Monthly Archives: January 2015

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muddy woman

I was going to write a letter

Let’s play an imagination game, but it will take a lot of imagination. Let’s suppose we’ve never seen anything written, that we have no idea what any kind of writing looks like. Furthermore, we’ve never heard of it and don’t know that such a thing as writing exists.

While we’re pretending, let’s go for a walk in this world without writing. As we walk, we’re talking about an old woman in our town, about how much she knows. People looking for information on many topics go to her, wanting to learn, for instance, who owned the land down by the river before the Johnson family, or which plants are best to brew a tea to relieve nausea, or how to get stains out of a good shirt.

The problem is that the woman is so old we all know she’ll die soon. “What will happen to all the things she knows?” I ask.

“It goes with her,” you say.

Suddenly, I am struck with brilliance (that happens with me sometimes), and I bend down, scoop up some wet clay beside a puddle and pick up a stick. “Here,” I say, holding them out to my friend. “Let’s use these things to come up with a way that we’ll know what she’s thinking, even after she dies.” If you were standing there with me, what would you think? Would it be pretty clear that I had gone insane?

And yet people did this. They used the natural materials in the world and figured out ways to record thoughts, including some that were never even spoken out loud. Certainly no one person could ever have invented writing. The very idea would have been as impossible as the scenario I described above. It had to be a very gradual process over a long time, beginning with pictures that sort of looked like things, when imagination was applied.

With the invention of writing, it’s possible for us to read someone’s thoughts even after they’ve died, so we can read “All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit…” We are reading the thoughts of Julius Caesar from a book he wrote (or more exactly we’d be reading “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres…” and so on in Latin).

early cuneiform writing

Early cuneiform writing

So far as we know, writing has been invented five times on the earth, and all the many, many ways of writing that now exist evolved from one of those five. The Latin alphabet, which we use in English, can be traced back to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Another of the five original forms of writing was done with clay and pointed sticks, which I used in the scenario above, a type of writing called cuneiform from Mesopotamia (Iraq). You might think it would be mighty inconvenient to always need wet clay when you wanted to write something down, but cuneiform writing was stunningly popular for a very long time, and for several languages.

The form of a piece of writing is interesting to me, but that’s just me and my geekish ways. I began studying Russian from looking at the alphabet and thinking, “Wow! Look at those shapes!” It was like art that could speak.

The most remarkable thing, however, is not the form of writing, but the fact that we write at all. If no writing existed and someone tried to suggest it, we would probably not even understand what they were talking about. “Wha? Use mud to know what somebody’s thinking?”

Writing is simply inconceivable, and yet here we are. We have words on a screen, taking ideas out of one brain and putting them in another brain. It’s like a miracle. Only now I’m wondering how to get all this clay off my keyboard.

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Now I Remember

forget-me-not flowers

Forget-me-nots

Let’s assume, just for the sake of theory, not that this could have happened to you, that you fell in love with someone and then it wasn’t as perfect as you thought it was going to be.

Myself, of course, I’ve only read about such things. But theoretically, suppose you were in love with someone, and it was the best thing you have ever known in your life, and yet…at the same time it was like being dragged to death behind a Roman chariot. Would you want to remember it or forget it?

What does the mind do with such emotional whirlpools of memory? Truly, isn’t such an experience, whatever the topic may be, an unavoidable part of being human? Maybe we try to remember the good parts and elevate them to some Holy Temple of Sweet Recall, while banishing the rest to that cerebral purgatory where things like high school go.

At any rate, we wish we could do that, control our memories so as to celebrate the good parts and drop out the rest. In this blog entry I’m brushing past that dilemma with a poem recently completed.

The Garden of Forgetting

Some days I think of walking down
to the Garden of Forgetting.
It runs along the river
with forget-me-nots and metal sculptures
by an Italian whose name I don’t recall.
The last time I went into the garden
I had been thinking about a splendid day
with a woman I was in love with.

Some days I think of walking down
to the Garden of Forgetting,
or did I tell you that?
It has paved walks and benches
where you can sit while everything slips away.
The last time I was there
I tried to remember a conversation,
but all that was left was how I felt
when I heard “we don’t belong together”.

Some days I think of walking down
to the Garden of Forgetting.
I don’t believe I’ve mentioned this before.
I was sitting on a bench there
looking at the strange sculptures,
and who knows where those came from.
In my mind I saw a street,
pleasant and shady, where I used to walk.
I had a feeling someone once walked with me,
yet when I recalled it,
I was walking alone.

