May 31, 2005

The Agents at Home, or, Blood Will Tell

My firstborn, Agent 81, is visiting for a week, having just finished his grueling, exciting first year of law school. (His younger brother Agent 83 will visit later in the summer because of work schedule.) Here’s a glimpse of a typical morning around the breakfast table:

Agent 81 is reading a philosophy book by Thomas Nagel, underlining it, and simultaneously typing his comments into his computer purely for his own pleasure.

Agents 95 and 97 are reading FAR SIDE comic strip anthologies.

I’m reading some silly science fiction novel or other.

Occasionally someone looks up to read a comic strip aloud to the group. Occasionally someone dabs at a morsel of breakfast.

For recreation, Agent 81 poses Agent 95 a logic problem from still another philosophy book that he has at his elbow, a compilation of logical brainteasers. It’s a problem that tests the reader’s understanding of if-then propositions. Agent 95, who will turn ten years old next month, solves it without a pause and returns to his comics.

“That problem was answered correctly by five college students out of a group of a hundred and twenty–eight,” Agent 81 reads aloud from the brainteaser book.

“Give the problem to 97,” 95 says.

“No, he already heard your answer.”

“He didn’t hear it, he’s been reading THE FAR SIDE the whole time. Anyway, he’s only eight.”

At which Agent 97 lifts his head from the comics and repeats the logic problem and the answer almost verbatim, although he has not seen the graphic that would enable him to solve the problem on his own.

I’m not going to try the problem -- are you kidding? It’s time to assert some parental authority. Clearing my throat importantly, I take the stage:

“Sure an' will you look at us, fer the love o’ Pete, each one with his feahce stook in a blooming buke. Could ye not venture forth into God’s own sunlight, now, an’ challenge yourselves to a turn around the block?”

No response. I return to my science fiction.

Honoring the will of my public, and sparing no expense on cheeseburgers, McNuggets, cinnamon buns, and cappucino, I have retained a panel of consultants to enable me to place this complicated graphic online. As you'll see, the logic puzzle is not really difficult -- the real puzzle is why so few college students were able to solve it. But I'm proud my youngsters did, anyway.

Door A:

____O_____ ////////////

Door B:

__________ /////////////

Door C:

//////////// _____O_____

Door D:

//////////// ___________

Doors A, B, C, and D are four pairs of double doors. In each pair, one door is closed (shown by slash marks) and one door is open (shown by underlining). Behind each open door there either is or is not a prize, shown by a circle. Behind each closed door, too, there either is or is not a prize.

Which doors do you NEED to open in order to answer the following question: "Is it true in all cases that if there is a prize on the left there is also a prize on the right?"

Note that you could answer the question by opening all four doors, but that is not what is being asked for. The question asks which doors it is NECESSARY to open.

(Adapted from Robert M. Martin, THERE ARE TWO ERRORS IN THE THE TITLE OF THIS BOOK, Broadview Press: Peterborough, Ontario, 1992, p. 91.)

May 30, 2005

An Experiment in Memory

Today being Memorial Day, I thought I would try to find the clearest memory I possess and share it with you. What would it be, I wondered? My father’s death, or some public tragedy like Kennedy’s or Lennon’s or the World Trade Center's? Or maybe one of the happiest moments of my life -- a time sledding in Madison with my two older sons, or playing ball in Austin with my two younger? Or some decisive or painful moment from my childhood, like the first time I got stung by a bee, or one of my many romantic fumbles during adolescence?

To my surprise, no single memory stood out as the clearest. I have a lot of memories, and some of them give me more of an emotional pang than others, but they all seem filed the same way, compressed and abstracted by the same process. It’s as if my memory were a Flickr photo file. All the individual memories are equal in size and style and texture. I can retrieve them all easily. I can select one and look at it. But I look for a few seconds and turn to the next one. I don’t dwell in them for very long.

Sensorily, each individual memory is relatively static, not exactly like a snapshot but perhaps like a movie clip that lasts for three seconds or so. The colors are pale and the edges are roughly oval, and there’s little or no sound. Even though each memory stands for an incident that took a longer time, I don’t replay the whole incident, just the significant image that stands for the whole thing. This is in marked contrast to my dreams, which are very complicated and narrative, with long plot lines and lots of dialogue -- and usually the same characters as my memories.

I’ve trained myself in detachment from my memories, and I think there’s been a cost. When I was young and had fewer experiences to remember, I brooded obsessively on them in order to try to figure out who I was and what -- as I assumed then -- was wrong with me. Today in contrast I am a notably present-oriented person. I rarely return to old successes and failures, and I don’t spend much energy anticipating the future either. It feels much healthier than it used to, but there’s been an attenuation of emotion. All the memories in my file seem equivalent. A moment from childhood remembered by chance takes up as much file space and returns to me in the same form as the death of my father. I was much more affected by the latter, but how to reach the feeling of it, the importance of it, when the photos are the same size, with the same style?

May 28, 2005

The Site for Secrets

The most interesting thing I've seen in the blogosphere lately is Postsecret, an art project by someone named Frank who invites readers to anonymously send in postcards communicating secrets they have never told anyone before. He posts a bunch of them every week, and the cumulative results are a stunning display of what Freud called "ordinary human misery," with only a tiny number of the secrets offering optimism, and a significant handful revealing the banality of evil (touched on recently in my Danger Boy post). Many of the postcards are cleverly decorated. It is hard not to be moved and troubled by this exhibit.

There's a good discussion of Postsecret in the comments section at this Althouse post where I first learned about the project.

UPDATE: Apologies for the broken links. They're now fixed.

May 27, 2005

Welcome to the Plagiosphere

You’ve all heard of the biosphere, a word that envisions all life on Earth as an interconnected web. Now comes the plagiosphere, a word that envisions all language as an endlessly recycled, pooled resource that we all contribute to and take from, and in which almost nothing is said that hasn’t been said before. According to Ed Tenner in MIT's TECHNOLOGY REVIEW, just as Copernicus kicked our planet out of the center of the universe and Darwin demoted Homo sapiens from the summit of creation, the Internet is showing us that the phrases and sentences we craft so lovingly are not unique. Web–search technology, text–comparison software, and a new technology involving the comparison of nonverbatim textual similarities, prove that just about everything we say or write is unoriginal. (Hat tip: Charles Martin.)

This threatens me as a writer, so watch me scramble to disprove it.

To begin with let me give the idea of plagiarism–monitoring its due. Plagiarism is a real and growing problem on college campuses. The Internet has enabled students to easily download canned papers on any conceivable subject, and software improvements have recently allowed the creators -- if you want to call them that -- of these plagiarized documents to edit stylistic variations into them, making them harder to detect.

It’s important to catch plagiarism. It’s important that we not become a culture of cheating.

But what does this have to do with literature? Let’s say that some forgotten journalist in 1930 used the phrase “a hard day’s night” in a newspaper column. Does that disqualify John Lennon? Of course not. Lennon never read the column -- had no knowledge that the phrase was ever used before. It was original for him, and for the world on the whole it originated with him.

Let’s make the case harder -- and more realistic. It happens to be true that Lennon heard the phrase from Ringo Starr, who used it casually in conversation. Lennon grabbed onto the phrase and was inspired to use it in a song. Does that make Lennon’s work unoriginal? Perhaps in some pedantic, art–denying sense, but not in any authentic sense. Ringo’s off-the-cuff comment was a cute ephemeral witticism until John turned it into a song. (Everything is ultimately ephemeral, of course, including “A Hard Day’s Night,” alas, but we’re talking on the relative human timescale here.) John made Ringo’s phrase live.

And what if the phrase hadn’t really originated with Ringo? What if he had heard his grandmother say it, and what if she had read and forgotten that 1930 newspaper article?

No difference, I say. It would be good if Ringo’s grandmother and the original journalist received public recognition for the phrase, just as Ringo has always done. But none of those characters turned the phrase into a great song.

There’s an anecdote about Beethoven that expresses a similar point. Beethoven was walking in the woods and heard a peasant singing a folk song. (This must have been before old Ludwig became deaf.) “Lovely!” said L.v.B. “I must compose that.”

Was Beethoven a plagiarist? Well, if there’s a lovely German peasant song out there that provided the inspiration for a work of Beethoven’s, I would welcome knowledge about it. The German folk tradition, and any known writer of the folk song, would deserve credit. But Beethoven’s work is not diminished by the knowledge. When he said, “I must compose that,” he didn’t mean, “I must take that as is and steal it and present it unaltered as my own.” He meant, “I must give it new form, adding to it, augmenting it, amplifying it, heightening its beauty.” (By the way, I don’t know whether or not Beethoven ever did base a work on that song he heard.) (And by the way, I read this discussion about Beethoven and the folk song somewhere years ago -- I have no idea where -- and am recycling another writer’s argument.)

There’s a multiculturalist question here that needs facing. Many European classical composers have based works on folk songs from various traditions. Does this make them plagiarists, cultural thieves? In my view, the folk sources deserve credit and publicity. It’s right that the creativity of folk artists -- which often exceeds the creativity of “trained” artists -- should be brought into the light and honored. But all artists use one another. The folk song Beethoven heard had probably undergone dozens of revisions and variations over time, and had been improved by that process. If it weren’t for that gradual refining process -- a kind of cultural evolutionary adaptation -- art as a whole would be poorer. I don’t mind that the Rolling Stones have borrowed licks and lyrics from a lot of previous bluesmen. The bluesmen borrowed from each other just as much; it’s almost impossible to say where any particular blues line really originated. The Stones have not denied their debts and have in fact significantly helped bring old blues back into the public eye. And most importantly, they have always turned the old into something new. They are not mere copyists. The crucial question is not, “Where did you first get that phrase?” but “What have you added to it?”

Getting back to the point about word combinations: Does literature require unique phrases? I would say that originality of phrasing is one of many possible attributes of a literary work but not the most important one. It’s desirable, but it’s neither necessary nor sufficient.

