Monthly Archives: January 2012

By the Quaker Meeting House

Victorian children sleddingI constantly think I need to be working harder (though for the most part these days “working” means looking for work). In a fit of proletarian enthusiasm last night I set the alarm for 6:45 a.m, though it did seem like an early hour. When the alarm went off this morning, setting it for 6:45 seemed like an irresponsible act of self abuse. I lay in bed in semi-comatose rebellion until after 7:00. When I finally crawled from the covers, praising myself for fortitude, I opened the curtains to see that we had new snow.

It wasn’t much snow, actually, maybe a half inch, though it did create a wintry ambiance out there. Later the day grew so warm that most of the snow went back to Heaven, but there was still a chill wind up on the hillside where I live. It was a good day to ensconce myself in the cozy crib, listening to rock and roll from the Simon and Garfunkle era. A good morning to spend several hours trying to learn the art program bizarrely named Gimp (a free download, if you’re looking for one, and fairly sophisticated).

The slightly snowy day reminded me of years past here in the valley between Tussey Ridge and Bald Eagle Ridge, days when the snow showed purpose and there was no getting around it. On one of those days, after Quaker Meeting, some of the children went outside and took themselves for a slide. Later I wrote a poem from that Sunday.

 

Rolling in the Light

A woman stands with anxious eyes,

glancing around at the people sitting at our Meeting.

“My brother just had heart surgery,” she says,

then pauses.

“Please hold him in the light.”

 

She sits expecting that we will do this.

And we will.

We will hold him in the light,

whether we think of it as prayer, good wishes, or quantum energy particles.

We will send him thoughts of God, love, knowledge, enlightenment.

 

After the Meeting I stand at the glass doors and look out at a snowy day

poured over with sunlight like bright honey.

On the small hill stretching down from the Meeting House

energetic children are jumping onto sleds,

and onto one another on sleds,

to slide down the hill.

For a moment they move in shadow,

then suddenly they are bright lit

and sliding into sunshine.

A little boy with no sled

simply stretches out and begins rolling down the hill.

 

It occurs to me to say to the woman who talked about her brother,

Yes, we will hold him in the light.

We will see his spirit like a child

rolling through sun splattered snow,

laughing and free,

with bright bits of snow stuck in his hair.

 

It occurs to me to say to the woman who talked about her brother,

We are all being held in the light

and your brother is one of us.

 

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“You’re a Bloodsucker!” “And You Wish You Were One!”

Gingrich and Romney fightingBack in Iowa, New Gingrich and Mitt Romney were using a campaign style of positiveness, high-minded ideas, and reminding people that there is obviously something wrong with air, because Obama breathes air. Now we have reached Florida, and Romney and Gingrich realize that one of them could win the nomination, except the other guy is in the way. So now they are engaged in loudly slapping each other in public and calling each other “bitch”.

One approach that all politicians use (if they know what they’re doing) is to create a frame about the other side on a given issue. If it works, the person who creates the frame controls how most people will regard discussions about that issue. Ways of seeing things outside the frame become irrelevant.

By now most people know that Mitt Romney is richer than some countries, and we know that he definitely paid a smaller percentage in taxes than you did. Gingrich is trying to create a frame on this issue to put Romney at a disadvantage, making two points: (1) Romney did not honestly work for his money like a regular person, and thus he is not fit to be president based on morality; (2) Romney is so rich he cannot understand normal life, and thus he is not fit to be president based on understanding our lives. Those would be the logical ideas, when spelled out, but there is also an emotional component of “goddamn that rich guy”.

This attempt to frame Romney fits into the political mood of the moment (an effective rhetorical strategy) with the Occupy Wall Street movement and anger over our unfair economic system. Although anger over economic distortion partially motivates the Tea Party movement, such anger is much more associated with the left. In using that background to frame his attacks on Romney, Gingrich thus appears to be using a leftist point of view.