There’s a garden in our town,
maybe you’ve heard of it,
called the Garden of Forgetting.
I’m thinking of going there.
I heard it’s beautiful.
If that’s true, I’d like to see it.
There’s nothing wrong with my apartment,
just little things that aren’t worth recalling.
I believe there used to be someone else here,
as it feels kind of empty now.
But I forget.

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Do I Have Your Permission to Think Things?

freedom of speech cartoonIn the past week, the question seems to have come up, indirectly, as to what I’m allowed to say as a writer.

I say “indirectly” because the direct discussion in the past week, following the terrorist frenzy in Paris, has been about what people are allowed to draw cartoons of. But of course what we are allowed to say with words is only one breath behind the cartoons. If you can kill cartoonists, why not kill writers? Remember Salman Rushdie, the writer who had to hide for years when Iran wanted to kill him for writing about Mohammed?

Part of the answer to what I can say was given by Pope Francis: “you cannot make fun of the faith of others”. I think he was deeply, dangerously wrong. I might make an argument from the basic concept of allowing people to believe as they will and to speak freely about it, in the spirit of Voltaire.

But even for people who believe that human freedom must be suppressed—and a lot of people do believe that—when the question is about religion, of “making fun of the faith of others”, there is a practical problem that even the fanatics would not have an easy answer to.

You probably heard that there was an enormous march in Paris in which many world leaders participated, marching down the street arm in arm. As it happens, some of those leaders, three, to be exact, were women. Following this event, a religiously fanatical newspaper in Israel airbrushed a photograph of the march to remove the women.

This reprehensibly stupid move was because it is against the religious beliefs of this group (men, obviouly, as if we need to be told) that women should not appear in photos. And how fucking weird is it that a group of Israeli Jews would imitate the behavior of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany?

But these fanatics say they’re offended by photos of women. So if we respect all religious beliefs, should everyone else on the planet earth never show photos of women? Won’t it be offensive if we do? Or if it’s OK to ignore religious feelings in this case, who decides which religion we should tiptoe around? The Pope? The leader of the Islamic State?

There is another point that will not matter to screaming fanatics, but in the long run it should matter to other people. When we are told not to offend Muslims with images of Mohammed, we are being told two things:

(1) Hysterical fanatics speak for all Muslims. This is not true. There are many intelligent, rational Muslims, and they are not screaming that “Islam” has been insulted by a cartoon, even if the cartoon is offensive.

(2) By arguing that we should not offend “Muslims” (as if they are all the same), we are being told to treat 1.6 billion people as if they are small children who must not be offended, to avoid an emotional outburst. Such infantilization is offensive to mature people.

Yet another possible question in this discussion is why should we be so meticulous not to offend with religion, but not other issues? If I’m told to carefully never offend a religion I don’t belive in, should I also be hypersensitive about other cultural differences? Perhaps we could have a rule that everyone on earth should never offend anyone else on earth for any possible reason. Maybe we should treat one another as if we are all emotionally five-years-old—and if anyone offends us, we get to kill them.

I do not respect all religious beliefs. In terms of what is believed, I probably do not respect any religious beliefs. Some are absurd, some are obnoxious, some are oppressive, and I have a right to ridicule any that I choose. I do respect the human beings who have these beliefs, but I will not be told what I’m allowed to say.George Washington

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I Stand Here

writing with a quill penThis week I heard about a 12-year-old girl who wanted a typewriter for Christmas. As it happened, a very old manual typewriter was found, and she sat happily pushing down on those round keys to thunk thunk thunk against the paper, writing with a form of technology that mostly stopped being used before she was born.

I also mostly stopped being used before she was born, so I’m old enough that I’ve seen plenty of typewriters. I typed up novels, a master’s thesis (in both English and Russian, and damn that cursed process), stories, letters, and maybe even poems.

I hated typewriters. Sometimes I needed a spray can of whiteout to cover up the mistakes, and I would often lose sight of where the paper was on the roll, so I’d type down too close to the bottom. If it were up to me now, every typewriter would be at the bottom of the ocean, and I wouldn’t even save any for the museums, except one for a 12-year-old girl who inexplicably wants it.

A typewriter probably seems exotic to her, something from the ancient past, like the way Thomas Jefferson wrote. From this story I got to thinking about how the technology we use to write can affect our attitude toward the words we write. Consider, for instance, the difference in how someone feels about the words when doing a crossword puzzle and writing with a pen instead of a pencil.