Unique word combinations can be created readily enough by computers, and also by the word magnets on my refrigerator door. Such combinations are not literature. On my refrigerator at this very moment there happens to be the sentence, “Would you imagine a chocolate present,” placed there by an obscure member of my household. I don’t know if that sentence has ever been written before; I haven’t checked. But let’s assume that it’s a unique, original sentence. Does that make it a work of literature? Only in a trivial sense. As an off–the–cuff creation it deserves an admiring comment before it’s scrambled to give way to another semi–random formulation. But what gives it further life is the fact that I’m writing it here, placing it in a context of ideas and spreading it to a wider world. Yet my formulation is ephemeral too -- unless perhaps someone else takes it up and spreads it even further, keeping the sentence one step ahead of the linguistic Grim Reaper. If someone does that, I hope they give me credit -- but that hope is essentially a matter of vanity. If they don’t give me credit, the sentence will still go out into the culture at large, enriching it.

The thing is, though, literature is not a word game. If spinning new phrases were all it took, anyone could be a great writer just by throwing darts at a dictionary. (In fact some popular song lyricists have taken that approach. Whether the resulting songs are art or not depends largely on whether the nonverbal parts of the song are strong enough to carry the lyrics on their coattails.) Any great Scrabble player would be a great writer.

But it doesn’t work that way. In fact literature -- prose literature, anyway -- can be written with an almost complete lack of original phrases. Simenon and his predecessor Balzac are great novelists who never turned an original phrase. They used the same plain words over and over to describe the same drab rooms, the same dusty furniture, the same desperate ordinary lives -- and to turn them into something meaningful and beautiful. Literature is not about making phrases but about making life.

If literature isn’t primarily in the words, where is it? In the ideas? No, not really. Suppose someone had gone up to John Lennon and said, “Hey, Lennon, I think you should write a song about someone coming home from a hard day’s work and finding comfort in the arms of his beloved.” Would that person deserve credit for “A Hard Day’s Night”? Of course not. The song is not in the idea but in the quickening of an idea into life. And that happens not in a random tossing–together of verbal elements and not in the purveying of a pedestrian concept, but in the soul of an individual artist. The soul is the art.

This plagiosphere -- this dictionary–universe in which all words already exist, to be picked up and used and then dropped by anyone who wishes -- is the source of originality, not its destroyer. All the phrases we say and write fall to the ground and decay in a heap and become humus for some flower to grow in, a Lennon flower, a Beethoven flower. And those flowers themselves will wilt after a time, and fall and make humus for later flowers.

It’s been said that most writers work their entire careers only to provide a phrase or two for greater writers to use. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole blogosphere served that purpose. Is that plagiarism? No, it’s the nourishment of art.

May 26, 2005

I, A Locust

I sometimes wonder whether my life is ruled by cycles of which I’m unaware. A while ago I realized that certain big changes in my life came at 17-year intervals. That length of time seems to be developmentally crucial for me in a way I don’t understand. It’s as if I were a 17-year locust, bursting into a new form to my own amazement after long slow inner change.

Because I’m a human being and not really a locust, there may be a window of a few months between phases, or an overlap. In fact it seems more like 17 1/2 years than a strict 17. The timing is flexible, but within an overall pattern.

I lived in my birth family for 17 1/2 years, in the Bronx of the Jewish lower middle class, and then went away to college in the Midwest and adapted to a different culture.

Within a few months I came under the influence of a young woman with whom I shared the next segment of my life. We raised two children together. I hope we helped each other in some ways.

We broke up after living together for 17 1/2 years.

By my rough calculations, some time this month it has been 17 1/2 years since that breakup. We have been apart for as long as we were together -- a long time in both cases.

I wonder if this signals a new phase. Our relationship has taken a sudden, unexpected, positive turn in the past few months. In fact I didn’t realize we still had a relationship, but now it turns out that we do, although it’s mainly a virtual one. Blogging has been a catalyst for good changes in my life in the past six months. It’s made me new (if virtual) social contacts and begun what I hope is a new phase in my writing. A marked improvement in my sleep -- successful treatment for a sleep disorder -- has been another good change begun at the same time.

It feels as if a Hegelian synthesis has been achieved, after thesis and antithesis. A Hegelian locust?

Meanwhile, there are other cycles. I’ve been with my wife (nicknamed Agent 61 on this blog) for fourteen, almost fifteen years. Have I started a new wave pattern with her? Is our cycle to be fifteen years instead of seventeen? Just yesterday, because of a medical scare that turned out harmless, we shared a deepening sense of an already deep commitment.

Or, if our cycle is seventeen years also, what will happen to us two years from now?

And what about wave frequencies initiated by the birth of children? Four overlapping wave patterns in my case.

Actually I think that if cycles do run our lives, there are many such patterns in each human being, with different frequencies, so that if they were graphed they’ve look bewilderingly complex.

My musical tastes, for instance, seem to go in seasonal phases: classical and jazz in the autumn and winter, loosening up toward rock, folk, and country in the summer.

My physical activity seems to go in phases: actively exercising for a couple of weeks, alternating with periods of laziness.

As for my moods, they seem to have one–minute cycles, one–hour cycles, diurnal cycles, monthly cycles, seasonal cycles, and more, all overlapping wildly.

I’m not a determinist. I believe our lives are ruled just as much by chance and by our responses to our environments as by what we’re born with. We’re dazzlingly complex. These cycles, if they exist, are just one additional complexity. And I’m sure, if they exist at all, there are others that are hidden from me. The ones I’ve discussed are just the ones I’m conscious of.

May 25, 2005

School's Out!

Today is the last day of the academic year in the Austin Independent School District. Kids are entering the building singing, laughing. Teachers stand on chairs taking down the last remaining posters from their classroom walls. On the door of a kindergarten classroom, a sign says, “CAUTION: LOOSE PARAKEETS.” Empty pizza boxes from yesterday’s parties sit stacked in the corridor. Kids hunch down at their open desk drawers to stuff their backpacks with all the notebooks, folders, drawings, graded homework papers, pencil boxes, commendation certificates, unwieldy art projects, class photos, and adventure novels they need to take home. A crowd gathers around the cage of the class hamster as the kids say goodbye, the boy who has volunteered to take Buddy home for the summer refusing, for reasons of safety, to let anyone else pet him.

Last night, in anticipation of this great event, I took the opportunity to interview two elementary school students who are somewhat known to me, living, as they do, in the same household as me for almost–ten and eight years respectively. To preserve their privacy, I shall henceforth refer to them by their code names, Agent 95 and Agent 97. Herewith, a transcript of their interviews, edited only in any way I see fit.

FATHER: Would you like to be interviewed?

AGENT 97: [playing computer game] Maybe.

AGENT 95: No. Why? Tell me why. [Interest is aroused; increasing agitation.] Why do you want to interview us? What are you doing? [An explanation is offered.] Interview me first!

FATHER: Okay, well, what was the best thing about fourth grade for you?

AGENT 95: [Burps.] There’s your answer.

FATHER: What is one thing that happened this year that you wish hadn’t happened?

AGENT 95: I learned long division.

FATHER: And what did you most enjoy during the year?

AGENT 95: Reading. We’re going to have a challenge this summer that won’t be a challenge for me: thirty books.

FATHER: And what do you look forward to in fifth grade?

AGENT 95: A way to unlearn long division.

FATHER: And what’s something you dread happening in fifth grade?

AGENT: I get Miss ________ for a teacher.

FATHER: All in all, how would you sum up fourth grade?

AGENT 95: Kind of boring.

FATHER: But what did you like best about it?


FATHER: Hold on a second, you mean you saw all these movies in class? Why are they showing you movies all the time?

AGENT 95: As treats, because we all did good work. We all got at least 90 on the TAKS [TEXAS ASSESSMENT OF KNOWLEDGE AND SKILLS] except for this one girl who’s kind of stupid. Drum roll please… Her name is _________. She doesn’t bother to learn anything. She just sits around and talks. She annoys everyone.

FATHER: But the class as a whole was --?

AGENT 95: Pretty good, except a lot of the girls who really bugged me. Like my eyes were popping out every time they spoke to me.

FATHER: How did they bug you?

AGENT 95: I refuse. I just don’t want to talk about it.

FATHER: Were there any girls who didn’t bug you?

AGENT 95: ________, ________, and ________.

FATHER: And what was your favorite recess activity?

AGENT 95: Talking and playing with my friends.

FATHER: What did you talk about?

AGENT 95: None of your business.

FATHER: Well then, what did you play?

AGENT 95: None of your business!

And so we move on to a still younger fraction of a generation, Agent 97. He is to be found sitting at a computer console -- my computer console, as it happens -- focused intently on a small winged and goggled figure on the screen named Ice Cream Ed, who zips to and fro within an ice cream factory, avoiding such occupational hazards as falling into vats of cream, having buckets of chocolate syrup poured on him, etc.

FATHER: Would you like to be interviewed yet?

AGENT 97: One second. [Continues playing Ice Cream Ed. Several minutes pass. The message, “Oh, Fudge! You got creamed!” appears on the screen. The alert journalist seizes the moment to begin the interview.]

FATHER: So, what did you enjoy most in second grade?

AGENT 97: Science. We learned how to plant plants, and their parts.

FATHER: What didn’t you like about second grade?

AGENT 97: Nothing.

FATHER: What are you looking forward to most about third grade?

AGENT 97: Social Studies.

AGENT 95’s voice, offstage: Don’t look forward to Social Studies!

AGENT 97: [Always eager to learn from his brother.] Science.

FATHER: And what was the most fun thing you did in school this year?

AGENT 97: Sold stuff. We sold stuff for crystals [i.e., rock crystals found on school playground, used as currency among certain in–the–know students]. We sold a baseball, some cool–looking rocks, Yu–Gi–Oh cards, a bronze oval, and some other stuff to fourth and third graders at recess.

FATHER: And they bought this stuff?

AGENT 97: Of course!

FATHER: And what did you like least about second grade?

AGENT 97: ________ kept stealing our backpacks and we told her to stop and she kept on doing it. We used to be good friends but now I despise her.

FATHER: But she’s a nice kid. You like her, don’t you? You’ve been friends since kindergarten…

AGENT 97: No, no, you fool, you fool of a dad! Ha ha, you wrote down “You fool!” You fool! [Jumps on interviewer.]

Here the interview inexplicably breaks off…

May 24, 2005

The Believer in Mottos

For a long time she held herself together with “Fake it till you make it.” But the years of faking it carved grooves of cement–hard cheerfulness along her mouth, and still every gush of enthusiasm echoed emptily within. At last she understood that the motto itself was fake.