Gingrich has been attacked by many powerful conservative figures for trying to create a frame that they fear will then be used by the Obama campaign. They are probably right. Gingrich probably is laying the groundwork for Obama. The Washington Post wrote about these attacks on Gingrich under the headline “Republican establishment pulls together against Newt Gingrich”.

Let’s look at some specifics of this framing. One reason many Republicans are angry with Gingrich is that they accuse him of attacking capitalism, which is, of course, sacred. This stupid reaction takes the point of view that no criticism of capitalism is ever allowed (the way the Soviet Union used to look at criticism of communism). And why would you need to criticize what is absolutely perfect? So when Gingrich says, “Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people manipulating the lives of thousands of other people, and walk off with the money, or is that in fact somehow a little bit of a flawed system?”

Whether true or not, Gingrich is trying to say that in Romney’s work with Bain, Romney did not use moral ways of making money, but that he crossed the line to abuse. The language Gingrich uses here is also intended to inflame emotions, phrases like “handful of rich people” (a small elite), “manipulating the lives” (trying to control us), and “walk off with the money” (the way we might describe successful criminals). The same quote goes on to reinforce the emotional language with the phrase “broken families and broken neighborhoods”. Look how terrible that Mitt Romney is!

In order for Gingrich’s framing to work, it has to be repeated over and over, to begin to seem like the only possible way to view the issue. As an example, even in a discussion of illegal immigrants, Gingrich criticized Romney’s approach by referring again to Romney’s wealth: “I think you have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatic, you know, $20 million a year income with no work to have some fantasy this far from reality.” Here Gingrich also makes the point that Romney acquired fantastic wealth with “no work”.

Mitt Romney is not just lying down and rolling over. He is responding, but unlike Newt Gingrich, who is shaping his rhetoric based on the mood of the country, Romney seems amazingly tone deaf to how people are feeling. According to Romney, all discussions of fairness are totally invalid and nothing more than envy. And envy, as we know, is a rather childish emotion. So if you criticize the idea that a CEO should be given enormous wealth when he leaves a company that he ran badly, you’re just being a child.

When asked by an interviewer whether questions about wealth and power are based only on envy, or whether there could be real questions of fairness, Romney responded, “You know, I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare.” Here’s a man who earned 20 million dollars in one year, not by working but by investing, and who paid less than 15% in taxes, and he wants to dismiss the rest of us with that tired old phrase “class warfare”. When asked a second time by the interviewer whether all discussion about how wealth is distributed is nothing but envy, Romney said, “I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like.” Does that sentence sound like fine cigars would also be part of the setting? Did everyone in that room arrive by limousine?Cuban cigar

Another sign that Romney has no clue about dissatisfaction in the country came when he released his tax forms and we learned that he only paid around 15%. He said then that his tax bill was “entirely legal and fair”. Of course it was legal. He’s not such a fool as to cheat on his taxes and then run for president. But his use of the word “fair” sounds like he is trying to support Newt Gingrich’s framing argument of the out-of-touch rich man. In order to help Gingrich out, Romney added that $374,000 he himself earned in speaking fees was “not very much”.

Mitt, are you really as obtuse as Gingrich makes you sound? And yet you want to be our president? As soon as Romney gets the nomination, Obama should send Gingrich a thank-you card.

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Let Us Sit Here and Smoke and Talk About the Desert

Skull decorated with Mexican designsSome novels are like getting in a car and driving someplace, knowing you are going there, looking at the scenery and chatting until you arrive. The murder mysteries of Agatha Christie are like that. To take away the metaphor, such books have an obvious plot and you know you’re following it. If it’s an Agatha Christie novel, when you arrive you’ll have tea and discuss what happened.

If we want to have that metaphor take a seat for various kinds of travel, we might represent different books other ways, as a slow-bobbing boat, but moving  (The Old Man and the Sea [Ernest Hemingway]), or a horseback ride (take your choice, say The Count of Monte Cristo [Alexandre Dumas]). These books have a plot, and you know it.

