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.