Then there was “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” She grunted it to herself over and over, in her mind and under her breath, and waited to feel stronger, but she kept feeling the same. She told herself that this sameness was a strength, it was self–acceptance, she had never needed anything else. But it didn’t feel like strength, only a straining against stuckness. Everything around her was becoming stronger by pushing against her. And the motto became weak with repetition and died.

Then there was “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Well, after years of following her bliss, a look at her bank statement and a glance in her refrigerator took care of that.

That one was accompanied by “If you want a friend, be a friend.” But all the smiles and phone calls and caring questions and empathetic listening brought back nothing in her direction except demands for more. Who was listening empathetically to her?

She had had it with mottos. She wanted to clear them all away, to look at life plainly with no filter in between, to look at a tree and see only a tree, not a symbol of growth, to look at a road and see only a place to drive a car, not a lifetime journey.

“I am only interested in what is,” she said to herself.

She liked the sound of it. She repeated it often in her mind.

May 23, 2005

Danger Boy

I witnessed something the other day that I don’t know how to write about. I’ve been thinking about it and I don’t know how to fit it into some pre–existing literary form without turning it into backyard gossip, losing the complexity and truth that would justify keeping it alive in words. The only reason to write about it, maybe, is that I keep thinking about it.

We were at a lawn party for a woman who had made a big step forward in her career. A middle–of–the–road suburb: nice but not opulent houses, neighbors who knew each other, barbecue and beer and soft drinks, and lots of kids. Boys shooting baskets out front and girls rushing in and out on some secret adventure and a mixed group shooting waterguns. Proud, genial toasts by the hostess’ husband and father. A middle–aged man in a cowboy hat, pressed blue jeans, and a thick Texas accent setting up an outdoor fan and promising discounts who any party guests who bought one. An old man with a powerful torso, big arms, thick rounded shoulders, and shaved head laughing delightedly at every remark: “I’m in full remission,” I heard him tell someone, and someone else said in an aside that a few months ago he had been eighty pounds lighter.

The man sitting next to me wasn’t making enough eye contact for me to introduce myself -- I thought he was impolite and he probably thought I was snobby. When I got up to serve myself a plate of food, by the time I came back his wife had taken my seat and they were talking absorbedly with each other about people they knew. It was the kind of party where people changed seats a lot to greet acquaintances, so I grabbed a free chair from someone and sat beside the couple, joining another little group at the same table. The couple who ignored me, or whom I ignored, left the table at some point to mingle with others.

The party ran its course, and at dessert time my wife came back to my table and said, “I just heard something that’s upsetting me a lot.”

She had been inside the house choosing from the table full of cakes and pies and cobblers that people had brought, and standing near her a boy of about thirteen was crying openly. He was crying in fear and several adults were standing near him and no one was doing anything for him. My wife asked, “Does he have a parent around here anywhere? Is anyone going to comfort him?” And a woman standing a few feet away said, “I’m his mother.” To demonstrate this fact, she went up to the boy and ordered him to stop crying and not to be a baby.

I don’t know how my wife learned the story behind it -- I wasn’t in the room and I heard it all from her. I think the boy started telling his mother what had happened. It seemed there was an older teenager at the party, a boy with a history of problems. The older boy had threatened to kill the younger one. He had said, “I’m going to come to your house and wait outside with my crossbow. I’ll burn your house down while you’re asleep.” He knew how to say it convincingly.

The boy described the older teen: tall with short red hair and acne.

The hostess was there too, and she helped calm the boy, and told his mother that he was afraid for good reason. The older boy was known to be a source of terrible trouble. His parents were just trying to hold on, waiting for the day when he would leave the home. They usually didn’t bring him to social functions because he was so bad -- really bad. This time they had brought him because they were close friends of the hostess.

A small group of us sat there, talking about it. One of our friends told us she had worked with kids like that, “And people think they’re not going to do it because they keep saying they’re going to do it and they don’t. But in fact a lot of them end of doing it. After saying it a thousand times, they end up trying to kill their little brother, just because they’re crazy. They don’t want to be but they are and no one knows how to change them.”

I was thinking about what I would have done if he had said something like that to one of my sons. I would have given him the benefit of paternal wisdom and confronted him with truths that would have turned his life around. Some of these useless imaginings were peaceful, some were violent -- the same kinds of violence, no doubt, that preoccupied the teenager every day.

And as much as the personality of the dangerous older boy disturbed us, the behavior of the younger boy’s mother did too. That was not outside the psychological mainstream, it could not be cordoned off as pathological.

The sun had set, it was getting too dark to see the colors of our food, and people were beginning to leave. As we went toward the doorway from the lawn to the house, a family of three was approaching from the other side to say goodbye to the hostess. Two of them were the couple who had sat next to me, whom I hadn’t talked to. The third was a tall red–haired boy of about sixteen, with acne.

A minute later I heard him murmuring to the hostess, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to ruin your party.” She patted him on the arm, thanked him, told him that the party hadn’t been ruined and that he was nice to apologize.

From the professional craftsmanly standpoint, this is excellent material and I have just the right amount of knowledge about it to build it up into something of my own. I know the outlines of the people and events, but there’s much more I don’t know about it, and this would compel me -- free me -- to pursue an introspective investigation, to invent a history and a present and a future for the two boys and their families -- to find “drama” and “meaning.” And the characters and setting are kinds that I’ve written about again and again. In the technical sense it wouldn’t be a problem to cook up scenes and contrive plot turns and expand upon characters for a meaty short story or even a novel.

But I don’t see what good it would do to them or me or you. Oh, if there were financial gain in it I’d do it all right: the fact that there probably wouldn’t is what frees me to indulge in these ethical musings.

Still, assuming that a good–quality finished novel came out of all this and that it made some money, got some reviews, what would be the value of it? What good would it do you to find escape in scenes of teenagers committing violence, anguished parents making late–night phone calls, straitlaced police officers knocking on doors with bad news? And certainly no good would come to any parents or children who were really living such dramas.

The more verisimilitude my rendition achieved, the closer it came to reading like convincing journalism, the more false it would be. By squeezing these facts, these people, into a recognizable form with paragraphs and quotation marks, descriptions and transitions, with only the things that fit into my novelistic suitcase included, and with the oversized, heavy things left out, I would have turned something too complicated and disturbing for me to grasp into a comfortable, familiar soap opera episode.

So I will not be writing the scenes of the well–meaning but ineffectual school guidance counselor giving the teenager advice that ironically pushes him closer to destruction; the casually incomprehending teachers joking about him in the lounge; the parental arguments caused by the stress of having to deal with an unfathomable evil in their house (plus the deadpan authorial hints that maybe they had something to do with it); the school classmates taunting him and driving him further into fury; the best friend, a marginal kid who’s his sole lifeline to his peer group, joining him in planning an attack and agonizing about whether to tell the authorities -- finally deciding not to, of course.

You can imagine all this as well as I can.

I think it would be better to just show these people in still portraits that you could look at: photos, paintings. You could provide your own dramatic introspections.

Or better still, not look at them at all, just sit and look at whatever else happens to be nearby -- a tree, a fence, a neighbor’s house. And try to hear the sound that those boys and their parents make in this world. I hear it as a steady keening, going on for eighty or fifty or maybe only twenty years.

May 21, 2005

We Just Put on the Air Conditioner

First time this season -- by far the latest date of first-air-conditioner-putting-on in our nine years in Austin. Usually this ancient annual ritual is performed in late April or early May. It's been a pleasant, cool, somewhat rainy spring.

Because of the late transition, this status quo may last until October, thus obviating those in-between days when we put on the AC only during the afternoon and evening. "Should we turn it on?" "I don't know, what do you think?" "I think maybe keep the windows open till one or so." No, this time it stays on!

It has become warm enough so that your hands burn slightly upon touching the steering wheel if your car has been in the sun for more than a few minutes. But it's not yet to the point where you're steering with your fingernails. It's just the friendly warmth of a Texas welcome.

Your glasses do not yet steam up immediately upon entering the car. That will happen in June or July.

When buying frozen foods, they do not yet melt by the time you reach your parked car.

When stepping outside, you're not yet running from one patch of shade of the next.

In fact I haven't even used the car AC yet, because most of the trips I take in my 1993 Subaru are short errands.

Indeed, the weather is delightful for late May around here. It will only reach the low 90s today. When we first visited here to look for a house, Memorial Day week 1996 (last week of May for you non-US readers), the afternoon temperature was a steady 96-98 all week, under a blazing, rich blue sky. It was during a drought and our realtor told us there hadn't been a drop of rain for six months.

Average daily high temperature for the Austin-San Antonio region in July is 95-96. That includes the overcast and stormy days. Any time the sun shines, 95 is cool.

Summer is almost here, but not quite.

UPDATE: I spoke prematurely: it hit 99 after all. Typical of what happens once you get acclimated here: you're sitting in the backyard thinking, "This is pleasantly warm -- just right," and then you hear on the radio that the temprature is some ungodly number. Summer is here and it came all at once, in one day.

Funny Blogs

Hey, it was fun putting up some jokes yesterday. For your weekend pleasure, here are a couple of blogs that will keep you laughing:

Iowahawk, the brilliant conservative parodist, has a sendup of the infamous Newsweek Koran story, set among Lutherans in our beloved Upper Midwest. If you have even a vague notion of what lutefisk is, this will have you in stitches. His previous post, a parody of the New York Times, is equally good.

Beautiful Atrocities is decidedly worth scrolling through for -- among many other choices -- a point-by-point comparison between Norman Mailer and some actress named Sheridan Crane; and instructions on how to flush a Koran down a toilet; and, not so much funny as amazing -- the most authoritative ever capsule summary of diva feuds in recent pop culture.

Have a good Saturday!

May 20, 2005

I Can Laugh at These -- Can You??

I've been posting some heavy, politically controversial stuff this week so for Friday I thought I'd turn toward the innocuous and inoffensive by offering you some ethnic jokes.

I received these in a document marked "Personal and Confidential" from a clandestine underground movement of Talmudist moles, secretly ensconced in law offices and corporate hives throughout our nation, who patiently, in some cases for decades, await the command to unleash these devastating weapons upon an unsuspecting Christendom. One of my kinsmen, a youth of pronouncedly Abrahamic mien, lofty of brow and aquiline of nose, his eyes weary from ancient suffering and from the religious obligation to pore endlessly over crumbling papers, his lips moving feverishly with the details of long-forgotten lawsuits, benevolently took time from his arcane Israelitish duties to share these moments of laughter -- though not untinged with inherited sorrow -- with me. As a mitzvah (good deed) of tzedakah (charity), I philanthropically give these to you, dear readers.

