Monday, May 31, 2010

Unusable Research Results

I'm starting to look into my next project, on the History of Communication.
I thought I might put some of the fun stuff I can't use here.
The book's for middle-schoolers, and I want to make it as fun and juicy as possible.
But of course it can't be all that juicy, or school librarians won't buy it.

It certainly won't mention porn, for instance, even though that's been an impetus behind Communication since people first scratched pictures on cave walls (except we call them "fertility symbols");
but if I could, I would love to incorporate this profound-in-a-silly-way song, "The Internet Is for Porn."

Originally sung by a puppet named Trekkie Monster in Avenue Q, the adult take-off on/homage to Sesame Street.

This is one of the best remixes of the song I've seen, set to Star Trek: Voyager, the only Star Trek spin-off I liked much, because of Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew).

Thanks K & J, for suggesting this song as the answer to my question, "What's the role of porn, online?"

Saturday, May 29, 2010

What's Underneath?

This is an entirely frivolous, analysis-free post, inspired by Bianca writing about tennis undies, sparked by Venus Williams's latest flesh-colored ones.

"Venus Williams cruises into French Open" 26 May 2010.
I think she looks terrific!

The topic reminds me of the surprising (to me) scanty Syrian skivvies, modeled in a modest way by Eastern European women, to get around censorship.
Syria's Underwear, from Spiegel (4/17/2009). They're mostly bought by female friends and relatives as gifts for brides.

You never know with religions...

Meanwhile, devout Mormons wear these night and day.

But I was disappointed to read in What Mormons Believe: Underwear that there's nothing magical about Mormon "garments" [sort of an urban myth, I guess]; they just serve as a reminder of one's relationship with God.

What undies did George Washington wear?
The Colonial Williamsburg site says that the long linen shirt was men's main underwear, but they sometimes wore underdrawers to line their knee-length breeches.

And here's the changing fashion in women's petticoats, 1742-1794

(Remember David Beckham's underwear ad?)

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Future of Baseball?

I miss seeing kids play baseball in the local parks.

Sure, soccer, which has replaced it, is the Beautiful Game, and it's more exciting to watch (and play, I imagine), but I miss the sound of the ball and bat and watching kids chase ground balls.
Maybe we could import cricket?

After complaining about this to baseball fan Clowncar, what I saw today gave me hope:
a big sister, maybe twelve years old, playing baseball in the park with her two little brothers. She was wearing the catcher's mitt... and a hijab (headscarf).
They were Somali kids.

A couple grade-school teachers I know say Somali girls are the firecrackers of the new generation: bright, sharp, go-getters.
Maybe they could save baseball.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Drawing my life with his words...

via Margaret
"Procrastination" from the Tales of Mere Existence series

And here I thought it was my little secret...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Done! Done! Done!

SQUEEeeeeeeeal ! ! !
I just (just NOW!) finished the first draft of the Frindian War!

That means I've got hours and hours of work left to do, cleaning it all up, but basically, it's all in place.
I got George Washington into the war, out the other side, and then sent him off to lead the American Revolution.
And that's another book, which is not my problem.

I am out of here: going to get a celebratory beer with Laura.

"Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)"
Alison Krauss and Robert Plant (cover of the Everly Bros.)

Fields of Battle

Besides collecting quotes that champion idleness, I'm also always on the lookout for those championing messiness and chaos, my SOP.

Here's a British historian on the benefits of American disorganization:

"The [American system], though it may lay the seeds of discontent with prevailing government and organisation, fertilizes creativity. Education ought to be wasteful, as American education is. It ought to offer chances to the greatest possible number, and ought to offer them in manifold variety and over and over again.

"No social scientist ever born has been able to predict who will benefit from education or when. Some of the cleverest of my Oxford contemporaries... have disappeared without a trace.... I think of the successful Americans I have known with interest. Paul Sarbanes, the son of an immigrant Greek waiter, is a United States senator [et al.]....
There is no telling."

--From John Keegan, The Fields of Battle; The Wars for North America, Knopf, 1996, p. 47

Monday, May 24, 2010

Muddling Through


This is a "chocolate muddler".
[Artist Unknown, England, c. 1760 (during the Frindian/Seven Years War)--click pic to enlarge.]

It's for stirring up hot chocolate.
Now that's a battle I can get behind--the battle of humanity throughout the centuries to keep the chocolate from sinking to the bottom of our drinks.