Other books, instead of movement, might be represented by metaphors of location, like a hotel room (Sheltering Sky [Paul Bowles]). That book sort of  has a plot, conceptually, in the increasing chaos and weirdness, but no plot in the same sense as the vehicle novels. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [Douglas Adams] or in many ways Don Quixote [Miguel de Cervantes] are also novels that don’t particularly move forward toward a conclusion that wraps up the plot.

Recently I read the book The Hummingbird’s Daughter, by Luis Alberto Urrea, an American writer. Up until page 300 I decided, or realized, that this is not a book about going somewhere; it’s a book just about being where you are. I’ll grant you, 300 pages is a lot of space for a novel that isn’t going anywhere (and it went on for another 150 after that). If you just cannot abide such a thing, then this is not your book. Sometimes I don’t like that in a novel, and I couldn’t make myself finish reading One Hundred Years of Solitude (so shoot me). But I read The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

What you mostly get with The Hummingbird’s Daughter is not a story of what people do, but a story of how people be. For me it worked because they are well described and eccentric people, and I found that the things told about them struck my imagination and surprised me often enough to enjoy what I was reading.

The novel is based on the true story of Teresa Urrea, presumably an ancestor of the author, who was considered a combination of saint and revolutionary in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Some people will read or discuss the book as it relates to the real person, but I’m not doing that. This is a totally fictional character, and the fact that she acquires magical powers toward the end of the book ought to make that clear.

The author Urrea has a vivid capacity to convey details. Let’s take one sentence selected very randomly: “Huila carried her new double-barreled shotgun, and she had her objects in her apron pockets: tobacco, a folding knife, her apocalyptic man pouch, red matches, a bundle of sage, a bone, and her three buffalo teeth.” The “apocalyptic man pouch” was a small leather bag rumored to have been made from a man’s scrotum.

Though Urrea moves his story from the birth of Teresa to her recognition as a saint, this longish book often relates things having absolutely nothing to do with her story. There is at times a rambling quality, which might be a fault if we were following a plot, but we are not. There is much beauty here, and views of people living, as well as moments of surreal disturbing brutality.

One criticism I have of the book is the liberal use of Spanish terms, dropped into sentences as if they were simply English words, as well as an occasional line of dialogue in Spanish without interpretation. This bothered me more as a idea about writing than because I struggled. In practice, I know enough Spanish that I was OK with it, but I wonder what Urrea was thinking of. Did he write the book only for people who know both languages? Or did he write it thinking to hell with you if you don’t?

If you like exotic locales, richness of detail, a wealth of eccentric characters, and rolling around in the language, this could be your book. Whatever the book might be “about”, the experience of reading it is mostly about just being there where you are on the page.

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Look How Easy It Is

Horrified woman realizing what writing isWriting from scratch means you start with something totally blank and white, like a snowy expanse of tundra stretching out empty in front of you—white, cold, and featureless. When you get done, it’s like a tropical jungle, multihued with greens and browns and blacks, where exotic flowers are blooming, with monkeys and leopards in the foreground, and a hidden life writhing underneath.

That sounds simple to you, maybe.

As a jungle cultivator myself, I always face the blank page and think “Goddamnit, why is this so hard?” I’ve been a writer a long time, since me and God used to steal cars and go for rides (I never got to drive), so I’ve got some experience as a writer. There are days when I have the feeling that writing ought to be getting easier, what with my finely honed ability to find just the right word. Or locate the right word. Or ascertain. One of those. Oh, and my acute sense of taste.

Is it possible that writing has grown easier than it used to be, and I’ve just forgotten? It’s certainly possible that I’ve forgotten. I do a lot of that now. But as far as I can tell, just like I always did, I still sit down in front of a screen filled with engulfing vacuous nothingness, and I look at it, scratch my head, think of something stupid, realize I need to go pee, come back and look at the blank screen again, type a sentence, erase it, glad nobody saw it, go check to see if I turned off the water, come back, write a sentence that isn’t very good but leave it, and go get a glass of wine to celebrate.