(NOTICE: Laughter not permitted unless the laughing party is Jewish. Laughter at any of the enclosed jokes or witticisms constitutes agreement to convert to Judaism. Home circumcision kit sold separately.)

1. The Harvard School of Medicine did a study of why Jewish women like Chinese food so much. The study revealed that this is due to the fact that Won Ton spelled backward is Not Now.

2. There is a big controversy on the Jewish view of when life begins. In Jewish tradition, the fetus is not considered viable until it graduates from medical school.

3. Q: Why don't Jewish mothers drink?
A: Alcohol interferes with their suffering.

4. Q: Have you seen the newest Jewish-American-Princess horror movie?
A: It's called "Debbie Does Dishes."

5. Q: Why do Jewish mothers make great parole officers?
A: They never let anyone finish a sentence.

6. Q: What's a Jewish American Princess's favorite position?
A: Facing Bloomingdale's.

7. When the doctor called Mrs. Liebenbaum to tell her that her check came back, she replied, "So did my arthritis."

8. A man called his mother in Florida, "Mom, how are you?" "Not too good," said the mother. "I've been very weak." The son said, "Why are you so weak?" She said, "Because I haven't eaten in 38 days." The son said, "That's terrible. Why haven't you eaten in 38 days?" The mother answered, "Because I didn't want my mouth to be filled with food if you should call."

9. A Jewish boy comes home from school and tells his mother he has a part in the play. She asks, "What part is it? The boy says, "I play the part of the Jewish husband." The mother scowls and says, "Go back and tell the teacher you want a speaking part."

10. Q: Where does a Jewish husband hide money from his wife?
A: Under the vacuum cleaner

11. Q: How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: (Sigh) Don't bother. I'll sit in the dark. I don't want to be a nuisance to anybody.

12. Short summary of every Jewish holiday:
They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat.

13. Did you hear about the bum who walked up to a Jewish mother on the street and said "Lady, I haven't eaten in three days.""Force yourself," she replied.

14. Q: What's the difference between a Rottweiler and a Jewish mother?
A: Eventually, the Rottweiler lets go.

15. Jewish telegram:
"Begin worrying. Details to follow."

16. Q: Why are Jewish Men circumcised?
A: Because Jewish women don't like anything that isn't 10% off

May 19, 2005

Does the Value of a Work Depend on the Race and Sex of the Author?

Reader and commenter Charles Martin has sent me a link to an amazing, provocative article by Theodore Dalrymple in the NEW CRITERION about a British literary scandal of a few years ago. A book of short stories, DOWN THE ROAD, WORLDS AWAY, by a woman named Rahila Khan, was published by Virago Press and received a fair amount of attention for its convincing, empathetic portrayals of the lives of young Anglo-Pakistani women and young white men in England. Later it was discovered that Rahila Khan was a pen name for someone who was not a young Anglo-Pakistani woman. Virago Press angrily withdrew the book and a controversy ensued.

This is reminiscent of the Sokal scandal of 1996 here in America. Sokal contrived a parody of an unreadably turgid, jargon-ridden postmodernist scholarly article and got it accepted as the real thing by a well-known postmodernist journal. The result was to help discredit postmodernist discourse and the intellectual trends purveyed in that discourse.

But there are important differences that make the Rahila Khan scandal the much more interesting and resonant of the two. To begin with, the author of the stories was not trying to perpetrate a hoax. They are apparently (I haven't read them) well-written, worthy works of contemporary fiction and the author was simply trying to get them published by using a pen name, having previously found that his real name (oops, I've given away his gender!) got him rude rejections. Second, the stories apparently contain genuine insight into the lives of minorities and the underclass, insight earned by the author through direct experience.

Today's amazon sales ranking for DOWN THE ROAD, WORLDS AWAY is 3,307,790.

The episode makes us think about where authenticity is located, and conversely, where bigotry is located. In addition, Dalrymple's article is splendidly written and offers interesting sidelights on other topics as well.

As for the question I ask in the title of this post, the obvious answer, which I'm sure you'll all agree with, is, "Well, not most of the time -- not in a perfect world -- but realistically the members of a social group on average probably have perspectives into that group that nonmembers don't have, and so their perspectives -- given baseline literary competence -- have a sort of added sociological value which is a legitimate factor in a publication decision; but this doesn't mean that nonmembers can't provide valuable insights too. So for example Caryl Phillips, a black Jamaican novelist, has writer convincing and moving fiction about the Holocaust, because he's brilliant and empathetic and has done the research, and there's some white female novelist whose name I forget who has written convincingly about urban African-American life because she has participated in it. I don't know, what am I, the answer man?"

To the related question, "Richard, are you a multiculturalist?" I answer thusly: "This is equivalent to the question, 'Richard, are you a feminist?' To which I answer ringingly as follows: 'It depends what you mean by feminism. If feminism is the belief in equality between men and women, then Yes. (My god, I gave a clear opinion about something!) But if feminism means replacing male hegemony with female hegemony, and throwing ideals of fairness and reason overboard as relics of patriarchy, and seeking female power through whatever means at the expense of every other value, then No.' And so my answer on multiculturalism -- if indeed I were to give such an answer -- would be, 'If multiculturalism means honoring and recognizing and accepting and valuing every culture and its contributions to humanity at large, then Yes. But if multiculturalism means rejecting the very idea of a humanity at large, and replacing white hegemony with nonwhite hegemony, then No.'"

Read the article.

RLC's Dictionary: "Conservative"

Conservative (n.): A rich person who is concerned that somewhere a poor person may be trying to take advantage of him.

(Thus we inaugurate a new, sporadically appearing series in which I will resolve all possible confusion about the meanings of key terms in our present way of life. Homage to Ambrose Beirce's THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY. For another blogger's definition of "National Greatness Conservatism," click here.

(Here's Beirce's definition (scroll down in the C's):

(Conservative, n.: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as
distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with

May 18, 2005

La Cuisine du Bronx

Synchronicity raises its lovely head again: within the past hour I was contemplating writing a nostalgic post about the Chinese, Italian, Jewish, and seafood restaurants of the Bronx during my childhood. A few minutes ago, going online for a quick peek at what's new, I found the following feature story that hadn't been there the last time I looked:"Tired of Being Razzled. Bronx Cheers Its Food."

It's got everything from Puerto Rican mofongo to Honduran baleadas to soul food to steaks, from Jamaican jerk to African shredded goat to Albanain bureks to Soho-style artsy burgers.

I haven't been to any of these restaurants, even though one of them is in my old neighborhood: Dukagjini Burektorja on Lydig Avenue. Lydig Avenue! My heart swoons to see that name in print. Last time I was in the neighborhood was in March 2002, on one of my ritual revisits, with my brothers, that have become sadly less frequent since none of us lives in the city -- or in the state, for that mattter -- anymore.

I'd love to try all those restaurants -- discovering great down-home eateries is my passion. But if I were to pick two of the mentioned places to try for nostalgia's sake, the choice would be easy:

"If it's been too long since your last tongue and coleslaw on rye or chicken soup with kreplach, Liebman's Kosher Restaurant is a beautiful sight. Open since 1953, the restaurant makes wondrous corned beef, homemade pigs in blankets, and increasingly rare round knishes. (Brooklynites still mourning Shatzkin's might want to make a pilgrimage.) Liebman's is one of very few places in New York that still make their own pastrami and slice it to order; one of the owners, Yuval Dekel, said he rubs a whole brisket of beef with pepper, sugar, and salt; then he smokes it, and then steams it "until the proteins in the meat just give in." Mother's Bake Shop, two doors down, has excellent babkas and black-and-white cookies."

It's in Riverdale, which is a considerably more upscale neighborhood than my Pelham Parkway, but I can afford it now.

I can't write anymore, I have to get something to eat.

One Thing About Me, In Ten Parts

1. I was completely ambidextrous as a child – could do anything equally well with either hand, including writing (printing). I’d start writing with my right hand, switch to the left when I got tired.

2. When we learned cursive in third grade, my parents and teachers told me I needed to choose which hand to write with. I chose righty. In baseball, I throw righty and bat lefty, but could easily switch with a little practice.

3. My father was lefty, my mother righty. I assume this was at the root of my ambidextrousness.

4. In addition, my father and mother argued incessantly throughout my childhood, tugging me incessantly back and forth. I believe that my innate ambidextrousness, plus environmental factors, created my ability to empathize with all points of view and my characteristic refusal to choose a side.

5. Being ambidextrous but having poor spatial sense combines for some minor, comical weirdnesses. Learning the tai chi form, which is righty, I privately taught myself to do it lefty as well, as feat that awed my classmates. On the other hand (pun?), I can’t tie a tie if I’m looking in the mirror – have to look down directly at the tie. In other words I neither know nor care what hand I’m using for what. Fortunately I almost never wear a tie.

6. As an adult I’ve tried to maintain my ambidextrousness by switching things to the other side periodically: putting my mouse on the left side of my computer, switching my wallet to my right-hand pocket and my keys to the left.

7. I’ve wondered whether ambidextrousness helps me artistically by keeping both sides of my brain active and connected. My sense is that my creative and critical faculties are well balanced and that I’m as intuitive and emotional as I am logical.

8. I’ve tried writing fiction lefty on occasion to see whether the results were any different. In the old days, this meant writing by hand with the left hand; nowadays it means keeping the mouse on the left. For a long time I could find no difference. However, a couple of years ago I went through a period of intense inspiration and drafted a novel in a few months which I thought would be the bestseller I’d been waiting for. It turned out to be a mirage: the inspiration was commercial rather than literary, the book had a high–concept premise that blinded me to many important drawbacks. I had consciously, and wrongheadedly, suspended my critical faculty – and had written it with the mouse on the left.

9. I think all this has something to do, too, with the fact that many of my primary interests are ones traditionally considered female, and that I enjoy female writers as much as male ones, female friends as much as male ones, and that I feel equally able to create both kinds of characters.

10. I think it may also be related to the complexity of my moods. Managing them gave me a lot of trouble until I realized something that cancelled out the whole equation: I am always happy and always sad.