And its name...! Doesn't it sound like something out of Harry Potter?

I was at the Art Institute Sunday afternoon, taking Momo's advice to go look at their colonial-era pewter and silver. Many humor- and perspective-restoring items are on display there: candlesticks, cake plates, beer jugs...

Worried I might forget this item's name (seems unlikely, but things do slip my mind), I asked a man who was taking notes in the otherwise empty gallery if I could borrow his pen.

He looked a bit startled but handed it over as I explained I just wanted to write down "chocolate muddler" (on a blank page of the paperback I was carrying).
I asked if he'd ever heard of such a thing.
No, he hadn't, he answered in a German accent.

Perhaps he was a visiting art historian from abroad?
I like to imagine that back in his hotel room that evening, he might have e-mailed home that he'd encountered a scruffy American all excited about a chocolate muddler...

If I were a fiction writer, I'd write a story based on such a random encounter... something that changes both people's lives, maybe in some mirror-image way, but neither ever knows it.
But I'm not (a fiction writer).

Anyway, I felt much better afterward, though the weather has turned disgusting (heading toward 90°F, and me with no a/c)--not hot-chocolate weather, so I went home and had a G&T on the back porch. To protect against malaria, you know.

My ms is due on June 1, so this is the home stretch.

Thankgod, my next assignment is cheerful---something about the history of communication.
Hm. For that, I must go look at the Bakken Museum of Electricity, where I've always meant to visit but never have.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Handling Hazmat History


Yesterday afternoon, I spent four hours lying on a shady hill at the lake, enervated.
What's wrong with me? I wondered.
Is it the humidity? Menopause? Am I coming down with something?

The ground was cool under me.
A guy walked by with a brace of golden retrievers.
A fish splashed in the lake.

Oh, right, I thought. I'm sad.
I've spent two and a half months in the colonial wars. I've seen babies bashed against trees, horses shot, people who've been driven out of their homes drive others out in turn...
I'm sad.

Lying there, I felt I was downloading sadness into the ground.
Gently, slowly, the earth absorbs the material of grief. It diffuses through the entire planet, one part per many billions.

It takes time.

A concentration camp survivor once said a lot of new arrivals to the camps died because they couldn't process what was happening to them quickly enough to adjust.

This is nowhere near that bad, of course. By six in the evening, I could get up and go home.


I should recognize by now what's going on when work leaves me so drained, but it always seems to surprise me.

I can be kinda slow about my own emotions.
I displace them, filter them through worrying about other things. Like, for this book, I've kept fretting about how long it's taking me to write:
"WHY is this taking me so l o n g ? What's the big deal. It's just a little overview. I'm sure other people could write it in half the time.

"Why aren't I more efficient?"

I haven't heard anyone talking about the cost of handling the past, but I'd like to.
Surely the past's emotional wallop hits historians all the time.

I'm only an accidental historian, but spending a lot of time in the past is emotionally expensive.
It's full of other people's suffering.

Of course, the present is too, but the emotion is spread out in real time. The past is condensed: it all happens at once.


I hit the worst slump was when I was working on Algeria a few summers ago.
I was reading Journal, 1955-1962; Reflections on the French Algerian War, by Mouloud Feraoun (left, link to site in French).
(The wipe-out is always worst when I meet people in their own words, and Algeria was a very expressive culture.)

Feraoun was one of those rare sane people in the madhouse of colonialism.
He was a teacher and writer who went around saying yes, Algeria must be independent of France; but how 'bout if Algerians keep some of the best of French culture instead of wiping it all away?

You know, just asking for trouble, right?

I'm reading his journal one hot August night, thinking what a lovely guy this is and how much I like him. And the journal just stops.
I didn't see it coming--the book had so much back matter, I didn't realize I was near the end.

The editor's epilogue reports that some French colonial goons lined this spotted owl up against the wall and summarily shot him.
End of story.

I spent the next week dragging around like I had lyme disease.


So, I don't know how to handle the hazards of history very well.

I stagger back, take a break. Look for beauty at a thrift store. Notice how much people love their dogs.

I think it would help a lot if I stopped deflecting it. That just makes it thicker, denser, heavier.
Instead I could greet it:
"Oh, sadness. There you are. I was expecting you. Please, sit here, while I carry on with my work. Here, by the open window, in the light."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Fine Balance

I felt really down yesterday afternoon. Too much time alone with the Frindian War and David Foster Wallace.