That’s my process. No doubt you have your own.

I’m back to writing new material on the current novel, which still has no name, though I’ve attempted a few times to think of something. I do have some ideas for what to do with the next two or three chapters, so I’m slowly pecking it out. Here’s a strange fact—is it strange? do you think?—about my writing process. I feel compelled to write, I yearn for more time to write, I will skip other things in order to write, but it is very rare when I sit here writing that I would not prefer to be doing something more fun instead.

Since I’ve just spent several weeks revising the first 110 pages (ending up with 130), I’m particularly aware at the moment of how many differences there are between revising and creating from the start. In revising, I’m trying to improve what already exists, instead of wondering what should exist. Over and over as I revised I would find myself reading a page, maybe feeling a little lazy, maybe wanting it to be done, and I’d think “That sounds OK, I guess”. Then I would metaphorically grit my teeth and say to myself that OK is not good enough, and wondering how I could make it better.

Oy, God, it was already OK, why did it have to be better? Maybe there was no such thing as better. Maybe it was plenty damn good already. And finally the real thinking would start, for example admitting that having Benedict glance around and see “a busy street” was nothing but a skeleton, with neither flesh nor life. So alright, what can be on a street? Buildings (how tall? made of what? with what kind of businesses?), people (how old? dressed how? doing what?), street features (light poles? signs?), and so on. And maybe Benedict should say something, but say what? What could he be thinking about at that moment?

As I return now to creating new material instead of revising, I can feel the difference, like having someone smack you on the right side of your head, instead of the left side. What was sometimes tedious to do when revising, coming up with the subtleties and nuances—trying to make it clearer and more interesting—all seems missing now as I’m writing. Now I’m working hard just to get a plot out, thinking about where my protagonists are going, when they change from one scene to another, how they move through the scene.

Inevitably what I produce feels a little bare, and when I get a reader to look at it in that state, I get comments about how it could use filling in, could use more detail about what they do in the park and what it looks like. Uh huh, well, some day. Cause I ain’t doing that now. I’m writing.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), How We Create Magic

Was That Funny Ha-ha or Funny Odd?

Self portrait

Funny looking, anyway

Well, there’s cheap humor, and by “cheap” I mean “popular”. It’s a kind of humor that takes little effort or thought—and who wouldn’t love something that takes little thought?—and yet people laugh anyway. At least 13-year-old boys do, and some men…many…or most…OK, pretty much all men.

What is it that takes no effort but amuses everyone sometimes and the simple minded every time? Sex jokes of course. But you knew that. For instance, what do you call an Alabama farmer with a sheep under each arm? A pimp. Actually, since I’m from Georgia, that counts as an Alabama joke. A real sex joke would be the difference between sin and a shame—it’s a sin to stick it in and a shame to pull it out.

The other kind of cheap and easy humor is scatological. The snooty term “scatological” is pretty much fancy Latin for “fart jokes”. As a male who was once 13, I of course recognize that the world is a better place if we are able to refer to a loud fart as “releasing the hounds”.

But we’re grownups here, Mature and Responsible, so we push past intellectual laziness to something more sophisticated. Like the blonde who took a scarf back to the store because it was too tight. Or we could move into professional humor, such as that involving lawyers:

The National Institutes of Health decided to start using lawyers instead of rats in their experiments, explaining that:

  • Lab assistants were becoming emotionally attached to the rats, which would not be a problem if they used lawyers.
  • Humanitarian societies would not object to the way lawyers were treated.
  • There are some things a rat won’t do.

But if a person has decided to abandon all pretense of contributing to society, I know I’ve got my hand in the air, by becoming a writer, then naturally that person will want to generate humor through subtle manipulation of text and situation. As soon as I run out of fart jokes.