May 17, 2005

Explanation Requested

Austin Metro buses have retractable bicycle racks on their front grilles, so that a bicycle rider can take his two–wheeled companion along with him on a bus ride. During the rather lengthy process of engaging the bicycle to the bus grille, those riders already inside the bus look on with expressions of, variously, inquisitiveness, boredom, patience.

Question: Correct me if I'm wrong -- as many of my readers know, I'm a little fuzzy on technology -- but if you have a bicycle don't you already have a means of transportation that can traverse a small city?

What possible reason, other than mechanical breakdown, could there be for choosing a slower, more expensive ride in the middle of a bike ride? You came to an uphill?

Bush as Grand Strategist?

Roger L. Simon links this morning to a post by Chapomatic that gives the transcript of a fascinating speech by historian John Gaddis, given April 21 at Middlebury College. (Scroll down a bit in Chapomatic's post.) Gaddis, an eminent historian of the Cold War, wrote a book that was critical of the Bush Administration's foreign policy blunders, and as a result was ... called up on the phone by Condi Rice and enthustiastically invited to speak about his ideas to a group of the highest-level presidential advisors -- brought in to speak to Bush extensively in the Oval Office, and questioned intelligently by Bush -- privileged to hear the President of the United States tell all his top advisors to read the book.

Gaddis, while pulling no punches in criticizing specific bad moves of the administration, compares them with bad moves of previous administrations and finds the former to be no more hypocritical. Gaddis also concludes that Bush is essentially a pragmatist who, contrary to liberal opinion, is not averse to hearing dissenting views and learning from his mistakes. And Gaddis feels that Bush's mistakes have been made in pursuit of an important, admirable grand strategy.

Toward the end of the speech there's a detailed discussion of five major reasons why, in Gaddis' view, lack of academic training may be an advantage for a leader. The reasons are quite persuasive.

Recommended reading for liberals and centrists interested in learning about diverse views.

May 16, 2005

Do the Cube

When amba put up her post about the psychological game called The Cube a couple of days ago, I immediately played, being an inveterate fan of psychology profiles, quizzes, and the like. It's a visualization game that tells you about yourself. It asks you to create an imaginary scene in six steps. I don't think of myself as a great visualizer, but this was fun and easy to do -- there was something inherently appealing about the type of scene it asked me to build.

Well, this little psychological profile has had a more positive impact on me than any similar activity I can recall doing. In a sense that's because I answered "right" -- my visualization turned out to be more encouraging, more validating of my personality, than I could have hoped. But I think that if the key to my visualization had been a problematic, disturbing one, I'd have been equally fascinated -- perhaps even more so. (And in a sense my result was paradoxically disturbing because it helped overturn some long-held negative aspects of my self-image. That takes getting used to.)

If you're the kind of person who's endlessly fascinated with himself, as I am -- I mean I am with myself, not with you! -- hop over to amba's post right now and play. I think you'll enjoy it. The one drawback is that you can only play once. But you can pass it along to friends and enjoy their responses.

If you think you're not that kind of person, go and play anyway. You may change your mind.

Reading Log: Martial Arts vs. Actual Combat

Something I could have added to my recent list of Ten Things I've Never Done is "been in a bar fight." Reason: I would probably lose. For all those white, yellow, gold, orange, green, blue, purple, red, brown, black, and sky-blue-pink-with-stripes belts out there, though, who are considering popping into the local pub to test your skills -- or who have tried it and wish to improve their results -- I offer the following insights that were emailed to me by a tai chi chuan classmate who has substantial experience in jiu-jitsu and other martial arts.

My classmate received the information, in turn, from his longtime martial arts mentor, someone who has trained in Taiwan in the three Chinese "internal" martial arts styles (Ba Gua, Xing Yi, and Tai Ji) with masters there, as well as in jiu-jitsu and other "external" styles, and who is one of twelve interviewees in a book called NEI JI QUAN, edited by Jess O'Brien. O'Brien calls his twelve subjects "the most seasoned practitioners and teachers I could find." The book attempts to demystify the martial arts, explaining how and why they work in terms of Westerm kinesiology and physics.

Here's what my classmate reports:

We were talking about actual fighting today in class. My martial arts brother in LA has a list of important attributes one needs in combat situations. It tracks well with my own experience and other research I've done.

In order of importance:

1 - the willingness to fight
2 - experience, meaning that you've been hit before and you have less fear
3 - physicality, strength and endurance
4 - martial arts technique

Interesting that technique is number 4, eh?

Item 1 is NOT anger, unless that's the only way you can become willing. It means you can organize your defense and unleash your offense. That's what makes druggies and the insane so dangerous, they don't hold anything back; they go full throttle.

In item 2, fear induced physiological effects can degrade one's performance tremendously. It's amazing what can happen to you under such stress. Your fine motor system may be unable to insert a key into a lock or dial 911. Your auditory system may shut down such that you don't hear gunshots or warning shouts. Your near vision may shut down such that you can't see the sights on a pistol or the numbers on a dialpad.

Cool is the rule!

Now let's all go into the garden and listen to the birds.

May 14, 2005

Ten Things I've Never Done

It’s typical that Ann declined to do my “Ten Things About Me” exercise and I’m doing the one she spun off from it. Thus, ladies and gentlemen, does character determine fate.

In fact I was going to take today off from blogging, not post anything. It’s getting to the point where I have to steal time from blogging to do my normal daily activities, such as earn my living or move my body from place to place. But this meme is too infectious. So here goes.

I’ve never…

1. slept with a woman of another race (unless you count Arab)

2. lived in another country

3. served in the military

4. committed adultery

5. been the victim of a crime – despite living in New York City for more than a quarter of a century

6. skiied, water-skiied, skydived, scuba-dived, hang-glided, parasailed, surfed, or done any other such vertiginous folderol (though I hope to scuba-dive this summer)

7. golfed

8. hunted

9. worn a tuxedo

10. drawn a regular salary. All the money I’ve earned as an adult has come from piecework.

Of course I’ve done everything else there is to do.

And readers, when you get tired of the I’ve Never Done game and are looking for a new one, go over to amba’s and try The Cube.

May 13, 2005

A Virtual Tour of Bialystok, Poland

I land at the Bialystok airport woozy after four flights and seven time zone changes. A pleasant low–rise city about the size of Madison, Wisconsin, with pale blue skies and small puffy clouds, a good bus system, and lots of renovated buildings on old zigzag streets. The Polish spring is blooming on the land, and everywhere in the city pictures of the great deceased pope are blooming in apartment windows, in storefronts, and in street vendors’ windblown piles. Factory buildings, apartment complexes, business offices, look either a week old or a century old, with nothing in between except Socialist Realist concrete slabs. Both the ancient and the brand-new look as if they’d fall apart if you blew on them too hard.

I’ve got the guidebook, Adam Dylewski’s WHERE THE TAILOR WAS A POET, in my hand – I had known my ancestors were tailors but hadn’t known they were poets. And in my backpack, unnecessarily, are a copy of my book contract and a letter from my publisher to ease my way around. A national cultural board has given me a guide, a young hipster in a narrow black suit who loves America and spends half his time making deals on the mobile phone. Or maybe she’s a svelte, gray–eyed young woman with pale brown hair tied in a pull–downable bun, but I’m married and too jet–lagged to flirt.

We drive briskly around the city’s evidences of Jewishness, all shown in the past tense. In this parking lot of an apartment block is where the Great Synagogue used to be — burned on June 27, 1941, 2,000 local residents burned alive. This area quaintly called the Hay Market was the center of the city’s Jewish life, which before World War II accounted for up to 70% of Bialystok’s population. Here we had long, winding alleys, shabby, smelly huts, and today the despised gray remnants of communist architecture. Here’s another former synagogue – it’s an art gallery now, but somewhere in a desk drawer they have a pamphlet about its history. You can sign a guest book. You can look at a plaque on the wall. No reason to linger – let us visit the nondescript little building that used to be a house of prayer and then after the war was the Social–Cultural Society of the Jews of Poland – abandoned in 1968, burned in 1979, and now a business office of some sort, with historically accurate renovations. And here we have the former home of a wealthy factory–owner’s family – they bought a plane for the Polish armed forces in 1939 – with its private synagogue, which became Gestapo headquarters in 1941, a Star of David over the door the whole time.

A quick drive out to the suburbs to see some cemeteries – couldn’t leave without checking some gravestones. Oh, you want to see some present–day, live Bialystok Jews? We’ll find some for you. There are still a few around… Ah yes, here’s an old fellow who still practices his forefathers’ religion, though there aren’t enough of him left to make the ten–man quorum for his synagogue. And what do you know, here’s a young man too, an intellectual type who has gotten the cultural bug: shaking my hand sweatily, he gives a darting–eyed, preoccupied, saliva–bubbled grin, and as he answers my questions in faltering, mumbled English, he rocks back and forth as if continually praying.

Just one more thing to see before I go. I’ve spent a good deal of time scouring the Internet and interviewing aged relatives to find this, and the search is going to take up a good fifty pages in my book – after all, I’m getting paid for this, I have to show I did the work. On this site there used to be a street – actually three tangled, interwoven streets with six names among them – where my great–grandfather lived, a Talmudic scholar, they say, locally respected although he was so immersed in learning that he refused to be ordained a rabbi. He and his siblings, the pre–emigrant generation, loitered away the money from the little herring factory their father had built, the only prosperity the family had ever known.

So this is it, then: what is it today, a telecommunications company? A pharmaceutical plant? The guide is patient, waits for me to take as long as I need to look at the building façade, but I turn quickly to the car. It’s windy, my hair is all a mess, I thought it was supposed to be getting warm already so I didn’t bring a thick enough jacket, I want to go to the hotel, I want to go to a bar, I want to mingle among young people who are talking about movies and laughing over coffee. I fling open the door of the crappy little Eastern European car and turn my head to the other side of the street, the guide smirking behind me.

May 12, 2005

Ten Things About Me

A while ago, Nappy40 started posting lists revealing 100 numbered facts about herself, counting down from 100. She’s reached 33 at last count. Well, I’ve got nothing better to do at 4 am so I might as well get confessional. When one’s plate is empty one might as well start on one’s own guts. But I’m not going to list 100 things, only 10. You can extrapolate the other 90.