The depressing effects of war are self-evident.
But DFW doesn't seem depressing (or depressed) first. After reading him for a week, however, I'd say he is. He's all thought; unearthed, top heavy, like a big-headed Macy's parade float. Like a baby whose neck can barely hold its head up. Like a watermelon-brained Talosian on Star Trek.

I started to feel dangerously interior--
like I was alone, a mechanical being on a hollow planet.

So I hauled myself out and went shopping. I hate shopping, except at thrift stores and garage sales, which is more like sociological scouting than shopping.

And, for my pains, I was rewarded.
In a glass display case at Steeple People Thrift I saw this graceful pewter bowl. I guessed it was a colonial reproduction, and sure enough, it's a Paul Revere repro by Boardman.
For a dollar.
I told the guy who got the bowl out for me that the price was too low.
He just shrugged. I went home looked it up, and it sells new for $56.

But it wasn't the good deal that restored my interior balance.
It was the reminder that colonial Americans loved pretty little things, same as anyone.
Weeks of reading about frontier guerrilla warfare had left me wondering.

So, I'm taking the DFW books back to the library and turning the computer off.
I'm getting on my bike and going to look for garage sales.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Sails and Tails

bink took this snap of me in the Milwaukee Art Museum's Pavillion, designed by Santiago Calatrava.

It's like being inside the skeleton of a whale or a sailing ship.

Yesterday I finished the hardest bit of the Frindian war book---the "why?" part.
Hardest, even though the answers are obvious:
dirt, and all the things on it (tobacco, beavers, roads, children);
and glory (whatever that is).

Our hunger for goodies to put in our mouths drives quite a lot of human history, as you know:
tobacco, yes, and sugar (sugar, sugar, sugar), salt and pepper, chocolate, coffee, booze...
I like 'em all ('cept the baccy).

[Nice article by Michael Pollen about Americans and Food:
"Considered in the long sweep of human history, in which getting food dominated not just daily life but economic and political life as well, having to worry about food as little as we do, or did, seems almost a kind of dream..."
You know there's a big "but" coming...]

And the machinery it takes to produce and transport those goodies is responsible for boatloads of human misery ...and human genius (e.g., the astrolabe, right).

A favorite example of human adaptability (a kind of genius), from yesterday's reading:
Colonial militiamen eventually (sometimes) took to lopping off their uniform coats' long tails, so they could move unencumbered through the thick woods.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"we seem to require of our art an ironic distance"

Before I start, I confess that I would love to read the Classic Comic of Crime and Punishment! as I've never been able to get past page 10 of the novel of same name (minus the exclamation point).

Last night I read David Foster Wallace's review "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky" (1997), in Consider the Lobster; And Other Essays, 2005.

I was pleased to read this because the "ironic distance" DFW talks about is what I named the Voice of the Sock Monkey, a few posts back.

--begin DFW quote--

"The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we––here, today––cannot or do not permit ourselves.

"...Upon finishing Frank's [biography of Dostoevsky]... I think that any serious American reader/writer will find himself driven to think hard about what exactly it is that makes many of the novelists of our own time and place look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so morally impoverished...

"Franks' bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either makes jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like ...sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization flourish or some such shit.

["sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks" is a reference to what Wallace does in this article.
For instance:

**Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actualy know whether I'm bullshitting myself, morally speaking?** ]

"...Our intelligentsia
[footnote: 'which, given this review's venue {the Village Voice Literary Supplement}, means basically us']
distrust strong belief, open conviction. Material passion is one thing, but ideological passion disgusts us on some deep level."

---end DFW quote--

I'd say since DFW wrote this 13 years ago, that ironic or flouncy voice has increased as we've seen what disgusting fruit ideological passion can bear.

But I don't agree with DFW's summation that American writers/readers mostly don't deal with weighty themes.

I actually don't read a lot of novels, but I can think of many that do.
How bout, say, Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987)? Or some of Louise Erdrich's stuff. Tim O'Brien. Or Yann Martel's Life of Pi, which is about religious faith (though that's later than DFW's article).

DFW's lament "no one does X anymore" sounds like the petulant "no one understands me" (or "I'm bored... there's nothing to do").