While contemplating this topic of humor, I found that I had run out of balsamic vinegar, which is a staple for any house that… Actually, some houses don’t have balsamic vinegar at all. I guess it’s a staple for any house that has balsamic vinegar. Before a salad crisis could arise, a vegetable conflict that I didn’t want to contemplate, I drove to the grocery store.

Though I was only at the grocery emporium for balsamic vinegar, I didn’t know what impulse items might acquire a dietary importance that had not been evident before I entered the store. I might suddenly need plantains, if I were to take up Central American cooking, or tapioca flour, in case… in case… I can’t imagine what that would be used for. But you never know, so I got a shopping cart and went looking for a bottle of aceto balsamico tradizionale, as we Mature and Responsible cooks like to think of it.

When I reached the condiment aisle, I found that a woman had just had a moment of revelation, and she stood transfixed, staring into space not moving. Or maybe she was staring at the bottles of hot sauce. I don’t know. She wasn’t moving at any rate. And her cart was in the middle of the aisle.

So I couldn’t reach the vinegar. I tried to be polite. I waited patiently. I read the ingredients on a jar of mayonnaise. I said “hmm!” loudly. Finally I went around to the next aisle to come in from another direction, but just as I got there, a store employee had filled the aisle with boxes of anchovies. I don’t like anchovies. My brother would always put them on pizzas at home when he was cooking, and I couldn’t bear them. And now anchovies were blocking the aisle.

I’m a very patient man, as you can tell, not only Mature and Responsible, but even-tempered in spite of my dislike of anchovies. While I was waiting, I went off to the cereal aisle to examine the granola, which I didn’t need, but when I came back to condiments, the anchovies and the contemplative woman were still blocking the aisle. I knew that it was almost time for Wheel of Fortune to come on TV, so I didn’t have time to buy balsamic vinegar, and I was forced to return home without it.

Now I can’t have a salad, and without the roughage provided by a salad I can’t possibly be funny.

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Chemical Society Symposium on Solid State Materials

Swirling clock faceA man was in a large hotel in a city he’d never been to, a place with a large glittering lobby with enormous containers of plants in the middle, and with young, attractive men and women working the check-in counter. On the second floor of the hotel, where the public bathrooms of such hotels are always located (to discourage people from coming in off the street to use them), the man was sitting. He was in a balcony area with more plants in large pots, and near the pots were fat chairs unholstered in smooth fabric with stripes. The man sat in a striped chair reading.

He was a chemist, and he was in this fancy, expensive hotel in Chicago attending a conference. He worked for a company in Baltimore that did research on coatings, which can be a complicated topic, but think of things like teflon pans or waterproof coatings. Earlier in the morning, the man had made a presentation at the conference, and for a while he was more or less free, taking a break and reading.

His book was about time, a subject that had fascinated him since he was young. When he was ten he fell out of the treehouse and had the breath knocked out of him, and as he lay on the ground, he had the strange sensation that everything had slowed down. Ever since that day he began thinking about time, what it is, how it works. He almost went into physics in college, but the math classes made him feel like he was being brought down by a stupidity machine gun, so he became a chemist instead.

The book he was reading was called Einstein’s Dreams, a book that combines physics with a kind of fantasy, each tiny chapter describing a different view of what time is. In some chapters time is defined as motion, of various types, in other chapters time consists of memory. As the man read, captivated by the book, he was surprised that there could be so many variations, more than he had ever thought of. The title of the book came from the literary device of pretending that each chapter, each variation on time, occurred in a sequence of dreams of Albert Einstein.

It was a delight for the chemist to see that this short book, which had been recommended by his sister-in-law, could be so enteraining yet also so thought-provoking. He read the chapter describing time as having a center, at some point on the earth, and as people approached that center, time slowed down. The farther from the center, the faster time moved. Like other lovers in the book, the chemist wished that he could go to that center with his wife, that they could stay there young and in love with time barely moving at all.

