to compare these rules to the ones we learn in Creative Writing (literary) workshops. Should world-building be "quick and merciless"? Should characters be "a little fucked up," but mostly positive? Is the character-based / plot-based dichotomy a hoax?

As for io9 itself, I quite like it. They post constantly and I don't always have the patience to read the actual articles, but they have awesome pictures and the tags (Triviagasm, Steal This Pitch, Retro Futurism, Tanks...) are entertaining in and of themselves.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Plum tree redux

For those of us worried about climate change, it's somewhat reassuring that the plum tree across from our balcony is in bloom as it was at exactly this time last year. At this point the blooms are past peak, and most of the petals are floating in the building's communal pool. Unlike last year I am not resisting spring. I need it. I want it. Although spring in California, for the transplanted Midwesterner, always brings guilt. My hometown of Rocky River, Ohio, is under twenty inches of snow. Meanwhile I look through my office window at a cobalt sky, and will walk to the train station this evening with my jacket tied around my waist. In Ohio you really feel like you've accomplished something when those first crocuses push through the crust of blackened snow; here, the plum tree has been bare for a mere six weeks. On top of that, we're back to daylight savings time, which must be bizarre for Ohioans staring through the bright evening at another Arctic clipper. Anyway, I feel I should be suffering more. Fortunately, I have hay fever from all these blooming trees.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Werner Herzog at Stanford

Last week Trev and I fulfilled a dream we did not know we had, which was seeing Werner Herzog live in conversation. We've watched many of his films on DVD and listened to the commentary, so we already knew his basic philosophy--"Nature is hostile"--and the more famous stories about trying to film Klaus Kinski and drag a ship over a hill in the jungle at the same time. So what did we learn? First, that Grizzly Man is possibly the most brilliant film ever made. Seeing it on the big screen (before the interview with Herzog) was stunning. I kept seeing parallels with To the Lighthouse, which I happened to be teaching last week. I doubt Herzog, the most macho of filmmakers, would appreciate the comparison; I'm also not sure my students bought it. But I tried to make a connection between the way Herzog "brackets" the audio recording of bears mauling Timothy Treadwell and Amy Huguenard to death with the bracketed sentence describing Mrs. Ramsay's death in TTL. "[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]" In the film, we find out that Treadwell's camera was rolling, but the lens cap was on, when he was killed. Herzog refuses to play the recording for us, the audience. Instead, he listens to it through headphones, and we see him from behind while Jewel Palovak, Treadwell's friend, watches Herzog's face and reacts. Here's a still, after he has just asked her to turn off the tape. In both cases there's a kind of privacy for the dying, and death becomes present through stumbling or wincing by the living. (For more about grief and the sense of a "phantom limb," see "Doubtful Arms and Phantom Limbs: Literary Portrayals of Embodied Grief" by James Krasner (PMLA 119:2, March 2004).)

What else did we learn? We did not love Rescue Dawn, the film screened on Tuesday night. Despite Herzog's protestations, it really did seem like a straight-on adventure (he hates the word "adventure") with no attention to moral complexities or the curious meanderings of his other films. It seems like he was too close to the subject, Dieter Dengler, and wanted to memorialize him as an ingenious hero; Dengler was dying while the film was being made. Also the actors playing prisoners, especially Jeremy Davies, lost way, way too much weight for their roles. Really, I am willing to suspend disbelief. Put some dirt on the guys' faces, give them some baggy clothes, and I'll happily believe they are prisoners. I'm not interested in weight loss as extreme film-making stunt.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Thank you, James Wolcott

I do not read Wolcott enough. That will change.

Lunch room, locker room: the trash talk is still being batted around about women as if everything's the fault of a few feminist bitches with frigid temperatures and Tilda Swinton hauteur who insist on being where they're not wanted, going where they don't belong. And underneath the trash talk is the even more unattractive noise of white men whining because things aren't like they used to be. No, they are not. This news should have reached you by now and soaked in. Things haven't been like they used to be for about thirty years now, hell, maybe forty. So set your inner Pat Buchanan free in that patchy stretch of woods along the interstate and accept the reality of women's equality without being such a bullying baby about it.

Bigfoot at Berkeley

Plaster footprint casts from Grover Krantz's collection are now on view at the Hearst Museum. Turns out Krantz and I have something else in common besides an obsession (differing mightily in degree) with Bigfoot: we were both grad students at Berkeley.

h/t Amy

Monday, February 25, 2008

Acting workshop

I've been meaning to write about the excellent time we had in class last week with Rachel Anderson, a grad student in the Stanford Drama Department. She has directed several productions at Stanford including Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and Osofisan's Farewell to a Cannibal Rage. She's also an actor.

For the first part of class we talked about what it takes to put on a play; what was interesting is that we understood all the parts except the one between "getting money to finance" and "opening night." What goes in rehearsals? How do actors find their characters? How do they work together? I wondered why the "tech rehearsal" occurs so late in the game--that's perhaps the first time actors get to put on the full costumes and make sure dresses don't get hooked on furniture, etc. But if an actor needs to wear the costume to understand why, for instance, she can't bend over or wave her arms a certain way, why not wear the costume sooner? Answer: because the costume, more likely than not, hasn't been made yet. So it seems harder to work outside-in under these circumstances. For practical reasons, it seems, psychology often has to come first.

During the last half hour or so, we did a few acting exercises. One was to make a brief statement about something banal that had happened to us that day (mine was about buying a latte). Then we repeated the line while doing different things with our bodies, such as glancing around the room, or, in my case, lying back in the chair like a client on the therapists' couch. (I must have been radiating something for Rachel to suggest that.) Anyway what was amazing is that changing position and action really did change the line delivery. Not only was it harder to make my voice do certain things when I was lying back, that difficulty--or maybe the position itself--changed my emotions slightly. So by lying back I started speaking more slowly and dully. No other effort was required to make this rather striking change in how the line came out. I, for one, really am malleable from the outside in. Shiatsu massage, here I come.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Another grammar experience

About a week ago Trev and I were walking along the seaside trail that stretches between Monterey and Pacific Grove. Just ahead of us were a boy, about 8 years old, and his father, riding bicycles. We caught up to them for just enough time to hear the boy say, "If my name were to be Dave, my name backwards would be Evad." We were both struck by the complex use of the subjunctive in a person so small. Not only was he commenting on the fact that his name was not Dave; he was holding out the possibility, however slight, that it could still happen.

Later we caught up to them again and the boy had somehow gotten his bike wedged against a pillar. Not surprising, given his loftier preoccupations.

(edited to remove crummy analogy)