I wish he'd made it more personal. I wish he'd dropped the "we" and talked about why HE has a hard time being straightforward about deep issues.
Because he does. He deflects like crazy, and some of his stuff is a regular sea urchin of precocious flourishes.
Why, Mr. Wallace?
You tell us.

One way Americans took to writing/reading about deeply moral issues, in my lifetime, has been to retreat from the ideological and turn toward the personal: telling us about their traumatic experiences, for instance, in novels about child abuse or addiction and other highly personal concerns.
And then in recent years, a lot of that morphed into memoir, not novels (e.g. Anne Lamott's Tender Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith , 1999--she's a much better memoirist than novelist.)

Maybe DFW would discount those kind of writers as not being part of the intelligentsia? If he does, true, that leaves almost no one...

Dostoevsky's not unique in writing about important stuff. But he is rare in his ability to do it "without ever reducing his characters to mouthpieces or his books to tracts."

It's one thing to say writers/readers should care deeply "about the stuff that's really important". (We do.)
It's another to say we should write well. (Not so much.)

A lot of modern writers come on like jack-hammers or are otherwise poor writers (Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones--deep topic, crappy writing).

"...The thing about Dostoevsky's characters is that they are alive. ...His concern was always what it is to be a human being––that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal."

Writing well, thinking sharply, and caring deeply. That's a great idea.
But how many writers have ever been able to do that, in any time?
How many Dostoevskys have there ever been, anywhere?

Still, I like DFW's questions: are we/am I writing with all our/my passion, or are we/am I pulling our/my punches?
Why or why not?

I know my tenses get mixed up here, as I'm adressing someone, DFW, who is my contemporary but is dead. I'm leaving it as is.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

la petite guerre

LEFT: Death of British General Braddock, Battle of Monongahela River, 1755

"The French Canadians and Indians advanced close.

Noting that the British ranks reloaded to ordered drumbeats, they picked off the officers and the drummers.

Confusion, then panic, spread through the British ranks. The battle became a slaughter."

--W. J. Eccles, The French in North America, 1500–1783

In the 1700s, drummers were usually 10- to 18-year-old boys.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Wisconsin Road Trip IV

bink and I took a side trip to Sparta, Wisconsin, to visit the F.A.S.T. Corporation = Fiberglass Animals, Shapes & Trademarks.

Walking through their field of fiberglass molds, we met most of the Giant Roadside Attractions we've ever seen.

THIS IS SPARTA! But some figures look like casts from Pompeii.

FAST also makes water park slides.
We chatted with Mike, the production manager, and he told us he wishes the war in the Middle East would stop, because he's expecting a ton of orders from his pre-war customers: Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Afghanistan were all big spenders in Entertainment Parks...

Something must be done.

Wisconsin Road Trip III

These are the insides of giant fiberglass molds at the FAST Corporation in Sparta, Wisconsin, including a red octopus tentacle and a blue globe of the world.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Wisconsin Road Trip II

At the Milwaukee Art Museum

Wisconsin Road Trip I

bink & Fresca, On the Road

[P.S. The fourth picture down is of the antlers of a huge fiberglass orange moose]

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Everything and More

LEFT: "David Foster Wallace with Friend," by Marion Ettlinger

I. Electrified Paté

I started reading DFW because he killed himself.
I'm interested in smart people who suicide.

But I kept reading him because I recognize him as one of my tribe--not because of his affliction (which runs in my family but mercifully has not lodged in me) but because of the acrobatic way he thinks [thought].

--sample of DFW thinking--

"We 'know,' as high-school graduates and readers of Newsweek... a near infinity of truths that contradict our immediate commonsense experience of the world. ... [We know] that our thoughts and feelings are really just chemical transfers in 2.8 pounds of electrified paté. That we are mostly water, and water is mostly hydrogen, and hydrogen is flammable, and yet we are not flammable."

--end sample--[1]

The books of DFW are almost always checked out from the library--like those of David Sedaris and other popular essayists (or of those people whose personal pain made public has bumped them, at least temporarily, into celebrity status).
You have to request the books be held for you.

I'd gotten and enjoyed Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.
Yesterday I thought I'd just check and see if any of DFW's other books might be on the shelf.

The only one that was was Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity.
Call number QA 9 .W335 2003.

Here's why it wasn't checked out.
It sits right next to QA9 .W52:
Principia Mathematica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910-1913), by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell.