For illustration, let’s take the phase “I stand here” and consider how it feels with different ways of recording it. If I write this phrase on parchment, dipping a quill feather pen into a bottle of ink, would it feel different than if I quickly type it on my smart phone and pop it onto Twitter? In the first case, it is slower to write, it will remain private unless I go to a good bit of trouble to publicize it, and there is more time to think about what I’m doing. In the second case, I might write so quickly that I hardly think about it at all, yet ironically, given the possibility of almost no thought, I can instantly post it in front of the entire earth.

Some aspects of writing that change depending on the technology include the expense of creating it, how public or private it will be, the effort involved in writing, the speed of both writing and receiving, and how permanent it will be. These things come together in complicated ways.

Consider other possible ways of writing the phrase “I stand here” and how different it would feel in each case: carved into a stone as compared to typed on a computer screen without hitting the save button, painted at night with a can of spray paint on the side of a train, or carefully painted in three-foot high letters on a wall mural?

Or what if we slowly tapped out a letter to a friend on an ancient typewriter? Would it feel like we had gone to more trouble and devoted more time to do something special for our friend, and that we had thought more carefully about what to say, since we couldn’t easily erase it? Would the same words written on an old manual typewriter mean more than a text on a phone?

hand holding up penWe probably don’t give it much thought as a rule, but the method we use for writing makes a huge difference in how we feel about the words themselves.

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I cannot leave this blog entry without holding up a pen in support of freedom of thought and speech—here, throughout the world, and right now especially, in France. Je suis Charlie.

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I Resolve to Spend More Time Lying Around with a Blank Expression

Calvin and Hobbes resolutionIf you’ve never committed a great sin that you’d prefer to keep secret, then I would ask what have you done with your life? Maybe you made a resolution to go and sin no more. I’ve never made a New Year’s resolution myself (seriously), as I always figured that I could weasel around and break promises without being all formal about it.

Nevertheless, resolutions are common. People resolve to lose weight, try not to argue with their mother about that thing that doesn’t need to be mentioned, stop watching Justin Bieber videos. What is the psychological motivation of a New Year’s resolution? If, for instance, you had sense enough to stop watching Justin Bieber, why not just do it the moment you have that insight of cultural clarity? Why wait for the declaration that you’re really, seriously, no really going to do it?

A New Year’s resolution seems to be one aspect of human belief in the magical power of language. The magical power of a resolution carries such weight, in fact, that it should not be wasted on trivial or frivolous things (such as I resolve to rinse off my plate before I put it in the sink or I resolve to put the toilet seat down).

Other examples of the magical power of language include curses and blessings, which, if we took them more literally, are supposed to have an actual magical effect. As another aspect of the belief in the power of language, I would include prayer (because if God already knows, why do we need to say it?). And of course we have oaths: oaths of office, oaths to tell the truth in court, oaths to join things (the military, clubs).

Even if we only declare a resolution in our head, a silent resolution is more formal than simply a desire or intention that remains unarticulated. It’s easy to see why the beginning of a new year would be a time to evoke this magic. Any event that marks the beginning of something new (a year, a school term, a relationship) becomes connected with the idea of a new beginning in other ways as well.

What I find more interesting is to consider why we have this belief in linguistic magic. This very evening I was looking at the latest copy of National Geographic, reading an article about early art, and the oldest examples of art that are definitely known go back more than 50,000 years. Yes, it’s hard to imagine, but there it is. So we know that more than 50,000 years ago, human beings were using materials of the earth to create symbolic representations of thought.

This is an inherently human activity, to physically express thoughts, to create symbols that represent those thoughts. This can lead in a direction I won’t go right now, of why we are so fixated on the physical world, as though our real existence is this physical state of being.

In any case, within that context, a thing seems more real when it takes on a physical existence. But thoughts, desires, intentions—how can they be made real? At the very least, they are made symbolically real, by putting them into words and either speaking them or writing them down. Thus we declare our serious intentions with New Year’s resolutions.

If I ever do make a New Year’s resolution, it will probably have something to do with drinking a whole lot better wine than I currently drink. But I’d have to pay for it, so that resolution isn’t looking real hopeful. Unless you want to buy me a bottle, in which case I resolve to show you the gratitude of a puppy with a new chew toy.

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