1. I never heard a civil conversation till I was 17 and in college.
2. My parents separated years before they had me, their first child. For their sakes they should have stayed separated, but I’m glad they didn’t.
3. I used to be a shade over 5’ 8” but I’ve shrunk. Now I’m 5’ 7 1/2”.
4. My internist once told me, “No doctor will ever get rich from your heart.”
5. In my youth my appearance was frequently compared to that of George Harrison, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino. In middle age the most realistic comparison, I think, has been to Stephen Rea. Those jowls.
6. I have two half–siblings who are within a year of my grown children’s ages. I hardly know them.
7. In my late forties I stopped caring whether anyone thought I wasn’t macho.
8. There are entire generations of sports stars and pop idols whose entire careers I’ve missed. I glance up to find they’re retiring and I’ve never seen them play.
9. I’m 100% inner-directed and verbal. I’m considered learning–disabled for spatial relationships because my spatial IQ, while above average, is so much lower than my verbal IQ. If I’m trying to fix a toilet, I can’t look at it and see what goes where; I need to have it translated into words.
10. This is my favorite joke. It will show you where I’m from. Henny Youngman told it in the 1980s, at the time of the Solidarity movement.
Two old ladies in the Bronx: “Did you see what’s happening in Poland?” “I don’t see nothing, I live in the back.”
It was never one of his biggest laughs, but I knew exactly what he was talking about. Bialystok.

May 11, 2005

Rumsfeld Seeks Leaner Army and Full Term as Defense Secretary

That's a headline in today's NYT.

Somehow I'd be more impressed if he sought a fuller army and a leaner term.

A Musical Exorcism

I think I’ve finally done it! Gotten that accursed song out of my head. “Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. (Don’t start thinking it. It’ll infect you.) It’s been nagging me longer than any such pointless song–torment I can remember. Two weeks, it seems like. Any time I wanted to relax mentally, its cloying melody and bouncy singsong rhythm would sweep in like a tide and drown any possibility of creative thought. When I took a break from the computer, when I took a walk – even at the gym, with its obtrusive upbeat rock soundtrack, “Teach Your Children” would come back when I stepped off the machine. (Contra Nappy40, I can stay on the elliptical trainer forever, because it takes that long to clear the restless wordstream out of my head.)

It’s far from my favorite song, although I love Jerry Garcia’s pedal steel guitar break – but Jerry’s part was not the part that obsessed me. The sung lyrics, with their lamebrained proto-Misterrogers advice for hippie parents, were the torment. I kept poring over them in my mind, wondering if they had any meaning for me as a parent. (After weeks, I still don’t know.)

Graham Nash, the author, is my fourth favorite of CSNY. Stills and Young are the musical giants and Crosby the best singer. Nash has a gift, but it’s a gift for catchy insipidity – a gift he used to its full in this stupid childish song.

Why this song? The obvious answer is that parenthood is a major part of my identity, that like most parents I sometimes feel insecure about my competence at the job, and that I was looking for advice or consolation. But I’ve been a parent for 24 years. (Synchronicity, man! Stills has that beautiful song “Four and Twenty”!) There’s no special reason why insecurity about parenting would have arisen these two weeks.

Why is it the annoying songs, the songs we have long disliked, that plague us with perseveration?) Is there a theory about it?

In many cases, the songs that bother me this way are novelty songs that became hits. I hate novelty songs. But maybe they became hits precisely because of their nagging, parasitical quality, their pestlike ability to gain a hold in the mind and remain there.

Well, anyway, this morning I dreamed myself out of the fever. I woke up with a different tune playing in my head. But this new tune was my own invention, and it was simpler and had no lyrics. It’s a six–note inversion of “Teach Your Children,” but with a slow tempo that makes it potentially easier to dislodge. A musical antitoxin.

Relief, thankfulness, rest. But does this new tune really work? Has it really driven “Teach Your Children” out of my head? The only way to know is to deliberately start thinking about “Teach Your Children” again and see if I can displace it.

“You who are on the road…” Oh, ∂ˆˆ†!

May 10, 2005

Kids' Contemporary Questions, Chapter 1

What if there was a superhero who didn't know his secret identity?

(submitted by Agent 95)

Contemporary Questions, Chapter 7

You aren’t buying enough. Why not? What can I say to get you to buy this?

Will your god let you buy this?

Contemporary Questions, Chapter 6

Will the rate of increase of your value increase more each year, forever?

If not, why should you not be eliminated?

May 09, 2005

The Richard Cohen Dilemma

I’m not this guy – he’s a columnist for the Washington Post. But we used to share a BOOKS IN PRINT entry, my books growing out of his books’ torso, or perhaps vice versa. For all I know, we may share it still – I haven’t looked in many years.

I’m not this guy – he’s a CBS journalist and producer, he’s married to Meredith Viera, and he’s a genuinely courageous man. He’s the author of a bestselling memoir, BLINDSIDED, about his long fight with multiple sclerosis.

And thank God I’m not this guy – (scroll down) -- he’s a Manhattan real estate developer who was apparently responsible for evicting a pair of red-tailed hawks from their nest atop his co-op apartment building at 927 Fifth Avenue, where he lives with his wife Paula Zahn. (Do Richard Cohens have an innate tendency to marry TV anchorwomen? If so, the gene has not been expressed in me. I marry professors.)

Nor am I this guy – a fine journalist who has written about tough Jews in various milieus: criminal gangs, anti–Nazi resistance, the music industry. Alas, I don’t write journalism.

The Washington Post Richard Cohen once wrote a column about the perils of being called Richard Cohen – well, he had to write something, he had a deadline to meet. It was about the same topic this Austin post is about. I don’t know whether he was aware of me or not. For an American Jewish male of the baby boom generation, being called Richard Cohen was like being called James Jones. Not quite like being called John Smith – our equivalent names for that might have been David Shapiro or Paul Schwartz – but close enough.

A couple of years ago I received a mass mailing about a successful class–action lawsuit that was bringing additional royalties to writers who had been short–changed on reprints of scholarly articles. I got the Richard Cohen form letter. It was pages and pages long – there must have been 200 different Richard Cohens on it. (If anything, that’s an underestimate.) Richard A. Cohens, Richard B. Cohens, even Richard L. Cohens. But I was not on the list. I don’t write scholarly articles.

What do you do with a name that makes you anonymous? Well, I used to think that I was going to be the Richard Cohen who really mattered, as James Jones was the James Jones who rfeally mattered. So I defiantly kept it as is. But that didn’t work out.

A better way might have been to change my name into something else entirely, but I’m too stuck in my identity to do that. Unfortunately, I’m not one of these Zimmermans who can create a whole new self as soon as he hits manhood and never look back. (Not until he writes his memoirs, at least.) Nor did I want it to seem that I was ashamed of my Jewishness. I thought of taking my mother’s maiden name, which is distinctive and short and appealing (sort of like my mother, come to think of it), but I didn’t want to hurt my father’s feelings. Perhaps my fate is to be always stuck in the family romance of the central Bronx circa the 1950s.

What put me straight was the computer revolution. If you do a search for Richard Cohen, I’ll be a needle in that haystack. When I started this blog I needed a way for people to find it. So I did the simple and obvious thing: I added my middle name, which I’ve been ignoring all my life though I have nothing against it. If you do a search for Richard Lawrence Cohen, I’ll be on top. So I became distinctive not by fleeing from myself but by becoming more completely my lifelong self than I have been before.

Now I just hope I've linked all the Richard Cohens to the right URLs...

UPDATE: A reader has forwarded me a birth announcement for a baby boy born at 7:10 am today whose FIRST name is Cohen. This is the first time I have ever heard this ancient name used as a given name, and though I don't know the family, I had to email them to find out more. It turns out that both parents are mostly Irish, and that they both love the name Cowan. But they were worried that a boy named Cowan might be called Cow for short -- not a pleasant prospect. So they tried out different spellings and came up with Cohen.

Blessings upon you, young Cohen, my lad, and may your name bring you thousands of years' worth of honor.

May 08, 2005

Rainy Mother's Day

A soaking rain is falling, thunder growing closer in a dark gray sky. But it’s welcome because we just re-landscaped the yard, laying in sod and planting trees and bushes after the lawn had been stripped bare by nine years’ of two boys’ running and fighting and ballplaying and mud–digging and fort–building.

HAPPPY MOTHER’S DAY to all mothers who have had rain in their lives, and that’s all of you. Happy Mother’s Day most of all to my dear wife Agent 61, who is totally responsible for our landscaping and for many other things that go on around me while I’m submerged in words, and who is mostly responsible for my happiness and that of my two favorite subteens, Agents 95 and 97.

And a hearty handclasp of fellowship to You-Know-Who, the superb mother of my two grown idols Agent 81 and Agent 83. We’ve blogged recently about choosing one’s ex-spouse wisely. What I’ve done wisely is to choose the mothers of my children.

Happy Mother’s Day to my mom and my mother-in-law, whose code names are under such deep cover that they shall not be revealed, and to my sister–in–law, Agent 62, who is a forensic pathologist, a certified paratrooper, a retired army major, a kayaker, and a Tennessee sweetheart.

Happy Mother’s Day to all my blogfriends and podmates who are mothers.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the single mothers out there who do the hardest job on earth and, judging from the ones know, do it well.

And Happy Mother’s Day to the lesbian mothers, whose job is made harder by the society to which they contribute good, well–adjusted new people. At our elementary school, several of my kids’ classmates are being raised by lesbian couples. These children are uniformly fine, bright, decent kids. The mothers are as devoted as any parents we know, and their unions are as durable and loving as anybody’s. They have gone to extraordinary lengths to have children, such as traveling to China and running the gauntlet (actually creeping and crawling the gauntlet, for such is the pace) of two nations’ legal systems. These children are deeply wanted; none of them is the fruit of carelessness, except on the part of their biological parents.

The other day, I overheard Agent 95 and one of his friends talking about the friend’s recent visit to a mall:

“Me and my mom went to this store where they had…” (add mind-numbing subteen description of the contents of a cool store).

“Which mom?” Agent 95 asks.

The friend goes on with his description of games, games, games…

“Which mom?” Agent 95 persists, ever the seeker after truth.

“(Add more mind–numbing game details),” the friend goes on as if in a gaming trance.

“Which mom did you go with?” Agent 95 persists.

“I don’t know,” the friend shrugs, and they go on to speak of other normal things.