Still, I'm somewhat interested in the philosophy of science (along the lines of "Why wouldn't Star Trek's transporter really work?"), and I trusted that DFW would tell an amusing story, so I checked it out.

After writing about war all day (painful), last night I started reading the book. [* re writing]

Reading it was weirdly restful the way a new pain is, because it gives you a rest from an old pain.
Not that the book is actually painful.
DFW truly does make it an amusing story; but following it requires brain work, especially for someone like me who barely knows the language of mathematics. That work feels like, maybe is a relative of, pain.

--sample of me thinking--

Last night I was about to stop reading on page 70, out of 305 pages, and I thought,
I should blog about this, and I should mention what percentage of the book I have read so far.
But I don't know how to figure out the ratio of 70 to 305.
So I kept reading until page 97, and now I can say that I'm close to one-third through.

Even if I didn't know that 97 x 3 = almost 305,
I could physically see the ratio by looking at the scrap of paper (with "QA W335" written on it in stubby library pencil by me) marking my place in the closed book.

(From what DFW says, I'm doing math the Egyptian way--they always related it to physical realities.
You don't need calculus to build a pyramid.)

--end sample--

Anyway, the book is very interesting, if you're interested in thinking about thinking.
I am, in a lazy sort of way;
but the thing that excited me most about the book so far was the paragraph on p. 52 that justified my still living sense of injustice at the way Mr. Dresen, my ninth grade algebra teacher, answered the one question I ever asked about mathematics.

In the early days of the semester, my first in high school,
I asked Mr. Dresen WHY algebra worked.

I didn't know it then, but I--not gifted intuitively in math--was struggling to make the huge leap from thinking about numbers as representing oranges, even if the oranges are getting twisted and chopped up into weirder and weirder bits, to thinking of numbers as pure abstraction.

And Mr. Dresen said I shouldn't worry about it, but just memorize the formulas.

Women have lots of stories about being put down in math when they were girls, but I'm 100% sure this had nothing to do with me being a female and everything to do with Mr. Dresen being a basketball coach who got roped into teaching algebra because he had memorized the formulas.

I'm sure because while I felt like a victim of injustice at the time, I also intuited:

Well. This poor guy. Now I know how hard it is to know why algebra works and how even harder it is to explain it.

So now along comes DFW, who does know and can explain.
And who says to my outraged thirteen-year-old self --quote:

"The trouble with college [(or high school)] math classes
––which classes consist almost entirely in the rhythmic ingestion and regurgitation of abstract information, and are paced in such a way as to maximize this reciprocal data flow––
is that their sheer surface-level difficulty can fool us into thinking we really know something when all we really 'know' is abstract formulas and rules for their deployment.

"Rarely do math classes ever tell us whether a certain formula is truly significant, or why, or where it came from, or what is at stake.

[DFW's footnote to above sentence:

"And, of course, rarely do students think to ask––the formulas alone take so much work to 'understand' (i.e., to be able to solve problems correctly with), we often aren't aware that we don't understand them at all.
That we end up not even knowing that we don't know is the really insidious part of most math classes.]"

--end quote--[2]

*fist pump*

Or, if you're someone like me, you know you don't know,
...AND you don't even 'know' the formulas because you simply balked like a mule and refused to learn something so boring as symbols and rules that you, at thirteen, mistakenly thought (and no one corrected you) were without meaning.

Final note on DFW:
Depression gets a lot of press these days; but I still hear people who don't understand that it's more like, say, cancer than like a bad hair day.

But even though I do know it's like cancer, I still look at pictures of DFW with his dog friends (he liked dogs!) and ask,
How could you do it?
You had everything and more.

And therein, in trying to answer that, lies is the use of abstract brain work.

Trying to understand other people is like the higher maths:
you (that is, I) just have to suck up the fact that other people's experience, their reality, won't necessarily match up point to point with yours (mine).

And that we can't understand it by plunking formulas onto it, like cookie cutters onto a batch of cookie dough.

We're not adding oranges anymore.

Understanding other people, which is maybe another word for loving other people, is way harder than that, way weirder, way, way more abstract,
and, ultimately, if your brain doesn't explode, more rewarding.

II. * Re writing

[This could/should? really be a separate post, but I was writing stream of consciousness and I actually had veered off in the middle of the above stream to write this, so I decided to pull it out and give it its own B-head, but leave it as part of the whole.

