Monday, January 28, 2008

Peaceful progression

I dislike the "Possessed" column in the Sunday Style section of the NYT as much I revile the "Consumed" column in the Sunday Magazine. Must there be not one but two overt celebrations in the very same paper of having, accumulating, buying, owning, to say nothing of the myriad implied celebrations in a good chunk of the articles, plus the ads? Are we not more than this? At long last, are we not more?

However, Trev told me that a present I gave him for Christmas (which he picked out) has changed his life. It is this thing: the Hammacher Schlemmer Peaceful Progression Wake Up (not Alarm) Clock. It's about a foot high and looks like a robot servant from a 50s science fiction movie. It's even in black-and-white, except for the green display and the ladder of lights that discreetly come on, one at a time, a half hour before your wake-up time. If you're lucky, the first light wakes you up with a red-orange glow that is not unlike dawn. In our case the alarm sits next to a bunch of orange-red fake flowers that I can pretend is a cloud, so the whole effect is quite pleasant. At T minus 15 minutes, a sound begins to play. We chose the Zen music (the usual flutey stuff) because the cricket and bird sounds were those of terrified crickets and birds, and the ocean sound was a tsunami. At Wake Up Time, however, it's no more Mr. Zen Clock and the beeping that you know from every other alarm clock begins. This feature cannot be turned off, and you lie listening to the Zen music in increasing dread of the beeping. So you get up.

Trev says he sleeps better knowing that he'll be awakened in this relatively humane way. So consider this my Possessed and Consumed column. I do not go so far as to suggest that you order one of these clocks, which appears in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog on an airplane near you--alongside, I'm not kidding, a motorized cooler that you can ride.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Martian Bigfoot

Roger Patterson, where are you when we need you?

OK, here's a pretty interesting analysis.

(h/t Bad Astronomer.)

Jane Austen's Ghost World

Yesterday I did an exercise with my students in which we rewrote a scene from Ghost World (graphic novel or movie) in the style of Jane Austen. The "write in the style of Austen" exercise is not a new one, neither to me nor to teachers around the world, but I think the Ghost World component is unique. It's the second time I've done this and it was, again, a blast. It reminded me once again that constraints make for great art. Of course you immediately realize you have to break down the dialog of Enid Coleslaw and her snide pal into polite or seemingly polite ripostes, adding adjectives and adverbs. What you then see is that the irony in Austen's characters' speech, while equally edgy, is sort of an outside-in version of Ghost World's. (I haven't quite figured out how they mirror each other.) Also Ghost World is, in fact, a social "novel" that explores the niceties (or lack thereof) of relationships.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Leave it to the NYT to have an op-ed page full of columns by white people on Martin Luther King Day. Nevertheless, two pieces were outstanding (coincidentally, the ones that weren't William Kristol's). Sarah Vowell's "Radical Love Gets a Holiday" deserves to be anthologized in the Best American Spiritual Writing and many other places. Paul Krugman's column made the point that the biggest failing of the Clinton years was the Democrat's inability to change the narrative about Reagan. He was *not* a good president. But because Bill and the others didn't say that, Republicans are still invoking his sainted name, as is Obama. And they're all still competing to see who can try once again to force Reagan's bad ideas on the country and the world. Vowell also manages a nice shot at Reagan in the beginning of her piece. Maybe it's not too late to call off the canonization.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Image-World

It's time once again for a quote from Susan Sontag's On Photography (now you know what we're reading in class):
[R]eality has come to seem more and more like what we are shown by cameras. It is common now for people to insist about their experience of a violent event in which they were caught up--a plane crash, a shoot-out, a terrorist bombing--that "it seemed like a movie." This is said, other descriptions seeming insufficient, in order to explain how real it was. While many people in non-industrialized countries still feel apprehensive when being photographed, divining it to be some kind of trespass, an act of disrespect, a sublimated looting of the personality or the culture, people in industrialized countries seek to have their photographs taken--feel that they are images, and are made real by photographs.
Or by blogs, or Diggs, or Twitters...(I still don't understand Twitter).

Friday, January 11, 2008

What secret are you keeping from yourself?

I'm always amazed at how certain pieces of writing (and other) advice can bounce right off me a hundred times, then all of a sudden they make sense. I suppose it's like cosmic rays; they're always bombarding us, just like advice--but every now and then because of how we're aligned in the universe, or something, one hits and sticks. (And there's where the cosmic ray analogy ends, because if one of those stuck it would be a disaster.) Anyway, here's the little nugget that hit me this week. It's from Melissa Pritchard, interviewed in Glimmer Train's publication Writers Ask:

[In writing "Revelations of Child Love"] I wanted to strike a certain nerve on the page, but when I tried to write a conventional story, I couldn't get to the emotionally dangerous point I needed to get to. I had to wait for the right voice--the right form--that could carry the charge and danger this story needed. [...] I go by the same advice I give my students: If you aren't sure what the danger point is after finishing a draft, ask what secret you are keeping from yourself.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Reading at Bernal Yoga on January 19

I'll be reading my short-short story, "Airspell," at the Bernal Yoga* Literary Series on Saturday, January 19, 7 p.m. I'll be reading for about 5 minutes, but, you know, it's part of a very festive bigger picture. The headliners are fiction writer Catherine Brady and poet Jessica Fisher.

Here is more information about the series: (Scroll down to read about the series.)
And directions:

* No yoga will be performed.**
** Not by me, anyway.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Imitation of Life II

My winter quarter class starts tomorrow. I'm teaching Imitation of Life again. Here's the course description:

To a large extent this course is about characters and characterization: How do authors and other artists create characters, both human and non-human? How do readers decide whether a character seems real, and what if the characterization is a bit off from our sense of reality? After examining techniques and experiences of characterization, however, we'll go further, by questioning the boundaries around characters. What is inside and outside a character? What is a character and what isn't? And more basically still: how do artists portray aliveness itself?

While discussions will be fluid and topics will merge and diverge, the course falls into three basic sections: Claiming Reality (weeks 1-3); Building Characters (weeks 4-6); and Consciousness and Point of View (weeks 7-9).

Course Materials:

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya

Daniel Clowes, Ghost World

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

Edward P. Jones, The Known World

Konstantin Stanislavsky, An Actor Prepares

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Films: Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, dir.); Vanya on 42nd Street (Louis Malle, dir.); The Cherry Orchard (Michael Cacoyannis, dir.)

+ Class visits by Rachel Anderson of Stanford's Drama Department, and fiction writer and Stanford Creative Writing instructor Eric Puchner.

+ Gallery talk by Patience Young, Curator for Education, Cantor Art Center on works by Richard Avedon, Joan Brown, Chuck Close, and Duane Hansen.

+ Additional articles/excerpts by Erich Auerbach, Sigmund Freud, Sherry Turkle, Alex Woloch, and others will be handed out or available for download from Coursework. There is no course reader.

I'll introduce the course with LonelyGirl15, and its self-conscious gestures toward "dorkiness"--a marker for realism.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

We Freeze to Please

Flying out of Cleveland in a snowstorm New Year's night, I was grateful for my father's work on de-icing technologies at NASA. A few years ago my dad was interviewed for a book on the ice tunnel at NASA's Lewis (now Glenn) Research Center. The book, We Freeze to Please, is also available as a PDF, here. On p. 70 (82 in the pdf) there's a photo of my dad in 1949, standing on top of a large ladder with a "spray system for dyed water impingement studies."