May 07, 2005

Dream: Dylan on the Plane

I’m sitting in a plane (which is also a theater) going north from Texas when I notice that Bob Dylan is sitting a few rows ahead. He sticks up above the crowd, although in real life he’s smallish, my size, and he’s sitting with an older woman (the Dylan in this dream is about 40) who’s his wife and whom he clings to dependently. We’re all amazed that he takes commercial economy class flights: the explanation in the dream is that he’s miserly.

I’m awed, as I am by him in real life, and I’m trying to figure out how to make contact with this famously forbidding presence without angering him: a quiet smile-nod of fellowship, I think. But some hippie guys around me, who double as interviewers, are talking loudly about him, to my chagrin, and he doesn’t like it.

But he loosens up when two matronly ladies come down the aisle singing a corny old song, unaware of him and only looking for their seats. He likes their song and asks them to sing the chorus for him repeatedly. Then there’s another woman on the other side of the plane/theater, an attractive young mother who joins him in harmony. Everyone’s feeling better around the new friendly Dylan. He offers the young mother a job as backup singer, but she turns him down, saying that she’s had artistic aspirations in the past but has realized it’s more important to be a good parent and a happy, loving person.

The dream shifts to another dream about intruding on a great songwriter, this time George Harrison…

INTERPRETATION: It’s about coming to terms with who I am as an artist and a person. Through most of my adult life I’ve seen myself as going through a long, gradual process of self-improvement, the rough edges in my personality weathering smooth – becoming a nicer person while trying to hold on to a valued core. Assuming I identify with all the people in my dream, it shows me going through this process successfully, the unfriendly Dylan becoming friendly. But there’s something else, and I say this explicitly in the dream’s dialogue: the young woman is wrong to renounce her artistic aspirations. Being a whole human being is a blessed state, but being an artist is the highest state and worth the rough edges, the isolation, the discontent. (In real life I think this is true of a Dylan but not necessarily of lesser artists. I think there’s a cost-benefit analysis to make.) The question the dream poses to me is where I’m to fit.

A further level: As part of my ongoing self-improvement, I need to go beyond the part of me that’s merely analytical, merely trying to figure out the best angle. The task this dream imposes on me is not just to understand it and not to take sides, but to make friends with all the characters, accepting all the parts of myself that are dramatized in it, the Dylan and the maternal renouncer, and for that matter the obnoxious hippie interviewers and the sweetly singing matrons – and even the confused, diffident first-person observer.

A weird phenomenon that often happens when I dream: waking up, I realize that the whole dream was a code for the title of a song or a line for a song. In this case, “All I really want to do is baby be friends with you.”

UPDATE: For a possibly uncanny synchronicity report having to do with this dream, see the post Ann put up an hour later.

May 06, 2005

The Imaginary Blogfriend

We read, we comment, we answer comments, we comment again, we read the next post, the next blog…

But is that all? How frustrating if that were all the contact we could have! No, I think we’re carrying on long conversations, far beyond those little paragraphs. I think we’re imagining each other, interviewing each other, debating and finding common ground, on supermarket lines, at traffic lights, at the gym, and over solitary lunches. I think that many of the people we pass on the street and never speak to are also immersed in talk with people they have never met.

Let’s eavesdrop for a moment on a typical conversation between a blogger and his inner blogfriend. For convenience only, let’s call the blogger “Richard.”

RICHARD: The sky is blue today.

BLOGFRIEND: What a marvelous observation! Who but you could have thought of it? How do you come up with these things day after day?

RICHARD: It’s not easy, but I put in a lot of work.

BLOGFRIEND: Tell us more about the sky.

RICHARD: Aquamarine, I’d call it.

BLOGFRIEND: Cerulean, cyanine, pavonian.


RICHARD and BLOGFRIEND (simultaneously): Get away, you troll!

RICHARD: Azure! What a creep! But tell me more about pavonian. How did you come upon such a vision of the sky?

BLOGFRIEND: Well, not to be immodest, but I have a blog of my own.

RICHARD: Really! I’m surprised!

BLOGFRIEND: It’s about being a woman.

RICHARD: That sounds quite unique. Tell me more.

BLOGFRIEND: I blog about the state of being female, or to put it another way, non–male. Things you couldn’t possibly understand: love as opposed to indifference, creation as opposed to destruction, caring and feeling as opposed to being in a stolid mechanical stupor. Not being a filthy beer–swilling slob. Not going into a roaring idiot frenzy about brutes carrying a ball across a line. Not spilling crumbs on the couch. Saying only nice things.

RICHARD: These are new concepts. My world is opening up for the first time. We must keep discussing this. How can I get in touch with you again?

BLOGFRIEND: I’ll give you my URL.

RICHARD: Really, on such short acquaintance? What good fortune!

BLOGFRIEND: Yes, because there’s something I must, absolutely must share with you. You see, it’s spring, and – and…

RICHARD and BLOGFRIEND (simultaneously, with the joy of shared discovery): … and the flowers are blooming!

May 05, 2005

845 Third Avenue

“Maybe there’ll be something I can write about in the Times today,” I thought as I headed for the computer, and there it was on the front page of the online edition: a building where I used to work, its lobby windows shattered by a bomb. 845 Third Avenue, between 51st and 52nd Streets, is a high–rise office building that houses the British consulate, so the attack must be connected to today’s election. It was jolly decent of that Brit, though, to set it off at 3:50 am when no one would be hurt. The bomb consisted of two toy grenades – one of them the size of a pineapple -- filled with gunpowder.

I worked there from September 1977 to September 1979, reading manuscripts for a literary agency. It was a schizoid agency – on one hand its clients included Norman Mailer and Garry Wills and a mob of successful genre writers, and on the other hand it charged reading fees to amateurs. I’ve calculated that I read 3,500 manuscripts there in five years (there had been an earlier stretch at a different address), typing a million words a year. The outside world did not know that the reading fees paid the agency’s overhead; the legitimate stuff was all gravy.

I was one of the half–dozen “fee men” who read who skimmed two or three full–length books each working day and, for each book, pounded out a 2,000–word rejection letter containing various proportions of formulaic advice, sarcastic or sincere consolation, genuine craftsmanly evaluation, and false encouragement. We sat in a white room the size of a smallish bedroom, divided into six cubicles, each with a heavy battleship–gray IBM Selectric that, under our abuse, needed a new ribbon every week or two and frequent oilings and alignments. That was where I learned to pour out copy. I had got the job straight out of college by taking a test consisting of reading a Western short story –– cunningly crafted to include every possible literary and marketing flaw – and writing a letter to the author. I got the job despite the fact that I couldn’t type, and by necessity I got my speed up to 100 words a minute with four fingers.

Some of the smartest and wittiest eccentrics I’ve ever known worked in that place. My best friend there, who introduced me to Stendhal and Manzoni and Sonny Rollins and Artur Schnabel, miraculously escaped and is now the editorial director of a famous book club. Three others founded their own literary agency together, strictly legit and extremely successful. One more is an arts writer for a big West Coast newspaper. Another went to law school and then medical school and is a Horneyan psychiatrist. The most interesting character among them jumped from his fourth–storey apartment window in early 1979. And there are so many others who passed through – the woman, the only one in our sexist bunker, whom we laughed at for trying to get us to join Mensa – and the boss’s daughter, surprisingly nice and normal and humorous – and the two bosses themselves, rivalrous brothers from the Lower East Side who’d taken Anglo–Saxon names and whose children had no idea they were Jewish. Those two men whom we demonized are both dead this past decade or so, their fraudulently gained fortunes flowing back into the economic cosmos.

I took the fast, sleek E train there every morning from the West Village, where we lived on Jane Street at the corner where Fourth Street and Twelfth Street famously intersect. Ann was passing time at an ad agency, painting in the evenings, and applying to law school. So many places we used to go to then are long defunct: the Café New Amsterdam, our favorite restaurant, scene of innumerable subdued quarrels and reconciliations; the Art and Ice Cream Gallery, with its dual–product gimmick, where we were usually the only customers and, even though we only went there every month or two, the owner greeted us gratefully like longlost friends. And just as surprisingly, some are still there: the Corner Bistro, the classic Manhattan hamburger bar for middle–aged gripers, with thick pine tabletops deeply gouged by penknife desperation; Da Silvano’s, the Italian restaurant we discovered before supermodels took it over; the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas took his fatal eighteen shots of whiskey – his last words, “I’ve just had eighteen shots of straight whiskey. I think that’s the record” -- and St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he died — his cranium, at the autopsy, giving off alcohol fumes.

I was suffering terribly then, but my memories take on a fondly bittersweet tinge. Was the British consulate at 845 Third back then? If it was, I was too sunk in myself to notice. But it’s interesting that I remember that office warren so clearly when I didn’t really work in it very long. After a few months I negotiated an deal with my boss: I’d get to take the manuscripts and the IBM Selectric home and do the work there. Once a week I’d haul my quota of “fee reports” to the office and take back the next week’s manuscripts. As a result of this arrangement, every Friday I left my apartment building lugging a large green Amelia Earhart suitcase, filled with manuscripts and rejection letters, toward the fourteenth Street E station, and came back a few hours later with the same suitcase, just as heavy. I wonder what the doorman thought.

And one day my strutting supervisor at the agency, a former beefcake model, asked me in his officious, loud–queen voice, “And just what is it you DO when you’re not issuing fee reports?”

I said, “Write novels.”

“NovELS, plural?”

I had three of them by that time, but I only showed him the good one, and he sold it for me a few months later. And that began a new phase of my life.

So much more to remember, too much to write down in a morning’s post. Material for unpublished novels – a fate I sometimes think is my penance for all those rejection letters I wrote.

And how fitting for these times that my Proustian Madeleine should be a terrorist’s bomb.

May 04, 2005

Afterlife Tease: William James and the Red Pajamas

This is the most dramatic anecdote I know of that supports a belief in an afterlife (a belief I am NOT convinced of, by the way).

William James and a friend, the Columbia University logic professor and Jungian James Hyslop, made a pact that the one who died first would try to contact the other from beyond the grave. James died first, in 1910. Shortly afterward, Hyslop received a letter from a married couple in Ireland who had been divining on a sort of folk ouija board. The couple had never heard of either Hyslop or James. Hyslop did not know the couple and had never visited Ireland. The couple, on their ouija board, had repeatedly received messages from someone named William James telling them to contact Professor Hyslop and ask him, “Remember the red pajamas?”