I also just want to note that I can see here what a sponge I am (or what spongey material words are?).
If you've read DFW you can probably tell I've absorbed some of his odor, like a cheese next to fish in the fridge.
That's one reason I don't usually read a lot when I'm in the middle of a writing project---all of a sudden I'll start writing in a different style. ]


"Writing" is too active a word for what I do with children's nonfiction.

Because of severe limits on word count and reading level, what I do mostly involves choosing what not to write about, so it's often more like "erasing" than writing.

The more I do this, the more I realize why people who write children's nonfiction (and human beings in general) often just recycle formulas.
I mean, writing well at grade-school level requires being an incredibly well-informed and thoughtful kind of poet of prose.

Once I took (some might say wasted) the time to learn more about smallpox, for instance, I'd just made the work harder on myself.
Now, instead of "writing" (recycling) that comfortable sentence we've all read before about how Europeans brought the disease to the Americas, I have to discern what I really want to say about what is, of course, a much broader and deeper story.

The thing is, though, the old formulaic sentence is factually true, and compact,
so I'll end up writing something very similar, thus reinventing the wheel;
but now knowing WHY and HOW, which pleases me but makes little difference to the book.

It does make some difference... but quite possibly for the worse.
I mean, it's really hard to write clearly and briefly about complexity.

(I'm getting better but I'm not good at it. My earliest geography books are muddy, my latest ones less so. Blogging is good practice.)

I'm motivated to keep trying to express complexities in a clean, clear and short way,
not just because understanding the material makes the work more interesting
but because I remember being outraged as a child by how formulaic nonfiction was.

I mean, really remember.
I can see the dirty surface of the light-wood, round library table where I sat in sixth grade working on a report on Russia.
And I remember my anger and frustration with the geography book in hand (the same kind I used to write--possibly, in fact, by the same publisher). Specifically I was angry that the list of Natural Resources was just a list--it didn't tell you what any of these things (molybdenum?) were.

Well, now I know why--the extremely limited word count means you, the author, have to choose between writing a list or using the space to explain ONE thing.
Not only does efficient use of space (facts per inch) dictate writing the list, but it's also easier and faster because you don't have to know what molybdenum is to write it down.

(It's a mineral used in steel alloys.)

I've heard children's nonfiction writers called hacks (in the literal sense of being a conveyance for rent to take anyone anywhere) and sausage makers.

This is often true, in my experience. But not because we are stupid or uncaring.
On the contrary. The field is full of nice, bright women with BAs in English who love books.

But children's book publishing is an industry, like children's education is, and like education, it's unbelievable poorly paid. (OK, better than McDonald's, but it's a white collar equivalent.)

Everyone from the publisher on down is under incredible economic pressure to publish or perish--not in the academic sense, but in the sense of debt collectors coming and taking away your printing press.
And even scarier these days, when books themselves are looking more and more like a horse and buggy.

So we get algebra teachers who may be geniuses at coaching basketball but sure aren't good at teaching algebra.

P.S. Whoah. Was that an abrupt ending?

Soon I'm off to visit my auntie in Milwaukee, Land of Cheese Cows, so adieu for now.

[1] "We 'know', as high-school graduates..." from DFW's Everything and More (W. W. Norton, 2003), p. 22

[2] "The trouble with college classes..." ibid., p. 52

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Difficult People "R" Us

I. Tidy Little Piles

In the year following my mother's suicide, I began to order the dollar bills in my pocket into neat folded piles, with $20s on the bottom, $1s on top; all faces forward; no bent corners; the most crumpled bills to the outside (where they'd get spent first).
Sometimes I arranged the coins too--in order of size, not denomination (nickels before dimes).

I noticed I was doing this, but it didn't signify until one day I found myself alphabetizing DVDs in a video store. I'd been looking for Scenes from a Marriage, which was in the Criterion Collection section.
The Criterion DVDs were in no order at all. So even though I found my film, I spent some time putting the others in alphabetical order.
It was very satisfying: Creating order, or an illusion of order, like building a boardwalk over a festering swamp.

But afterward, standing there, I thought, this is too weird. You are being too weird.
Putting stuff in order seemed like a habit that could turn into the Blob.
So I stopped.
I went back to shoving money in my pocket. Now I occasionally turn all the labels in my cupboards to face forward, but mostly I don't think about stuff like that.