But of course that was a fantasy and couldn’t happen. On the other hand, he believed that time as we experience it is also an illusion, which is a kind of fantasy, isn’t it? So if we live with one kind of fantasy, why not another? Nice paradox, maybe, to talk about, but the man knew, a little sadly, that no trick with words would help. No amount of thought would change it, and we were trapped in the fantasy of this world, where we would grow old, feel time pass, and then die.

While he was pondering this melancholy inevitability, he stared off the balcony where he sat, watching crowds of chemists in the lobby below, networking, laughing at jokes, rushing off to sessions. All this would pass away, and someday no one would even know they had all been here in this hotel. The man had a sudden strong desire to talk to his wife, but she was at work, and he couldn’t call her until that evening.

The book he was reading was now lying in his lap, and he picked it up again, then glanced at his watch. He wanted to attend another session himself at 11:00, but he could read some more. There was still time.

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Is This True?

A pair of pants on fireAll my friends know I’m a liar, but I aim still higher. Most people love liars, the only trick being exactly what the lie is. In the movie The Invention of Lying, no one lies, or even realizes such a thing is possible. The movie makes the point of showing one of the consequences of this incapacity when we see movies being filmed. The films all appear to consist of one person looking at the camera reading a true story from history. If actors pretended to be someone they’re not, or if a writer made up a story that wasn’t true, that would be lying.

I write fiction—just make it the hell up. Since it isn’t true, I’m technically lying. All fiction is lying, as Plato pointed out in The Republic, referring to poets like Homer who told stories. Homer was a liar. The people who created the story of Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia were liars. No doubt long before those ancient examples, people were sitting around watching sheep, bored on a day with no wolves, and someone started up with “There used to be an old man in the next village who could put on wings and fly…”

Is there a place in the world where children will not sit tranfixed by a story, lost in the imaginary world of the tale? As a general rule, human beings love stories that are not true. In a literate culture, don’t children beg to be read to? And in a preliterate culture, how highly did Greeks regard the bard (Homer gives examples of bards at feasts). How much do West Africans respect the griot? The poet Alexander Pushkin, considered probably the greatest writer in Russia, said that the folktales told to him as a child by his nursemaid influenced his love of storytelling.

If we don’t weigh too heavily on the method for telling a story, we can move easily from the Odyssey to old women telling stories to children; move from folktales to novels; move from novels to the silver screen and swashbuckling movies like The Thief of Bagdad or modern blockbusters like Lord of the Rings; and then move from theaters to DVDs and streaming Netflix. While we’re at it, let’s throw in some comic books for children and Japanese manga for teenagers dressed in black.

Everywhere you look, liars telling stories. Why are these lies so popular?

When we see how popular artificial stories have been since thousands of years ago, when we see that they are found in cultures across the earth, and when we see that even as we invent new cultural forms, we begin to figure out ways to use them to tell stories (such as a series of photographs), then we realize that a love of artificial stories is inherent in human nature. It is as if we are born waiting to hear them.

Of course we like stories partly because they entertain us and relieve the boredom of so much of our existence. Really good stories can be better than opium or whiskey. But some stories, even modern ones, also become mythology and give us ways to understand the world. For some people John Wayne is not just a guy on a horse but a Noble Way of Living. For other people, Romeo and Juliet is about the compelling necessity of love.

I think the most significant reason we like stories is that they show us worlds we can only dream of. Icarus really could fly. Sherlock Holmes really could solve any mystery. And the Little Prince really could live on other planets. And if we can dream it, we are reaching toward it. Now we do fly, and we solve many mysteries, and we have walked on the moon.

Our love of stories, and our love of fiction, may be an expression of something profound about human beings. We strive for something beyond the physical reality that seems to limit us. We are more than creatures made of dirt and stuck to the earth. Even though we know the stories are only made up, they allow us to stretch our hands out and reach toward something more than ourselves. Fiction is a way of believing beyond the boundaries.

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