Hyslop immediately remembered the red pajamas, and he also believed that no one else could have known about them. He and James had once taken a trip to Paris together, and their luggage had been lost en route. They had gone shopping to replace a few things, and among Hyslop’s purchases were a pair of pajamas. James had teased Hyslop about their bright red color.

I first heard this story many years ago – I don’t remember where, perhaps a university lecture, perhaps a Quaker meeting. Last night I looked it up on Google in the aftermath of a spirited discussion on religion among several bloggers in my pod: Tamar, Amba, David, and Adriana. I found the anecdote recounted on the website of a TV evangelist named John Ankerberg, whom I’ve never heard of. Ankerberg cites as his source Laurens van der Post’s 1974 book JUNG AND THE STORY OF OUR TIME, which is possibly where I first encountered it. Ankerberg’s religion doesn’t seem much like mine, but I see no reason to dismiss him because of that. Indeed Ankerberg does not conclude that the story proves that James communicated with Hyslop: it could just as easily have been a demon impersonating James.

I have not come across evidence suggesting that the red pajamas incident was a concoction. However, I’d be more convinced if the chief witness were impartial on the subject of communicating with spirits. Hyslop was Secretary of the American Society for Psychical Research, an organizational whose archives are stuffed with transcripts of gushy tete-a-tetes between earnest transcendentalist tea–loiterers and amiably dead Boston Brahmins. If anyone knows anything about the red pajama story, I would be interested in hearing about it -- from either side of the grave.

May 03, 2005

My Blog Is Down

But if you're reading this, my blog isn't down -- thus creating one of those cute little paradoxes popular math writers like so much.

I've asked Blogger Support for help -- with the blog, not the paradox.

The Sleep Lover

The first time he ever glimpsed her was in a dream about a tiger. The tiger was jumping at him through a fiery cloud, but that was easily taken care of: he stopped the tiger in midair – it hung with red eyes and dripping mouth, growing larger but coming no closer. And there in the upper left corner was the woman, floating in the blue, an angel in a Renaissance landscape.

He knew at first glance that she was the one he’d been hoping for all his life.

Usually he dreamed about people he knew, but she had no source in his past, she represented no one but herself. An autonomous individual who lived only in his dreams. And unlike other dream creatures, she never changed form.

The whole dream rang with his love for her: thigh–moan and heaven–murmur and the shiver of invisible bells. And then there was a black space and another dream took over – airplanes, skyscrapers, get them out of his head! She was gone.

What if your perfect partner only comes to you in your sleep? And how do you persuade a dream to replay?

Sleeping pills every night at seven. Ten, twelve, fourteen hours of sleep a night. Sometimes she came to him – but oh so rarely. He pined for her during dreams about his parents, his co–workers, his childhood friends. He hated all of them now, he only wanted her.

Opium–soaked hashish after red–wine dinners. Beautiful flights, exponentially multiplied hours of space travel stillness – but not her. Supernova fireballs, red and blue nebulae – and she was in an infinitesimal meadow on a planet infinitely far below his star–specked window.

Forget the hashish, just the opium. Deep undersea sleep – green fish with electric lamps on tentacles – transparent fish that were all stomach and blood vessels – bearded black fish with three rows of scimitar teeth – and she was there beside him in the bathysphere – and the Marianas Trench rang with his love, with heart–swell and spine–sweetness – and the dream ended…

More smoke the next night, more the night after that. A great expedition, like looking for a unicorn in a world–sized forest, with a glimpse every few nights. After each sighting he smoked more and more, trying to force the flower. Adding this and that – scrounging friends for whatever they had – diving into the deep and shooting through space at the same time, and one night he teetered on the sharp lip of a cloud–boiling volcano, and peered into the foaming red below, and stepped outward …

“Here’s an interesting one,” the doctor said, guiding a visitor through the vegetative ward. “Came in about six months ago, so at this point there’s less possibility of recovery. But he’s got remarkably little damage to the higher centers. We’re speculating that there was a sudden switching–off of his Reticular Arousal System, the switch in the brain that wakes the cerebrum up from sleep. The RAS is not a localized morphological feature of the brain, it’s a functional system of connections – thousands of nerve fibers dispersed through the brainstem, the thalamus, the hypothalamus, the cerebral cortex. Not something we can poke an electrode into and fix, not for the next generation or two. This poor guy’ll lie here for as long as his body holds out – and he’s a strong young man, you can tell. His life’s over. But he’s retained a capacity for deep, healthy sleep that’s almost unheard of in brain trauma patients. We can tell when he’s dreaming, even before we check the EEG. When he enters the dream state, he smiles.”

May 02, 2005

The Reading Meme

Tamar has passed along the following literary hot potato, chain letter, or bloggish homework assignment, and like a good student I enthusiastically complete it and pass it along in turn:

1. You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451. Which book do you want to be? (That is, which book would you want to preserve by memorizing it?)
The true answer is PRONOUN MUSIC by Richard Cohen. It’s my best work so far and it’s a goddamn good story collection that deserves to be known. But the official answer is THE STORIES OF RAY BRADBURY – apropos of the question. Ray Bradbury is the writer I have loved most for the longest time. I loved him when I was twelve and when he goes (he’s 85 now), the world will lose a much more original genius than Saul Bellow or Arthur Miller. Few people have written such beautiful prose or created such joy and excitement, and along with Poe, Verne, and Wells, he is the source of the most and best story motifs in the realm of the imagination. If you go back and read his early stories, many of them feel as if you’ve read the same thing a thousand times before – and you have, because a thousand later writers stole from him. But no one could ever write like him. It was in his soul from the beginning.

2. Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Not long ago I fell in love with the heroine of an unpublished novel of mine (not based on any real person, by the way – I fell in love with her because I created her). It was a big mistake, because the novel was misconceived but I wasted a year writing it out of infatuation.

A woman I love in a great novel is the aptly named Maria Gostrey in Henry James’ THE AMBASSADORS. She’s an early liberated woman, intellectual, artistic, independent, lonely, distraught – i.e., she needs me to rescue her. (As Margaret Atwood has so wisely written, the words the Sirens sang to Odysseus were, “Save me…”) The same character played by Mary Astor in the movie of Sinclair Lewis’ DODSWORTH.

Also Ursula Brangwen in Lawrence’s THE RAINBOW, one of the most beautifully written novels in English.

3. The last book you bought was...?

I bought a whole bunch of books all at once from New York Review of Books Classics, which is currently the best series that’s reviving worthy obscure books of the past. You should all go to their website immediately and order a pile of stuff. The ones I’m looking forward to reading first are DIRTY SNOW and THREE BEDROOMS IN MANHATTAN by Georges Simenon (another favorite since adolescence – the novelist who has taught me most about the craft, along with Hemingway and Tolstoy); and THE PEREGRINE, by J. A. Baker, a mystical British nature book about the author’s obsession with a peregrine falcon.

4. The last book you read was...?
POST CAPTAIN by Patrick O’Brian

5. What are you currently reading?
H.M.S. SURPRISE by Patrick O’Brian, naturally. Also rereading WHEN THINGS FALL APART by Pema Chodron. Things are not falling apart for me – in fact they’re coming together – but they were threatening to a year ago, on the career front, and this book helped me through, helped me see it in perspective. Chodron is the abbess at Gompa Abbey on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, but she writes simply, readably, and with almost no Buddhist jargon, about how to face life.

6. Five books you would take to a desert island...
Being a canny prudential time-apportioning type of fellow and a devotee of the Very Finest Things, I really would take the obvious warhorses: Shakespeare, the Bible, Gibbon, the TALE OF GENJI, etc. And of course the biggest, best anthology of English poetry I could find. Some other great big ones: LONDON LABOUR AND THE LONDON POOR by William Mayhew (4-vol. work of Victorian sociology; Dickens used it as a source, and in some ways it’s better than Dickens); the MAHABHARATA (because I’d never read it otherwise); William Prescott’s THE CONQUEST OF MEXICO and THE CONQUEST OF PERU in the Modern Library Giant edition so I could bring both (simply the most amazing stories in all of history, and two of the best books of history ever written).

But you don’t want to hear that. You want to know my quirky personal list of books I treasure and wouldn’t want to do without. So:

THE DHAMMAPADA in the Penguin paperback edition translated by Juan Mascaro. 93 pages including Mascaro’s superb introduction. I would gladly read a chapter a night every night of my life, over and over again till I got it.

THE TRANSMISSION OF LIGHT by Keizan, North Point Press edition, tr. By Thomas Cleary. Ditto above comment.

METAPHYSICS AS A GUIDE TO MORALS by Iris Murdoch. A densely packed survey of Western philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Derrida, and simultaneously an inspiring contribution to that lineage. A book that makes us want to seek the good.

THE MARRIAGE OF CADMUS AND HARMONY by Roberto Calasso. Much more than a survey of Greek mythology: a profound and entertaining re-creation of that mythology as a cycle of linked stories, illuminating the meaning of Greece and of art. The contemporary equivalent of Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES, although in the form of literary criticism rather than poetry.

RESURRECTION by Tolstoy. The big masterwork of his old age, less known than WAR AND PEACE or ANNA KARENINA and probably a half-notch less brilliant as fiction, but immeasurably more profound. A vision of universal forgiveness, of de-supernaturalized Christianity, for which the world is not yet ready. For me, it makes all other fiction look trivial.

7. Who are you passing this stick on to and why?
Well, if Tamar hadn’t already done it I’d pass it to her. And she’s already passed it to several people on my blogroll: True Ancestor and AmbivaBlog and This Too and Nappy40 and Behind Glass and Danny Miller. Some others, I won’t ask because it doesn’t fit their single-genre format (Dancing on Fly Ash and Tales from the Ridge and Jeffrey Hull) or, in Mad House Madman’s case, because he’s a new father and a medical resident and has better things to do. And Simon doesn’t have his own blog. Nuts! Fortunately, though, I’ve still got a lot of choices who are first-rate bloggers and can undoubtedly give us a tour of some wide-ranging literary universes:

Althouse -- il va sans dire

Long-toothed Hinterland Dweller -– she’s probably my most far-flung reader, living in the Australian outback

Adriana Bliss – something to do while she’s sitting in her car in the driveway trying to get over writer’s block

Brenda Clews – a Vancouverite whose comments are always insightful and whose blog is creative

Dilys – because she reads a lot of interesting, up-to-the-minute things that I don’t