I'm lucky that I could choose to stop, and then stop. If my brain were wired just a fraction differently or if there was one tick off a ribbon of my DNA--or one flick of God's finger more or less, if you prefer--I'd be different.
(Or, I'm unlucky, for the same reason: I could be, say, more energetic, less hampered.)

II. Nothing's Solid

I was thinking about my brain--our brains--at the "1964" modern art show, looking at this painting by Bridget Riley.
Suspension, 1964

The reproduction here doesn't create the same effect, but in person, this large painting appears to fluctuate. Trying to focus on one set of lines, though you know they're solid, is like trying to follow one ocean wave to the shore.

It's a picture of "reality"; that is, it's a reminder that "reality" is simply the name we give to the way our brains process stimuli.
We get very attached to reality, but it could be otherwise. In fact, it is otherwise.

I find this useful to remember when dealing with "difficult" people or my own difficulties.
I wish I'd known it sooner.

III. Who are you?

When I was twenty, I had a friend who was later diagnosed with OCD.
I used to think, "What's wrong with her? Why doesn't she just throw out all those piles of papers in her apartment?"
Which is really asking, "Why doesn't she share my reality? Why doesn't she stop annoying me?"

I didn't think about what her reality was or how much it distressed her, even after she told me,
"I can feel paper touching my body at night."
This phrase struck me, but not enough to really interrupt my own reality.

Eventually I figured out that the most helpful question, either to ask or to answer, isn't, "What's wrong with you?"
It's "Would you be willing to tell me what your reality is?"

By then, my friend had moved away and we'd lost touch.
I thought about her last night, after watching the movie Dirty Filthy Love.

It's about a London architect, Mark, played by the amazing Michael Sheen (I know him as Tony Blair in The Queen or David Frost in Frost/Nixon, but I gather he's also in vampy werewolf movies).
Mark has a series of what he calls "habits" that start to pull his life apart--he loses his job, his wife divorces him--and his habits start to spin out of control, till he's literally barking mad.

A fellow OCD sufferer named Charlotte (Shirley Henderson, whose little-girl voice is at odds with her wire-filament acting) recognizes Mark's behavior for what it is: the compulsions of OCD and Tourettes--and invites him to a support group.

It's sort of a Disease of the Week film, but the performances are so good, it ends up being much more than that: it becomes an op art piece pointing out that what we see is specific to our brain chemistry.

It's also about the fact that human brains can think about themselves. (How weird is that?) We can reflect on our reality and in some ways even change it.
It's heavy lifting, but it's possible... to some extent.
As Charlotte, who is obsessed with germs, says, "I'm not giving up! I refuse to die with a wet wipe in my hand."

I do know that before we lost touch, my friend, with the help of meds and a therapist, did get on top of her piles of paper, rather than the other way round.

The movie's trailer is awful--makes it look like a frothy romp--so I'm not embedding it here. (The movie is streaming on Netflix, if you get that.)
Instead, here's Michael Sheen in one of the comic Public Info "See Africa Differently" spots.

Note to self: check out the book Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, a woman from Zambia.

IV. Wandering On

And now, once again, I have to take a week off blogging to get to work.
If my brain were different, I could juggle many strands of thought at once, but it seems to be a one-way trail in the wilderness, not a super highway.

* Reminds me of something a historian of the French and Indian War said:
In the 18th century America, marching through the woods was not much different than wandering through the woods.
So the British army came in and chopped down trees to make the road that is today the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Me, I'll just stick with wandering.
* P.S. I'd like to be able to put little asides, like the above, in text boxes, like in David Foster Wallace's essays.
I wonder if there's a blog site that allows that, or even if Blogger does. Anyone know?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Being Single

I. The Allure of Strange Tongues

I used to sleep around with languages.
It was always so exciting at first, learning the irregular verb "to be." But pretty soon, the past imperfect shows up, and I'd lose interest.

I've gone to bed with Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic. Played doctor with Danish; did it in a car with Turkish; flirted with Finnish *.
I got pretty serious for a while with French and Latin. I can enquire after your aunt's current (but not past or future) health in my high school French; and, with a BA minor in Latin, I can still recognize Latin phrases in books by former British public schoolboys.
But I never rented the U-Haul for any of these languages.

It was when I was taking community-college Arabic seven years ago that I realized the thrill was gone. Even with its sexy lingerie of an alphabet and the possibility of learning to say, "I want to buy a one-eyed camel," the new language just didn't turn me on. I didn't even finish the eight-week course.

Around that time, I realized I felt the same about dating.
When I was newly single, it was fun to go on dates. Men were a new language to me (my ex of thirteen years was a woman). Each one came with a whole new syntax. Or so it seemed.
But of course, there are only so many ways a language can be structured, and after a while they start to repeat.

I knew I had lost interest when a friend offered to set me up on a blind date and my spontaneous response was, "Do I have to?" It just seemed like work.

Of course, this all reveals way more about me than it does about love or linguistics.
The way I most enjoy other people is through words--in print or over coffee. Someone once said that my idea of going to bed with someone is lying down to talk.

II. Living Friction-Free

Living alone, as I have for twelve years now, fulfills my childhood wish for getting to do what I want, when I want.

The past couple days that's meant watching Henry Rollins on youTube till past one a.m. and then rolling out of bed the next morning to check on the British elections (all the Onion-worthy drama of the U.S. 2000 elections but--to me, at this remove--less of a clear and present danger).

I worry sometimes that without checks and balances forced upon my ego, in the form of another person I can't escape, I will become a dreadful narcissist.
That's the received wisdom, anyway; but I wonder if some people are better suited to loving other people at a distance and if I might be one of them.

I was relieved the other day when a friend told me I was thoughtful to other people. I worry about self-delusion, but I think I am nicer and more generous living alone. I suppose that's the equivalent of saying you love dogs or cats better than people: no credit to you--that's the easy choice.

(Though I can't say I've noticed people who've raised families being any more compassionate toward others than I am. Some are downright xenophobic and way more oriented toward "me and mine," in a scary tribal sense.)

III. Heat-Seaking Behavior at the Dentist

What is left deprived, however, is my body. Not of sex so much as of touch.
I was aware of this yesterday, as I lay prone in the dentist's chair. The dental hygienist had scooted in close on her wheely stool and was cleaning my teeth while telling me about her weekend plans at her cabin. (It's fishing season in Minnesota.)
Through the sensations of her scraping scale off the inside of my bottom front teeth (imagine cracking limestone off the White Cliffs of Dover), I registered the sensation of her thigh leaning against me.

My sense of personal space is average for Americans (between 1.5-4 feet, or 0.5-1.3 meters), and my conscious impulse was to shift slightly--in that minimal way you move when there are sharp implements in your mouth--so that we weren't touching.
But my body signaled, "Incoming body warmth--DO NOT MOVE!"
So I didn't move.

IV. What to Wear to Catch a Snark?

So, ...I don't know. Nothing's free.
The idea of being single for the rest of my life leaves me content, mostly.
It seems like a prerequisite for doing good work.
I'm such a late bloomer, but I feel I might could maybe do some good work as a writer in the future. That feels like hunting a snark, however--something that likely will "softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be met with again."

[Illustration by Henry Holiday: "Fit the Eighth: The Vanishing," from Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark]

Is it easier to catch a snark if you're alone?
I really don't know.
But I usually agree with Thoreau (one of nature's singles?), who warned against enterprises that require buying new clothes.
And after years of working at home and not dating, my clothes are
...well, here, let me show you my elbow.
So, not very date-ready.

And as for languages, really, my native one is enough of a challenge. English is morphing every day. If I want a hit of new vocabulary and syntax, I just have to hop over to ontd_st.

My favorite new (to me) netspeak is "tl;dr".
It means "too long, didn't read."
* "Pieniä ovat silakat joulukaloiksi."
Finnish for "Herring are rather small for Christmas dinner."

Friday, May 7, 2010

+ People Who May Soon Have More Time to Read in Bed

Gordon and Sarah Brown. Maybe. Who really knows?

People Reading in Bed

Following up on my Tribe of Readers post; inspired by a round-up of people reading, depicted in art: o silêncio dos livros , via Art Sparker via Cláudia (thanks!).

Most of these aren't exactly real life, but I still like them.

Bed and Board (Domicile Conjugal, 1970), Jean-Pierre Léaud) and Claude Jade

Tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine (and husband Henry II), 1204--Good News, indeed: we get to read when we're dead.

Lee Miller and Tanja Ramm, by Theodore Miller

Scenes From a Marriage (1973), Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson

William Shatner. OK, he's not in bed, and it seems he's studying his script so that's work, not pleasure; but anyway, he's on his back.

Me! This past winter.